The second AJC command-performance column asked, "What makes you a conservative?" My immediate reaction to this column was that I did not want to write a dry, academic treatise on Burke and Friedman and such. I would guess that they probably got quite a few of those, and I was looking to stand out from the crowd. That either didn't happen at all, or it happened too much, but I'm still quite happy with this one, some of which was copped from an old piece I wrote on the tenth anniversary of the liberation of East Berlin.
In March of 1991, I was alone in a train car crossing northern Germany. All I wanted out of a long train ride from Wilhelmshaven to Berlin was sleep, and lots of it. When the sunrise woke me up, I reached for the window shade—and bolted fully alert.
The train had just crossed the old border between West and East Germany. The change in the scenery was riveting--and horrible. It was like stepping out of a manicured garden and into a decrepit slum.
The landscape itself changed, from burgeoning spring farmlands to unending rows carved into the grayish soil with no regard for the land's contours, spotted here and there with stunted crops. The train passed the ruins of a station, a mess of blasted, crumbling concrete, scarred with ancient black soot. It had been bombed out during World War II, but nobody had bothered to clear the debris over the intervening forty-five years.
Humorist P.J. O'Rourke once wrote about the Soviet Union, "In the end, every little detail starts to get to you--the overwhelming oppressiveness of the place, the plain godawfulness of it." The Leftist government of East Germany did its best to turn a quarter of Germany into a facsimile of Stalin's USSR, and a year and a half after its liberation, it was still the godawfulest place I've ever seen.
The houses were the worst. Imagine the most run-down, decrepit wrong-side-of-the-tracks shacks you've ever seen, for mile after mile. Every home in the East German countryside looked like those shacks, only older. And it dawned on me that the whole country was like this.
East Berlin was nearly as bad as the countryside. The buildings and the people were a uniform color, all covered with a thick sprinkling of grime and sickly-grey dust. The "Osties" themselves still had the haunted, hunted look of a people left to the tender mercies of a police state.
While I was hardly a left-winger at the time of that train ride, the experiences of those few days have served as an aggregate, merging with the cement of conservative and libertarian ideas to create the concrete of my beliefs.
They were proof of the results when the individual is subsumed into the collective, of when a government runs a nation instead of the other way around, when the whims of elite "experts" are held up as rationale to dictate the lives of a population. No theory of "fairness" or "social justice" justifies turning a people into servants, and a nation into a shanty town.
In 1955, William F. Buckley, Jr. called his brand of conservatism "Standing athwart history, yelling Stop." Buckley and Soviet communism are both gone—and thankfully so, in the latter case—but vigilance against the rule of those who "know better" how we should live, how we may do business with one another, and most importantly, what we should think is an eternal charge.