The question on the table is this – what are conservatives so afraid of?
My concern regarding the direction the liberal movement is headed is a theme I’ve harped on a lot recently. I believe that fear of the left is the primary driving force underlying conservatism right now (quibbles over tariffs and Ayn Rand kinda take a back seat to existential angst) and when I’ve said this, several people have blinked at me curiously and wondered why. I decided it’s too big a question for me to try and answer in a comments section or a tweet in between making my children lunch and walking the dog and doing the laundry. It deserves a slow and thoughtful response, not a rushed one. It deserves a thinkpiece.
So here we go. Thinkpiece powers, activate!
People – the blinky ones – claim to want specifics. They expect, and some even demand, specifics from me, specific instances to support my claim that conservatives are scared of liberals and further, that they have valid reason to be.
The trouble is, I don’t think that understanding and empathy is really the driving force behind this request. I think these people want specifics so they can disprove what I’m saying. Because by and large, that has been my experience, arguing with liberals. They ask for specifics and examples so they can trap me into arguments about namby pamby details instead of listening to what I’m really trying to say. (Indeed, I suspect this is why a good many commenters on my fave site Ordinary Times.com often engage in drawn-out exchanges where no one will commit to a position, instead trading bizarre cryptic statements and non-committal Socratic-Method-y questions back and forth until I lose interest and stop reading.) These requests for specifics are not made in good faith, not to further understanding, but to mock, diminish, and belittle my examples so they can undermine my case, even if only in their own minds. They demand specifics only so they can assure themselves that I am crazy or overly sensitive or rabidly partisan.
I am none of those things, so I’m going to vault over the pit of punji sticks entirely and decline. I refuse to give specifics because I refuse to get sucked into an argument about specifics. Instead, I humbly request that any liberals who are reading this, take a look around and using that famed liberal empathy, try to put yourself in the shoes of a conservative – even someone only just barely the smallest bit conservative like me – and imagine how YOU would feel if you were us. And if you really really can’t do that, really can’t conjure up even a drop of empathy, think about that, consider what THAT means. A person who you actually kind of know, if only just a little, is standing in front of you saying “I am scared of the people you’re associating yourself with” and you cannot find any reason other than misguided paranoia at best, outright lies at worst. A person who you actually kind of know is asking for your compassion and understanding and you are demanding specifics not so you can better understand them, but so you can debunk their claims. A person you actually kind of know is trying to share their experience with you but you really cannot find any common ground, cannot conjure any sympathy or empathy for millions of your fellow human beings and so have written them off as liars or lunatics. Suffice it to say I have a firm belief based on my own personal experience and observation that many if not most conservative people in America today are scared of the left for what I consider to be entirely valid reasons. And the few who aren’t are so complicit in the system as it is that they may as well be of the left themselves.
What am I so afraid of? Not specific instances, but in generic terms?
I believe that humans are flawed and imperfect, capable of both incredible good and incredible evil. Humans are selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and even the good ones have a nasty Puritan streak. Despite this, I like people. I enjoy them. I am one myself, I’m occasionally surprised to recall. I’m neither cynic nor a curmudgeon and I remain ever optimistic and hopeful that we’re going to get this silly misunderstanding worked out between us.*
I’m brimming over with tolerance and camaraderie for my fellow humans of all walks of life, ethnicities, religions, and creeds. My level of cheer on a good day is Pollyanna and on a bad day is Little Orphan Annie. Regardless of whether we agree all the time, I like you and I like talking to you. I treasure our friendship. In the interest of full disclosure, a couple of you I could probably do without, but I don’t HATE you, not even a little.
But delusional I am not. Historically, the human story has been one of horrifying violence and cruelty. If there’s a Bad Thing you can envision, some human somewhere has done it already and lots of others are thinking about doing it right this very minute. Even without the human awfulness factor coming into play, life is hard and will always BE hard because the world itself is out to kill you. Mother Nature is sending cold temperatures and wild animals and solar radiation and bees and starvation and bacteria at you from every direction. Gravity in the wrong place at the wrong time can kill you. Even your own body can kill you (take my word for it, my own body is attacking itself remorselessly even as we speak.)
And yet despite people being these fundamentally depraved, inherently awful critters, despite the very universe itself plotting your demise, humanity is on a trajectory towards better. Things started off terrible in this ol’ world and were terrible for quite some time, but only just recently things have gotten fantastically, unimaginably better. Not only would Og the Caveman be blown away by our world as it is, even people born just a generation ago would be amazed by the lives we are blessed to have. The poorest Americans have a better quality of life than the richest Americans two hundred, one hundred, even just 50 years ago. Thomas Jefferson’s wife died of mastitis. Calvin Coolidge’s son died from a blister on his foot. John and Jackie Kennedy lost a premature son who would have lived had he been born today. By any metric short of perfection, humans who are alive right here right now, even in the worst of situations, are the absolute luckiest sons of bitches who have ever lived. Just because we have painkillers, if for no other reason.
