I’ve found over the past two years that I have grown less interested in political confrontation. I still have the appetite and every now and then I’ll write angrily about something or the other, but maybe I’ve finally learned how meaningless it is.
Cause the truth is, any time anyone comes out swingin’ hard in favor of a particular political philosophy – even when they’re totally right and are making tons of good points – everyone just puts their fingers in their ears and says ‘nananana’ till whoever it it shuts up and goes away. Nobody wants to hear it. They pick out the stuff that confirms their priors and they ignore anything they don’t have answers for.
Arguing politics is a pointless endeavor. There are so many better uses of my time. Like alphabetizing cans of soup in my cupboard or maybe watching paint dry.
But still. I believe in the idea that people who can stand up, should stand up. For whatever reason, God granted me an ability to string a couple words together that is slightly better than average, a memory that lasts longer than a news cycle, and I occasionally have a few moments of time I can scrape together now and then to write something. A lot of people don’t have that ability, or the luxury of time for political agitation. They’re just people whose talents lay in different areas than mine do, doing the best they can. They know what they think but they can’t always express why they think the way they do. They count on others to carry the philosophical torch for them.
I believe that for those of us on the right, even just slightly right like I am, if those who can stand up, don’t, then there will be no one there to speak for, and even protect the innocent people who are just trying to live their life. They don’t want to fight any more than I do, they don’t want to argue, they just want to be left alone and not demonized and maybe show up to vote every few years or so. Most of the people on the right tend to fall into this camp. They don’t want to agitate, they don’t want to organize. They don’t want to make waves, they just want to live their life. They need people to carry the conservative torch for them so they can continue doing just that.
I want to do my part but at the same time, it feels useless to do my part.
And yet…and yet.
I remember one time I saw Lynne Cheney, Dick Cheney’s wife, on The Daily Show back when Jon Stewart was still hosting it, and she brought along a doll of Dick Cheney dressed up like Darth Vader, and the joke was that Republicans really ARE evil, yukyukyukyuk – and that they’re shamelessly proud of it.
It sometimes feels to me like the strategy of the Republican Party since the first Bush administration if not maybe even longer, was to play the role of the bumblin’ bad guys in some sort of elaborate 3D chess match, in which it’s been predetermined that the right shall eventually lose. All that is left is the hope that lefties will let the more powerful conservatives exist a little longer once the Glorious Socialist Dawn breaks. No pushback, no making the philosophical or economic case for conservatism, just a flopsy, mopsy rollover for a tummy scrub by any liberal mouthpiece no matter how odious or wrong they are.
I don’t know why this is, but I have a theory. Freddie deBoer writes about the idea that on some gut level, many perceive it as more important to have position within one’s own movement than to see your movement succeed – even at the COST of seeing your movement succeed. Even though Freddie is a liberal and was making a case for liberals, I find that many conservatives – the most powerful, even – appear to have placed higher premium upon jockeying for social cred not only among their fellow conservatives, but among powerful liberals, than actually trying to achieve anything for the conservative movement. The most powerful, well-known conservatives in existence have been actively refusing to challenge liberal orthodoxy for decades not only because they don’t want to risk social censure from their fellow conservatives, but because they don’t want to be criticized by LIBERALS.
We can sit around and discuss why this is, because it’s fascinating. I could even try to write a piece about the history of it all, but luckily for me Varad Mehta already did it way better than I could. Long story short, a whole lot of pretty darn important Republicans left fighting for conservativism behind em long, long ago, ceding point after point in the Culture War to the Left after putting up only the lamest, weakest, most inept of token fights (just enough to placate the evangelicals, LOL). And they did this because they were never conservatives anyway, preferring instead to play the part of center-leftists in a 2 party system…”Leftie and Leftier”…as long as it kept them walking the Halls of Power and getting invites onto The Daily Show.
Too many powerful Republicans are more worried about looking good for their fellows – and by fellows, they mean “popular political figures and celebrities, including a goodly number of liberals”…not you, and not me – than in doing what it takes to win. Well, that’s not me. I want to win, and if I can’t win (which I probably can’t) at the least I want to force a compromise that will at the least preserve SOME elements of conservatism. In fact I think that it’s imperative for the greater good of everyone, that conservatives if not win outright, at least push back as hard as we can against the liberal movement – which up till quite recently was ascending pretty much without opposition.
How do we do that?? How do we conservatives make inroads NOT with each other but with the other guys? How do we score political ground against liberals when they, and sadly too many of us like Lynne Cheney, have been steeped in the idea of conservatives as Inhuman Bad Guy for the better part of my lifetime?
