Monday, March 02, 2009

On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People


The recent defeats suffered by movement conservatism have forced some of its leading lights into an agonizing reappraisal. Something went wrong, and while most of the blame can be placed squarely on ACORN, the media, and activist judges who failed to acknowledge that Obama was hatched in Kenya from some Soviet test tube, the possibility that conservatism itself must change, for once, can't be ruled out.

Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to think what's needed is a mass purification and a return to First Principles. They see a country that's 51 percent female, and blessed with plenty of blacks and Latinos and gays and poor people and city dwellers and voters under forty, and they conclude that the best way to regain power is to intensify their efforts to insult and demonize all those demographics.

This was the great theme of CPAC, where the really exciting speakers upheld the bedrock principles of our democratic republic by arguing that anyone who doesn't agree with Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter is a total fag, and vowed to double down on race-baitin', homo-hatin' insanity until the rest of the country joins them out of pity or terror.

What's needed, according to this line of thought, are more effeminate singsong voices with which to mock any plausible proposition from the Left, more deft detournements like "porkulus," and more dim-bulb mantras like "drill baby drill!" And above all, more Palin, more Jindal, and more Joe the Plumber, 'cause admitting that the public's rejection of these fantastically weird characters may've had some justification would be tantamount to admitting that Reagan was not the most popular president ever, or that Atlas Shrugged got a bit tedious in spots.

Other, more genteel voices feel that the timeless principles of conservatism are being submerged in a flood tide of identity politics and adolescent name-calling; they prefer to draw people's attention to the self-evident virtues of Western Civilization, and demolish their foes with quotes from G.K. Chesterton. The usual tactic here is to plant the conservative flag on something admirable like the Enlightenment, or logic, or self-reliance, or the unwillingness to rape children, and present that as the still-beating heart of the movement. The fact that these are not actually conservative ideas — and that really existing conservatism has not done a very good job of upholding them, precisely because it'd shatter into its constituent atoms if it ever made an honest effort to do so — is a mere detail.

These people live in a dreamworld. The plain fact is that when you strip conservatism of its cheerful Social Darwinism, in which "market forces" are conflated simultaneously with natural selection and God, you're left with little more than masculine and nationalist insecurity. The confusion that arises when you try to impose a coherent plot on conservative sentiment is demonstrated by the following ideological Gordian Knot: People are basically evil, but evil is basically good because of the aggregate power of individual self-interest to bring about the best possible social outcomes. "Do-gooders" are basically bad, because they're secretly self-interested and therefore hypocritical, and also because doing good, unlike pursuing your own self-interest, inevitably has "unintended consequences" that will make your efforts come to worse than nothing. Meanwhile, Americans, who are basically good, are accordingly passionate about doing good in the world, which means that any gruesome consequences that arise from our missions of mercy should be judged charitably, given what we all know of our essential decency.

All that's required to prevent these propositions from annihilating each other like the Kilkenny cats is to say, "Fuck you, we do want we want," as some conservatives, to their partial credit, actually have. But other conservatives, to their own partial credit, find that this doesn't satisfy them emotionally (and might not win elections, either). And so we're treated to the improvisatory and yet eversame spectacle of modern conservative philosophy, which is like watching an amphetamine-dosed spider try to build a web between a pair of whirligigs.

I'm not arguing that a principled, intelligent conservatism isn't possible, or that it isn't clinging to life at this moment, like some rare amphibian on a mountain surrounded by clearcut rainforest. The question is whether such a conservatism can actually win elections, without any help from corporatist sideshow attractions like Limbaugh and Malkin and Coulter, and without coded appeals to racism and blatant appeals to sexism and homophobia.

The situation is similar to what we've seen happen with the Minutemen: there are undoubtedly people patrolling the border who are not race-obsessed lunatics, but the very nature of the problem, as defined by the movement, brings race-obsessed lunatics out of the woodwork and gives them undue power and influence. A truly non-racist border patrol group would look nothing like the Minutemen (it probably wouldn't be patrolling the border, just for starters, and it certainly wouldn't be as appealing to the Right). In the same way, a really principled conservatism is likely to find itself friendless and alone, because the power structure into which existing conservatism fits demands instant gratification, ethics that are as flexible as Silly Putty, and plenty of red meat for the yokels.

Which brings us to the concerns of a conservative blogger at New Majority.com, who attended CPAC and reacted as a reasonably intelligent and sensitive person must:

All day, the message I got was this: The movement enjoys being hated by its enemies, more than it cares about its own goals....

