I remember one lovely day in spring.
After being holed up in a dorm room for several months and trudging through a muddy, unpaved parking lot for at least one more, I celebrated the sun’s decisive cut through the gloom. Everything on the tiny college campus shimmered with a golden aura. Spring had arrived. I had my life back. I could move in freedom. I was happy and positive. It seemed everyone around me was happy and positive.
Then, I heard it.
It came like a low, rumbling tremor, punctuated by shrill squawks. The voice was thunderous at times, then treacly and mocking, then thunderous again. It smacked of judgment — of end times foretold. It came from a boom box wedged in the open window of one of the dorm rooms. I looked up at the men’s dorm of this very small, very traditional, very Catholic college — my alma mater.
Nice-Guy Bob stuck his head out of the window — the one with the boom box. He flashed that giant, full-of-Jesus smile — the one that he’d wear on the day he was accepted into seminary after graduation. He laughed his odd laugh. He seemed delighted. I heard the booming voice from the radio ranting about something the Clintons had done, or something about welfare mothers scamming the system — as welfare mothers always seemed to be doing back in the early 90’s. At least that’s what we heard.
“This stuff is great!” oozed Bob, who found it so great he needed to broadcast it across the campus quad/parking lot for the benefit of everyone there. The excoriation of gays, Muslims, illegals, and most of all, liberals continued. That thunderous voice hung in the air like that fog of dried shit particles that bedeviled the air of New York City during dry summers back in the age of the horse and buggy.
“Who is it?” I shouted while squinting and silently mourning what had been something close to personal happiness.
“It’s RUSH! Haven’t you heard RUSH LIMBAUGH? He’s GREAT!”
* * * * * *
The day had been so nice. I had been so secure in who I was and the choices I had made. My bliss had been yanked out from under me. It had turned into one of those times that made me question everything about myself.
And I blamed Rush Limbaugh. I still do.
Life there on that tiny campus could be very collegiate–and therefore perfect for its stated purpose. I had chosen that place to escape politically-correct victim culture in higher education. Changes at the Ivy League and state colleges through the 80’s had inspired a crusade: We stood on the brink of losing Western Civilization to bargain-basement Marxists. Tenured Radicals was a popular book on the topic. They — these liberals — were dumping Aristotle in favor of the lies of Rigoberta Menchu and other stuff they half-remembered from the 1960s through a druggy haze. They were substituting “self-esteem,” identity-politics pandering, and mindless sexual indulgence for academic rigor and Truth. We had to stop them.
That meant I, myself had to stop them. I was still ambitious back in those days.
The way I chose to stop them was to bury myself in studies at a college not much larger than a family farm. Actually, it had been a family farm for generations — until decadence and federally-subsidized-free-market economics took it from the heirs of its original settlers. Sometime in the late 70’s it became an outpost of traditional, great-books education run by Catholic lay people. Small, almost unknown, impoverished in every way but in wisdom and intentions: That was my college — the one housed mainly in an old barn and a farmhouse from the 18th century.
A bargain had been struck to enable those perfect, peaceful, academic times. The bargain was this: We stayed away from the swirling tide of materialism and liberal dogma in the popular media and academia. We shunned starry-eyed, Left-wing utopias and the commercialization of education. But we also stayed away from the braying asses of the Right, the false prophets of “conservatism” not much better than vaudeville clowns; the merchants of anger who profited by stirring up fears and impotent rage among pickup-truck patriots who just wanted to bomb any country with a name they couldn’t pronounce. They were just as dangerous as liberals, these types. They were going nowhere.
The new spokesman for that unthinking “conservative” reaction was this blustery sideshow emcee, Rush Limbaugh.
And here was Nice-Guy Bob the priest-to-be, who might have chosen instead to blast something from U2 or Enya or maybe some Bach or Gregorian chant from his window on that lovely spring day. Instead, he had opened a valve from the shitstream straight into our lovely preserve of ancient wisdom and first principles.
* * * * *
To the credit of that institution, I think the college president took Nice-Guy Bob aside later that day and told him to never do that again.
The good Doctor had no tolerance for the conservative pundits and their pablum. He knew what was going on. I once witnessed him expelling a student agitator who had fancied himself a young Rush. It was the only time I ever heard the Doctor swear. This kid tried to politicize the student body into being reactionary conservatives. He wasn’t there to learn. He didn’t belong there. As an aside, this young agitator happened to be one of the most obvious self-loathing gays I had met up to that point. I’ve noticed something interesting about some reactionary busybodies of the Right: They tend to take a wide stance.
Our institution was dedicated to the cultural ideals of the West. We’d study the first principles of civilization itself — the universals even predating Christianity — and learn how they had been applied, then occasionally rejected, only to reassert themselves in modified form throughout history. Truth does that sort of thing: It has survived trends and enthusiasms in the past, which are sure to continue tomorrow and through all tomorrows that may come. An education in universals was meant to give us a foundation in what some still call “common sense.” At least at some level, “conservatism” is a synonym for common sense. Or so it used to be.
But even for all the backwards-glancing, there was always the assumption we were adapting the old truths to a new reality, which wasn’t really all that new. No reason to despair or get all frazzled. We were gaining a foundation for dealing with the world while not just swallowing it whole. There was hope in that sort of conservatism.
But recently, “conservatism” seems to imply only hate, judgement, bloodlust, fear, and a sort of base meanness that gathers its energy cutting others to pieces. It’s the ranting, almost-senile rage — the chanting of the crowd at a lynching. Off to the side of the lynching are the hucksters selling postcards and picture-books and flags and pennants. Some are only there to assure you that the man hanging from the tree is certainly getting what he deserved, and must have been guilty of something — never mind the evidence of this particular case. Would you like to buy a souvenir? These are the Ann Coulters, the Sean Hannitys, the Michael Savages. All of them owe their careers to that one man with the booming voice and the “talent on loan from God.”
And now, the faithful have found their new, higher prophet: The man who transcends Truth itself and is energized by a mystical force. You can tell by his hair.
* * * * *
I knew conservatism would end up here. I saw it all happening that day on campus as the shit clouds descended, obscuring that perfect blue sky. It was no longer good enough just to be right. Wisdom and beauty and the flow of history weren’t enough. There had to be blood — something for the punters way back there in the cheap seats.
But lately, the lynching party seems to have taken a turn. It might not be be breaking up, but the tone has changed. Some voices have gone silent. Some who got there late and cheered along for a while are starting to realize what’s really been happening. They’re glancing up at those hideous, distorted, enraged faces of the people surrounding them — the ones taking pleasure only in destruction. Some of the newcomers — and even a few who have been there from the beginning — have started asking what the plan is. How do we get back to the sunshine? What now? But those still ranting and swearing and parroting the slogans from the hucksters don’t really have a clue. They don’t know where to go from here. They weren’t counting on having to make any decision about tomorrow.
They were only counting on the apocalypse.
* * * * *
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