My Inner Conservative

Posted: September 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Journalism | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

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.

On Ted

Posted: August 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Politics | Tags: , | 3 Comments »

Ted Kennedy was hardly my favorite politician. I have always looked askance at the politics of personality epitomized by the Kennedy clan and now, also, by the Obamas. I usually roll my eyes with indifference over sex scandals. I am unswayed by electoral pitches based on personal morality or emotional connection. Most of the Kennedy obits have emphasized–as his positive qualities–his oratory and his personal loyalty; and–as his failings–alcoholism and violence. Some write-ups have been eloquent, some banal, but to me, they felt irrelevant.

What I did respect about Ted Kennedy was his effectiveness. Read the rest of this entry »

What Michael Meant to Me

Posted: June 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Culture | Tags: , , | 4 Comments »

When I was growing up, the television sat across from the bed in my parents’ room, and they controlled what I watched. They made time for Sesame Street, Lamb Chops and Mr. Rogers, but for the most part, I just sat alongside them while they watched hour upon hour of news, broken occasionally by cooking shows. In other words, all we saw was public television. All commercial channels except Disney and CNN were strictly verboten, and MTV was the epitome of the consumerist culture from which I was sheltered.

In the summers, we often visited family friends who had a house, a pool, horses and a few acres of land in Long Island. Their daughter was exactly my age (we actually wound up together at college) but much more independent. She played tough single-shooter video games, wasn’t afraid of bees, and had her own basement to watch–I marveled–anything she wanted. It was there that I first turned on MTV. Read the rest of this entry »