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Monday, July 13, 2009

A Few Good Problems With Conservative Values

Conservatives pride themselves on being the vanguard for what is great about America: its values and liberties. Problems, however, arise when one examines both conservative values and the methods they use to defend them. Perhaps a closer inspection of both their values and methods is in order to verify the Conservatives' self-proclamation.

First, what is a conservative? How do we distinguish a conservative from a liberal? A quick summary that I have seen conservatives use before can be found at http://conservative-resources.com where conservatives and liberals are defined by 6 pairs of opposing characteristics. The list can be found below:

Conservative Beliefs vs Liberal Beliefs

Natural Law Positive Law
Established Institutions Progress
Liberty Over Equality Equality Over Liberty
Suspicion of Power Benevolent Government
Exceptionalism Human Perfectability
Individualism Community.

Of course the above list can be misinterpreted and false views of both Conservatives and Liberals can be easily arrived at by the reader unless one delves more deeply into the characteristics with which conservatives love to adorn themselves.

Natural Law

Belief in Natural Law, according to the above conservative website, is belief in both the existence of good and evil and that the source of all laws and liberties are from God or are Platonic, as opposed to originating with man. Man might recognize these laws, such as in a just government, but the Conservative believes that these laws exist regardless of man's recognition.

Here conservatives distinguish themselves from liberals by describing liberals as believing in progressive law. The difference between the two can be seen in the absence/presence of the term from the Declaration of Independence: "self-evident." The liberal, according to the conservative website, believes that rights originate when they are recognized by the government. Thus, according to many conservatives, liberals believe that man is the source of rights vs a higher authority. This jeopardizes our rights because just as rights can easily come through man, they can easily be taken away by man.

However, there might be a fly in the ointment for conservatives here. That fly consists of the possible differences between the set of laws and values recognized as coming from a higher authority vs the ones that conservatives recognize. Here, size matters for the Conservative claim to fame regarding values. The smaller the difference between conservative values and rights that are self-evident, the more the conservative can say he/she is walking the talk. However, the bigger the difference between these two sets of values, then the more the conservative can be seen as accepting a self-aggrandizing delusion. One can discover the size of this difference as we continue to examine conservative values.

Established Institutions

The next comparison consists of the Conservative trust in Established Institutions vs the Liberal pursuit of progress. For conservatives, these Established Institutions already have name tags. These institutions are the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Anglo-Saxon view of law and government, church and family. Here, Established Institutions are, without explanation and justification, identified. Do American conservatives wish to say that conservatives world wide hold to these institutions or just American conservatives. And if the latter, are American conservatives the only ones who cling to the correct institutions while conservatives from other parts of the world and liberals are wrong? If so, the implications are both obvious and ominous. The American conservative must not only be distinguished from all other conservatives, American conservatives must now unite for they are now engaged in a us vs the world battle for justice.

Here, liberals become an anathema to Conservatives because liberals see mankind's hope in how well they can tinker with, tweak and even replace the institutions that have been given from on high.

Here, of course, the Conservative must show how secular institutions, like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, can be considered as coming from on high. The problem for the Conservative though is that the only sources for acceptable institutions are culturally and even racially defined: the American Christian religion, documents from the American founding fathers, and Anglo-Saxon tradition. What is presupposed here is a cultural and even racial superiority. Pointing out the latter will no doubt produce a defensive reaction. But when established institutions are identified with an ethnicity, what other conclusions can be drawn? The Conservative belief in Established Institutions is a self-proclamation of cultural and ethnic superiority.

Of course, American Christian conservatives will use the Bible as their defense of Established Institutions. They assume that their recognized Established secular Institutions are Biblical ones as well. It is at this point that American Christian Conservatives feel pressured to draw close ties between the Bible and the work of our nation's founding fathers. The pressure becomes so great that obvious discrepancies between the two are denied. This pressure also moves some conservatives to defend unconscionable institutions from the past such as slavery because such was seemingly endorsed by the Bible.

Liberty

The next Conservative vs Liberal value sound off comes on what to put the most precedence, liberty or equality. Conservatives believe that, with the exception of equal rights and opportunity, one must choose between liberty and equality. To choose equality is to limit freedom.

The problem here is that the forms of equality that the Conservative sees as threatening are vague. It is acknowledged that equal standing before the law, regardless of wealth and nobility, are consistent with what the Founding Fathers promoted and thus a part of the Established Institutions. So what equality do conservatives find so troublesome?

Though not stated, equality with regards to earned wealth and personal values cannot be tolerated. Thus to the Conservative, the growing disparity between the rich and the poor should be cause to celebrate the unfettered accomplishments of the rich. Any attempt to relieve the plight of the poor through mandatory sacrifice of the rich is an attack on freedom! For the conservative, it is better that the rich have the opportunity to soar higher and higher than the poor receive the slightest minutia of help. In fact, the conservative calls mandatory help for the poor enslavement for both groups. Though it is obvious but disturbing how mandating the rich to help the poor might be called "slavery" for the rich, such conservatives see it as slavery for the poor because such help makes the poor dependent rather than self-sufficient.