Freddie DeBoer believed that what liberals needed was more internal critics. While I agree with him there because liberals have such massive blind spots they may as well be Mr. Magoo, I don’t think that’s what conservatives need. Conservatives have so many internal critics that it’s sometimes hard for outsiders to understand what is even holding us all together in a single movement.
Conservatives need something different.
This past week CNN ran a story about the Jayme Closs kidnapping. “Murder, kidnapping, and escape in RURAL America” the headline screamed. Can you imagine the outrage if CNN had run that headline about an urban kidnapping? Making it sound like murder and kidnapping was somehow inherently part of the setting in which it occurred? The very next week there was woman abducted in a bar and held prisoner for a couple days in a city before she escaped, and it had none of the same dog whistle-y type headlines as the Closs kidnapping did. In fact, when I tried to look the second abduction up the very next day to include a link for this article, I couldn’t even find it anywhere on CNN. They were still covering the Closs abduction and plastering pictures of the perpetrator (whose appearance confirms just about every liberal stereotype you can possibly imagine about the sort of people who live in Middle America) everywhere.
This is one of the ways that liberals are winning the culture war.
They’re pigeonholing conservative and/or Red State Americans into the Bad Guy slot not only on The Daily Show but on the everyday show that is our regular life. We’re weird, we’re creepy, we’re pervs, we’re molesters, we’re racists, we’re judgmental prudes, we’re troglodytes, we hate poor people, we hate cities, we’re unevolved reactionary monsters and we deserve to die. (yes that’s right we are somehow both simultaneously sex-obsessed perverted child molesters and also super uptight sexually-repressed prudes)
A lot of conservatives want to respond in kind (and let’s be honest here, historically some of these techniques of demonizing an opponent have been utilized by conservatives) and while at times I can’t totally blame them, I don’t want to win that way. I don’t WANT to live in a world where a stranger is NOT a friend you haven’t met yet, but is instead guilty of unspeakable horrors until proven innocent. I do not believe that voting for someone with an R instead of a D beside their name on an election ballot makes someone a monster and I don’t believe the reverse is true, either. I believe that humans are walking bundles of contradictions, that none of us are fully good nor fully evil, that even the “bad” among us are redeemable, and I want to believe the best in everyone I come across.
I guess it’s just the liberal in me.
But again, what can we do? Real people? You and me and that guy over there? Should we blanket social media with long diatribes invoking Bill Buckley or Ayn Rand? Repost the Sockdolager essay or I, Pencil or maybe don a 3 corner hat and stand on a street corner and hand out small versions of the US Constitution?
Yeah. All those things have worked out pretty well for us so far.
I didn’t get to be a conservative overnight. It took time. A LOT of time. What started me on the path to where I am today was simply noticing “some of these things I believe do not make any sense given other truths I’ve learned about the world.” And those things I noticed were NOT always or even usually in the political arena. They were in real life and they were things that happened in movies and tv shows and books that reflected real life. I had to have an entire paradigm shift based on real world observation before I realized wow ok it is just plain stupid to hand over scads of power to a bunch of politicians and trust them not to misuse it, because people are not good guys and bad guys, we’re fallible guys and self-interested guys. I honestly learned far more about the philosophical underpinnings of conservatism from fiction at least to start out with than I did from reading The Federalist Papers or whatever.
We are barking up the wrong tree with the lectures and the diatribes and the appeals to the Founding Fathers, my con chums. We are barking up the wrong tree prattling about history and natural rights. And let me tell you why. It isn’t because lectures and diatribes are off-putting, even though they are, hugely. It’s not that.
This past week or so I’ve been…fortunate, I guess you could say, although as someone who is not super interested in political confrontation, it doesn’t feel like good fortune LOL…to have the opportunity to interact with some decent and thoughtful liberals who are, well, not sympathetic but at least open to hearing some of my opinions. And so they’ve listened to me, very politely, very considerately, with what seems to me to be a legitimate desire to understand.
They listened. They really did. They just didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.
Up until this week I have truly believed that liberals completely misunderstanding and misrepresenting where conservatives were coming from had to be some kind of an act. I figured they were just playing dumb, feigning ignorance out of political motivations. But I have to say that after this week I’m really starting to doubt my previous conclusion. Liberals, even the decent ones not prone to hyperbole and exaggeration, really DO think conservatives are insane evil bad guys like Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort. And it’s easy for them to believe that because they don’t understand where we’re coming from, like seriously, at all, because they don’t know anything about us other than what they’ve been told by people who do not have either of our best interests at heart.
