Monday, April 18, 2011

Conservatism





If you came here looking for a tender memoir, I apologize in advance. Porcupine has had a good long rest and has been pressuring me for some time. All right, so be it. I yield the floor for the moment. The tender memoirs will return Wednesday, when I will begin reposting the first of my Nana stories, for the benefit of those who have read only the last. - Cricket


When I was younger, I wondered if I would become more conservative as I grew older. It seemed to be a distinct possibility. I knew many an old man who bemoaned "kids today." We were lazy, uncultured; we had no appreciation. I suppose there's something to that. Juvenal felt the same way about the youth of Rome.

It didn't work out that way. If anything, I've become more radical in my philosophy as I aged. The angry young man became an angry middle aged man. The older I get, the more I am convinced of one simple fact.

Conservatism is always wrong. Always.

This goes beyond superficial considerations of the politics of the day. It transcends time, place, culture, or discipline. The conservative outlook is inherently and fatally flawed. It carries within it the seeds of its own inevitable failure. In every age, in every field, it makes the same claim: the limits have been reached, usually somewhere in an imagined past. No further progress is possible. Everything from this point on is decline: against God, or Nature, or both.

When the boundaries move, as they always do, conservatism retreats until these new boundaries are absorbed: until what were once progressive ideas become commonly accepted. Then, sooner or later, it returns to make its same claim: the limits have been reached. No further progress is possible. Everything from this point on is decline: against God, or Nature, or both.

This transcends politics. How many artists, authors, musicians, or scientists, today recognized as geniuses, were ignored, or even vilified, for holding a position which ran contrary to the orthodoxy of the day? That is not art. That is not music. That is not literature. The limits have been reached.

This is true even in an area such as mathematics, which would seem to have little moral content. In the 1890s, Georg Cantor's rigorously proven mathematical theories of the infinite were given the same treatment. The conservative mind rebelled against the idea that the infinite could, and in fact did, exist in infinite variety. In some circles this was seen as a direct challenge not only to mathematics, but to theology. Once again, the limits had been reached. Anything further is against God, or Nature, or both.

And this in the face of mathematical proof, not during the so-called Dark Ages, but a hundred years ago. Conservatism has proven itself, time and again, to be incorrect on issues ranging from art, to human rights, to mathematics, to the laws of planetary motion.

Is it any wonder then that in politics conservatism has been, is now, and ever shall be the politics of failure? As always, it has absorbed ideas that once were considered progressive, and makes its recurring claim: the limits have been reached. No further progress is possible. Everything from this point on is decline, against God, or Nature, or both.

At best, conservatism seeks to preserve the established order. More often, it seeks to reestablish the failures of the past. At best, conservatism leads to stagnation; at worst it leads to regression and ossification. The progressive positions of the past are reframed as conservative achievements and as limits which must not be exceeded.

Today, many American conservatives claim "right-wing extremists founded this country." In a word, no. To the extent that such terms have any meaning, left-wing extremists founded this country. The conservatives of the day were Loyalists. Though the majority of the founders professed some form of Christianity, the nation was not founded on Christian principles, but on the ideas of humanism: the idea that we have inalienable rights as human beings.

The conservatives of the day opposed both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights They spoke eloquently of the rights of men while hypocritically ensuring the preservation of human slavery and plutocracy. In the main, they still do.

Today, American conservatives claim these products of humanism as their own. Yet they also claim that secular humanism is evil: that the founders of this country were practically Evangelical Christians. Believe what you will about Jesus of Nazareth, one thing is certain: he was no conservative. The conservatives of his day were the Pharisees and the Romans. We all know how that worked out.

When conservatism does not fly in the face of the facts, it comes late to the party.

Regardless of what you think of her, a Sarah Palin could not exist if conservatism were true. Until quite recently, she would not have even been able to vote, never mind seek political office. Conservatism held that women were inherently inferior to men, destined to be submissive and silent, destined to be ruled by men. Anything else was contrary to God, to Nature, or to both.

A Clarence Thomas could not exist if conservatism were true. Conservatism held that black people were an inferior race, not fully human, destined to be subject to and ruled by whites. Anything else was contrary to God, or Nature, or both. A hundred and fifty years ago, the only property right which would have concerned Clarence Thomas would have been his own right not to be property.

Few conservatives hold these positions today, although there are some holdouts. At least these are consistent. Even so, they were wrong then, they are wrong now, and wrong they will continue to be.

This is not to say that a conservative cannot make a truthful statement, for example, that we should not spend more money than we have. Of course, this is true, yet this position is not peculiar to conservatives. Even so, in conservative hands, it is used to neatly sidestep further and necessary questions: How much money do we have? How much money do we need? How should this money be raised? How should this money be spent? Avoiding these questions allows us to preserve things as they are. No progress is possible. The limit has been reached.

