Animal House Meets Church Lady

You have to wonder whether the apostles of the conservative movement, the self-anointed champions of public morality, read their own press. In May 1995, the American Spectator ran an article by senior editor P.J. O'Rourke entitled "Why the GOP Doesn't Suck," which defined the Republican Party as the natural home of the frat-boy mentality. "The thing I like about Republicans," he wrote, "is that they're no damn good at all. I know, I'm one of them. A Republican just wants to get rich, buy oceanfront property, dump the old wife and get a new blond one."

Meanwhile, the media organs of the right were busy heralding smoking--and all the defiant, Brando-esque images it conjures up--as the essence of the conservative personality. Even the unapologetically highbrow journal Commentary succumbed to Joe Camel posturing: In the same pages where Gertrude Himmelfarb argued that a restoration of Victorian-style social pressures is necessary to restore civic order, neocon Peter Berger cel ebrated smoking on the grounds that an antismoking New Class has bullied us into conformity at the expense of the rugged moral autonomy that once defined American society.

In the fall of 1995 the National Review advertised its 40th Anniversary Cruise, gleefully announcing that the cruise was "Ruled 'Politically Incorrect' by the FDA" and bragging about its "three cocktail bashes" and "two smokers" (cigar smoking fests). Then it pointed out that guests needn't worry about running into heathen like Arlen Specter, who presumably wouldn't feel comfortable among such pious guests as Ralph Reed and Judge Robert Bork. The cruise, the ad implied, would provide a welcome respite from both the left's repressive moralizing (represented here by the FDA) and its offensive amorality (here depicted by Arlen Specter, whose stubborn insistence on the separation of church and state places him solidly outside the pale).

This, say the good people at the National Review, is what a world without liberals would look like: spring break in Fort Lauderdale, only with church.


These are not isolated examples; indeed, they are indicative of an inconsistency at the heart of the modern conservative movement. With unwavering self-congratulation, conservatives increasingly present themselves as courageously puritanical and courageously antipuritanical--the answer both to the permissiveness of the "anything goes" left and to the prudishness of political correctness. Perhaps no one better embodies this pose than the brash Rush Limbaugh, who happens to be good pals with William Bennett, of the lofty Book of Virtues.

The same conservative intellectuals who bemoan our culture's general decline in manners and good taste embrace Limbaugh and even celebrate his crassness as the very essence of his charm. A 1993 National Review profile by James Bowman (now media critic for the New Criterion) unflinchingly anoints Limbaugh "The Leader of the Opposition," the natural heir to the Reagan legacy. Bowman even goes so far as to lament that Limbaugh's celebrity has forced him to tone down some of his "irreverence" and "spontaneity," causing him to abandon such antics as the "caller abortion"--the sound of a vacuum cleaner and woman's scream in lieu of a normal call termination--which, he says, "was in splendidly awful taste."

Limbaugh has made an entire career of having it both ways--and, for the most part, thriving as a result. On the one hand, he is always adding his voice to the familiar refrain about family values and the proper role of religion in public life, condemning liberals for losing touch with mainstream America. "Liberals excuse bad behavior. They rationalize it," he explains in his ghostwritten best-seller See, I Told You So. But Limbaugh is just as quick to portray himself as a victim of liberal prudishness, as yet another American who's had to suffer because some "femiNazi" just can't take a joke. The conflict becomes apparent every time he tells a dirty joke, then ducks sheepishly behind his hands as if deflecting blows, while the camera pans an audience full of men clapping excitedly and women shaking their heads in dutiful but halfhearted condemnation. (A typical example was his joke last year that Clinton's presidential motto should be "Speak softly and carry a big stiffie.")

These sudden shifts from boyish offensiveness to pious self-righteousness account for the almost exhilarating confusion Limbaugh's performances generate. The impropriety never quite becomes a threat to moral decency because everyone knows Limbaugh stands for moral decency; his sermonizing about moral decency never quite becomes heavy-handed moralizing because everyone knows he's all for having a good time. By never quite saying when he's kidding and when he's not, Limbaugh manages to sustain the "guilty pleasure" indefinitely. He gets to dangle courageously at both extremes, but with a built-in safety net--speaking passionately in the name of our shamed and forgotten moral truths (but without coming on too strong), while delighting in his own heresies (but without seeming like, well, a heretic).


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For sure, Limbaugh is not the first public figure to embrace competing philosophical themes. But this stance hints at some of the hidden meanings of the right's culture wars. What conservatives demand, in point of fact, is not that so-called "traditional morality" always be strictly observed (although there are certainly a few within the movement who wish it were). They ask that the ultimate authority of those traditions not be called into question, that one's excursions from the moral center--while accepted, even celebrated--not be granted any final or lasting legitimacy.

That is why Rush Limbaugh is not on that infamous slippery slope from "Question Authority" to child-killer Susan Smith. That is why the jocular, politically incorrect amoralism of a P.J. O'Rourke is not a threat to "civic order," even though Hollywood sex and violence is. By virtue of its inevitable association with conservatism's more pious side, the right's bad-boy streak gets excused with a wink. The limits to the right's defiance are always implicitly understood, or at least supposed to be. When it gets out of hand--as, perhaps, it did around the Oklahoma City bombing--conservatives profess shock, apparently wondering how anybody could possibly have taken their words so seriously.

The fact of the matter is that, despite their posturing at either extreme, conservatives have no real interest in being serious about their traditionalism or their iconoclasm. Both poses, if genuine, would get in the way of the easy complacency of the frat-boy way of life. In their hands, traditional piety is turned into simple recitation, a merely perfunctory nod to conventional wisdom, while going against the grain becomes nothing more than harmless childishness. Instead of a sincere and committed conversation about values, they want a public square filled with Book of Virtues-style platitudes, pithy moralisms that are shielded both from debate and from any contact with actual life. In a public square like this, there is no difference between a Mother Theresa and a William Bennett or between the genuine transgressing of social norms and the madcap antics of the guys over at the Chi Psi lodge.

Conservatives claim that they stand for an ethic of freedom wedded to responsibility. But what they're really asking for is a perpetual moral adolescence--a world in which, no matter how hungover you are on Sunday morning, there's still someone around to make you go to church.

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