At this point, the American Christian Conservative's choice to wed American Conservative values with the Bible goes well beyond syncretistic to schizoid. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, both the individual (signifying voluntary help) and the corporate (signifying mandatory help) have a grave responsibility to help the poor. In the Old Testament, farmers were required to leave the corners of their field unharvested to feed the alien. Part of the tithe was used to relieve the hunger of the poor. In the New Testament, Jesus warned us in his parable of the sheep and the goats that how each person treated the least of these, is how they treated him-- a teaching that should strike fear of Hell in all of us. And both the Roman government, to which Jesus commanded people to pay taxes, and the Church helped the poor.

It is obvious and troublesome that the American Conservative believes in a Social Darwinism--what should be an apparent contradiction for the Christian Conservative. After all, what becomes of the poor who do not make it in society when the government is prohibited from using tax revenues to help? The only kind of help that the Conservative approves of is education. That is the only help the poor need is to learn how to be successful. The apologetic employed here by the Conservative is that you best feed a person by teaching them how to fish rather than giving them a fish. This is an inept analogy because the Conservative seems to deliberately close their eyes to the full application of this analogy. For what good is it to teach the poor man to fish when there is no catch limit and there are too many poles in the fishing pond. How can we feed the poor man when the only fishing pond he can get to has been fished out? We cannot. The rich won't suffer a fished out pond because they have mobility and can travel to a another pond; the poor cannot. That is what happens when there are no limits placed on the rich and when we do not realistically assess the capabilities of our fishing ponds of wealth.

What the rich can escape by their mobility but the rest of us must live with, are the consequences of not taking care of the poor. Consequences include a nonproductive society that is filled with crime. Is it any wonder that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world--even beating totalitarian countries like China. The Conservative has a ready answer for this problem. The Conservative says that our incarceration rate is due to the abandonment of traditional values. That might be partially true. But here is another possible partial explanation. We might have the highest incarceration rate because those who suffer the most see no reason for showing respect to a system that coldheartedly refrains from respecting their right to live.

The battle of liberty vs equality also hits changing values that are the natural result of freedom. Here, the suppression of treating new emerging personal values, such as same sex marriage, as being equal does not rub liberty the wrong way; rather, it rubs Established Institutions the wrong way. This is why the Conservative, though giving lip service to liberty, viciously opposes tolerating the practice of treating new values as being equal to traditional ones despite the implication that liberty can cause values to change. Therefore, as paper covers rock, so Established Institutions trump liberty.

Suspicion Of (Only Government) Power

The next battle line shows how selective the Conservative can be. Conservatives show a suspicion of power while chiding the liberal for believing that government can help. Well, part of that should be a no brainer. We all should show a suspicion of accumulated power. But here is where the Conservative is selective. The only power that the Conservative is suspicious of is government power. From the last pair of dueling values, it is clear that the accumulation of power by anyone in the private sector must be celebrated as a triumph of freedom rather than a cause for concern. Here the Conservative's ability to show selectivity knows no bounds. It is as if the Conservative Bible said we in the private sector are not sinners like those in the government.

Our country's history is replete with examples of the rich oppressing the poor starting with slavery, extending to child labor, extending to the abuse of laborers, and also including endangering the general public by abusing the environment. And yet, the Conservative principle of suspicion of power applies only to those who work in the government.

Anyone who assumes that one's government will be naturally disposed to show benevolence has been smoking too much stuff to operate a motor vehicle. Getting government to protect its people from domestic threats when those who issue the threats bankroll our elected officials is the challenge of any people who wish to establish and maintain a democracy. It takes a perpetual education and activism to get government to represent its people rather than the rich. We know it can be done because it has been done. But this is the challenge to the people of any democracy. How hard are we willing to work to keep our government honest. A problem with American society is that too many people are still in too much comfort to exert adequate energy to maintain our democracy. Formally, we think of our system as being democratic because we can vote. But when our elected officials only represent the elite because because they have been bought, voting no longer implies a democracy.

There is a contradiction for the Conservative here. One of the benchmarks of our freedom is our free elections. But what are we really saying when the elected government, which proves our freedom, must be handcuffed because we cannot trust them with any signficant power? The Conservative mistakenly thinks that size matters to the government of a free people. It doesn't. What matters is who does the government choose to represent? It is the job of the people to work to ensure that the government represents all of the people, not just the financial elite.

Exceptionalism

The next Conservative vs Liberal battle is between exceptionalism vs human perfectability. The Conservative believes in the hero for salvation. The hero could either be the mighty warrior who fights on the battlefield or the brilliant and hardworking financial wizard who creates wealth for themselves while allowing others to ride on their coattails. This belief in exceptionalism, and thus the hero, is the sun that the Conservative solar system revolves around. The hero that exceptionalism produces is also carrot that most conseratives chase. The dream of someday being that hero is very seductive. It is experienced vicariously through patriotism as we see America being that "city on the hill." Such ego messaging is very enticing.