Neither is this to say that all progressive solutions are good. However, any potential progress must begin with the idea that progress is possible. This is antithetical to conservatism and is the root of its inevitable failure. In the end, conservatism seeks not to learn from the past but to recreate it, and to recreate it in a way that is often purely imagined.

This is also the source of conservatism's enduring popularity. In essence, it is the safe choice. It relieves us of any obligation to examine ourselves but reassures us: we had it right; then they came along and exceeded the limits. All we have to do is get back to the way we were before they came along.

Who they are is constantly shifting: Irish, Italians, Mexicans, Catholics, Jews, women, blacks, workers, the poor. All of these have had at least one turn; some have had several turns to our lasting discredit. The latest group of immigrants are a perennial favorite. Muslims and homosexuals seem to be the popular theys of the moment. In truth, it matters very little who they are, or that the conditions of their otherness have any basis in reality. What is necessary is that there be a they, by which we can then define we.

Conservatism lives essentially on fear. It takes the universal fear of the unknown and embodies that fear in the they of the moment. It reassures us that the solution to the unknown future lies in the known past. It tells us all was well before they came along and assures us that all will be well once they are gone.

This transcends time, place, and culture. The Taliban are just as much a faith-based conservative organization as was the Inquisition. The Tea Party is just as wrong today as the Know-Nothings were yesterday. Most abolitionists were Republicans while the Democrats ran openly as "the white man's party." Then, the Democrats were the conservatives, and they were wrong. It is not a question of party politics. The problem is the fatal limitations of conservatism itself.

This is the problem with the Democratic party of today. Though they have been painted, against all logic, as socialists, the reality is that they are too conservative. President Obama is not a failed FDR, he has so far been a successful Hoover. We all know how that worked out.

Leave politics aside for the moment. The failures of conservatism transcend discipline. Picasso, Joyce, Stravinsky, Galileo, Cantor: abolitionists, suffragists, feminists, even the first Christians: all of these were just as offensive to the conservative mind. Conservatives sought to set the limits of progress; this far and no further, all else is an offense against God, or Nature, or both. They were wrong.

True conservatism is more than a desire to be cautious or frugal. It is more than the belief that things were better yesterday. At its heart, it is the belief that yesterday was the limit: that yesterday was as good as it gets. No further progress is possible. Everything from this point on is decline: against God, or Nature, or both. Over and over, regardless of time, place, culture, or discipline, this view has been proved wrong.

Consider these questions: Are women inferior to men? Are blacks inferior to whites? Is slavery just? Are Jews evil? Does the Sun revolve around the Earth? Are diseases divine punishment for sins? Were dinosaurs real? Do witches float? Was the American Revolution worthwhile? How about the Constitution? Are Catholics un-American? Did Irish or Italian immigrants destroy America? Did the wealth trickle down? And finally, where did conservatives stand on these issues?

With a track record like that, what are the odds that this time, and at long last, conservatism has finally managed to get something, anything, right?



Very Truly Yours,



Porcupine

Porcupine



13 comments:

Suldog said...

I suspect you'll get more than enough argument to last you, so I won't chime in. You know me. Libertarian, out there on the fringe with you, even if occupying a different sector of it much of the time.

I think the problem you'll encounter during the arguments is that the terms 'conservative' and 'liberal' have been ascribed different meanings, by the enemies of both, than what they meant in other times. Libertarians like to think of themselves as classical liberals, the Thomas Jefferson sort; that type of thing. You might not agree. Some who consider themselves conservative today do so only because they cannot rightly call themselves liberal as the descriptive has now come to be thought of and they haven't the political insight or acumen to imagine more than a left-right spectrum.

Anyway, as usual, a good read. I await the interesting comments.

Gaston Studio said...

I normall stay away from commenting on posts about politics and religion, although I ususally read them for the information they may contain. Even now, I will only make one comment: your line "The problem is the fatal limitations of conservatism itself."... is to in keeping with my personal thinking.

As always, whether Porcuine or Cricket, you make us all think!

Gaston Studio said...

That should have read "normally" in my first sentence!

Cricket said...

Hi Suldog -

You are right, of course. True libertarianism is radical, not conservative, in that it seeks to try something essentially new.

You are right also that words have different meanings at different times. This is why, I think, it is important to look at the conservative impulse outside of politics. In essence, it seeks to define the limits of possibility. This is its flaw.

For example, Wynton Marsalis, for all his skill as a musician, has done great damage to jazz as a whole by freezing it somewhere in the early 60s. This is jazz. It must sound like this. It must use these instruments. Even, a jazz musician must dress like this. The limits have been reached. No further progress is possible.

He is a conservator, a museum curator. Miles Davis will still be remembered and studied when Wynton Marsalis is long forgotten.

