When I was a kid (back around 1948, or the Late Cretaceous) my favorite beverage was a soft drink called Pee Wee A. It came in two flavors, orange and grape. My favorite was grape. It was very syrupy, and sweet and came in a small bottle that was sold from a Coka Cola ice chest in the local “mom and pop” store that was a converted house at the corner of my street. The store sold milk, eggs and bread, sugar and flour and some canned goods, and not much more, in addition to the cooler of soft drinks.
I loved having a Pee Wee A (or two nor three–they were less than a nickel each) after playing ball in the street on sweaty, humid summer days. My memory can still taste the sweetness of the grape syrup and I can feel the sugar (who knows how much there was since there were no ingredients listed on the little bottle that we returned to a cartridge at the store) rushing into my veins to restore my energy.
They are all gone now, gone for decades—the store, the Coke ice cooler, and the Pee Wee A, into the memory bin of my youth that contains Bakelite phones, my AM radio, and being a sugar-fueled kid who could run fast enough that the air passing my ears was like the roar of conch shell and play baseball all humid summer day.
We all have such memories and can get pretty annoyingly nostalgic about them. That’s not a problem. The problem is that there are large numbers of people who feel that their nostalgic world had gone in the toilet, or has been sundered by some foreign, godless, unpatriotic plot that is destroying American society as they knew and loved it. They want it back, or protected from any further degradation—they want to conserve it. They are the Conservatives.
Each day when I boot up my computer I see the following before me: panta rei kai ouden menai. It’s from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “all things change, noting remains the same.” It’s the bane of the conservative who basically desires a (past) “morning in America” (Reagan), or a fictitious“Make America Great Again” (Trump), or a return to a time when women only worked in their kitchens and did not have birth control or access to abortions, when LGBT people stayed out of sight and public life, cannabis was illegal, and Black athletes stood for the national anthem, and minorities “knew their place,” and prayer in schools, but not reference to evolution or climate change.
There has always been a peculiarity to the American Right’s version of Conservatism. In the late Christopher Hitchens recent review of two books on G.K. Chesterton he quotes his subject’s distillation of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s “theory of development” as: “all conservatism is based on the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave the thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must always be painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.”
Trying to hold back change by denying the progress of science and the conduct of social life is like trying to hold a butter-basted Chris Christie from sliding down a greasy chute. Holding onto the Bible as the prime description and guide to life is to be stuck in a static fairytale of error, falsehood, prejudice and inconsistency written by men in a time when the main form of life was pastoral with no relevance for an age in which billions of humans could destroy their planet several different ways.
Most of these conservatives are Whites who see their self-annointed racial hegemony over American society slipping away in demographic realities that have caused them to haul out their Nazi flags, erect statues to Confederate generals and barriers to immigration and minority voting, arm themselves against imagined insurgencies, and cozy up to fascism.
Their delusional idyllic world is gone, much of it in a haze of mnemonic filter that leaves out all the bad parts and keeps the prom photo of when they were forty pounds less and had a whole set of hair, juke boxes played their favorite Hit Parade tunes, and is redolent the first time they got laid in the back seat of that ‘49 Ford coupe that is long gone to the junkyard. They cling to that sinking existential Titanic that is their youth, that mythic Camelot period of time between the depression and the end of World War II and the beginning of those revolutionary 1960s. They would prefer their America in red, white and blue, to the one that is increasingly black, brown, and yellow.
Conservatives need to heed he words of Heraclitus. The future cannot be the past. Even if I could find an ice cold bottle of grape Pee Wee A it’s not going to taste the same to someone who is no longer a thirsty eight-year-old kid.