Liberals’ vision of conservatives is like this twisted version of the blind men and the elephant where one liberal wise man feels a tail that’s made of racism and another feels an ear that’s made up of hyperjudgmental church ladies and they go out and tell people that’s what conservatism is, even though they only ever felt this tiny terrible part of it. They don’t see anything else, they certainly don’t see everything else. They don’t see a living entity at all, they see this isolated fraction (and they don’t even see it, because they’re blind men; they just poke at it with their fingers for a minute or two). Based on this momentary inspection of a couple of very small and unimportant parts of the conservative movement, they assume they now fully understand the whole.
The author David Foster Wallace once gave a famous speech in which he relayed this story: A couple of young fish are out for a swim one beautiful morning and they happen to pass an old grizzled fish swimming in the opposite direction. “Good morning boys,” the old fish says with a grin, “How’s the water?” The two young fish nod politely and keep swimming. Once they’re out of hearing range, one of them turns to the other and asks, “What the heck is water?”
We don’t see what we’re in when we’re in it. The waters of our philosophy are transparent to us. It takes a lot of work and a lot of effort to learn to see what we’re swimming in. Think of how tough it is to explain to a small child about air – it’s all around us, all the time, but you can’t see it and you can’t feel it even though you’re sucking it down your lungholes and it’s keeping you alive. In order to get a child to learn the nature of air, first you have to prove to them that air even exists (and no, I’m not comparing liberals to children, ok?)
Conservatives have something of an advantage in this regard. We perceive the water, at least a little bit. Conservatives navigate in a largely liberal world – liberals are in charge of the school system, the media, Hollywood, a lot of government agencies, a fair number of religious organizations, and the tech industry. As such, these organizations are flooding the world with liberal philosophical water constantly. Since conservatives are not of it, it’s easier for us to see that. Now, liberals would argue against this notion but that’s because they don’t see the water. We don’t see what we’re in when we’re in it. It’s hard for them to see because it’s the medium we navigate through all the time and if you feel comfortable in that medium, you can’t see it unless you really try. Liberal water is invisible to most people like conservative water was probably invisible to most people living in Middle America in 1952. Things were they way they were because that’s the way they were and if you tried to tell them they didn’t have to be that way they not only wouldn’tve agreed, they wouldn’t have even understood what you were talking about.
What the heck is water, anyway?
The job of conservatives is to explain to fish about water and it’s impossible unless we can get them to accept that their water exists and has a certain nature to it. We can’t assume they see and understand the water the way we do, because they don’t. It’s their water and they’re comfortable in it and we don’t see what we’re in, when we’re in it. So making arguments to liberals about any particular characteristics of this water before we’ve convinced them it even exists are useless. We’re trying to describe something that is to them, invisible. And making arguments assuming they are swimming in conservative water instead, is worse than useless. You can’t make an argument to them based on how great things were in 1952 because they don’t think things WERE great in 1952. You can’t make an argument to them invoking the Founding Fathers because they hate the Founding Fathers. (and they have sound and sensible reasons underlying both those opinions.) These arguments accomplish nothing and in fact often stir animosity because it gives liberals more data points regarding the tail of an elephant, rather than encouraging them to see the whole animal.
In my marriage, I tend to be a person who never complains until I’ve gotten furious about something. When I try to explain why it is I’m so upset, I often end up feeling like an idiot because the straw that broke the camel’s back is seemingly small, even petty if it had been taken in isolation. My husband will roll his eyes and add it to his file of “times Kristin overreacted” – but I’m not overreacting. My anger was fully justified, it was just that in the past, I’d been underreacting, so any reaction at all feels like an overreaction. The reason why I feel the way I do is because of a series of true wrongs and legitimate grievances that occurred over time, that I, in a desire to keep the peace, didn’t bring up at the moment they occurred. Any one of them, taken alone, seems minor, like a nothingburger. But when you’re handed enough nothingbacondoublecheeseburgers to choke down, even just a nothingslider begins to look like a volley fired in a bigger war. It’s tough to explain that to the person throwing burgers at your face when you haven’t been pointing it out to them all along. They don’t even remember most of it and it didn’t seem like a big deal anyway, because you didn’t say anything at the time. It appears to them like you’re making mountains out of molehills, like you’re the one playing dirty.
