Wednesday, May 06, 2009

On the Conservation of Common Sense

In your heart, you know he's pissed! - Customized shirt

"When you say 'radical right' today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party away from the Republican Party, and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye." - Barry Goldwater

It cannot be said, often or firmly enough, that the Republican party in the US and various authoritarian and socially-conservative movements are the antithesis of all that is genuine, useful and true about traditional Conservatism.

The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan (February 16, 2009) - Evangelicalism vs Conservatism: "The critical definition of conservatism, by which I mean that political tradition Burke founded, rests on a distinction between theoretical and practical wisdom. Burke insisted that abstract ideas of the Truth should not be our guide in political thought and action. He foresaw what would happen when tradition ceded to absolutism in the French Revolution. He prized experience, the wisdom of time, and the adaptation of existing institutions to new social realities. So for conservatives, the core political virtue is practical reason and common sense, not ideology, theology or absolutism."

Of course, one then has to look to the values that do seem to motivate a social conservative these days. While such people often point to religious values, and generally specifically Christian values, it is quite difficult to see a connection between the "book values" cited and the words spoken.

But I do think another writer - again, damn it - has put their thumb squarely upon it. Joe Brewer, writing for Truthout:

Taxation as Conservatives Understand It

I've already alluded to an interesting metaphor that helps make sense of conservative thought about taxes, which I'll call Taxes Are a Burden to make it explicit. The understanding of taxation that follows from this metaphor can be seen in this story:

Hard-working Americans are in need of some tax relief. Years of mismanagement by tax-and-spend liberals have taken money out of the hands of working people and put it into bloated government programs that serve special interests. We need to cut taxes, return fiscal responsibility to government, and put money back in the hands of taxpayers who know best how to spend it.

This perspective is grounded in two beliefs: (1) The world is comprised of individuals; and (2) People are inherently bad and must learn right from wrong through self-discipline. I like to call this the "Me First" perspective because it assumes that people must help themselves before thinking about others. It can be summarized with the declaration, "You're on your own!" The Me First perspective assumes that any assistance from the community would be "coddling" or "spoiling" us. This claim is asserted as truth in the conservative worldview.

Taxation as Progressives Understand It

Progressives have a different understanding of taxation that can be expressed through a variety of metaphors: Taxes Are an Investment, Taxes Are Membership Dues, Taxes Are Pathways to Opportunity, Taxes Are Infrastructure and Taxes Are a Duty. (Read more about progressive taxation in "Progressive Taxation: Some Hidden Truths") Reasoning that emerges with these metaphors can be seen in this progressive story:

Our great nation was founded on a promise of protection and opportunity. Through our shared wealth, pooled together by taxation with representation, we have invested in the public infrastructure that makes possible the creation of new wealth. We have a sacred trust to keep this promise alive throughout our lifetimes, expand it as we are able, and pass it along to our children.

This perspective is grounded in the beliefs that (1) Individuals are influenced significantly by our communities; and (2) People are inherently good and benefit from cooperation with others. I like to call this the "People First" perspective because it assumes that people must help each other in order to enhance their ability to help themselves. It can be summarized with the declaration, "We're all in this together!" The People First perspective assumes that we are greater than the sum of our parts and that new opportunities emerge when we make wise investments with the common wealth we share.

Now, I consider myself Conservative by reflex, but, as with Andrew, that is in the foundational sense, the sense in which Burke spoke. Further - and this comes both from my readings and studies and from direct personal interactions with people of all stripes - is that interactions between human beings, for good and ill, depend upon our assumptions of good will upon the other party. As unfortunate as it is that this assumption of unworthy motives for any public good initiative, it at least has one aspect to it; due to the efforts of the proponents of this viewpoint and the effects that one might expect of any such mutual self-congratulation society, neither the cheerleaders nor those led have the least embarrassment in stating these utterly unjustifiable assumptions aloud as being matters of presumed fact.

It's not only trivial to find examples, it's so pervasive that it escapes the bounds of ordinary political discussion. It comes out when Michael Savage speaks of autism. It comes out when any attempt is made to rationally discuss climate change, special education priorities, child abuse, or - conspicuously, economics.

Now, economics has political implications - obviously. And obviously, how one approaches the discipline and how one applies insight provided by the discipline is of course influenced by one's sociopolitical viewpoints - but IF the discipline itself can actually produce absolutely contradictory information depending on the POLITICS of the person asking the question, it's completely useless.

Well, this actually seems to be the working assumption of rank and file conservatives, and it's a viewpoint that's certainly encouraged by their heroes - that there is no such thing as an objective reality - that everything is dependent upon politics. Worse yet, the assumption that all persons are evil, and that people who disagree must be not just evil, but evil conspirators allows the self justification of all manner of evil deeds in "preemptive self defense."

We are in the paradoxical position where the people most likely to insist on the imposition of a "greater moral order" are most likely to do starkly immoral, illegal and immensely unjust things in order to achieve that goal.

Now, there is absolutely nothing Conservative in elevating evil over good as the foundation for society. And no doubt, most social and religious conservatives would agree, and insist that they advocate no such thing, that they are striving against evils, such as abortion, such as "the homosexual agenda," such as "drug culture" and "moral corruption" and such like things. But, aside from the entirely questionable ethical matrices in which these things are deemed absolute, unquestionable, nonnegotiable evils, it also becomes quickly clear that no possible consequence of actions taken against these actions may be taken. Indeed, in the mind of a generic Social Conservative, making such an argument means that you are "really" simply part of the same evil; that whatever your stated intent, your real motive, your real thinking is due to your inherent depravity.

That has the effect of "thought stopping," and thought stopping - an technique to prevent examination of foundational assumptions - is the key to any successful mass movement that depends upon deception. It's one of the core goals of any system of brainwashing.

Now, I'm no atheist, so I will not immediately leap from there to the Dominionist collusion with Republicanism and conclude thereby that "Therefore religion is evil, a mere mechanism for social control by the elites, a means of demonizing the exercise of legitimate self will and free choice."

It is, however, an entirely rational conclusion to make, considering the impact Dominionism and other extreme religious movements have had upon world culture within the last decades, often in collusion despite apparent differences, and in concert with the darker aspects of Business and Government.

I don't happen to think this is in fact the fault of faith. It's simply that faith tends to concentrate a large number of people together, making it as an attractive power center as government to those who wish to influence others to support their own desires for power and influence, and even the most casual study of history establishes how regularly this had occurred and to what depressingly predictable ends.

Ends we are seeing right now.

It was to prevent just such outcomes, and I would argue, in genuine concern for the "better angels" of both faith and reason, good government and the genuine and appropriate ends of conscientious religious belief that the great thinkers of the Enlightenment argued for the necessity of a high barrier between church and state; that neither could properly focus on their proper ends by becoming entangled with the concerns of the other.

For when religious faith is perverted to excuse and even mandate violent words and acts against the "ungodly" in service of some supposed collective good - the result is never good. Moreover, it produces irresistible opportunities for the concealment and excuse of the most reprehensible acts and the most deplorable indifference toward the suffering and poverty of those deemed of no consequence by those who have gained control of church and state.

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