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ISSUE #125
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I was delighted by Sara Robinson’s ruminations at the Campaign for America’s Future website on how pwoggies ought to emulate what she calls “conservatives”:

... more and more of us are becoming aware of the ways that conservatives have quietly moved in to take over almost every public and private institution in America. From churches to university faculties to public broadcasting to the Boy Scouts, the vast network of institutions that once taught people how to live in a liberal democracy and reinforced those values across society has been shredded to the point where it no longer functions. In its place is a new network of institutions—some of them operating within the co-opted shells of the old ones, others brand new—that reinforce the conservative worldview at every turn.

-“Learning From the Cultural Conservatives, Part III: Taking It to the Street,” at

What caught my eye about this was its wistful picture of benign “institutions”—one imagines thick stone walls, heavy oaken gates, and of course sleepless high-minded liberal gatekeepers to tend them.

Within the walls is light and comfort. The peasants sing their simple lullabies, enjoying the fruits of “liberal democracy” without ever having heard the phrase or knowing what it means, and certainly without acknowledging or understanding their debt to the gatekeepers.

But it’s too good to last. Do the gatekeepers get tired? Or are they just too few, or their burden too great? By ones and twos, and then by scores and centuries, dark loathsome orc-like figures—conservatives!—creep in the shadows over the battlements and ultimately “take over” the institutions that Sara admires so much.

The core image here is one of dispossession. We pwoggies used to control the institutions, but then somehow those crafty conservatives stole a march on us, scaled the institutional wall, and “took over.” How exactly did that happen? They must be fiendishly smart!

The element that’s missing in this picture is what Anthony Trollope would have called the “Castle influence.” Up there in the Castle, what is Lord Gormenghast doing? Does he play no role in this little drama?

Is it not possible that he wants the conservatives to take over? Perhaps... he has even paid them to scale the walls! Provided them with the ladders! And slipped the liberals a Mickey, on the crucial night, in the dark of the moon.

Forty years or so ago—back in the reign of old Lord Gormenghast, who sleeps now in the halls of his fathers—the peasants got a little restless. They stopped singing their lullabies and went out into the streets and stopped traffic. Old Lord Gormenghast was alarmed. His counselors at the time, a crafty and subtle crew, spoke with one voice: “Summon the liberals! Let them devise... programs! Let them reform our institutions—from churches to the Boy Scouts!”

It worked. It smelt like progress, and the peasants went back to their lullabies. Then when the Castle decided the crisis had passed, and it was time to restore the status quo, the peasants looked at the liberals who were now managing the retrenchment—and they blamed the liberals. And Lord Gormenghast, who never liked the liberals all that much anyway, was well pleased, and gave a well-received speech from the Castle battlements, admonishing the liberals for their failures.

I know, I know. Parables, when they go on too long, become tedious. So let’s say it explicitly, if a little abstractly, and less picturesquely:

Sara’s picture is one of institutions that are, you might say, ontologically prior to politics. The walls and gates have, as it were, existed from of old—the work of Weland or nameless ettins from the dark backward and abysm of time. Somehow these perdurable “institutions” got “taken over”—and so Sara’s job is to take ‘em back, naturally.

Sara has got it backwards. Politics are ontologically prior to institutions—though Sara, with her liberal institution-worship, will almost certainly never be able to understand that fact, and indeed will resist the insight, I bet, to her dying day.

Sara’s wistful hope is to do what the orcs did: scale the walls, slip over the battlements, retake the “institutions.” But she has, alas, forgotten about the Castle, or never understood it—perhaps never wanted to understand it.

So when she gets at length to the top of her ladder, we can depend upon it that there will be an Orc to meet her, with an ax to chop off her aspiring head.

Not a minute too soon.

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