Friday, August 22, 2014

Quote of the Day (V.S. Naipaul, Stunned by the Old ‘New Right’)

“The ‘new right’ of 1968 had become the New Right of 1984, to which [Eldridge] Cleaver belonged. Of this New Right I knew nothing until I got to Dallas; and what I learned was bewildering. The New Right seemed to be as much a creation of modern technology as air-conditioned Dallas was.”—V.S. Naipaul, "The Air Conditioned Bubble: The Republicans in Dallas," in The Writer And The World: Essays (2002)

Thirty years ago on this date, the Republican Party renominated Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush at their national convention. A generation in the making, since Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 Presidential campaign, this was a different political party—even a different conservative movement—than the one that William F. Buckley Jr. had envisioned in the 1950s: less motivated by philosophical disagreement with liberalism over the size of government, more actuated by resentment over single issues—and with its shock troops coming from an evangelical Christian movement that had come off the political sidelines in the past decade.

It was this theologically minded cohort, partnering with business interests who wanted the hand of government nowhere to be seen (unless they needed help themselves), that formed the bedrock of The New Right. And it is this group that the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and essayist V.S. Naipaul struggled to understand that hot summer.

Type “V.S. Naipaul” into the Google search engine and you’ll not only see “conservative” pop up in the results, but even “racist” and “sexist.” To be sure, his questioning of the conduct of post-colonial Third World  nations has brought him his share of opprobrium.

At the heart of the Trinidad native’s work, however, is a feeling of alienation, not merely from racial groups but cultural norms. That sense of profound difference informs how he viewed the coalition that would, in less than three months, power Reagan and Bush to a landslide victory over Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro.

The title of one of Naipaul’s other books, Among the Believers, could serve equally well for this essay (which originally appeared in The New York Review of Books). Long resident in Britain when he observed the GOP’s quadrennial confab, he was unprepared both for the kinds of people he would find in Dallas and how these gatherings had changed, in both parties, over the last 20 years.

Yet, for all his ignorance of American politics, Naipaul was able to put his finger on something that has only become more marked in the years since: its capture by white men in what has been called the “fly-over region” (i.e., between the coasts). His astonishment that Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther turned New Right adherent, will be speaking at a panel assailing the liberal welfare state soon gives way to equal astonishment that this convert to the conservative cause, a possible refutation of the notion that the GOP is the white man’s party, is ignored as soon as he serves their temporary, narrow interests.

The “modern technology” that caused Naipaul to marvel was the direct-mail apparatus forged by Richard Viguerie that soon caused protest candidacies from the right to be launched continually. An innovation that once seemed cutting-edge, however, today seems old-hat, now that more recent elections have brought us
frankly partisan cable “news” outlets, the Web, email, and social media.

Arguably, since the 1968 Republican Convention, when Richard Nixon’s media advisers had carefully scripted the convention down to the minute, both parties’ conventions had become increasingly—well, conventional—in an attempt to avoid the kind of unseemly battles and delays well beyond prime time that had plagued the Democrats in 1968 and 1972. By the time of the GOP’s Dallas convention, Naipaul was annoyed to discover, all the speeches were pureed of any intellectual content whatsoever:

“The same speech (or very nearly), the same tone, the same personality (or absence of it), the same language: unallusive, cleansed, sterile; nerveless and dead; computer language, programmed sometimes to rise to passion, but getting no higher than copywriter's glib.”

At the time of the convention, there were some analysts still under the illusion that the Republicans had not been effectively hijacked by the New Right.  A Christian Science Monitor article from the day of the renomination of Reagan and Bush, for instance, would have it that there was “Diversity in Dallas,” noting that three-fifth of the delegates supported a nuclear freeze, and that “A third of the delegates favor the Equal Rights Amendment. Half would oppose sending troops to El Salvador to enable US-backed forces to survive. Half favor the Moral Majority; half do not.”

Wishful thinking, as it turned out. In this setting, which reminded Naipaul of “a Muslim missionary gathering I had seen five years before in a vast canopied settlement of bamboo and cotton in the Pakistan Punjab,” the GOP moderates were unable to wrest control of the party's direction from the right wing. In fact, they didn’t even try.

The “air conditioned bubble” in Dallas has been extended for the Republican Party, progressively sealing them off from contact in America with anyone who might be deemed “The Other.” “Power was the theme of the convention,” Naipaul summed up, “and this power seemed too easy—national power, personal power, the power of the New Right. Like [Ralph Waldo] Emerson in England, I seemed in the convention hall of Dallas ‘to walk on a marble floor, where nothing will grow.'"

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