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Conservation of conservatism

By Brian Tiemann
web posted September 1, 2003

So I'm taking a brief break from my pounding out chapters in advance of my Tuesday 50 per cent deadline to catch up on the newsgroups I follow (taking happy advantage of the new T1-- damn, but it's fun to not be fazed by 5000-line attachments anymore), and I found myself noticing something.

See, the group in question, and the demographic that I've been sidling around for the past six years or so, is one that's made up in large part of young, angst-filled, disillusioned guys of alternative sexuality who feel themselves to be alienated from the mass of humanity -- largely of their own volition. Whether in college dorms or their parents' basements, many of them have lived on some form of dole for the majority of their lives, and (like anybody would be) they don't feel terrifically self-confident or self-sufficient as a result. These are people who are so disgusted with the human race and its perceived vagaries, cruelties, inequities, and crimes against the planet, that they'd rather not even be human. (Don't even ask what I'm doing floating around such a group.)

So it's not as though I can really reasonably expect to find a whole lot of political balance there. And upon pulling up the chatty newsgroups, which I'd last read in mid-February, it was with a twinge that I realized I'd soon be scrolling my way through an inevitable morass of truly, truly dumb anti-war sloganeering.

As, indeed, it turned out to be. We had insightful sentiments from DJ-ish types like "Drop Beats Not Bombs", and speculation was batted about that the Bushies were planning to use nuclear weapons in Iraq, and someone had changed her signature to an FDR quote: "A conservative is a man who, having two perfectly good legs, has never taken a single step forward."

But before that was a startling thread from one person who was on the verge of tears for an entirely different reason: he was a Christian. And he felt totally alienated by the group he loved-- vilified and discriminated against by the very people to whom he'd attached himself largely because he'd thought they were all about tolerance and open-mindedness. He felt betrayed. He felt surrounded by scowling faces who saw no difference between him and Pat Robertson, between him and the KKK, between him and a Satan that the scowls didn't believe existed anyway. And he didn't know where he could turn next.

And I got to thinking. Let's see: since so many people start out as liberals, being idealistic and full of progressive, anti-capitalist, anti-McDonald's, anti-modernist causes to fight for from the safety of their prepaid tuitions, it follows that for anyone to become conservative later in life has to involve a conscious change in attitude, catalyzed by some series of personal events or shifting of interests. Remaining a liberal is the default state, and in the absence of some defining event to change one's attitude, one is likely to find a community of like-minded compatriots with which to experience one's twenties and thirties in the same relative comfort and idealistic certainty as one was used to.

So it follows, it seems to me, that a great many people who grow up proud to call themselves "liberals" have quite possibly never actually met a real, live conservative-- except maybe for their jingoistic fathers whom they remember as the guy who always told them to mow the lawn or stop dating hippies, or their square-jawed buzz-cut gym-and-civics teachers who always growled about commies. It's hard to grow up these days with a positive impression of conservatives-- and it's equally hard to grow up with a real first-hand understanding of what conservative politics are about.

The realities of the business world are opaque to the high-school student, who sees only grimy air and ugly smokestacks next to a white-sand California beach. The rights of the landlord are ignored or seen as irrelevant by the tenant, whose friends and roommates are naturally on the opposite end of an adversarial relationship with what can only be a tall and dark-cloaked figure with a top hat and a greasy, curled moustache who darkens poor welfare recipients' doorways each month to demand exorbitant rent to support his own opulent playboy penthouse. The gun owner, casually visiting the range twice a month to brush up on his target practice, is inscrutable to someone who sees the government as being a more benign entity than his neighbors, or who would equate the killing of an animal for food with killing a human for sport. The moderate religious citizen, no matter how low-key or benign his faith, is automatically folded into an über-class of oppressors by kids opening their minds for the first time-- cataclysmically, like a ship floating through the last trammeled channels of a river delta before suddenly finding itself out at open sea with no boundaries in sight-- to the myriad possibilities of existentialism and atheism and Matrix scenarios; it's so attractive for such a wondering youth to think of the past two thousand years of human experience being a deluded mass fiction that even those who take just a passing part in such a delusion become synonymous with the great perpetrators of intellectual darkness in our species' history. Christianity is old and staid and established, and so it becomes evil. Likewise with so many other traditional hallmarks of conservatism-- gun rights, business-friendliness, acknowledgment of military necessity. Group enough of these memes together, and the college student or young adult can't help but equate "conservative" with a caricature so vile and objectionable that it's inconceivable to look at the underlying realities with clear eyes.

