Wednesday, September 10, 2008

On Conservatism

On Conservatism

Let me start plainly and sincerely: I think that sharing the comment "liberalism is a mental disorder" shows a lack of respect for, and a decided distaste of, those on this mailing list who have liberal leanings. It is cold and at base, unfriendly. All of that said, I value your comments for two reasons: First, they are an example of public discourse, and at the root of democracy lies free speech and the discussion of ideals. Second, they have spurned me to speak up. I will not only speak in defense of my parents, but of Liberalism as a political-philosophical stance.

First, for my parents, how dare you. You?ve tarnished open debate with ad hominem attacks of the worst, most nascent-birth, infantile sort. Do not dare claim facetiousness, because there is nothing jovial in your words. There is no tone of voice that makes them jovial jabbing. The words you?ve said, and I don?t get specific because the breadth of your message has afforded me the fortune of not needing to, they are hurtful and awful. At best they are mindless and at worst are mean-spirited and cruel. They will stand in my mind and in yours, likely, despite any apology. And, as will become apparent in the rest of my message, I?d not be surprised if you retreated from them. It would be fitting.

Moving on, you write that you believe that by this time next year, the media will be "leaning towards the right." (You included The New York Post... a Rupert Murdoch publication, perhaps you meant The Washington Post?) Well, there is no accounting for taste, so I will not criticize your choice of news media. Nor, do I think any criticism of particular policy will change your opinions on liberalism's value (though in further responses, I?d love to tackle individual issues head on.) How then, should we proceed? It is key that we first understand what we mean when we say "liberal" and "conservative." I have no time for name calling and none for inaccuracy, so allow me the space to think fully on this topic. Liberalism and conservatism both take many shapes in their current forms. Most notably there is a line between economic and social philosophies.

At its root, Conservatism is about personal independence and personal responsibility. In concern of over-reaching government, the social conservative believes that the choices that a man or woman makes should be his own downfall or success. The economic conservative, often nearer to Rand-ian objectivism than mild existentialism, would eschew a society that offers more than the barest minimum to every citizen, or which would tax those with higher incomes. In stark contrast, the social conservative wants the government to be a panoptic, omniscient conscience for us, disallowing medical procedures, defining things like "life", and using whatever means necessary to root out those who would threaten the standard. Though conflicting, these sides are under the same umbrella for a single reason: they are in fear of progress.

In the face of progress, the conservative can't help but look back and say "We have it good." They see prosperity for themselves and their loved ones, and fear losing it. They see only stability, and instead of looking for causation, the conservative is certain that traditional acts are what have brought us so far. After all, they'll say, they got us here, and our parents here. The conservative sees no need for progress, because all progress can bring is change, and what is there worth changing? But I think that the conservative is wrong, and betrays his own good will. By denying change, the conservative has clung to the past and has denied a greater good for the many. The democratic cause is one of populism. It is in our nature as a democracy to care for all members of our republic, and it is in these moments of fear for themselves and their loved ones that the conservative forgets the many.

The conservative denies the right for a woman to choose what to do with her body, even in the face of tragedy, because its not their daughter who was raped.

They demand the right to carry an automatic weapon, even in the face of crime, because it wasn't their son caught in the crossfire.

They act in indifference towards any claims of global warming, even in the face of environmental crisis, because after all, even if there is one, they won't be here for its results.

They desire the abolition of welfare programs, even in the face of poverty, because it isn't they who have hit a bad string of luck.

They allow for war, even in the face of the deaths of their countrymen, because in their minds it has to happen somewhere, to someone, and it will not, at any cost, be here.

Most of all, they act in these ways for that last reason. To the conservative, the maintenance of the current comes at any cost. At the cost of liberty of ideas they burn and ban books (excuse me if I've begun to step into Palinian specifics.) At the cost of personal privacy, they demand more supervision, though not for them, only for those who could be "suspected" of anything less than fervent nationalism. The conservative has decided that there will be the safety net of stability, the comfort of the banal same, at any cost. In their fear of anything-other-than-this, they've found nothing but foolish consistencies. They've found nothing but a willingness to praise anything that allows them to cling to the past. If they raise any banner of progress, it is progress to a place of no-change, where they and theirs are assured continued success at no risk. And as a liberal, as a progressive, I have come to my end with it. At these costs we will not stand, because at these costs we've lost the society that the conservative wishes to defend.

I do not apologize for disagreeing, in earnest and serious tone, that we would not be a society of "mental disorders." If we must be any perjorative let us be deviants. Kai T. Erikson, a noted socilogist, writes that deviance occurs in society because the borders of social acceptance need to be challenged. We redefine what is right, what is wrong, and what is acceptable by means of analyzing these instances of deviance and reevaluating what such actions can bring to our benefit or can do us harm. What should we be if we were a world of liberals? The liberal, it stands to reason, is a force of progress. I act and vote as I do because I believe there is more we can do. There are heights we have not reached. I ask for more than the bare minimum because I truthfully see in us great things. What we have done before our now is wonderful, it truly is great. We have put a man on the moon. We have shown the world in our times what true democracy is. We have been willing to give our lives both for particular causes, and for lofty ideals, and in both ways have acted in ways to be proud of. I recognize these things. But I think that we can do better.

