Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Angry Boys

There's obviously a high level of comfort on the right with intellectual dishonesty: sloppy facts, a failure to truly attempt to understand the opposition's perspective, and a willingness to engage in cynical rhetoric and fallacy.   I think it's fair to say that there is some truth in conservatism - or at least, the conservatism emphasis is often important (liberals can just as easily agree to limit government when appropriate).

But beyond that sort of impulse-to-restraint, there just isn't much to it. Everything else is built upon either distrust of facts or outright pseudoscience. The only difference is in degree of adherence to the Truth: government bad, markets good.  One is often reminded of the schoolyard boy - even the bully - who isn't interested in communicating so much as engaging in a blind power struggle.

So while you can find some conservative individuals with a sensible temperament, who are inclined to take each fact as it comes and look at both sides, the vast majority of conservatives exist within an endless cycle of reactionary politics. Attacked on all sides by "liberalism" - which is often merely the truth, the goal is to keep the ball moving down field. The cause is not any end goal, but the ideological war itself. This is why so little conservative literature deals with much other than an attack of some or another liberal idea. They aren't in the business of idea creation, but idea defense.

This explains their tolerance for so much crazy. On an individual level, it is the outright lying of congressmen or pundits. On a larger scale it is entire movements such as creationism, climate skepticism, supply-side economics, or financial deregulation - all ideas which are fundamentally divorced from reality.

While liberals certainly have their own struggle with blind ideological adherence, the difference is that liberalism is at its core relativistic. Relativistic to facts , that is. The goal is simply a better world, whether this comes about through keeping tradition or throwing it out, through relying on markets or government intervention, through private property or redistribution. It is open to trying new things, and no one group or idea is necessarily better than another "just because".

The problem becomes what to do when the world ultimately becomes "better". What will we do then? Conservatives argue that we have reached that point, and that any more intrusion by the state is unjustified - either because it is unnecessary or because it will get in the way.  Their inability to see how obviously false this claim is is itself damning evidence of their own denial.  But should we one day reach some version of a promised land, because of liberalism's inherent relativism it should be compatible with a dialing down of state intervention in favor of the status quo.

We have already seen this to a large degree as the philosophy learned a valuable lesson in humility from the hubris of communism. Conservatism may one day reach a point where it to may become more flexible and adaptive - indeed many of its forebearers never sought any less. Unfortunately without witnessing the horror of its own extremity - as liberalism did, it may be stuck in an endless cycle of revanchist frustration. Even modest state interventions in the democratic socialist model, no matter how necessary will never be fully accepted.

But the question today is still what to do with people who are blinded by ideology. You can't reason with most of them. The best you can do is it to expose their lies in the hope that they don't suck any more gullible people into their ideological cult. I think, in the grand scheme of things, conservatism's success has been long in the making. For centuries it has been bubbling through American discourse, finding strength in historical events particular to our nation, which have contributed a tempermental distrust in government and a trust in markets and individualism. Yet in the face of a reality in which liberalism is a necessary component of the modern democratic state, conservatism is forever in a state of defense.

The real problem is that discourse rarely reaches these philosophical heights. Stuck in trench warfare, the conservative response in the face of epistemic setback is strategic retreat - only to advance again from a different point on the battlefield. The battle may be lost, but the larger war rages on. Ironically, while conservative's sense of persecution (amplified again in the historical protestant religious narrative - which explains social conservatism's particularly acute form of pathos) is justified, conservatives themselves are much more interested in attacking liberals then liberals are in attacking conservatives.  Liberals tend to spend time finding new ways to address issues they care about.  Conservatives, considering most issues already resolved, spend most of their time defending themselves from the perceived threat of liberalism.  That may just be what we're stuck with for the foreseeable future.

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