Conservatives, Barely. Maybe. But I Doubt It.

A Question of Semantics

December 13, 2008

I am trying to understand conservatives. The word has got to mean something, unless of course it doesn’t. For years I thought it meant someone like my grandfather, a professor of mathematics at a small college in the South. He embodied courtesy, respect for learning, personal responsibility, compassion for those in the town who found themselves in distress, dignity, a love of the language, a morality opposed to promiscuity and bastardy, and a quiet Christianity having nothing in common with the cruelty and hostility of today’s unlettered evangelicals. I thought it a pretty decent package, though I had problems with the part about avoiding promiscuity.

Over my years of writing this column, I have received a great deal of mail from people, entirely male so far as I can remember, calling themselves “conservatives,” yet having nothing in common with granddad. (I use quotation marks, though I will omit them in what follows as being annoying, because there are many people who regard themselves as conservatives but are decent people.)

These email conservatives are a specific type of person, characterized by:

(1) Hostility to other groups—blacks, Mexicans, homosexuals, and Jews for example. In earlier times they would have detested the Irish, Italians, Asians, and Slavs;

(2) A view of life as conflict, struggle, and war. We must arm, arm, arm. Commerce also is a fight to the death in which we must prevail by any means. We must not become soft and weak, as only the strong and resolute will survive in this dog-eat-dog world; this finds philosophical support in Social Darwinism, which says let them starve if they can’t keep up. Further, we must breed like incontinent oysters or the Chinese (Moslems, Africans, etc) will overwhelm us. This often shades into:

(3) Subclinical paranoia. The (pick one) Jews, communists, Russians, Chinese, Moslems are insidious, fiendishly patient—waiting, waiting for us to falter so that they can take over and enslave us. You have doubtless heard this sort of thing: The gates of Vienna, what Lenin said about probing with a bayonet, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Strange shapes twist in the inner fog. Spies are everywhere, traitors await their chance, dissent is not dissent but a prelude to treason.

(4) An obsession with profits and economic growth for their own sake. “For their own sake” is a key qualifier. They do not ask “How much growth of what kind where for what purpose?” Nor do they ever use the phrase “quality of life.” They want more housing starts, more construction, more population to buy the houses without regard for anything else. People exist to serve the economy, not the other way around. On libertarian sites this sometimes approaches belief in capitalism as a supernatural force: The Invisible Hand of the market. This view is facilitated by:

(5) A lack of esthetic sensitivity. Where other people see a towering redwood forest as a place of contemplation, of solemn ancient beauty and God’s handiwork, the conservative (of the type I am talking about) sees timber suitable for making weatherproof decks for yuppies (at a good profit). Whales? Dog food. The Grand Canyon? A potential tourist bonanza needing only a four-lane highway, several malls with five-star hotels, and a Disneyland park with an Old West theme and mechanical-burro rides.

For them, everything is raw material for making a buck. They honestly seem to have no idea why anyone would object to killing everything and bulldozing everything else since there is money in it. Thus they hate enviro-wackos as perverse and irrational. This save-the-spotted-owl business is lunacy, they figure it’s just a freaking bird, for god’s sake, and we could put a subdivision where it nests. And then a mall. Tied into this view is a tendency to regard people likewise as raw material, a view underpinned by:

(6) A lack of empathy. Suppose that squishy bleeding-heart do-gooders object to the employment of children of ten, for twelve hours a day in Indonesian sweatshops, making pricey running shoes for people who don’t run. This will infuriate the conservatives (again, of this type). The factory makes money, doesn’t it? Photos from war zones of children with their entrails hanging out? The communist media are trying to sap the public’s will to fight. These conservatives just don’t care, and can’t care.

Now, by the foregoing I do not suggest that they are always wrong in their prescriptions. Sometimes there are enemies abroad (chiefly because other countries also have their martial paranoids). Immigration by incompatible groups may well be inadvisable. And so on. Yet these same people will find enemies where they are and where they aren’t, oppose immigration whether it makes sense or not, because it is how they think.

Whatever the wisdom in a particular case, I believe that most of politics can be explained by friction between those who have the above-mentioned traits, and those who don’t. Emotion determines policy, and the mind provides a window dressing of plausibility.

Consider empathy and its lack, perhaps the most profound dividing line in politics. Do you remember the uproar over exploitation of migrant workers in California? One side was willing to pay ten cents a head more for lettuce so that the migrants wouldn’t have to live in hovels; the other side wasn’t. Similarly, the Pentagon is perfectly willing to bomb cities and kill indiscriminately, to torture prisoners; the other side cringes.

A recurring example is the dispute over national medical care. The conservatives oppose it because they say it would become a bloated federal program, as it probably would. (They do not oppose bloated federal programs that produce profits, as for example the military, but have a deeply principled aversion to anything that might require them to pay taxes. Note that they favor private charity over public welfare, because they don’t have to pay for the former.) They simply can’t care what happens to others.

I have noticed that women are scarce among this group. They by nature do care. I have never heard a woman talk about the need for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against China. Many men do, all of the type who call themselves conservative.

What happens of course is that conscienceless, amoral men dress themselves in whatever ideology suits their purposes. Stalin was no more a socialist than he was the Tooth Fairy. However, since socialism requires that the state control the economy, it appeals to dictators. Thus the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. “Free enterprise” appeals to those who want no interference with their rapine, who want to run sweatshops, starve sharecroppers, and make billions on subprime mortgages. Same people, different scaffolding.