I have a client who is about 20 years younger than me. She told me her grandfather was a professional bicycle racer. Like, he literally made a living racing bicycles. My grandfather rode a horse to school. His feet were deformed because his shoes didn’t fit him as a child and he probably couldn’t have ridden a bike if he wanted to. His younger brother died of the Spanish flu and he himself nearly died in a blizzard – saved only by that trusty horse, believe it or not.
This happened in 20 years’ time.
America is so fucking awesome it is mind boggling. Modernity is so fucking awesome it is mind boggling. We have freedom and video streaming on demand. Everything is like Disneyland and Christmastime all rolled into one. I have a tiny computer I carry with me everywhere. I have five children and none of them died. In my fridge I have Dr. Pepper which is my favorite food in the whole wide world. A can of liquid sugar is my favorite food in the world and I can have it whenever I want to. America gave us those things.
So what am I so afraid of?
I’m afraid you people are going to mess it up.
Remember the thing where people are capable both of incredible good and incredible evil? Well, the biggest danger of humanity lies in the fact that most incredible evil has been done by those who believe themselves to be doing incredible good. No one ever rode out on a pogrom in the middle of the night thinking that they were the bad guys and they were going out to get innocent victims. They believe they are going out to get the bad people and that all actions are justified because good needs to conquer evil.
I have come to believe that there’s a culture war going on – a real one, not the Kabuki theater that Democrats and Republicans have played at since the turn of the 20th century – and conservatives have been unwittingly drafted to play the bad guys. (Gee, thanks, Republican milquetoasts, for taking part in this sham so you could have the illusion of political power for a little while longer.) In this culture war, conservatives are allegedly Darth Vader, the Nazis, Panem, Lord Voldemort, and the Handmaid’s Tale villains all rolled into one. I personally believe that this culture war is obvious and self-evident and that liberals, even liberals I really really like a super whole lot, to some extent buy into the concept. They are the good guys, they are the future, that the right and proper final evolution of human culture will look exactly like what they envision the perfect society should look like, and in order for this beautiful day to dawn, conservatives have to go.
In short, liberals believe they believe they are not only good, but immune from evil. Because they believe they ARE good – not just a person who is good, but that they actually ARE Good, that liberal people are the human embodiment of Good Itself. They believe their vision of the future represents what an ideal human culture should look like, they believe that they know how to get to that ideal culture that they envision and they believe that I am standing in their way. Liberals believe that I AM Evil and they are not only immune from evil, but that they are Good.
How can this story have a happy ending – at least for me?
I see signs – and again, I don’t think these signs are anything less than fully obvious – that forces are in motion to turn conservatives into a despised minority (if they aren’t one already, which I’m not entirely sure that they aren’t). Historically speaking, things don’t go well for the despised minority, especially when the despised minority is perceived to have wealth or privilege that they don’t deserve and that others believe they deserve more. People have been murdered for wearing eyeglasses or owning old books (I will be doubly dead) based on this toxic idea. And yeah maybe you’re right, maybe this won’t happen tomorrow. I’ll grant you that. But I don’t worry just for myself, but for my children, who also wear glasses and even read books on occasion, when I force them to by confiscating their video games. Maybe these changes won’t happen in our lifetime, but if this myth where conservative people are the root of all evil continues to spread unchecked, it will happen eventually. Because humans are selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and even the good ones have a nasty Puritan streak.
I have a dear friend who’s a truly wonderful person. She’s so fabulous that she adopted an HIV positive orphan from the Ukraine and when she found out that the little one had a best friend at the orphanage, she adopted a second HIV-positive Ukrainian orphan so they could stay together. She’s an amazing, amazing person; I admire her so much. But she has stated openly and repeatedly that she would not help Christians if they were being persecuted unless it was first demonstrated “they weren’t hurting anyone with their beliefs any more”. She would not take action to prevent people, human people, from being persecuted unless they changed their beliefs to be in line with hers. Not their actions, their BELIEFS. She is an otherwise supremely excellent person (better than me, for sure) and yet she has stated this viewpoint repeatedly, thoroughly, and with crystal clarity. I did not mistake her; in fact I asked her to clarify her position, and she did. Many other equally good people I know agreed with her, applauded her. Many other equally good people I know expressed similar sentiments on multiple occasions.
This is not normal.
This was years before Trump. Harsh and vicious liberal rhetoric is not caused by people being upset over Trump. Trump was caused by harsh and vicious liberal rhetoric.
