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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Please Explain It To Me

Good morning. I've had some thoughts percolating since December and have decided today is the day —

Letter To My Conservative Friends: 

Or should I say “To Those of My Friends Who Call Themselves ‘Conservative’”? Because I’m having a hard time understanding what you believe and what you want. Maybe it will help if I tell you what I see as “conservatism,” and you tell me where I’m wrong. This is how I see it -- not a definition, by any means, but some important features:

True conservatism defends freedom. Conservatism worthy of the name would stand firm against tyrants around the world, not roll over for them, wiggling and peeing and showing a soft underbelly. I’m not talking about aggressive empire-building — going out and taking over other people’s lands — but standing against those who would do so to others. Are we on the same page here or not? If not, what am I missing?

I also see true conservatism as fiscally responsible. So conservatism would invest in and maintain a strong military but would not send them on pointless, expensive domestic maneuvers or half-heartedly pursue unwinnable, endless foreign wars, squandering public investment and digging an ever-deeper national deficit to prop up private (perhaps unwise) corporate investments. Or do you see protection of private corporate investment overseas and defense of freedom — our own and others’ — not only compatible but inextricably intertwined? Please explain. What policies would you have our country pursue, and how do you see them fall under the umbrella of conservatism?

True conservatism builds for the future. It respects precedent and draws lessons from the past but never forgets that the object of government policy is long-term stability and security and prosperity in the future. In short, a true conservative is not a gambler, and true conservatism would not take foolish risks with our national future for short-term gain, either financial or political. Perhaps this relates to my paragraph above, and one answer will serve to explain my confusion on both points.

True American conservatism stands by the Constitution and the rule of law. Thus conservatism would respect not only a partisan interpretation of the Second Amendment but the entire Constitution. Furthermore, a conservative president would respect (not demean) the office of president, as well as Congress and the judiciary, and would respect freedom of speech and freedom of the press, however violently he might disagree with opinions sometimes expressed. One-man rule would not be conservative, would it? Would it?

(“The law is no respecter of persons” does not mean disrespect: it means that no one person, even the president, is above the law.)

True conservatism is not anarchy. Does this need to be said? Apparently it does. The current Administration in Washington, D.C., would do away with government protections for ordinary citizens at every level and in every department by appointing to office the least-qualified individuals with the strongest short-term self-interest in destroying rather than fulfilling the trust those offices require for their continued operation. The only way I can understand this as part of a conservative agenda is if conservatism believes the missions of these departments is illegitimate exercise of government’s power. That these departments should never have been established. But then, where does conservative respect for precedent begin and end? Is there some historic line in the sand, before which precedents are respected, after which they are undeserving of respect? Or — as I fear — is the label ‘conservative’ merely shorthand for a party line? If your party does it, it’s good; if the other party does it, it’s bad? Respect and conserve the one, disrespect and destroy the other? Can you understand why it’s hard for me not to see what’s happening as essentially partisan?

True conservatism is honest and proud. It is not built on lies and name-calling, blaming, shouting, bullying, and whining. William F. Buckley represented a conservatism I could understand. He did not rely on urging mobs to shout three-word chants but engaged intellectually with opponents and articulated his own views with careful arguments and defense. 

This is why, as I see it, conservatism is moribund in our country today: dying if not dead. Can it be resuscitated? Only, it seems to me, if more than a brave handful of conservatives with spines will once again stand up for its principles. So where do you stand? And where do you think I fail to understand you?

A lot of political mileage has been made of the simplistic and short-sighted idea that government is at the root of every social problem. Is that what you think? Is that how you define conservatism? Think about life in this country without government. Would you really, for the sake of anarchical “freedom,” give up the rule of law and hand over your fortunes and your sacred honor to predatory, unregulated private corporations? Because — follow the money to the power — and you’ll find corporations in the driver’s seat. Where can you see any future security in that scenario? And where, in that picture, is any recognizable conservatism worthy of the name? 

Libertarianism is not conservatism. This, at least, is my opinion, based on considerable reading. Libertarians will tell you that private individuals and corporations will do the right thing because only in that way can they protect their investments and future profits. But the investments of any individual — and thus of any corporation — must be made in the short term for profits to benefit that individual (or those stockholders) directly. In the long run, after all, our generation — like all those before it — will be dead! So if governments around the world do not step into the breach to protect air and water and soil quality, woe betide future generations! Or do you see human nature and the natural human life span differently?

I really want to hear from you. Since I’m opening the conversation, though, I’ll lay my cards on the table and reveal my conclusions here at the start:

Conservatism and progressivism need not be enemy camps. One parent in a family may be stricter and the other more obviously nurturing, but that does not mean children would be better off if both parents always took the same approach or if one’s approach did not temper the other, and it certainly doesn’t mean two parents must engage in continual tug-of-war to raise their children! I’ll go further: sometimes it’s important to listen to grandparents, too, and even the children may have perspectives their elders need to take into account. 

