Something Wicked This Way Comes

By Joe Rago ‘05

Editor’s Note: This piece was published in The Dartmouth Review on January 12, 2005.

In December I attended a conference of conservative college journalists, which was square and predictable. You’d expect those at a convention to be conventional but, – great Caesar’s ghost. Apart from a few bright lights…

For those fortunate enough to have been elsewhere, allow me to describe the delegate’s representative traits: (a) an embarrassing, wretched sense of humor; (b) a tendency to articulate (the wrong word, but it will have to do) wild lunacies with the utmost seriousness as matters of fact; (c) a rank partisanship; (d) the morose, leering manifestations of social ostracism; and (e) a quiver of stunningly compulsory political views. This last part was certainly the most depressing. Someone once told me that ‘opinionated’ was one of the most insulting things you could call a woman – how condescending and all – but here, for entirely different reasons, opinionated is just about the most devastating verdict possible.

It was not only that these opinions were ill-disposed and poorly considered. It was that they were so homogenized. Glancing around: young editors from all over the country, who’d never met, never corresponded, and yet behaved as if they’d settled the whole business beforehand. The ideas were already agreed upon. Something very much like a faculty meeting, I imagine.

These people – and here I mean ideologues and partisans, on the right or on the left, tend to insulate themselves only with people who already share the same mindset. And while I think the conservatives are more often correct than the liberals, mindset is the perfect word: a mind set so obstinately it’s petrified, suited for the bottom of La Brea with the mastodons and the saber-toothed cats. (Of course, the comparison doesn’t work, because what need is there for satire when the objects of it are already happy to make caricatures of themselves?)

At least among the young journalists I spoke to, their politics were so ritualized and shopworn that it seemed more a matter of performing a role than a genuine intellectual exercise. This is not traditionally part of the conservative mind, nor is it part at present. Francis Fukuyama and Charles Krauthammer unloaded on each other in the pages of the National Interest this summer. Bill Kristol just savaged Donald Rumsfeld in the Weekly Standard. In a short profile in the ‘Talk of the Town’ pages of the New Yorker, William F. Buckley mentioned that the reelection of George Bush would preclude the “consolidation of a thoughtful conservatism that might have happened if he’d lost.”

Further – perhaps because the ideas had congealed, perhaps because those ideas appealed to a certain type – the disposition at the conference seemed set as well, and it was less than congenial. The attendees were indignant. Resentful. Persecuted. Livid. Grim. Between the pulling and the air of discontent, it was enough to scoop out the brainpan and blandly join in the tiresome wheeze of the hand-wringers and the finger-waggers.

Early on at Dartmouth, I came across a cult film called Something Wicked This Way Comes, and I’ve inadvertently viewed it a few times since. It’s based on a work by Ray Bradbury, and the ‘something wicked’ line is cribbed from one of the witches in Macbeth; by comparison, Something Wicked is hack work, but it has a gravelly resonance I can’t quite explain.

The film chronicles the adventures of Will Hollaway and Jim Nightshade, two towheaded boys who go off gamboling in the land of ten-thousand pumpkins and become ensnared in the intrigues of a diabolic circus. They only outsmart Mr. Dark, the carnival’s proprietor (who also happens to be an evil sorcerer), when they overwhelm him with genuine affection and good cheer. Mr. Dark, after all, is a humorless fellow.

The point, then? Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival should not be part of the conservative mentality. Something wicked will always be coming. But it can be held off. That’s the basic job of the conservative, after all, to defend what should be preserved (and, when appropriate, to improve what needs improvement). The world will always lack. That’s no reason to wallow in night thoughts.

At Dartmouth, I have tried to present the issues as they are; and while I’m often let down, I try not to get down. Students are getting along fine at our small College; the campus culture remains genial and gregarious; most of the faculty tend to do a professional job, many professors are excellent, and some, very occasionally, can be inspirations; and those sad bureaucrats who have nothing better to do than rut around among good things and ruin them have been relegated – quite properly, I think – to the lesser role of opinionated ne’er-do-wells. I wish official Dartmouth were more dynamic and more assured in its unique historical identity. I wish it were not so frivolous, not so wasteful, not so pedestrian, not so beholden to the politics of contemporary higher education, – certainly, I could go on. But I’ll cite just two things.

The first comes from Percy Marks’ 1924 novel of college life, The Plastic Age. A Professor Henley is holding forth. “No, colleges are far from perfect, tragically far from it,” he says, “but any institution that commands loyalty and love as colleges do cannot be wholly imperfect. There is a virtue in a college that uninspired administrative officers, stupid professors, and alumni with false ideals cannot kill. At times I tremble for the Sanford College; there are times when I swear at it, but I never cease to love it.” Marks wrote his book while he was an English professor here, and it is taken for granted that his fictional Sanford is a stand-in for Dartmouth.

The second is the 1945 inaugural of President John Sloan Dickey 1929, where he said, “I especially want to remind you that, above all, the Dartmouth spirit is a joyful spirit.” He was relating words of advice from Ernest Martin Hopkins 1901, who pointed him to a passage in Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story ‘The Lantern Bearers’: Those who miss the joy miss all. That’s a distinguished lineage, and outstanding counsel.