That is what is at the core of liberalism: A fierce bravery, a desire to achieve. It is for this reason that social liberals denounce the ?need? to own automatic weapons, to deny that a person controls what happens with their bodies, and that we deserve scientific progress. It?s why the economic liberals believe in spending for the greater and not the lesser ? because we believe that even with greater taxes, the very richest will be able to live outstanding lives, and that with their help many others can begin walking the path to success as well. We are liberals because we look at the past, bow our heads in reverence, and then move forward.

And, here I go uncensored, I loathe those who believe otherwise. I am livid, I am angry beyond myself, at those who would deny us a future of prosperity because they fear they might lose what they have now. Those men and women are despicable. In their claims of self-reliance, I see only claims of isolationism. In their claims of responsibility, I see only claims of blame.

To those who would deny a family down the street the right to a fair shake because it might-maybe-could cost the family in your home a second TV or a swimming pool, I understand. I know you want to be valued by those you love, and you want them to have the best that money can buy. But I have to ask you this - at what point do you draw the line? At what point do you say "ah, we have enough for two meals, and there are 6 of us. Two will go hungry, and not I." That is your line of reasoning, carried to its fullest. By your system you'd as soon jail a woman for aborting the child of rape as you would the rapist. You'd deny a dollar if it cost a cent.

I know I have called conservatism a cowardly doctrine. I?ve said that it is a claim taken by men and women bound by the safe ropes of the well-known. I stand by that, because at its root is a cowardly premise. I know your response. If you are a coward than why do you wage war while I hide behind books. In return, answer this: who is braver, the man who fires first or second?

It is odd to me that you'd be so against liberalism as a concept. It isn't surprising that you love what we have achieved thus far, but it is strange that you would deny the achievements of past liberals. The lives conservatives live are borne on the back of past liberal success. Our freedoms afforded to us by our constitution, the bill of rights, and the ammendments are the work of liberal hands, men and women who fought for progress and change. When women were given the right to vote, it was a liberal movement. When workers came together to demand that there would be no more deaths and no more children in the factories, that was a liberal movement too. When the middle class arose in the middle ages and a merchant society was born, where you could overcome your birth by skill and ingenuity, that was a liberal movement. When the Catholic Church reformed itself (in response to Luther's Protestant Reformation), when it gave the word of God to people in their own language so that they might understand it for themselves, that was a liberal movement too. These and those like them are the those which helped define the world we live in. Do you stand in the way of further progress? Worse, do you call back to a time of the past? A time with witch burning, with slavery, with internment camps? These are the works which liberalism has destroyed, and in your calling liberalism a "mental disorder" you have in one move accepted these things as sacrosanct. It is appalling.

Luckily, we need not wait long for these conservatives to flee, and new less severe ones take their place. This is how it goes. This is how it?s gone. The books once banned are in libraries. The daughter of the puritan becomes a poet. When Cromwell fell in England, the theatre opened again; When the Magna Carta was signed, the age of the king?s lawlessness began to fade; and despite their execution at the hands of conservatives, the religion of Jesus and the philosophy of Socrates are both taught to this day.

It is only a matter of time before we've left the last 8 years of conservatism, even if the next President also shares those views. Compromise will be met - the conservative will accept change because to maintain any of old society he must allow some abjuration. In time the conservative, no matter how strong, dies and vanishes in the wash of progress. It is only in large steps that the liberal, that even the moderate, must fear the conservative and an Orwellian outcome. When our liberties, notably the free exchange of ideas through public discourse and building bases of knowledge, when these things come under attack is what I am concerned over: When books are banned and entire concepts called "mental disorders." It is when the conservative veers towards awful things, towards fascist, totalitarian, awful things, that he has a chance against progress. It was, after all, the barbarians that destroyed Rome and brought us to the dark ages.

This is where we stand: I believe there is a choice. There is a clear distinction that must be made. There is the conservative who for fear of the consequences refuses to accept anything but tradition. This is the conservative I?d call on to be braver and to look for ways towards change. In the specific, look at our health care system. Look and see that there can be universal coverage for us all at very little cost to you and I, it is only a matter of figuring it out. Find ways to reduce our damage to the earth, because even if the science is wrong (I'd I don't for a minute doubt it is) it can one day be right and we ought not leave the repair of our world to our descendents as our predescesors have left it to us. Act against unlawful, and unprovoked, war because you believe that we can build our defenses up well enough to protect us from harm, so that we need not harm others.

To this conservative I ask to consider the many issues at hand, and to really think about what the outcome would be if we pursued them with the tenacity and intelligence that has brought us this far. Everything from net neutrality to stem cell research. Think about the best and worst possible outcomes. There is the conservative who will, I believe, take a more moderate stance on at least some issues. Who will understand that the ?liberal? media is not liberalism, and that liberalism is not cowardice, but is instead a promise to ourselves that we can do better. I ask this conservative one thing: Stop retreating.

To the other conservative, the one who hears this plea and denies me still. Who in fact denies themselves the action of true, deep thought on these issues. Who claims not to be shy of the future, but who really believes that others deserve less than him. Who believes that none but he and his ought to eat the best, have the best, live the best. Who believes that he should come first, at any cost. To him I have very, very little to say, except this, and this in the most derisive tone there is: There is, after all, no accounting for taste.