Tag Archives: Edna St. Vincent Millay

Rimbaud Conservatism

22 Dec

All this talk of arming teachers and training children to rush psychopaths who are outfitted with machine guns semi-automatic weapons reminds me of a moment in high school.

But first, a recap.

In the wake of the Newtown killings, writers on the right have suggested we should teach children to turn on their assailants, rushing them en masse. Here’s Megan McArdle writing in The Daily Beast:

I’d also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.

McArdle is a libertarian. You know, the type who believes you can’t derive Rawlsian-style social justice from self-interested premises—that shit would never work—but that you can adduce from those very same premises a mass death instinct of the sort that powered the Red Army to victory against the Nazis. When it comes to public goods, libertarians think we’re all free riders; in the face of crazed killers, we’re all comrades.

And here’s Charlotte Allen—about whom the less said, the better—writing in National Review Online:

There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred. In this school of 450 students, a sizeable number of whom were undoubtedly 11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K–6 school), all the personnel—the teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the “reading specialist”—were female. There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees. Women and small children are sitting ducks for mass-murderers. The principal, Dawn Hochsprung, seemed to have performed bravely. According to reports, she activated the school’s public-address system and also lunged at Lanza, before he shot her to death. Some of the teachers managed to save all or some of their charges by rushing them into closets or bathrooms. But in general, a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak — but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel. Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza.

As Amy Davidson of the New Yorker observed in response:

One image that comes to mind is the soldiers sent to die in outmoded frontal assaults against machine-gun embankments in the First World War….

As the mother of a twelve-year-old who might be described as husky, or at least big for his age, I do teach him that he has an extra responsibility to, for example, stand up for littler kids who are bullied—to never be a bystander. But I greatly resent the idea that he should throw himself in front of a bullet because a grown congressman isn’t brave enough to throw an N.R.A. lobbyist out of his office.

The World War I reference is apt. There is something bloodcurdling about grownups speaking so blithely about sending children off to their deaths. As if these kids don’t have a future of their own, as if they are all to be sacrificed on the altar of whatever K Street Moloch the right happens to be worshiping at this particular hour.

Which brings me to my story. In my junior year of high school, ABC televised a film, The Day After, about what the world would look like after a nuclear war. This was a time, some of you might recall, when talk of “nuclear winter” was all the rage. One of the strongest memories I have of the film was of its depiction of that winter. Dust and debris were everywhere; they looked like snow flakes of death, made to match the color of Jason Robards’ hair.

After the film was aired, Ted Koppel convened a panel of worthies—Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, Brent Scowcroft, Elie Wiesel, Carl Sagan, and William F. Buckley—to debate its implications. I can’t remember much of what was said, but one comment from Buckley has stayed with me all these years (see 2:45 in this video link).

In response to a provocation from Wiesel—who asked how it was possible for his co-panelists even to talk about a nuclear war, as if such a war could be fought and won (one wonders where Wiesel had been all those years)—Buckley said:

I think we do have to talk about it. Dr. Kissinger, twenty-five years ago, got hell for consenting to talk about it. So did Herman Kahn. The fact of the matter is here we are talking about all the tensions we’re going to be living on, fifteen years from now, twenty years from now. Well, the implied assumption is we’re going to be alive fifteen years from now, twenty years from now. That’s pretty good news, isn’t it?

Someone else on the panel, perhaps Scowcroft, muttered an encouraging “yep,” and Buckley went on. Until Koppel broke in:

Fifteen years may be pretty good news to men of your generation and mine. I suspect that some of our children might regard that as a rather limited life span.

The conservative imagination is supposed to prize longevity and continuity. It is the wisdom of old men. Yet here we have its most genteel modern tribune sounding like Edna St. Vincent Millay, happily mooting his own extinction and that of his child, declaring the shelf life of civilization to be little more than the life span of a reckless teenager. This is not Rambo conservatism but Rimbaud conservatism, betraying less a disregard for death than an insufficient regard for life.

Which is why, for the umpteenth time, I reject the notion that there has been some kind of downward trajectory on the American right since Buckley (or Burke, for that matter). What we hear from the Allen’s and McArdle’s of today is no different from what we heard from the Buckley’s of yesterday. The right has always been interested in violence and death. It has seldom been a country for old men—except the old men, and apparently women, who dream of the slaughter of young children.

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