Friday, June 09, 2006

Dear Dr. B:

Dear Dr. B:

I have friends who are conservatives, who vote Republican every time, and nevertheless seem in many other ways to be normal human beings. Is there something that I am missing about them? Do they ask questions like this to their conservative shrinks about me? Can I trust these people with my children? Should I loan them my lawnmower? Should I tell them I have a self-defense hand gun in my house? Should I have a self-defense hand gun ... in my house?

Dear Worried:

These are good questions, and I am pleased that you have found that part of yourself where the answers to these questions will be important. You have understood that being a Liberal is not necessarily the road for everyone. It is a sign of healthy growth.

You need to understand that people on different roads might also be totally lost. So to answer part of your last question: Yes, it is okay to have a self-defense hand gun. You should take it to a shooting range at least once a year and practice holding and firing it. You may keep it in your house, but remember, if you have children they will eventually find it and perhaps hurt or kill themselves or some other child with it. If you are in a high-crime area, burglars may intrude and find it. There is no magic bullet, pardon the expression, for personal safety. You may drop a burglar with your hand gun, or the burglar may get it away from you and show you the way out.

The thing about conservatives in general is that they have a fundamentally understandable world view. They believe that their views about "life and the big city" are coherent and add up to a consistent package. To get a handle on their politics, let's think about their foundational ideas.

A modern day conservative usually has a view of humanity based on an incomplete understanding of modern science and culture. They correctly believe that half the people are smarter than the other half, because they have understood that's the way we measure intelligence in public schools, defining half above and half below the mid-point IQ of 100.

Most of them do not understand one thing about standard deviations, so they miss the point that 68% of all Americans (or whatever normal curve group you are discussing) are within one standard deviation of average. 95% are within two standard deviations. When you say standard deviation to an "average" conservative their eyes roll and their first thought is "deviation = deviant." Wrong! But that's what goes through their minds.

Most people think that they are above average in intelligence. This is a normal kind of narcissism that is harmless enough, but it leads in some cases, conservatives being conspicuous among them, to some equally false conclusions. For instance, to maintain the illusion of being better than average, lots of people use irrelevant measures to shore up the idea of superiority. Most use "income" as a measure. Those with better than average incomes believe themselves to be better than average. The super rich begin to think that the obviousness of money (and adult toys) as a measure is too simple to be the whole truth, so they invent multiplier measures to account for their wealth and superiority over the dull average masses. Ultimately they become completely alienated from humanity.

But money is not their only measure of being above average. Some conservative people think that fitting oneself to an ideal (never mind whose ideal) is a measure of superiority. Thus, some believe that being heterosexually married with 2.6 children (this number varies over different epochs) is the ideal, and that having reached this pinnacle of performance, they are superior.

Some people get their superiority by contrast with people who have dramatically NOT achieved an ideal. They look down their putatively patrician noses at Sanford and Son.

Others believe that God predestines certain people to be superior, and still others believe that accepting a doctrine of religion and asking forgiveness for sins qualifies one as above average. They don't see it as self-righteousness, but it is.

All of these measures, including the Stanford-Binet IQ measure are false. The truth is that life and humanity are so complex that what serves to distinguish one person from another in one case at a certain time is woefully inadequate to distinguish other people at other times. Life is complex and messy. Yes, we can predict to a fair degree of accuracy the number of Americans who will be killed on the nation's highways each year, and we can imagine the number who will get Ph.D.'s or be convicted of murder, but these statistical guesses do not introduce you to anyone, and you do not know any particular person for knowing these things.

Yes, some people are bad. They sometimes go bad very early on, and sometimes only after a lot of college and corporate ladder climbing. Some are lazy good-for-nothings, and some are so acquisitive that they cannot stop stealing other peoples money.

In a word and phrase, making invidious distinctions among people misses the point that they are all complex, interesting, and innately worthy of being judged as human beings. Test your conservative out with this question: "Say, Jack, if only 2.5% of the population are very, very bright, and if on the other side 2.5% are very, very dull mentally, then which are the more human?" If your conservative friend is average he will say the high end people are more human, that they represent the direction humanity is going, or that the low end people are less human, and he will be oblivious to the truth that they are all just as human.

