Friday, November 18, 2005

Raised on Fear

A little while ago I wrote an essay about the differences between conservatives and liberals. Mind you, I was not writing about Republicans and Democrats or Libertarians and Greens or about any political party, I was writing about the fundamental positions of ideologies. I republished the essay in another venue and got a very strident comment back that questioned my understanding of conservatives.

I said conservatives distrust the federal government (most governments, in fact), and my commenter said they love government for all it can give them and for all the protection it affords. I am going to try to clear up this confusion today.

There are differences between political parties and political ideologies. An ideology is a logical structure of ideas about human nature and about its consequences in and for group behavior.

Conservatives are worried, fearful, fretting persons whose lives must be virtual hell holes of anxiety and distrust. Liberals, on the other hand, are loving, warm-hearted people who get their shins barked and their noses bloodied for easily putting their trust in strangers. Neither group seems very smart when described this way, so there must be something else to this.

You may have noticed that the glue in ideologies is emotional. A lot of it has to do with how we are raised and what we believe are the important things about our lives. Of course there are completely rational notions within ideologies. The five principles of Liberalism are rational expressions of our experience of living with one another in many, many kinds of circumstances.

We Liberals hold that Individual Liberty is a worthy principle because we are ourselves individuals who want liberty and who need liberty in order to be able to express ourselves fully and honestly in whatever we do. This principle comes directly from the Golden Rule and the notion of the essential dignity of the human being.

We hold that Humanity is a worthy object of our attention and activities, because we are humans and know what it is like to be injured, hungry, sick, immature, senescent, and so forth. The human condition is our condition and we both want and need to assure ourselves that we are respected by and respectful of others.

We hold that Progress is a worthy ideal. We understand that things inherently change over time, and that being the case, we believe we should try to direct that change so that the outcomes are better for all of us and our fellow men and women on this planet, rather than letting things go their own merry undirected way and resulting in sometimes lethal outcomes. (We believe that there are market forces, but we believe that they apply only to the buying and selling of marketable goods and services. Market forces are the overall texture of many individual decisions and actions. There's nothing mysterious about them!) We believe in the efficacy of ourselves, in the ability of humans acting together and individually to affect positive outcomes in social affairs.

We have Ethical standards because we understand that selfishness leads to abuses of the lives, liberties, and happiness of others. We agree to abide by principles of social behavior so that others will do the same. We test our Ethics against the Ethics of others and make little modifications, not to constrain our Ethics, but to make them more congruent.

And, we believe in a Rule of Law because we have experienced in our national histories the opposite, the imposition of a single human being's will over us, constraining our activities, administered unevenly and perfidiously. We know that men and women, if given too much authority, soon forget where they got it and become tyrants. The Rule of Law stands against the Rule of Men (and Women).

The Liberal ideology is found in the interplay between these five principles. It can be quite a complex intermixing of any one or more of the five principles. A political action strategy to create a Head Start program, for instance, is built on an understanding of the needs of Humanity, on Ethical principles, and on a belief in Progress in the service of building a strong foundation for Individual Liberty. The program is itself formulated as Law, which shall treat each applicant the same without prejudice or any other failing of human administration.

Conservatives will tell you that their undergirding principles are not nearly as abstract or high falootin' as Liberals' are. They believe in individual liberty, but assume it is a something to be earned, not an inherent, inalienable part of being a citizen. Accordingly, conservatives are not surprised or even abashed when someone's individual liberties are trammeled. Their easy assumption is that the person for reasons, apparent or not, did not deserve liberty.

Conservatives believe in humanity, but they believe that humanity is basically a struggle of each individual against all others. Conservatives require that any human being must prove his worth, while Liberals believe worth is intrinsic to the person. Accordingly, conservatives do not believe in projects or programs to assist their fellow man unless the fellow pays some kind of obeisance to the giver. There is no free lunch, they say. Liberals just don't mind picking up the tab occasionally.

Conservatives believe in progress, but it is not progress of the whole, but of the part. Being based on and ruled by a "struggle" metaphor naturally puts the conservative perspective at the selfish end of the spectrum. The ideal for conservatives is for an individual to win and to rise above the hoi polloi. The Liberal, on the other hand, does not constrain individual initiative, but makes sure that individuals understand they are standing on the shoulders of those who have preceded them, and will be expected to help those who follow reach their individual potentials.

And so, finally, it comes down to the Rule of Law. Yes, my commenter was correct! Of course everyone in their most self-centered moment would like government to pass a law granting them immunity from all the slings and arrows of life, to grant them fortunes and privileges like those of kings. But then we grow up, and we understand that the purpose of polity and government is primarily to protect and assist the whole, the individual as part of the whole, the individuals liberties and freedoms, so that all are protected.

Conservatives are schizophrenic when it comes to the largess of government. In the adolescence of their minds they hate the idea of being told what to do, even though it may be for a common good. In the childishness of their minds they want to be showered with goods and services for which they would not have to work. In the infantile center of their minds they fear the power of bigness, the anonymous bogeymen in Washington who may not know how nice and cute they are and, therefore, may accidentally ignore their infantile, egotistical demands for attention. The adult voice of the conservative is unfortunately all of these, for the adult conservative is a person whose human potential is unrealized.

Being a child of fear and an adult of anxiety the conservative is constantly and inevitably thrown back by daily challenges to his earlier, familiar selves evoking the fears real and imaginary that haunted those days. Forced over and over to relive vestiges of the neglect and sometimes violent willfulness of parents, teachers, and clergy the conservative kindles from among these memories strong reflexive behaviors that recall the excitement and terror of youth.

The conservative becomes addicted to the essential terror of his life. Some of these terrors are idealized and thought of as good, hard lessons, lessons he deserved. He develops a crusty shell on his public fa├žade, one which he hopes will be mistaken for maturity. It is a fantasy, though, for all who look can see it is nothing but the callosities of a tragic life poorly wrought and poorly lived. The conservative is not a man of appropriate ethical prudence; he becomes at his core a moral coward.

James Richard Brett