Democracy rests on a faith that something similar is true of government, that we will be better off making decisions together, with more guiding us than the will of a king, more protecting us than the goodwill of the wealthy and powerful. We need justice, and we need understanding and mercy. We need to stand on our own, and a helping hand is sometimes necessary to get us there. 

(If a winner-take-all, Hobbesian “law of the jungle” is your view of freedom, you are an anarchist, not a conservative, as I see it.) 

In any political party, when ideological purity is demanded, ideology gets in the way of practical solutions, but “compromise” does not have to be a dirty word. It doesn’t having no principles. After all, the best way to a given goal may well be a path neither side initially envisioned on its own.

True conservatism looks to its legacy, as does true progressivism. I’m certainly not saying that conservatism and progressivism are “the same” — far from it — but neither wants to leave the country in smoking ruins! So if that isn’t a call for mutual respect and bipartisanship, I’m afraid the danger we face is not to conservatism or progressivism alone but to the very soul and future of our nation. 

We were once the light of the world. American policies were not always right, and I think we all know that. (Don’t we?) Native Americans were massacred and held in concentration camps. Black Africans were enslaved, bought, sold, and treated as less than human. The United States has intervened in the internal events of other countries, sometimes for the good, other times with terrible consequences. Citizens have been denied the right to vote or to have their votes count, and innocent people have been deprived of life and liberty. Through all these blunders and sins, our country espoused right ideals. Have Americans been nothing but hypocrites? I’m not saying that and don’t want to argue the point.

I would say, rather, that from its inception and over its history our country has made periodic and halting efforts to realize its ideals, at times making partial progress and at other times backsliding seriously — as does any human endeavor, individual or group. Acknowledging our national shortcomings is not being unpatriotic, in my book, and certainly I cannot see holding up lies and calling them truths as conservative. Can you?

The conservative may think I am too critical of our history (do you think so?), while the radical will see my picture as too rosy-hued.  The more important question I would put to you is: How does the world see us today? How does it view our national leadership and those who support it? Is a man who shows no respect for the dignity and honor of his own high office conservative? Does “respect” mean nothing more than agreeing with and applauding one man as “the greatest,” even when he forgets he is the highest-ranking servant of the peopleall the people — those who voted for him, those who voted against him, and those who didn’t vote at all; those who cheer him and those who criticize him?

My heart has been heavy for over two years now, and that heaviness weighs on me daily. This is very personal. I feel estranged from too many friends on both sides of the political divide. 

I don’t understand my polite conservative friends because I don’t understand how they can call themselves conservative and continue to see the current president (or speaker of the House, when you come right down to it) as a conservative leader. But there are also the not-so-polite ones, people I thought for years were my friends but who have now cast me into a camp they identify as “left-leaning liberal fascists.” I don’t even know what that is supposed to mean, but it doesn’t matter, because no conversation is possible against chants of “Lock her up! Lock her up! Build the wall! Build the wall!” Places that once felt welcoming and homelike no longer feel that way to me.

Both sides, I said, though, and I mean it. There are some men and women with whom I agree politically, to a large extent, some of them friends of long standing, whose company I now avoid because they operate these days on a permanent setting of high dudgeon, their rage matching that of the chanters on the other side. They follow bad news (and there’s plenty of it) minute-by-minute and eagerly pass along each latest outrageous tweet. The worst part I see in this, what breaks my heart, is the wall they, my political allies, are in the process of building against anyone on the other side of the divide. Some of these friends are politically active in productive ways, also, and that I applaud, but others seem to be doing nothing but shouting. 

Then there are those who studiously avoid any discussion of politics. You might think I would be comfortable with that, but no, that avoidance feels so false to everything I know we are all feeling that I can hardly stand it, even as I politely keep my own observations on life’s surface with strangers until and unless receiving a sign that, whatever our politics, we share present heartbreak. Otherwise, while I go about my public business with my public face, emotionally I tend to draw into my shell, my little world. So yes, I avoid, too, and I feel false when I do it, and how many of us are doing it, and how long can we keep it up? I ask not only my friends who call themselves conservative but all my friends and also anyone I’ve never met who may be reading these words. 

This is about so much more than which party won or lost some particular election or office. It goes so much deeper. It is a plague on our historical moment, played out in public but experienced also in private, in sleepless nights and silent, lonely days. 

Every new year brings fresh opportunities to reach out, to touch, to love, to give, to be grateful for the life we have. But I am untrue to myself if I pretend I’m not feeling the deep sadness that has been the emotional background for me of the past year and that now accompanies me into the present. So if you are feeling it, too, whatever your political beliefs and allegiances, please know that you are not alone. In the end (and yes, I’m finally coming to it), that may be the most important thing I can say: If you are sad, you are not alone. Many of us are hiding sadness and depression, some with angry shouting, some with light small talk, some by withdrawing into silence and isolation.

