Lumpen Conservatism

Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber

Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber

I had always assumed that as I got older, I would eventually turn conservative. It seemed as inevitable as wrinkles, paunch and hair loss.

Radicalism, after all, is an affliction of the young: Too little life experience to know that existence cannot be better than it is; too full of oneself to recognize the limitations of our agency in making the world a different and better place; too full of books and pretty thoughts to realize that theory always falls short of the unpredictable and slippery ice of life.

And the harrumph of the jowly elder speaks of long life lived through disappointment and lowered expectations. The reality bulldozes the hope. A sense of realism settles in like joint pain.

It’s how all those New Deal liberals turned into Bush-era Neo-Cons.

So, I waited to become a curmudgeon, to become my own father. I knew it was coming; I expected it. But over six decades, it hasn’t happened.

I blame conservatives for this.

What was once an intellectual movement, even cosmopolitan in its outlook, with its elders educated at Yale, and able to pun in Latin, has decayed into a kind of anti-intellectual populism built on a foundation of bumper stickers. You elect someone you’d like to have a beer with; you get your political endorsement from an unlicensed plumber.

I do not suspect that Sarah Palin or Todd Akin has ever read Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss or even heard of them. So, I roll my eyes heavenward, twiddle my thumbs, whistle unobtrusively and back slowly away. I cannot sign on.

What has replaced the ideas is a low, rumbling fear of the rest of the world. One thinks of a badger hunkering in its burrow baring its teeth at any by-passers.

badger

The issues that engage conservatism may change over time and circumstance. But at bottom, what is unchanging is its fear of change. Doesn’t matter if it’s our fear of losing our capitalism to a supposed creeping socialism, or Russia’s fear of losing its Communism to creeping oligarchic anarchy. Hardline conservatives everywhere want to keep what they have.

Unfortunately, in the U.S., that means holding down the 15th place in the United Nation’s Human Development Index (a sort of standard-of-living measurement). If we were not so stubborn, we might learn from others, even those that conservatives fear despite their higher standards of living: Scandinavia, France, Canada.

That fear of others is diametrically opposed to the lessons I have learned in my six decades of life: Instead, I’ve discovered that intelligence and ignorance – and virtue – are pretty well equally salted across the globe. America has no monopoly on any of it.

“We’re Number One!” It’s one of the silliest things I’ve heard.

The U.S. is only 16th in its poverty rate, 17th in literacy, 30th in life expectancy, 33rd in infant mortality, and does not even make the list of top-20 nations in student performance in math, science or reading. Yeah, let’s keep on doing more of that.

Worse, you cannot forget that in the past, conservatives defended some pretty indefensible things, like segregation and the Vietnam War. The current fear of gays, or women in the military, or immigrants is just more of the same. Anti-science, anti-education, anti-evolution. “Whatever it is,” sang Rufus T. Firefly, “I’m against it.”

Outside this sad history of bigotry, I had once come to believe the possibility that conservatives had a firmer grasp on fiscal matters than their opposites. I knew I didn’t understand money – other than earning it and spending it – but I assumed someone did.

Perhaps I was wrong. It has been conservatives Reagan and Bush who blasted the roof off the federal deficit. It was the supposedly liberal Clinton who balanced the budget.

Now, conservatives seem to think the answer to anything is tax cuts. Economy good: reason to cut taxes; economy bad: reason to cut taxes. I scratch my head. I’m looking for complex answers to complex problems, not simple-minded and self-interested cure-alls.

Taxes may be a necessary evil, but conservatives have forgotten the “necessary” part of it. After all, when you live in a country club, you have to pay the dues. Fear of taxes is our national neurosis.

Then, too, I once believed that the conservative view of national defense was more realistic than the “ban-the-bomb” attitude of the anti-war demonstrators (of which I was one in the ’60s).

I know that there are people out there, across oceans, who would like to harm us, either from zealotry or rising national interest. The world is certainly nasty, brutal and doing its best to make our life short.

But, the conservative suspicion of other peoples’ motives and other nations’ motives was once based on a belief that human nature was self-interested, and that others’ interests may be inimical to our own. It was a question of survival. If we were smart, we could use their self interest to further our own. But that would require learning something about them, and what their interests are.

Nowadays, too often the conservative sees the world through Manichean lenses: Our American motives are good, even altruistic; “they” are all evil. White hats, black hats. “Axis of evil.” Such miserable lack of self-awareness is never a good way to build policy. And worse, it is patently sentimental. Sentimentality used to be a vice of the liberals.

Teddy Roosevelt – America’s arch-colonialist and hardly a darling of the Left – said “Speak softly but carry a big stick.” Conservatives seem to have forgotten the “speak softly” part, and prefer a great deal of unproductive saber rattling. We really don’t have to do that: The world knows we have the bombs and airplanes. It is our trump card, and shouldn’t be our opening gambit.