So it's with some disappointment that I still find myself floating through social groups full of people who, if they knew I was no longer comfortable with the "liberal" label myself, would suddenly view me with the same narrow-eyed suspicion as they would if told that I donned a white hood and burned crosses at night. But, naturally, I try to keep my mouth shut, for fear of losing friends. Even the most conscientious and centrist conservative viewpoint can seem callous or cruel to a dyed-in-the-wool liberal; how do you discuss landlords' rights with someone who lives in an unpleasant and overpriced apartment, or discuss the Second Amendment with someone who lives down the street from a kid who was killed at school by a classmate who brought his dad's .38 to campus?

I don't have the answer, obviously. If I did, we'd have the Grand Unified Theory of Politics and the way to universal bidirectional dialogue. But there's that unfortunate one-way tendency of politics to contend with, more's the pity. Lots more people spend their childhood reacting positively to the word "liberal" and with distaste toward "conservative" than the other way around. This leads to a profound imbalance in politics and demographics, one that's likely impossible to resolve.

Of course, there's always the contingency of anecdote: I could describe a conservative as "someone who would pull a gun in order to face down a racist", and surely it would short out a few synapses, particular on one of those ever-present people who seem to be absolutely fetishistic about guns, but who viscerally dread the idea of Americans legally allowed to own them. Just as it would ring hollow with someone quoting FDR or Marx for me to point out that American conservatives are the firmest believers in individual liberty, self-determination, and the innovation and technological and social progress that inevitably follows. Danger! Danger! Does not compute. Conservatives are against progress! Why do you think they call it Congress? Taglines don't lie!

But anecdotes can only go so far; there is, unfortunately, the reality that political schisms and prejudices can't be resolved with a well-placed tactical one-liner. The best I can do is to just hope that as these people grow up and find their place in the world, they'll come to realize why it is that half the American political system consists of people who occupy a school of thought that they reflexively think of as evil. Fifty Senators and 240-something Representatives, to say nothing of the highest elected officers and appointed Cabinet positions-- all evil. Never mind the lifetime of thought and philosophy that leads each such politician to such a platform; never mind how much time each one spends each day thinking about how to advance freedom and personal happiness throughout the country and the world, using the proven tools of capitalistic creation of wealth and individual liberty. These must be meaningless three-card-monte shells, pushed forward to hide an ever-present evil agenda and a black, black, corrupt heart.

I have no problem with people being genuinely in favor of those causes one normally associates with "liberal" thinking. Equality, environmental preservation, assistance to the down-at-heel, spiritual freedom, peace-- these are all fine goals. I believe in every one of them, and firmly. However, I also believe that the paths toward them that are so casually espoused by the Left-- equality enforced and over-enforced by fiat, environmental protection through barriers against business, welfare, abolishment of religion, pacifism-- are superficial and short-term semi-solutions that treat the symptoms rather than the causes. That's why I'm no longer comfortable with the term "liberal". I think there are better paths toward these admirable goals, but they're more subtle, or they involve intermediate steps that may seem counterproductive. To have peace, for instance, you can't just not fight; you have to take positive action toward lasting mutual good-will, which can involve things like the overthrow of tyranny-- in other words, war. To bring happiness to the downtrodden, you need to create wealth in the economy, not just dole out the wealth you already have in the hopes that the recipients will somehow be inspired to achievement (or at least become magically happy); and to create jobs, you've got to make your city a favorable place to run a business, not bleed dry anyone stupid enough to set up shop there. To protect the environment, you've got to let businesses become more efficient and less wasteful as a result of their own internal process development, which is in fact in their own interest.

It's a complex world out there, much more complex than it ever seemed when I was peering out the window of my college dorm. It's full of tradeoffs; but it's also managed to survive this long, and those mysterious and shadowy people over on the right who stand for what I always thought of as evil must actually sort of have a point-- because, after all, it's their "conservative" ideals that have kept this country on the amazingly successful track toward all those "liberal" goals, to which we're closer now than ever before in history.

It pains me to think that I'm what so many people whom I like to think of as friends and kindred spirits would think of as evil. But I'm comforted by the thought that there are as many people there whose ideas can and will change over time as there are people who are forever fixated on the worldview they developed from the comfort of a computer chair, disgusted with being unable to see the Golden Arches across the street because of the smog.

Those images are hard to shake, I know. But it's the starkness of what appears to be their truth that is most insidious about them: there is, indeed, more to the picture, and it can only be revealed with time.

Brian C. Tiemann operates the popular blog Peeve Farm where this article first appeared as a blog entry on August 30, 2003.

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