In this new year already underway (as it’s taken me weeks to decide to make these thoughts public), I wish us all calmer, brighter times, opportunities to look at one another with love and respect, and as many occasions as possible to open our hearts and minds to one another. Because we can’t leave everything to the younger, rising generation. As long as we’re here, age 20 or age 90, we have work to do. Together. 


Dorothy Laage said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the division of Americans. Rather than a letter to your "conservative" friends, it could be a letter to every American. I believe it is about basic respect and to listen to each other. I, too, am having difficulties with "drawing the line in the sand" or sticking our heads in the sand or just ignoring the elephant in the room. All rhetoric for action or inaction. We can chose to act, speak out or ignore. It is our right. However, inaction in essence is action. We should respect that, too.
I agree that when it comes to government, we are public servants, who serve we the people, not just the few that got them elected or will get them elected for their next term. That I believe is the biggest injustice to American society now. Instead of bringing our society together, we are dividing and taking sides. Did we not do this during our Civil War? Haven't we learned that lesson from the World Wars? I believe there is a bigger and uglier elephant in the room that we need to address than what electorial party you affliate your political views. You are not alone in your sleepless nights and sadness. I hope your "conservative friends" will consider your heart felt words carefully and with respect. Thank you for voicing them.

Deborah said...

I'm sharing this hoping that some of my conservative and liberal friends will read and discuss with me, and leave comments for you. It's hard to open this conversation. Thank you for writing this.

Anonymous said...

One either lives in love or lives in fear. They are easy to spot from miles away by the fruits on their branches. Or as Ronald Reagan said, "There's only an up or a down". Machiavellian relativism has eroded the lines of distinction since the days of Napoleon, weighing down the teeter totter in favor of fear.

To remedy this, I recommend switching to love. Listen to Tony Bennett instead of Sinatra, watch Frazier instead of Seinfeld. If you are a gentile, marry a fellow gentile, etc. Only then, will there be peace and harmony in the world.

P. J. Grath said...

Dorothy, as I read your comment I realized that I was addressing all my friends (and readers I don’t know), not only conservatives. I opened with questions to conservative friends, and I do ask them sincerely and hope to hear from a couple, at least. But then there are the problems I have with friends sharing many of my basic political values. Whatever anyone’s views, it clarifies nothing for me if all I hear are shouted slogans or screams of outrage. I want to hear what’s important to my friends, what they value, and what place these values have in their personal lives. Only then can I understand.

Deborah, I hope you have some good results! Let me know, will you? And it is hard to open the conversation. It requires goodwill on both sides — then I want to amend that to say “on all sides,” because I don’t think red and blue exhausts the differences in perspective among us.

Anonymous, I think I understand the first sentences of each of your paragraphs, but after that I get lost, especially with your last sentence. There will be peace and harmony only if we remain in segregated tribes? It seems many generations too late for that, even if I thought it the answer to conflict. No TV in our house. That helps.

Just this morning finished reading Frederick Jackson Turner’s THE FRONTIER IN AMERICAN HISTORY. Turner wrote back in 1910 of a growing sectional feeling in the United States, stronger (in his opinion) than state feeling, so strong in fact that he wondered if sections would someday replace states in the nation’s federal organization. Sectional differences and economic and political competition between sections of the country in the 21st century, then, is nothing new.

He also noted and discussed at length, in various essays and public addresses, the tension between two basic American ideals, democracy (government of, by, and for the people) and freedom (freedom untrammeled and glorified as rugged individualism). Freedom and democracy would undoubtedly have clashed earlier in our history, had it not been for the “free” land of the ever-westward-moving frontier. (Turner refers to it as “free” land, although we all know it was land acquired by warfare, broken treaties, and other reprehensible policies, such as slaughtering buffalo by the thousands so that Native Americans would be forced into submission, with starvation their only alternative.) By 1890, however, the frontier had officially disappeared, the United States had reached the Pacific Ocean, and numerous rugged individualists had used their freedom to amass huge fortunes, putting city and country at odds, section against section, capitalists and labor into sometimes violent opposition, and tilting the laws of the country in favor of those with great wealth, handicapping those who had yet to make theirs.

Divisions and differences are nothing new, but in 1910 Turner felt Americans were doing a good job working past their differences. I don’t think he would be able to say the same about how we’re doing today.

BB-Idaho said...