CPAC is just unpleasant. And it is not just the elites flattening the ambitions of the people, it is the people dumbing down their own elites. Well-adjusted people, even if they feel alienated from certain parts of American society don't wish to be hated by society. People who want to advance some goals, want more responsibility, not less. I hate that CPAC seems to give credibility to Adorno: that conservatives have defective personalities.
I agree with this, of course. People on the left have been saying for years that conservatives would eat a plate of dogshit if Hillary Clinton told them not to. The movement has been rallying around Bush for so long, and with so little justification, that it's become second nature for them to rally around a useless cipher like Joe the Plumber, on the theory that anyone liberals think is stupid and ridiculous must've been sent by Heaven to rejuvenate the GOP and smite its enemies. Modern conservatism is a bit like a cargo cult, in that regard.

But the blogger misunderstands Adorno, and in doing so displays the same taste for victimhood that has turned conservatism into a source of merriment for people who find its absurdities more pleasant to think about than its victims. Adorno believed that all of us, not just conservatives, have defective personalities: there's no right living in a wrong life. What he set out to do in The Authoritarian Personality was to outline the nature of a specific defective personality.

The methodology has rightly been criticized, as has the tunnel-vision focus on right-wing authoritarianism. That said, we've just lived through eight years in which we heard a gospel preached of total submission to a unitary executive, and total war against a hydra-headed enemy that comprised everyone from Osama Bin Laden to Nancy Pelosi to Hans Blix to atheists to climatologists to the guy across the street with a peace symbol on his car. We were told to respect theologically and scientifically empty superstitions like intelligent design, to prefer faith and "common sense" to evidence we don't like, to view empathy as treason and negotiation as surrender, and to reject the effeminacy of "nuance" in favor of dick-waving Manichean bluster. And through it all, we were also expected to worry ourselves over what kind of consensual sex grown adults were having in the privacy of their own homes, which is something for which no sane and sexually secure person has any time or inclination. To all of this, Adorno's response would've been, "Well, duh."

That being the case, to worry that CPAC might give people the impression that movement conservatives are batshit-crazy sociopaths is like complaining that Jonestown made the public unduly suspicious of authoritarian death cults.

All the same, I'm sympathetic to this blogger's concerns. And I agree with Atrios that a functional, non-crazy conservative party — one that actually respects "individual liberty," instead of using it to justify beating up on queers and paving over the nation's wetlands — is in everyone's best interests.

The problem is, when you imagine even the most timid accommodation to reality that movement conservatism might make in order to adapt and improve, it seems like sheer fantasy. I mean, can anyone imagine Michael Steele standing before the nation and admitting that there's more hard evidence for AGW than there is for a worldwide conspiracy to falsify decades of scientific data and research in service of eco-Stalinism? Or Bobby Jindal acknowledging that whatever faults Canada's healthcare system may have, the fact remains that it costs less than ours, and delivers better outcomes? Or Rick Santorum conceding that perhaps gay citizens should, after all, have the same legal rights as straight ones?

You might as well ask these good men to suck cock at high noon on the Capitol steps. They'd probably find that suggestion a lot more tempting, come to think of it.

It may just be a failure of my own imagination, but trying to conceive of a conservative movement that doesn't look very much like the one we have right now is a bit like trying to picture a four-sided triangle. I'd find it very hard to recognize a conservatism that had given up on micromanaging people's sex lives, promoting racial and gender-based hatred, treating the regulation of asbestos and DDT as crimes against humanity, and redistributing the nation's wealth upwards while expecting to be thanked for it.

And I assume that most rank-and-file conservatives now living would find it even harder.

(Illustration: "There is no end to the road of revolution; render new services in the struggle against arrogance and complacency" by unknown artist, 1971.)

17 comments:

Kansachusetts said...

What a great post!

Especially the section that begins, "The plain fact is that when you strip conservatism of its cheerful Social Darwinism, in which 'market forces' are conflated simultaneously with natural selection and God, you're left with little more than masculine and nationalist insecurity."

chris said...

these fantastically weird characters
Says it all.
Great post, phila.

Anonymous said...

"cheerful social darwinism."

thanks so much. great piece. everyone should read it.

baudin

Jazzbumpa said...

My, my, you certainly do write a fine rant.

Conservatives aren't (all) bat-shit crazy sociopaths. But I do believe that a principled, intelligent conservatism actually is not possible. I have been convinced of this by reading Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind.

