Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dispassionate Conservatism

As dispassionately as possible, I would like to discuss conservatism.

Conservatism rules the airwaves.  Fox News, far from being "fair and balanced," feeds its viewers a steady stream of conservative viewpoints and spins; the rival candidates for the Republican presidential nomination exhaust themselves trying to out-conservative one another; right-wing politicians, legislators and bloggers fill both real and cyber space with conservative creeds and screeds.

What does it all mean?  What IS a conservative?  And why do so many Americans seem to believe that conservatives--unlike frequently-denounced liberals and even moderates--are somehow the "good guys"?  ARE they the good guys?

I grew up in a small midwestern town where the term "conservative" was usually applied to someone who dealt honestly with others, paid his bills, went to church and didn't entertain any newfangled ideas about how to run things.  "Liberals," on the other hand, were thought to be dreamers, risk-takers, gamblers and, perhaps, even atheists--bad guys, in short. Naturally, nearly everybody in Lewiston, Minnesota, regarded himself as a conservative--i.e., a solid, respectable, law-abiding citizen.

And a good guy.

John Kenneth Galbraith took note of the conservative's preoccupation with being "good"   He famously wrote that the "modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."  In other words, as Galbraith implies, the typical conservative has a nagging sense of guilt about his interactions with others.  He (the conservative) senses that his actions are not, in any absolute sense, particularly admirable--that they are, in fact, selfish and even blameworthy--intended to benefit himself and his family, quite often at the expense of  others.  Accordingly, in an effort to assuage his guilty conscience, the conservative engages in compensatory do-gooding and moral posturing, which cost him relatively little and which allow him to justify his (objectively unjustifiable) propensity to take advantage of the weakness of others.  This is often called "compassionate conservatism"--probably because "being nice" and "giving to charity" are involved.  However, since true compassion--"co-suffering"--denotes actual fellow -feeling and real self-sacrifice, neither of which conservatives are likely to embrace, the term "compassionate conservatism" strikes me as a good example of Orwellian doublethink.

Then, too, above and beyond his no-real-cost philanthropy, the conservative often seeks to perfume his smelly behavior with the incense of holiness.  As Salmon Rushdie observes, "the idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas -- uncertainty, progress, change -- into crimes."  In other words, a particularly guilt-ridden conservative will, with great self-righteousness, proclaim that God himself (in his holy Bible, Koran, Torah, Oracle of Delphi) has decreed that any deviation from the status quo, any reform in which the conservative can no longer dominate, any attempt to make wealth flow away from rather than toward the conservative worshiper, is quite simply evil.  

And thus arises a great and tragic irony: whole branches of our organized religions--religions founded by genuinely compassionate (and radical) people preaching self-sacrifice, co-suffering and change --have been hijacked and subverted by conservatives. Seeking to clothe their greed in vestments of sanctity and  ignoring Jesus' admonitions to share with the poor and tend to the sick, these "prosperity gospel" Christians find Galbraith's "moral justification for selfishness" in Rushdie's "idea of the sacred." 

Is this an over-generalization?  A too-sweeping explanation of the conservative psychology?  Perhaps.  I know, for instance, that not all conservatives are religious--though, in my personal experience, most are. Certainly there are some who feel, à la Ayn Rand, that selfishness is an objective and rational value, implicit in the very order of the universe and that, as such, it requires no apology and no moral justification.  Others, who may or may not be religious, fear that any change (apart from a personal salary increase) might diminish their rank in the social hierarchy.  Paradoxically, such conservatives generally occupy a very low rung on the socio-economic ladder.  Nonetheless, they resolutely oppose reforms, even those that might improve their own lot, because they fear that others--lower still on the ladder--might thereby leapfrog over them to a higher rung.  According to The Scientific American this "last place aversion" accounts for a lot of the conservatism-cum-racism found in poor, rural, economically-depressed areas.  Everyone wants to have someone to look down on.

So let me try to conclude in some way.  Lincoln, endeavoring to validate the radically transformative Emancipation Proclamation, wrote, "What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?"  Yes, for a variety of reasons--usually involving untrammeled selfishness and /or the fear of losing something--conservatism is indeed "adherence to the old and tried."  And furthermore, especially in its American avatar, this conservatism frequently avails itself of religion to justify its almost fanatical aversion to the "new and untried." 

How odd that Lincoln, the first Republican president, ''conserved'' the Union by defying the very principles of conservatism, by trying new things, by getting laws changed, by co-suffering.  Accordingly, he may have been the first--and, quite possibly, the last--"compassionate conservative."

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