Friday, August 19, 2011

Kicking and Screaming

I've written about this before, but I'm always struck by the sense of antipathy conservatives have towards discussions of race or hatred.  I know conservatism is nuanced. But it is a movement nonetheless, with standard talking points and rhetoric that act as stand-ins for large assumptions and intuitions.

It's an empirical claim, too (I'm sure someone has done the research).  Do a Google search and you will come up with very little in the way of conservative thoughts on race that aren't merely about defending perceived liberal critiques.  I mean real, good-faith attempts to try and understand what racism (and hate, for that mater) is. 

It seems a subject better left alone. Yet it is a problem - the "other" - that rears its ugly head again and again. The more we know about it, the more we can keep from falling into old patterns of thought. Far from being some thing that is "over", it is all around us.

There is a narrative about power imbalances, out groups, etc. that I embrace, as do most liberals. That's how we can see a deep resemblance between racism and antipathy of homosexuality by religious followers, and consider the embrace of a hateful textual interpretation as rooted in larger historical oppression. Of course, we don't stone people to death, as it says to do in the bible. Yet why don't we apply the same "intuition" to its homophobic passages, dispensing with them as needed (along with all the other idiotic biblical "teachings")? Because we have yet to truly call homophobia out as the hate it is, just like sexism or racism.

As far as I can tell, it is a fact that conservatism isn't interested in connecting these dots. Whereas literally thousands of books, magazine articles, academic papers and studies have been written by the left on these dynamics, inspired by and in turn inspiring progressive cultural protest movements.

It makes sense. Conservatism in general has always been interested in maintaining the cultural status quo. The fact that this has often meant maintaining racial, sexual, gender, class dynamics seems at best (to the more liberal right) a sort of unpleasant sacrifice, at worst (to the far right) a happy constant.

Modern conservatism is of course much more enlightened and comfortable with the cultural change that has unfolded, with people like Sarah Palin calling themselves feminists - a concept that only a decade ago would have had Phyllis Schlafly pissing her pants. (I'm not sure, does Limbaugh still talk about "feminazis"?). And thankfully most of us can agree that interracial marriage is OK, and that diversity is important in the workplace.

So Glenn Beck has his rally and honors Martin Luther King, which is wonderful because the attendees genuinely honor his memory. However the irony is lost that conservatism was brought kicking and screaming onto the right side of history (that the whole notion of a conservative rally actually honoring a black leader seeming odd speaks volumes about current racial make-up of the Republican party). Conservatism still seems largely about whites talking to whites about whites. When minorities are mentioned, they tend to be cast as "the other", whether it's illegals, Muslims, gays or other non-conformist whites.

I mentioned "thousands" of books being written by the left that explore dynamics of race, identity, etc. Obviously the vast majority of people on the left haven't read them. But they have been influenced by those who have, and identified with the story being told. Something in them responded to these ideas. As they looked at the world, these ideas resonated with what they saw.

So what is it about the liberal impulse that sees black, latino or gay pride and is moved, not just to re-examine their own preconceived ideas, but to go out and try and convince others? Because all of this cultural progress doesn't happen by magic. It takes sustained effort, by thousands, millions to push new ideas and ways of thinking.

And what is it about the conservative impulse that recoils from this kind of progress, feels threatened by it? When conservatism began to push back against "political correctness", or "multiculturalism", it was a direct response to liberal advocacy of social change. Sure, some of it was about perceived over-reach, but it was rarely couched in sympathy with the larger project of cultural progress. It was defensive of what it felt was a direct attack on it itself.

Again, this goes back to a lack of openness to exploration of the roots of oppressive cultural dynamics. Political correctness was always about critically examining preconceived cultural assumptions and biases. It was a direct outgrowth of the liberal impulse to look at out-groups and the historically disempowered and find leverage points in society from which fundamentally hateful and oppressive ideas, cognitive failings, were perpetuated. Why do presidents have to be male? Why do the important voices in literature need to be white? Why are jokes about out-groups funny? Why aren't there more minorities in ads? Etc., etc. The conservative response to this, to the extent that there was one in the media, was relentlessly negative.

Something about cultural conservatism seems to be in a permanent state of timelessness. The now is always now. Things seem taken for granted that had to be fought for relentlessly. Sure, we all agree that racism is wrong. But that obvious assertion didn't happen over night and took vast amounts of work to overcome. The same with sexism. We're getting there with homophobia. Go back 20 years and conservatism was virulently anti-gay. I imagine in a decade conservatives will take it for granted that homosexuality is perfectly natural. Heck, they might even hold a rally and honor Harvey Milk!

That'll be the day.

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