Conservatism fails everywhere. Why should politics be any exception?

Anonymous said...

Well said!

TechnoBabe said...

Hubby and I were talking about some of this a few days ago. "They" changes with the times. How ignorant we humans fight to remain. This post was well written for a lot of reasons.

Cricket said...

Jane and Techno -

I think G.K. Chesterton summed up the problem with characteristic insight and humor:

It is the business of Progressives to go on making mistakes. It is the business of Conservatives to prevent these mistakes from being corrected.

Thanks for your comments.

lime said...

you raise some very good points and give a thought-provoking perspective.

I seem to be able to irk and be irked by both conservatives and liberals. mainly because i think they both get far too wrapped up in their own self-affixed labels and can't even see what the actual definition of those labels is. oh, and basically i refuse to slot myself in either pigeonhole.

my response for years has been, jesus pissed off BOTH the liberals and the conservatives of his day. why should i try to make nice enough to join either one of them?

G.G. Mueller said...

Impressive. You have stated the core of my belief system so well and you have not met me! I have been screaming that conservatism is paralysis and realize that that is the wrong term. It is fear.
Thank you.

Jayne said...

I am hopelessly apolitical so I don't wish to comment on any particular party. But I do want to say "Hear, hear!" Progressivism is the only way. Open minds, open hearts, critical thinking, moving it forward for the better. Always. Great post. ;)

Andy said...

Cricket, I believe that it's all in how we define ourselves. I view myself as a "conservative," but don't swallow the idea that "conservative" means no more progress can be made.

On the contrary. I believe that individual liberty, minimal government regulation, forcing the "clueless" to get a job, and financial/profit motivation are the bedrocks of seeing actual progress (for people of whatever pursuit).

Free men, motivated by need or desire, left to "create" WILL "create," and progress will be made. Men in bondage will not. History is proof. Think of the pitiful state we found Eastern Europe in after decades of bondage.

In my mind, a conservative (as it's defined today) is one who simply refuses to accept that we can afford to enslave ONE MORE generation in the ghettos of welfare, Section 8 housing, food stamps, etc. Progressive "compassion" has created a permanent underclass, filled with fatherless homes, and aimless children.

It's just true. It really can't be denied...oh, it can be, but one has to just check their brains at the door.

And, we refuse to accept that government can put us in that same bondage, even though that has been the path we've been on for most all of my adult life (regardless of which party ran the show).

I'm really more Libertarian (in the classic liberal sense) than "conservative" as it's defined by most. But, the principles are pretty well the same.

Good food for thought, though.

Cricket said...

Hi Andy -

Always good to hear from "the other side of the aisle." I jst want to respond briefly... comment length. Obviously, we could write book(s) here. Even so:

Minimal gov't regulation? We have minimal gov't regulation. Corporate America is the gov't. For all intents and purposes, the SEC/Treasury is Goldman Sachs, the DOE/EPA is Exxon-Mobil &c. Regulation is exactly the way these corporations want it, regardless of what they pretend.

You once wrote in one of our earliest exchanges "Corporations are people" meaning a group of actual people working together. This isn't right. The corporation is a person itself: a super-citizen, whose interests trump all of ours.

Thus, the banking rules are set by the banks, energy policy is set by the industry, environmental protection is regulated by the polluters. Any pretense to the contrary is pure theater.

Forcing the "clueless" to get a job? What jobs? But business will create these jobs once government gets out of the way, right? No, business will create jobs in America when an American worker is cheaper than a Chinese one: on average, that's around $6k/year.

If we treat labor as a commodity to be exchanged on a world market, it is essentially worthless. And there it is.

(cont'd)

Cricket said...

We are seeing right now the effects of financial/profit motivation, and it ain't "progress." After 30 years of supply-side economics, as I asked in the post, did the wealth trickle down? No, it soared to the top, and quickly. Which was the point, after all.

The ultimate problem is this: capitalism is based on a mathematical impossibility - constant growth. It requires ever increasing resources, ever increasing consumption, an ever increasing money supply, ever increasing... well, everything. And this has nothing to do with saving the rain forest or the spotted owl as such. It's just numbers.

Even worse, we tend to see an economy increasing at even a modest rate, say 2 or 3% a year, as steady growth. It isn't. That is not a linear function, but an exponential one. It compounds, just like bank interest.

Constant exponential growth in the face of finite resources is impossible. The effects of this have been somewhat masked by imperialism, colonialism, expansionism. It has seemed as if we could expand the pie forever, but we can't. In this case, we must eventually reach a limit.

Capitalism must eventually give way to something new, mathematically. What that will be, I don't know, but I believe it will either look a lot more like socialism or it will look a lot more like hell.

Wishing you and yours a very happy Easter.