It’s a cruel coincidence that William Safire died on a Sunday. That’s the day of the week on which Safire used to educate us “On Language,” in the eponymous NYTimes magazine column.
That column is one of the first bits of journalism I remember reading. Almost as soon I learned to write in paragraphs (in middle school), my father started clipping “On Language” for me each weekend, insisting I memorize the new vocabulary words Safire introduced, and helping me make sense of adult concepts when they arose in his tangents on contemporary culture.
Yet the most important thing I gleaned from Safire was not the specifics of his linguisitic teachings or cultural musings. It was his love, in both language and the broader culture, for structure. Safire’s columns not only defended the rules of the English language from absurd newfangled coinages, or the rules of culture from (in his eyes) moral dissolution, but also the notion of rules from those who value rule-breaking.
That is what made Safire a conservative: not the specific rules he valued, but the fact that he valued rules and encouraged us to think twice, and deeply, about our motives and their implications before changing them.
If there is a conservative vein in my body, it is that I too like rules and structures. It is what drives my love of government and business institutions, my nostalgia for cultural canons in education, my concern for establishment media and my belief in the value of academic expertise. That I would like these institutions to devote themselves to liberal goals is what keeps me on the political left, but in Safire’s world, it was structure and not content that mattered. His passing is one more sign that the institutionalist worldview is in decline.