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Everything Old Is French Again

The confessions of a former Francophile.

7:00 AM, Apr 18, 2003 • By JOEL ENGEL
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Conservatives, meanwhile, were on the wrong side. Necessarily so. Conservatism meant preserving the status quo, upholding traditional (unjust) values, rejecting new ideas, and denying needed change. It was--above all--a reactionary philosophy adopted by Republicans, the evil party of Goldwater and Nixon.

But that was then and now is now, and now, it's fair and right to say, the reactionaries appear to have changed parties. Hard-core liberals have fixed themselves in the past, their stance frozen 35 years ago, unmoved by either the advances that liberalism actually engendered or the context newly created that September 11th morning. They can't tell who the real enemy is anymore--tyrants or imperfect democracies--and their beliefs can be boiled down to bumper stickers like "Don't legislate hate. Fight the right" and "Dare to keep the CIA off drugs." Thus did (then) Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney beg a Saudi prince for the $10 million Rudolph Giuliani had returned to him, in part because "the Voting Rights Act will soon expire"; while in Iraq, Congressman Jim McDermott saw the ghost of the Tonkin Gulf, claiming President Bush would lie in order to thrust America into war.

Thus did acclaimed novelist Rick Moody, in a front-page New York Times Book Review of a Neil Young biography, wonder whether the Neil Young who'd just recorded "Let's Roll" as a tribute to Todd Beamer and the other heroes of Flight 93 wasn't somehow an imposter. "Ohmygod," Moody wrote. "Is this really the same songwriter who immortalized the murdered students at Kent State in 'Ohio'?"

Thus did Nation columnist Katha Pollitt refuse to let her young daughter fly the American flag after September 11, explaining that it "stands for jingoism and vengeance and war," and that there's a direct connection between "waving the flag and bombing ordinary people half a world away back to the proverbial stone age."

Thus do college professors who'd protested the Vietnam War as undergraduates nearly pull their hair out over their pro-war students. In a Times story about that very subject, Amherst political scientist Austin Sarat wistfully recalled his campus protest days at the University of Wisconsin. "In Madison, teach-ins were as common as bratwurst," he said. "There was a certain nobility in being gassed. Now you don't get gassed. You walk into a dining hall and hand out an informational pamphlet"--one that the students would apparently just as soon ignore, much to his exasperation.

Thus does my friend Linda, coincidentally an Amherst student in the 60s, clasp her hands over her ears and shout "I don't want to hear it" when I inquire why there were no antiwar protests in the two years between America's withdrawal from Vietnam and Saigon's ultimate fall; or when Pol Pot was slaughtering millions; or when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; or when the Rwanda genocide and Srebenica slaughter were being committed under the nose of the United Nations; or when African Arabs brutalize and enslave African blacks; or, for that matter, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. But Linda won't let me finish the list. "Is Bush on drugs or something?" she asks. "He's just the stupidest man in America."

And thus does my wife's cousin believe that the Kennedys are entitled to occupy the Oval Office for all generations to come without the formality of elections. When I observe that JFK's core policies--a strong defense, the propagation of liberty, lower taxes--are rarely seen in today's Democratic party and that JFK might even ridicule his own brother Teddy's agenda, she flatly declares "Not true."

"Not true that that's what he believed, or not true that he wouldn't recognize the party?" I ask.

"I don't know, and I don't care. Are you a Republican now?"

Indeed, over the last year I've discussed terrorists and Islamo-fascism and just wars with at least two dozen friends--educated professionals all, most of them alumni of elite universities--in a tone that was mutually respectful and measured until their moment of ghastly realization. Then came the now-familiar shriek, signaling the end of rational conversation: "You like Bush? You?!"

So it goes.