conservative callouses

From Joe Conanson's blog comes a link to a piece at the National Review about the recent mine rescues in Pennsylvania. Conason is incredulous, as am I, that the author uses the rescues as a hallmark of "compassionate conservatism" at its best.

The author, Michael Novak, seems to me to fail at two things: First of all, any connection between compassionate conservatism and the work done at the mine site to rescue nine trapped miners is tenuous at best, and a clumsily cynical use of jargon at worst. Novak attempts to link conservatism-as-caution with conservatism-as-political-ideology, by writing of "conservative discipline, competence, professionalism, and unyielding faith" displayed by the rescue crews and others at the scene. [my emphasis]

Novak equates all things done carefully with conservatism, especially compassionate conservatism that he believes characterizes the efforts of all involved in the rescue, from the drilling crews right up to the PA governor. A well-organized press crew, cordoned off from the shaft: conservative. The sense of community: conservative, and definitely not liberal, as Novak defines "liberals" decidedly vaguely, but as distinctly mean -- he implies that instead of acting decisively to rescue the miners, liberals would have ... have what? had a debate? Novak doesn't say, but suggests that a rescue would not have been the liberal priority. The actions of the miners themselves, tying themselves together, holding up one another's weight, and huddling for warmth: conservative, as only hardscrabbling men can be. These values, he writes, must be exercised frequently, lest we lose them or (breathlessly) mock them in our haughly liberal superiority. It's a tough hook to take, the idea that rescuing one's comrades in an efficient and intelligent manner is not only uniquely American, but uniquely conservative as well, and Novak just leaves it hanging there, as Conason notes saying nothing of the long and durable tradition of labor activism among miners.

This is patently absurd, like a string of non-sequiters that are nonetheless fiercely uttered. Novak's likening of the rescue effort to the best that compassionate conservatism has to offer is a ridiculous repackaging of the political idea, and his accompanying attempt at hearwarmingly folksly prose falls awfully flat. This is the second place where Novak fails: He invokes the "humble people of America who at work get dirt on their faces and calluses on their hands" as epitomizing the spirit of this great land, but immediately homogenizes them, makes them anonymous and faceless with his next comment: "What a people!"

What a proud yet generic people, with whom Novak attempts to relate by calling on the spirit of his immigrant miner grandfather, who died when the young Novak was just a boy of one year. The "highly educated elites" (understood here as "liberals") Novak writes, know too little of the humble people of America who have dirt and callouses on their hands. But I cannot help but be struck at the sneakiness of the George F. Jewett scholar at the American Enterprise Institute accusing a vaguely-constituted set of liberal do-nothings of being out of touch with working people.