By Primus Mootry
For The Herald Bulletin
Some years ago, I was invited by a friend to meet with a group of Chicago conservatives (Republicans) who were interested in having me, as an African American, become one of their lead spokespersons. They argued (and rightfully so) that Chicago’s solidly Democratic black population was being short-changed by Democratic political leaders. They also argued that conservative values were fundamentally consistent with social and religious values in the black community.
Their promise to me, should I take the “assignment,” was a healthy expense account, a leased car of my choice, first-class travel and hotel accommodations, and other perks. I thanked them for their generous offer and told them that, as an independent, although I agreed with many of their arguments, the answer was “no.” Then and now, I value my political independence. A tie to any particular party would be contrary to that value. (As an aside, I am not now, nor have I ever been, for sale).
In the current long Season of Politics in America, I have often thought about that meeting. In particular, I have thought about the meaning of political terms such as Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, left wing, right wing, progressive, libertarian, independent, Dixiecrat, tea party, and so forth. In my gut, my sense is that such terms, though common, generally are not well understood.
For example, an African American might have conservative values in many areas, but what does it really mean to be “a conservative?” I found a wonderful explanation by a college student newspaper called the Student Review. The Review defines a conservative as someone who “believes in personal responsibility, individual liberty, limited federal government, traditional American values, and a strong military.”
The problem, though, is that for more than two centuries none of that would make much sense to millions because so-called “traditional American values” meant, by law and custom, the exclusion of blacks, women, and Native Americans. In this context, notions of personal responsibility and individual liberty are, by necessity, subverted. Yet, this important fact remains largely unexamined by conservative leaders and, furthermore, cannot be understood looking through a traditional conservative lens.
Another source, Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles,” outlines a number of “conservative”ideas. Much of what is said by Kirk could be embraced by anyone who believes in order, moral standards, and thoughtful change. Kirk’s references to Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” however, carried enough negative innuendo to make me ill. Still, I wonder, how many conservatives (or liberals, for that matter), have studied Milton?
We have spent many decades labeling “who is smart,” cataloging and boxing them, then putting them on a shelf to show we know who they are. But read them, study them? No. For example, if you ask someone to name a genius they will probably mention Albert Einstein.
Then, ask that same person to elaborate (not just e=mc squared) on his work or his impact on American and world culture and you get a blank stare. Now, a person need not be able explain Einstein’s theory of relativity to reasonably discuss how this mathematical calculation so profoundly affects what we now accept as traditional values.
Another example. Just recently, after reviewing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” it became apparent how much more it contains than most assume. This letter is as famous as his”I Have A Dream” speech. Most people will feel that they’ve read it and readily agree that it is great. It was and is. But don’t put it on the shelf.
King’s letter is persuasive enough to convince many conservatives to reassess their positions without forsaking their conservative principles. It should be required reading for every conservative, or person who thinks he or she is a conservative, in America. Why? Because the letter discusses important views on America’s traditions from a non-traditional point of view.
As conservatives struggle to re-define their brand following the 2012 elections, would it be too much to ask them to read something other than some think tank “white paper?” How can Republicans and conservatives expect to present themselves as genuinely inclusive and still allow the Sarah Palins, Ann Coulters, Glen Becks, Rush Limbaughs, and their media and political ilk to carry the banner of American conservatism?
In my opinion, conservative philosophy, rooted in knowledge and a genuine desire for inclusiveness, is a crucial thread in the tapestry of democracy. Accordingly, with this thought in mind, conservative ideas just might find more African Americans and Hispanics willing to take a look.
Have a nice day.
Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.