Scratch that, because it ISN’T liberal. The core beliefs I thought being a liberal entailed, the concepts I embraced when I was 14 years old and first starting to understand politics, the philosophies that I’ve spent 35 years studying, the stuff I still fully believe in to this very day that keeps me from being a Republican, are gone. Belief in free speech and free religion and free assembly. Belief in the rights of an individual to live the way they want and love who they want and to control their own body even when you don’t like how they live or who they love or what they put into their body. Tolerance, true tolerance (fun fact, tolerance is NOT just tolerating people you like and agree with). Understanding that there are no good people or evil people, that we’re all products of our DNA and environments and all human action needs to be viewed in that light, with compassion and empathy. Trying to understand people’s behavior based on our commonalities as humans rather than our differences as tribes. Those things are gone.
When I call liberalism on the telephone looking for those things it’s all like “New Line, Who Dis?”.
What liberalism was is dead and what has replaced it is not only ugly, it is utterly, completely and totally illiberal. Liberalism used to be about nurturing the best impulses human beings have and understanding that sometimes it’s hard to nurture our fine impulses since we’re all selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and even good folks have a nasty Puritan streak. So we need to codify our finest impulses into incorruptible laws and well-designed systems rather than relying upon fine impulses. The liberal movement in 2019 is not only playing to the worst, very worst impulses that human beings have, it also appears wants to tear down legal protections and cultural touchstones that stand in the way of that agenda. And the good and awesome liberals out there are snoring at the wheel, dreaming of Burning Man or maybe visiting Austin, not even seeming to realize that the vision we once shared is gone. What you guys are supporting and voting for now is something entirely different that I really don’t believe you actually want.
Please wake up. Wake up!! Because you are so much better than this. You are the reason I’ve been proud to identify as a liberal for all these years. You are the reason I spent years begging and pleading and cajoling my fellow libertarians not to get too chummy with conservatives because our natural allies were liberals. You are better than what you’re becoming and you have to stop it because you’re the only ones who have the power to do it and you have to act fast because now is the only time it can be stopped. By the time these things are underway, it is too late to stop them. You may think I’m wrong and paranoid but this is the part of the movie where the crazy old scientist no one wants to listen to is saying “You have got to stop injecting that adorable baby gorilla with HGH, testosterone, and radioactive waste because it’s only going to get bigger.”
I am afraid you people are going to mess it up.
And setting the threat of actual violence aside, because I know you don’t believe that could happen, that the adorable baby gorilla you cradle so lovingly in your arms could never possibly grow up and be worse than Dick Cheney. Set it aside for now and focus on the practical elements instead. The reason I am an economic conservative is because I believe that free markets (and just for the record, what we have now is very far from a free market economy; I don’t like our present economy any better than you do) really truly are better for everyone than managed economies. I believe free market economies create more opportunities for women, minorities, and the poor than managed economies. I believe free market economies create exponentially more wealth for exponentially more people even though it isn’t “fairly” distributed. Managed economies are like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, giving over power to a handful of corrupted businessmen and bureaucrats who are going to be just as self-interested as ever they were, because humans are inherently self-interested. I believe that moving towards a socialist, managed economy will bring about less freedom, less prosperity, less technological innovation, less access to health care and other necessities than a free market could bring. It will also make the poor poorer in the end, because I believe, strongly, with every fiber of my being that a rising tide really does raise all boats. I believe even more so that a minimum basic income will serve to simply create a permanent underclass from which people like me, barely hanging onto the lower middle class with the very tips of my fingernails, will never be able to emerge.
You’re going to kill what has provided me, an Actual Poor Person, with a lifestyle that the richest man on the planet a hundred years ago could only dream of, as surely as the greedy farmer in the story killed the goose who laid the golden eggs.
And you’re going to do it because things aren’t perfect, aren’t equal, aren’t fair. They’re more perfect than ever, more equal than ever, and fairer than ever, but they aren’t as perfect, equal, and fair as you imagine they could be if only you were allowed to run the world. Funny thing is, speaking as an Actual Poor Person, I don’t care about “fair.” I don’t care about “inequality” and nor should you. If we are all better off than we would be otherwise, what does it matter if Paris Hilton has too much money and I don’t have quite enough? Because I assure you, even in a socialist paradise, there will still be Paris Hiltons gadding about, there will still be inequality, because all systems are run by people and people are selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and even the good ones have a nasty Puritan streak. Collectivism has failed everywhere it’s been tried because people are selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and even the good ones have a nasty Puritan streak. The socialism you claim to want is only going to protect the rich at the expense of the rest of us. The freedom that has given me the ability to run my own life and own my own body inasmuch as I can, will vanish and others – the king or the prefect or the Politburo will be making essential decisions for me.
Same as it ever was.
Utopia is not an option. There is no ending where the bad conservatives are eradicated and the glorious socialist future of humankind dawns bright and free of trouble. Because even in the glorious socialist future you’re still gonna be surrounded by people, selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and even the good ones have a nasty Puritan streak.
Even the liberal ones do.
*But I’m still holding onto that case of Chef Boyardee ravioli in my cupboard just in case.