Conservatives believe that society is ordained by god, that having society divided into classes is good and proper, since it is part of this plan. They believe that prejudice is a good thing, since it avoids all that tedious and dangerously unpredictable mucking around with actual thinking. They believe in faith, and not in science.

They believe that Rush Limbaugh spouts the truth, and not self-aggrandizing bullshit.

And this is not the sorry state that conservatism has degenerated into. It is their default mindset.

Moloch help us all.

Phila said...

But I do believe that a principled, intelligent conservatism actually is not possible.

Call me a Pollyanna if you will, but I think it's possible. I'm confident that I'd disagree with pretty much every word of it, and I'd fight its implementation tooth and nail, but I do think it's possible.

Chesterton's a case in point, actually. Some of his more conservative positions are pretty...uncongenial, let's say, but he's not stupid or insane or vicious (unlike most of the people who consider themselves to be carrying on his legacy). I can disagree with him while respecting him. Same with Hayek, who wasn't a liar or a thug as far as I can tell.

I have been convinced of this by reading Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind.


I'm afraid, or maybe grateful, that I only know his tenth-rate supernatural fiction....

Jazzbumpa said...

There is an irony here that many good, decent, intelligent and (even technically) educated people are conservative.

The conservative mindset does not require any of stupidity, insanity or viciousness. However, it does require the ability to subjugate logic to magical thinking, along with a supremely pessimistic view of the nature of mankind and it's potential.

Beyond that, as you pointed out, it quickly becomes a thicket of logically incompatible premises.

John Dean deals with this in Conservatives Without Conscience. IIRC, the "authoritarian followers" he speaks of comprise 20% to 22% of any population. This can be a powerful block if they are mobilized to vote together, and this accounts for much of the GOP success over the last 35 years.

Jazzbumpa said...

Silly me. I forgot to mention gobstopping ignorance.

Come to think of it, the low information voter is a fertile field for right wing polemic.

WV: humpec - the way I type.

roger said...

well done phila. a most excellent post. cpac may not be the entire republican party, but it seems to be calling tune for them all.

DanF said...

Excellent post!

The problem for conservatives is that forty years ago they decided to co-opt the religious-fundamentalists to expand their party's base. They were wildly successful at this and started winning elections by the 1980's. Prior to this, the fundies had no political home and either stayed out of politics or kept it local. Now they have a home and it's the GOP and they expect their house to to be comfortable. In fact, many of them are running large parts of the household.

So yeah ... I can't picture a Jindal, Palin, Steele, or Romney to give a shout-out to science and/or cultural changes either.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait for the next logical progression on the quest for ideological purity:

SHOW TRIALS!!!!!

Phila said...

The conservative mindset does not require any of stupidity, insanity or viciousness. However, it does require the ability to subjugate logic to magical thinking, along with a supremely pessimistic view of the nature of mankind and it's potential.

But then, there's the supreme optimism of the "private vice, public virtue" outlook, as well as the whole Hayekian spontaneous order thing. Which I guess is the magical thinking you're talking about....

Still, similarly confused and magical thinking can be found among intelligent people on the left (cf. the transhumanist crowd, unregenerate Naderites, etc.). It's the authoritarianism, the lack of empathy, and the Burkean attempt to defend prejudice and willful ignorance as principles that are the bedrock problems with conservatism for me.

I should add that I could've (and have) written an equally jaundiced rant on liberalism, which has its own pathologies and blind spots, obviously.

Ultimately, I have to maintain some sort of a belief in the possibility of a non-negative common ground, if only to avoid the inflexibility I criticize in others.

Phila said...

I can't wait for the next logical progression on the quest for ideological purity:

SHOW TRIALS!!!!!


Well, we already have party-ordained self-criticism sessions....we're getting there!

Anonymous said...

A four-sided triangle looks like a pyramid. It's easy to picture if you don't think in only two dimensions.

Phila said...

A four-sided triangle looks like a pyramid. It's easy to picture if you don't think in only two dimensions.

Those are faces, not sides.

Ginger Mayerson www.hackenblog.com said...

How does one get in touch with you about republishing this blog essay in the Journal of Bloglandia?

Ginger Mayerson
Editor, J Bloglanida
editor AT wapshottpress DOT com

Phila said...

buffoonia / yahoo.

This site would be under a Creative Commons license if I weren't too lazy to fill out the forms....

Ginger Mayerson www.hackenblog.com said...

Could I republish this in the next Journal of Bloglandia? http://wapshottpress.com/j-bloglandia/ Leave me a comment at the link with your email, which isn't published, if you're interested.

Best,

Ginger Mayerson