And the conservative’s insistence on self-reliance also used to ring true, although the actions of their avatars – Republicans in government – give lie to their convictions as they seem to believe in self-reliance for the poor and government hand-outs for cronies.

I should make it clear, though, that I am not making my point against Republicans, per se. Party politics has almost nothing to do with political philosophy; it is a dog-eat-dog struggle for raw, bloody-clawed power. Either party will toss its convictions into the fire in a wink if it thinks it can gain an advantage over its opponent. One thinks of a scrum of sled dogs snarling in the snow over a chunk of meat.

This partisan game of “king of the hill” is so discouraging that Americans of all stripes now throw up their hands in disgust.

So, it isn’t just Republicans. It is conservatism. There is its undercurrent of tribalism that is ugly and intolerant. People who don’t look like us, or share our beliefs, or worship our god, are proscribed.

The world is full of different kinds of people, and most have something to offer. It would be better to learn from them. As China and India gain on us, we can see they learned a lot by watching us.

And finally, the anti-environmentalism of lumpen conservatives makes me wonder. They seem to think it is a fight between endangered snails and The American Way of Life. Somehow they forget that the first conservationists were conservatives.

One hears the argument that global warming isn’t real, and forgets that it hardly matters: Civilized people don’t shit in their own nests. It shouldn’t take environmental Armageddon to make you realize it isn’t good to pump your waste into the water and air. It should be common sense.

Oh, there is something small and parochial about contemporary conservatism; it should be large and worldly. As I age, I hope I’ve grown; modern conservatism seems to have regressed into a kind of infantilism.

Please, conservatives, show me where I’m wrong, so I can sign up. Harrumph.

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2 comments
  1. Joel Collins said:

    RN: nice piece as usual. Enjoyed it, but I’m ok w reference to badgers, but remember my Huskies? Garbo and Zoltan? Sled dogs like them are smarter than most evangelical xians!
    Joel

  2. MiserereNobis said:

    I’d submit that true conservatism is actually a lot more multicultural than the so-called “multiculturalism” of the Left. I’m no Tea Partier, but I’ve been a lot more put off by the sneering urban-liberal cosmopolitanism of their critics than by the honest American particularism of a Sarah Palin or a Joe the Plumber.

    The key thing, the key conservative insight, is that you can’t be a dilettante with culture. You have to firmly immerse yourself in a tradition of some sort or another. Haute-cosmopolitanism is no closer to spiritual truth or universality than is lumpen-particularism (scientific or logical truth is another matter entirely, but “is” and “ought” have clearly demarcated bailiwicks). I’d actually argue the humble rural naif is a bit better off. He, at least, has the ingrained habit of bowing. The stiff-necked cosmopolitan bows to neither God, nor tradition, nor the invincible plurality of human experience, instead seeking to meld her shallow National Geographic understanding of the world into some “liberated” and “cosmopolitan” chimaera-idol for all to worship or be branded heretic (or rather, racist sexist homophobe).

    We all see through the proverbial dark glass of tradition, but better to see, alone, through a glass darkly than to play a great cosmic game of telephone, asking what the man next to you sees, and the woman next to him, and so on, ending with an indeterminate muddle. Trembling, lonely, prostrate faith is the only path to truth this side of the grave. How much we can see! And how much we can’t.

    Again, I’m no Tea Partier, and I’m certainly no Religious Rightist. But I (and I suspect, Bill Buckley in Heaven) stand in solidarity with their innocent, soulful provinciality against the hubristic world-straddling ambitions of modern secular liberalism. The tradition of Burke and Hayek is fairly clear on these sorts of questions.

    I’m a bit less sympathetic to neocons, since I tend to side with moderate Islamists (think Erdogan) against those who would turn the vital Magian culture into a pale imitation of the secular West. But ah, that’s the difficulty of being a conservative where incompatible traditions meet. You can’t impose the monoculture of left-multiculturalism on both, and you can’t side with either of the hostile traditions without feeling that twinge of empathy for the other. Of course, as a Westerner, the West can claim my dharmic loyalty, but it’s always been an uncomfortable situation. And what about the Zionist tradition? Ah, these things.

    It’s funny, I don’t think we’re all that different in what we like and dislike (at least in theory). I think the way I justify tolerating the more…visceral, shall we say, strand of social conservatism, or climate change denialism, or creationism, in my political-cultural self-understanding bears a remarkable resemblance to how educated liberals deal with people like the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, or the more transparently idiotic aspects of the Occupy movement. It’s all tribalism in the end, eh? Even for us supposedly enlightened cosmopolitans.

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