But if an individual conservative cannot be the financial hero, what the Conservative fears most is a government that prevents others from being heroes. This is why government should be restricted and why those who could be excpetional must be totally unfettered by responsibilities to equals who are in need. For if there are not enough heroes because of government peccadilloes, then we are all doomed. This is why the Conservative wants to eliminate all obligations and responsibilities that the government would place on emerging heroes.

This conserative dependence on exceptionalism is tragically ironic and antidemocratic. What is ironic here is that such conservatives show just as much dependence on the financial heroes of our country that they say the poor show when taking handouts from the government. The only difference is the Conservative assumption that only sinners work for the government while saints work in the private sector. And such an assumption causes the Conservative to advocate preferential treatment for the hero under the law. This advocacy for preferential treatment is subtle because in most cases, this preferential treatment is accomplished by having the government write laws that favor actual and would be heroes over the general public. At this point, the last vestiges of equality, even those parts seen as necessary by conservatives, have been destroyed. Our financial heroes are to be judged by the benefits they share with society rather than their keeping the law.

In addition, the Conservative's emphasis on the hero is antidemocratic. That is because power is accumulated and centralized on those who are not responsible to the voter. And since the Conservative works to prevent the government from regulating the work of the financial hero, the hero escapes the last chance at being accountable to the public.

The conservative dependence on exceptionalism is also tragic. It is tragic because the government that protects the financial hero from their responsibilities to society becomes a government for the rich, by the rich, and of the rich. The welfare of the middle class depends on how well they can ride coattails and the poor end up with no representation at all.

The Conservative does recognize one hero in government. That person is the President but only when he is acting as the Commander and Chief of the military.

Individualism

The final battle line is between the Conservative belief in individualism vs the Liberal reliance on community. We must hasten to add that the Conservative notion of individualism must be carefully defined. The Conservative notion of individualism cannot in any way challenge the values of Established Institutions. Here, Establish Institutions trump values arrived at by the independent individual.

What the Conservative is referring to when emphasizing individualism is that each individual is solely responsible for their success and failure. It is the Conservative's use of the word "solely" that shows a major thinking error. Since the Conservative see the individual as being solely responsible despite the fact that we live in an interdependent society, Conservatives employ what Psychologists call "all or nothing thinking." What Psychologists notice about all or nothing thinking is that 1) it usually produces a distorted picture of reality; 2) it produces conclusions based on incomplete evidence because much evidence has been tossed out; 3) it results in overly concrete thinking; and 4), it is linked to mood disorders.

Despite the disturbed thinking that conservatives who reduce success and failure to individual responsibility only, the emphasis on the individual holds out a couple of carrots. One carrot is the significance one feels when one succeeds. The other carrot is being freed from any moral responsibility for helping those in need. If each person is solely responsible for one’s success or failure, the successful person is free to keep more of their wealth to themselves.

The above consists of a list of key conservative values and some of the problems that accompany those values. The American Christian Conservative is asked to suffer an additional problem. That problem is that the core conservative beliefs sometimes oppose Biblical values. Thus, the Conservative's 6 values of belief in natural law, unquestioned reliance on Established Institutions, preferring liberty over equality, being suspicious of governmental power, aspirations to exceptionalism, and giving credit to the individual only often compete with Biblical values. But at the same time, American Christian Conservatives are told that these 6 values define Conservatism. The result is that the American Christian Conservative becomes more of an American Conservative than a Christian.

At the beginning, I described Conservatives as priding themselves for being a vanguard for the values they associate with America's greatness. I used the word vanguard deliberately because it is translated into another word that does not carry pleasant associations. Jason Burke, in his book "Al-Qaeda: Casting A Shadow Of Terror," states that the concept of the word vanguard could be translated into the word "Al-Qaeda." Here, the word "Al-Qaeda" is being used to denote a function, not a group. But we might note that there are varying degrees of similarities between the group Al-Qaeda and the American Conservative. These similarities include adherence to culturally respective conservative values, radical thinking, oversimplistic view of the world, the belief that they are participating in the battle between good and evil, limited thinking, and a lack of concern for the collateral damage that adherence to their values cause.

This comparison is not to equate Al-Qaeda with the American Conservative. But where there are similarities between the two, it could not hurt the American Conservative to reflect on those similarities and ponder possible changes.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Caday,

There is little here that I can agree with.(Though I did like your comparison between Al-Qaeda and the American conservative!)

That said, this was a fine analysis. I always enjoy your writings because at least they make me think.

Too much of what's on TH(democrats are evil, let's go kill some Muslims...blah, blah, blah) is repetitive and mindless blather.

Curt Day said...

Certainly TH writers gave me input to reflect on, but the website I mentioned provided much material as well.

Vigilante said...

There is too much in this column for me to consider. I'll clip it and read it at work. (Should keep me awake!)