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,