Worried: But how does this relate to conservative v. liberal, and how does it relate to politics?

Dr. B.: Politics is the craft of sharing a commonwealth with whomever else happens to be here. Everyone knows that some people are born with defects or that they have defects inflicted upon them by disease or accidents, wars, or crimes. Everyone knows that some homes are better nurseries for the young, while other homes are better for teenagers. So, everyone knows that all human beings are not created or grow up to be equal. Sharing a commonwealth is complicated. We liberals agree that the only way to deal with the differences is to accept the idea that we are all equal before the law. There are differences and some of these differences are problems, while other differences produce solutions.

Who knows which person is likely to become a solution-bearer or is suddenly going to save someone's life. It does not take years of lifeguard training to do it, nor does it take great education or even great motivation. It takes opportunity and an innate sense of the value of other human beings, the ones you know and the ones you will never know. You never know about people, so the best motto is to believe in them until you have a good reason not to believe in an specific individual.

Conservatives have a lot of trouble with this concept because they believe they should conserve their care for their fellow man on the theory there is only so much to go around. Yes, conservatives believe in a zero sum game of life where once the pie is divvied up, there is no more pie. Liberals, on the other hand, understand that pie is not the only form of nutrition and that, moreover, human beings are wise enough to find these alternatives.

Right along with the zero sum game approach, conservatives almost always believe in the law of the jungle. This is also known as the "survival of the fittest" concept, and conservatives, even those who believe in special creation, believe that humans are inherently competitive for scarce resources and that the people who get what they need are, ipso facto, superior to those who for whatever reason do not get what they need.

One of the characteristics of conservatives is that they believe that society and government should operate to assist those people who get their piece of the pie and who survive the competition, since they have proven their superiority and should rule. In an irony that would make most blush, they tend to forget that once they have molded a government in their own image, it tends to work against anyone who does not share their point of view.

These two ideas, "zero sum game" and "survival of the fittest" are the foundation upon which is built the entire edifice of modern conservative thought. Neither idea is original, nor are they necessarily linked, but conservatives do link them and forget all about the fact that civilization is different from the jungle, that culture is a human device for transcending the worst in humanity.

Worried: Okay, Dr. B., I understand that, but what practical significance does it have? Should I let my kids play with their kids? Should I loan them my lawn mower?

Dr. B.: No, you should not loan your mower to them, unless they have a good reason for not having one themselves, such as theirs just broke down yesterday and their lawn is shaggy. Ask yourself what would be going through their minds if you were asking to borrow their mower. Borrowing mowers is a way conservatives use to balance their budgets. Let them balance it with their own resources. They like to preach about personal responsibility, so let them live some of it too.

Of course, you should let your kids play with theirs until you find out that there is something out of order. If the kids play doctor *every day* then begin to wonder. All kids play doctor sometime, so just make sure your kids are prepared for it. Your kids will be a good influence on their kids, and more than likely your kids will meet with stranger folk than these as they grow up and move out on their own. It is all about getting to understand who is sharing the commonwealth with us.

Worried: I guess I understand all of this, Dr. B., but you haven't answered one of my questions, you know.

Dr. B.: Yes, I know. You should not tell them you have a self-defense hand gun in the house. Conservatives believe in having guns to protect themselves against ne'er-do-wells and crooks and, someday, against godless commies. They like to go hunting, too, of course, and some actually do in some parts of the country and some never hunt in other parts.

There's no telling what these conservatives think of your politics, but odds are they are very clumsy at making distinctions between "godless commies" and American Liberals. If you see an NRA sticker on your neighbor's car (or pickup in Texas) then you can be assured that your neighbors have more weapons than they can possibly shoot at one time. More to the point, they usually have something laid by just in case they detect a commie take over. The whole point of having the right to bear arms (in a well-regulated militia) is that well-regulated militias and commie take-overs are what the vigilantes and NRA say they are. Think about it.

James Richard Brett, Ph.D.