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Another excellent article

Again via tedesson, who is doing a lot of really good reading these days.

"What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong With It?"

One reason I really like this article is that it argues conservatism has always been opposed to rational thought, whereas democracy promotes rational thought and debate. I like this because I always believe there isn't enough rational thought and debate in political discourse, and because I cringe at the belief that it's necessary for movements that espouse positions I agree with to attack with jingoism and emotional manipulation (a la Michael Moore). Lots of smart people with good politics think this is necessary, and they're probably right, but it has always struck me as giving in and playing on the opponents' turf rather than choosing our own turf, and the article seems to agree with me on that.

Some quotes:
...take the notion of "political correctness". It is true that movements of conscience have piled demands onto people faster than the culture can absorb them. That is an unfortunate side-effect of social progress. Conservatism, however, twists language to make the inconvenience of conscience sound like a kind of oppression. The campaign against political correctness is thus a search-and-destroy campaign against all vestiges of conscience in society. The flamboyant nastiness of rhetors such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter represents the destruction of conscience as a type of liberation. They are like cultists, continually egging on their audiences to destroy their own minds by punching through one layer after another of their consciences.
The main idea of public relations is the distinction between "messages" and "facts". Messages are the things you want people to believe. A message should be vague enough that it is difficult to refute by rational means. (People in politics refer to messages as "strategies" and people who devise strategies as "strategists". The Democrats have strategists too, and it is not at all clear that they should, but they scarcely compare with the vast public relations machinery of the right.)
The real discovery is that democracy is a particular kind of social organization of knowledge -- a sprawling landscape of overlapping knowledge spheres and a creative tension on any given issue between the experts and the laity.
Liberals win political victories through rational debate. But after a victory is won, liberals tend to drop the issue and move along. As a result, whole generations have grown up without ever hearing the arguments in favor of, for example, Social Security. Instead they have heard massive numbers of conservative arguments against liberalism, and these arguments have generally gone unrebutted. In order to save civilization, liberals need a new language, one in which it is easy to express rebuttals to the particular crop of conservative arguments of the last few decades.
Many on the left unfortunately abandon reason because they believe that the actual basis of politics is something they call "power". People like this have no notion of what power is. For example, they will argue that reason is useless because the powers that be will not listen to reason. This is confusion. The purpose of reason is not to petition the authorities but to help other citizens to cut through the darkness of conservative deception.
Many liberals abandon any word that conservatives start using. That means, since conservatives systematically lay claim to every word of the English language, that liberals have been systematically surrendering powerful words such as family, nation, truth, science, tradition, and religion. This has made it increasingly difficult for liberals to explain what they believe. There is no alternative: if conseratives have been twisting a powerful word, then you have to explain in concise American English what the word really means and how the conservatives have distorted it.
There is also an intellectual dimension to nonviolence. Nonviolence means, among other things, not cooperating in the destruction of conscience and language. Nonviolence implies reason. Analyze the various would-be aristocracies, therefore, and explain them in plain language, but do not stereotype them. Nonviolence also has an epistemological dimension. Few of us have the skill to hate with a clear mind. Conservatism is very complicated, and you cannot defeat it by shouting slogans. This is the difficulty with Michael Moore. He talks American, which is good. But he is not intellectually nonviolent.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 16th, 2004 12:20 pm (UTC)
Fascinating stuff. I think I will print out a copy of the essay for further relfection.
Aug. 16th, 2004 01:05 pm (UTC)
I have a big problem with the definition of conservatism given in this article. I agree that it isn't particularly rational, but it's not about a ruling elite, either.

Conservatism is the attitude of traditionalists. Conservatives want things to be the way they have always been -- or the way they THINK things have always been.

They are ruled by fear of the unknown. They want everything to line up exactly as they expect things to be. They always point to some external and absolute moral standard and call anything that deviates from that standard evil.

They are not interested in thinking. That's why liberals lose the debates. Liberals don't have pat, quick, soundbite answers to anything and conservatives do.
Aug. 16th, 2004 01:41 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure that you can call the conversations between liberals and conservatives, debates. That's because there needs to be some shared premises and an opportunity to sway minds.

When I was studying philosophy, I called those sorts of conversations 'a priori discussions', because they never get started because the premises are opposed at the most basic level. My favorite example of this sort of argument is that surrounding abortion. There is absolutely no common ground to have an argument about abortion between the pro and anti sides because the premises are absolutely opposite.

In the case of conversations between liberals and conservatives, as Phil's essay describes, the reason why there isn't an argument is because they aren't speaking the same language anymore. Sure, it sounds like English, but it isn't the English you can look up in the dictionary.

I especially like his identification of projection as the driving force for much of the conservative invective.

And, on reflecting on it this morning, I realized that it isn't really about conservatives trying to restore an aristocracy, because many of the conservatives I know aren't in a position of higher status. It's more about maintaining an underclass, so that even the lowest conservative will be superior to someone. Just to make their fascist cockels warm.
Aug. 16th, 2004 01:49 pm (UTC)
Setting aside the issue of whether to call "government by the aristocracy" conservatism, do you think that people in power want government by the aristocracy to continue rather than government by democracy, and do you think these are some of the ways they go about making that happen?

I definitely do, which is why I think the article is worthwhile.

The article points out that those who want government by aristocracy do think - they think about how to create pat, quick, soundbite answers to everything, in order to entrench their power.

Not noticing that they do this deliberately is a huge oversight on the part of many liberals.
Aug. 16th, 2004 06:51 pm (UTC)
Those with privilege tend to want the status quo.
Aug. 19th, 2004 07:10 pm (UTC)
And, crucially, they want to pass the privileges entrenched in the status quo on to their children and to the people they choose to associate with. That's almost the definition of an aristocracy, and it's what is at the heart of conservativism.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 17th, 2004 02:03 pm (UTC)
I think that it's valid to try to get someone to understand something by constructing for them a particular emotional context. I feel like describing such things as "emotional manipulation" doesn't sit well with me.

I agree that what you describe is valid. And I think it's necessary. Rational thought doesn't have any direction without emotional guidance.

I also think that it's pretty rare in American politics, as compared to jingoism and emotional manipulation.

But I should have at least mentioned that emotion has a place in political discourse, rather than letting it be implied that only rational discussion and emotional manipulation exist.

"Kisceral" is a very interesting concept! Thanks.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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