Your assessment sums both the current political climate and some of the causes. We note that there
were those that saw it building: Kevin Phillips, the Nixon aide who 'invented' the Southern Strategy
repented shortly thereafter and whose works include 'Wealth And Democacy' and 'Bad Money' and 'Americdan Theocracy'. Along with the prescient Susan Jacoby's 'The Age of American Unreason',
of a decade or more past, the writing on the wall was there for those who read walls. We could throw in the numerous studies of the psychology of the conservative and the progressive individual and ponder as well the 'Big Lie' of Dr. Goebbels and the effectiveness of political propoganda.

Surely we can pinpoint causes: self interest, special interest and as you note, fear. We add big money and modern technology: the flood of instant information and misinformation and the interests that
use it for manipulation. Gerrymandering and packing the courts become goals. Goals which run counter to a healthy democracy. Regulation/Deregulation, Pro-life/pro-choice, capitalism/socialism gun rights/gun control, businessman/trade unionist and nationalism/globalsim are catchwords for for fear of the 'other' and seem to lead to the pre-historic tendency to tribalism. Caveman mentality reacting to high tech manipulation serves no good cause.

We note that when one side gains power at some point things go bad and the other side takes over.
Until things go bad and the cycle (one which began in 1789) repeats. As always, the moderate becomes the enemy of both sides, and becomes marginalised. Remarkably, the phenomenon is so apparent that even the Russian agitprop team attempts with some success to push us along the road of politics grown ugly. As Jefferson noted, "a man who is lacking the faculty of reason does not seem capable of any happiness." He strongly felt an educated electorate was necessary for a democracy to flourish. With
current popular “conservative” outlook that academia, science and public schools are the enemy and
“stupid”, small wonder that special interests manipulate us.

So it seems we are part of the illogical maelstrom which posits two Americas, two types of Americans,
two types of problems and two types of solutions. A dichotomy which can only continue to fail us.
We suspect that it will take some disaster, some emergency, a plague, some common serious problem to unite both sides (who are all Americans afterall).

I'm just an old guy who was in diapers when Pearl Harbor was bombed: Silent Generation type.
Doggone its hard to stay silent anymore. Thank you for your well crafted essay...I may have to
borrow some in my blog peregrinations

P. J. Grath said...

BB, thanks for weighing in. Everything I read points to the truth of what you say about the see-saw effect, the cycling we do between extremes -- or is between extreme and moderation? I do feel, as a moderate, "shot at from both sides," but also, like you, cannot just keep my mouth shut month after month. I wonder, though -- MUST WE repeat these vicious thought-wars and speech-wars over and over???

Jeanie Furlan said...

I wonder if these see-sawing cycles are part of human frailty, human ways of dealing with fear, anger and frustration. I don't know if there's a way to make living with those emotions any easier. It certainly is the reason, that frustration, that we have the president that we have now. So where do we go from here? Downhill, some might say. And, yes, it seems we are going lower and lower when you see the tenor of daily conversation and interactions. There are two sides, and ne're the twain shall meet, it seems.
But, I do see signs of people trying to see beyond the labels, people who try to point out good deeds, who try to encourage behavior that takes us out of the Two Sides Tribal behavior. With more women on the political scene, and with some younger people entering this same scene, I think they might be able to help clear the air, maybe to find a way to move people away from those divisions. Rose-colored glasses, perhaps. The Women's March, for example, got divided because one group accepted help from Louis Farrakhan who has made anti-semitic remarks. Disappointing, to say the least. One step forward, one step back. But I do see the new politics, new people entering politics, as trying to be positive about the future, positive about giving people a voice who felt they were ignored. Oh well, this might be my Pollyanna side coming out, but with so many people getting unhappy about our leadership, I get the feeling that THAT will be a way to unite us.

P. J. Grath said...

Jeanie, it seems our minds are on the same wave length this morning! Here are some notes I wrote earlier to put up somewhere, so I'll just put them here:

On this morning honoring the memory and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and in light of anger and despair over divisions within our country, I think back to the country I grew up in and remember many issues and events that divided Americans. I remember people of adult age (I can’t call them adults) who attacked school buses, rocking the buses until they were rolled over, terrifying young children, all because the so-called grownups opposed school integration. Civil rights workers were threatened and even murdered. There was the awful war in Vietnam and huge protests against the war. And there were horrific assassinations — President Kennedy and his brother, as well as MLK, Jr. There was the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, with police beating demonstrators with clubs, the Kent State shooting in 1970, the Wounded Knee “incident” (as it’s called online) in 1973. We didn’t need to look beyond our borders at other countries to see suffering and injustice.

So is it really the case that “we have never been more divided”? I wonder. Perhaps, like economic booms and busts, social peace and unrest come in cycles. Perhaps these dark times can even serve some kind of purpose, reminding us that democracy is not easy and that it makes demands on all of us, if we would ever come together as one nation. I don’t know. It’s difficult to compare the country I saw when I was young to the country I see now that I am old: experienced no doubt colors my perspective. But we gain nothing by giving up on each other.