Conservatives pounce. That’s what liberals see. Us pouncing for what appears to them to be no reason whatsoever because Republicans in leadership for the last 30 years have been playing the part of Darth Vader and we said nothing at that time. During that last 30 years the rest of us were busy working and raising our families and not only did we not want to fight, we didn’t want to hold our leaderships accountable for fighting badly on our behalf. And the chickens have come home to roost. A whole lot of people who came of age during that time know nothing of us other than the story they were told, that we’re Darth-freaking-Vader and proud of it. We have a lot of ground to make up before liberals begin to realize that we pounce because we feel we have reason to and not because we are faceless maniacal villains dressed in black who hate everything that is pure and good. That is their worldview, it’s the water they’re swimming in. Them good, us bad. It’s because it’s the only thing many of them have ever heard about conservatives, and we didn’t say anything to disabuse them of the notion.
We all have a set of assumptions that are the foundation for our politics. These assumptions largely don’t come from dry political tomes or the rhetoric of politicians. They come from everyday experiences and even fictional ones because fiction is a way to allow others to get inside the heads of other people and see where they’re coming from. Political philosophies appeal to us because they fit into our worldview, because they set nicely upon the foundation of experience that life has already laid.
We cannot talk politics with liberals until we’ve convinced them that we are not the bad guys in a cartoonish morality play, any more than you can build a castle on a foundation of sand. And the way to convince them is NOT to blab historical factoids and poli-sci philosophy at them because they’ll just put their fingers in their ears and say “nananana” till we shut up and go away. Instead we must forge connections and regain the trust that was squandered by Republican politicians and pundits thinking they were playing some sort of game with Jon Stewart for social brownie points, and that everyone was in on the joke. Game over, man, game over! Dudes and dudettes, these people actually think we’re Darth Vader! We need to demonstrate to liberals that we are human beings with life experiences that have led us to conclude certain things that are different than the certain things their life experiences have led them to concluded, so that we become more than just a disembodied elephant’s tail of racists to them.
My goal, in doing what I do, wasting time hollering into the abyss, is first and foremost to rehumanize conservatives as the thinking, feeling, goodhearted, sometimes-even-wise people that we are and pushing back on the stereotypes. I have found cracking jokes into the abyss to be far more effective than hollering. I have found writing about apolitical things like romance novels and tv shows and Batman does far more to accomplish my goals of making liberal people understand where I’m coming from than droning on and on about states’ rights ever could. Because there are so many things that inform our politics that are not at all political, and in these arenas, people are still receptive to our messaging. These things, people immediately don’t drown out. Conservatives, we’ve got to reconnect with our liberal counterparts via our shared human experience and build a new foundation for our society together, before it’s too late.
Some of you guys don’t make this easy for me, conservative peeps. And I get it, I do. I understand why you’re so prickly and mean sometimes. I know why some of you take delight in confirming the worst stereotypes of conservatives. When you feel under assault, when you feel attacked and dehumanized and belittled, it’s only natural to lash out and the best way to lash out is to say things you know are guaranteed to get under another person’s skin, to pay back in kind the offense you feel you’ve received. But we can’t expect liberals to see things our way because they don’t see the water. You’re asking them to do something that is impossible for them, to believe in something they truly cannot see and getting angry with them that they don’t. They’re clueless like my husband when I lose my temper with him over something that seems to him to be minor and meaningless when really I’ve lost my temper over the 999 minor and meaningless things he’d done over the past 6 months and I just didn’t say anything those times. Lashing out without purpose, in a fury over things that other people really truly do not see or remember, does not accomplish anything other than making us look insane.
The best path forward is to stop responding in anger, turn every cheek in our body and then some, and focus instead on making connections in as many ways as we can. There is a whole world out there aside from politics and even though a good many people are trying to politicize even the most benign things in the name of divisiveness, we don’t have to accept that. Make friends, form bonds, find some sort of common ground. Share your life and listen to others tell you about theirs. Share the things you love with your enemies, you might be surprised to find they love them too. Instead of lecturing each other, laugh together. Write and talk about other things than politics once in a while, even if those things seem silly, like sandwiches and superheroes and short stories. It isn’t pointless. By engaging with those who see you as an enemy, you may make a friend, or at the least, become a person to them where before you were a Sith Lord. In the long run you’re laying a foundation for an effective method of persuasion based on common experience, one that is based upon the waters we’re both swimming in.
It is far more productive a use of time to spread a conservative worldview – or at least tolerance for that worldview – through kindness and camaraderie rather relying upon heated political debates and philosophical preaching that falls on deaf ears.
To save conservatism, stop pouncing and be a friend. That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway.