Ye humble editor makes no secret of the fact that he's not a fan of conservatism, but he'll freely concede it can, in reasonably measured doses, be, theoretically, not only a benefit but an indispensable asset to the body politic; challenging new ideas, weeding out the clinkers, and giving strength to the more substantial ones that survive the challenge by pointing out shortcomings in them and forcing their advocates to shore them up. Allowing conservatism to rule is never a good idea, but any politics become stale and decadent without the persistent presence of a credible opposition force, and that's what conservatism should be.
In practice, that's... not our conservatism. Not even close.
In practice, traditional conservatism in its various gradations--and, though these comments may equally apply to them, I'm not referring to the plethora of self-styled "conservatisms" like "Libertarianism" that have little real support on the right--has become something more closely analogous to a cancer in the body politic. It hasn't had any real intellectual muscle in quite some time, and has, in fact, largely become an anti-intellectual movement. These days, it doesn't play any substantial constructive social role at all.
It isn't just that it's stupid, backwards, based on fictions, built on faulty premises. Some research in which I don't put much stock has characterized it as an evolutionary throwback. Some other research with a firmer basis has likened it to mental illness. Whatever else it may be, though, what it really is, at heart, is a character flaw. Conservatism doesn't just cling to the past; it clings to the worst elements of it, the bad ol' days, which it perversely regards as the good ol' days. It clings to these things (which may be real or imagined elements of an imagined past), no matter who it has to run over, injure, even kill to maintain them. Challenge one of their sacred cows and far too many conservatives will cast off any hint of the most basic human decency or sense of responsibility in their fight against you. If most conservative causes aren't morally reprehensible from the outset, they quickly become so via the behavior of their advocates. And, perversely, these battles are often waged, by the conservatives, in the name of the very morality they so often abandon as their first step in the process of undertaking them.
The story in today's press that inspired these thoughts offers an example of the latter, a story about conservatism at work that perked up the ears of ye humble editor. It's a relatively minor example, to be sure, but it's one that hits really close to home for me. A high school in the podunk town of Fulton, Mississippi was preparing their senior prom, and Constance McMillen requested that she be able to bring her date, like everyone else. McMillen's date, however, was her girlfriend, and the school board said, as CBS News reported it, that this "violated their policy against same-sex couples at the dance." The existence of that policy, outlined in a memo circulated at the school, was what had led McMillen to inquire about the matter in the first place, and, incredibly, when she pressed the matter, the school actually canceled the event! Called the whole thing off, just so one queer girl wouldn't be able to take her girlfriend to it. CBS reports McMillen "said she's been told by classmates that she's ruined their senior year," which suggests some of Constance's fellow students are just as twisted and misguided as the right-wing trash in officialdom that caused this situation.
In my own senior year of high school, in another of those small southern towns, I saw these same attitudes at work on someone very close to me. I'm not at liberty to offer many details (it's a long story and would probably be boring to anyone else anyway), but what I saw was very, very ugly, and the experience became one of those things that fundamentally shaped my view of life, of the world, of just about everything. This prom cancellation in Asshole-of-the-World, Mississippi all these years later is a lot milder than what I saw, but the attitudes driving both were fundamentally the same--fundamentally abhorrent, fundamentally incompatible with a civilized society, or even a barbarous one that's worth a shit, and, most of all, fundamentally conservative. A perfect nutshell encapsulation of what contemporary conservatism is, at its heart and behind all the incongruous rhetoric, and, if a very minor affair in the larger scheme of things, still a perfect illustration of why it just plain sucks.