Why do conservatives conserve?

An online acquaintance recommended that I read the book “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin” by Corey Robin. This is a book of previously published essays, with an introduction in which the author introduces his thesis. The thesis, basically, is that conservatism/reactionism/rightism (he uses the terms synonymously) is an ongoing effort to stamp out any attempt by the lower orders of society to improve their lot. (Also they’re violent and racist.)

I just finished the (39-page) Introduction of the book, before the essays start. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but find myself calling foul or BS on every other page.

First, his attempt to define the right as the side which always tries to beat down the lower orders, seems like a tautology. Rightists try to beat down the lower orders; those that beat down the lower orders may be identified as rightists. If you define it that way, then any time you see this happening in history you can attribute it to the right. But what if there is an instance where the left does it? Or is that possibility defined out of existence?

Shouldn’t you first define an ideology, and then talk about what its adherents have or have not done historically? That way we can identify the subjects first, and observe how they act afterwards; and not define them by how they act — those who do good on the left and those who do bad on the right.

For example he speaks of the abolition movement as a movement of the left, and the resistance to it as a movement of the right; apparently based on the definition of the right as that which tries to suppress the efforts of the lower orders to better themselves. But the abolitionists were mainly Christians and Republicans. Aren’t modern rightists also mainly Christians and Republicans?

If I’m called a conservative at the present time because I want to conserve certain things, or return them to how they were, that’s fair enough. But I may not be aligned ideologically with someone who wanted to conserve things 150 years ago. Possibly someone who agrees with my worldview would want to change things at one time, and conserve things at another. Shouldn’t our purported ideological affinity depend more on the kinds of things I/they want(ed) to conserve, rather than the desire to conserve per se?

People often say, “But Christians and Republicans weren’t conservatives back then,” as if they had mysteriously switched roles with modern atheists and Democrats. Well, maybe that’s because slavery wasn’t something that they wanted to conserve! If you brought them in a time machine to the present day, do you suppose the Christians of 1860 would be conservative or liberal with regard to the question of, say, gay marriage?

Is it mysterious that devout Christians of today, and devout Christians of 150 years ago, would agree in opposing both slavery and gay marriage? I for one would have expected that, since the motivating factor in both cases is the Christian faith, which remains essentially the same.

Up to now I haven’t had a problem with the labels “conservative” and “liberal” to describe political leanings or identities in the present context. But I’m realizing that it does present problems when trying to tie together people from one era to those of another, based solely on their tendency to want to progress or conserve. It’s often remarked by modern conservatives that “progress” is meaningless unless you have a fixed standard by which to judge whether or not you’re progressing. Simply moving “forward” can be neither good nor bad in itself; it’s only good if you’re moving towards something good. But how is “good” to be defined? To define it as “that which progresses” is to reason in a circle.

Well, the same applies to the word “conservative”. It can’t be a virtue to conserve per se. Whether to conserve or progress must be judged by some standard. That standard is the better criteria by which to group the people of one age with those of another. I happen to be conservative today because I consider some of the values that are being discarded by my society, to be worthy of conservation. It doesn’t follow that I would have considered slavery as being worthy of conservation. I conserve (at the present time) for the sake of what I consider good, in accordance with my faith and not just for the sake of conserving; certainly not for the sake of preventing the “lower orders” from bettering themselves!

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The Myth of Liberalism

“The desire-based polity, that is, the polity whose philosophical and legal norms are said to reside in the primacy of individual desires, must in its own logic, … be based on a voluntarist concept of law that has no other justification but what those in power choose. Aristotle had long ago explained that democracies based on ‘liberty’ for its own sake and not for a purpose must end in tyranny.”

James V. Schall, S.J., Review of The Myth of Liberalism, The Imaginative Conservative blog, June 3, 2017. (H/T to Junior Ganymede.)

What it feels like some times

“The followers of the old Church must be overwhelmed per fas et nejas [through right and wrong]. They must be ‘based, discredited, and proceeded against . . . involved in the law and not pardoned . . . till they put themselves wholly to her Highness’s mercy, abjure the Pope of Rome, and conform themselves to the new alteration.’ Nor must they ever again be allowed liberty, for whenever the occasion offers they will probably once more ‘maintain and defend their ancient laws and orders.'”

The English Catholics in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth: A Study of Their Politics, Civil Life, and Government, 1558-1580, from the Fall of the Old Church to the Advent of the Counter-Reformation, by John Hungerford Pollen, S.J. (London:Longmans Green & Co., 1920), quoting “The Device for the Alteration of Religion in the First Year of Queen Elizabeth” (1558) attr. to William Cecil.

I don’t mean that only Catholics feel that way nowadays, but anyone trying to swim against the tide by holding fast to traditional morality.

Show them without being angry

“How cruel it is not to allow men to strive for the things which seem to them suitable to their natures and profitable! Yet in a way you are not allowing them to do this, when you are vexed because they do wrong. For they are certainly moved to do things they suppose to be suitable to their natures and profitable to them. ‘But it is not so.’ Teach them then, and show them without being angry.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Ch. 6, para. 27, trans. by George Long.

This struck me as pertinent to the present atmosphere of intolerance of certain political views, even to the point of violence and destruction; though the anger certainly arises on both sides.

Trump

You may have noticed that my posting dropped off precipitously last Fall. We had a death in the family and, at virtually the same time, I went through a major career change, and seemed to have lost my muse. A lot of it, I think, was being forced to focus on temporal matters. Previously I had been in the same job for a long time, and perhaps was on auto-pilot in regard to making a living. But my employer went out of business, and I had to change jobs and could no longer take things for granted.

In the meantime, the great earthquake known as the presidential election took place. It was so upsetting to me that I stopped watching the news months beforehand. Trump was the very last of the Republican candidates that I wanted to be nominated, and the one who I thought had the least chance of beating the Democrats. I simply resigned myself to eight more years and beyond of Democratic rule, and wished to hear no more about it. It was like knowing with certainty that a train was about to crash with catastrophic results. Some would call that a thing that you can’t help watching, but I tend to turn my eyes away from such things (assuming there’s nothing I can do to prevent it). Knowing the tragic outcome is enough for me, I don’t need to see pictures.

I believed Hillary would win, but could foresee no happiness either way. It was time to check out, prepare for martyrdom. I don’t mean that literally. I didn’t think physical martyrdom was imminent. But I must resign myself to living as a Christian in a regime hostile to Christianity.

When Trump won, I was surprised at how happy I was. It was as though a great weight had been lifted. It wasn’t that I loved Trump, but that the political trajectory which I thought was unstoppable, suddenly altered course. Primarily I exulted in the fact that the Democrats would not get to name the replacement for Scalia (peace be upon him). But also, that a huge chunk of the electorate voiced an emphatic “NO!” to political correctness.

I consider Trump a great big boor, a vindictive teenager in an adult body, crude and rude and annoying. Nevertheless, I am a conservative (according to my lights) and a Christian. How can I not be happy when he appoints pro-life Christians like Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos to his cabinet? What an amazing turnaround, when I had resigned myself to the likes of John Kerry and Kathleen Sebelius for the foreseeable future.

I must admit also that I found the inauguration speech encouraging. What struck me most, not as a Christian but as an American, was the slogan “America First”: “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” A simple idea, one that you would think would be taken for granted, not needing to be said. And again, “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” Of course it is. We expect other countries to do so, and we should do so ourselves. The job of our government is to look out for our interests, not to “make the world a better place”.

Again I’m not a Trump admirer, and did not vote for him, in the primary or in the general election. But when I hear the anti-Trump rhetoric, I can’t help feeling all the gladder that he won instead of them. If the rhetoric focused on him being an immature jerk, I would have no quarrel with it. I’m embarrassed that someone who conducts himself as he does in public, represents us before the world. But I’m convinced that him being the equivalent of Hitler or the KKK is sheer fantasy. I’m far, far more disturbed by the rhetoric and behavior of the anti-Trump factions, than I am by Trump or his followers. I find them far more divisive, indeed I believe they are deliberately so, as a matter of political strategy, whereas Trump’s divisiveness is accidental, following upon his clumsy and brutish manner of expressing himself.

I have no illusions that the next four years will be wonderful or that Trump’s administration will be beyond reproach and devoid of scandal. He’ll do some things right and some things wrong, like any other president. But he’ll do some good things that the Democrats would never have done, and will avoid some bad things that the Democrats would have done, and I can’t help feeling glad about that.

What’s wrong with this picture?

[Note: This was originally posted on December 14, 2016.]

This is a map showing alleged “incidents of hate” that have occurred since the November 8 presidential election (from the website ThinkProgress.org):

capture

A couple of interesting things that I noticed:

1. The two states with the most incidents are New York and California — notoriously the two big states that the candidates never bother to campaign in, since they are a lock for the Democrats, i.e. states with large liberal majorities. There have been a total of 36 incidents in those two states.

2. The states in green are those which have no reported hate crimes since the election. Many of these are notoriously conservative states. What stands out to me in particular are the Southern states of Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina, all of which have zero reported incidents according to this map. Louisiana has one reported hate incident, Georgia two, Tennessee three, for a total of six incidents in the entirety of the Deep South.

I wonder, if you asked random liberals who hadn’t seen this map, which states they predict would have the most reported “incidents of hate”, and which would have the least, how many would predict that California and New York would have six times as many incidents as the Deep South.

You might say that this is due to the larger populations of California and New York. Let’s look at this: California and New York have a total combined population of 58 million, and there were 36 incidents in those two states. Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia and Tennessee have a total combined population of 37 million, and there were six incidents in those six states. If you do the math, you will see that California and New York have an average of 6.2 incidents per 10 million people, while the Southern states have an average of 1.6 incidents per 10 million people; or in other words about four times as many incidents per capita in the coastal, liberal states compared with the Southern states.

Remember, what is supposedly fueling this “wave of hate” is that Trump supporters are being “emboldened” by his election to act out their hatred. If that’s the case, how is it that people living in states that voted Democrat by wide margins are emboldened to act out their hate, while those living states that voted for Trump, are not?

When you consider that the Deep South states are purportedly those with the highest concentration of haters (read “white conservatives”), and the large majorities by which Trump won those states, why aren’t they going absolutely hog-wild with hate, letting their hate flags fly, burning crosses left and right, confident in the approval of all their friends and neighbors?

There’s something wrong with this theory….

[UPDATE (November 12, 2018):]  There were 150 “incidents of hate” as of December 14, 2016, about a month after the election. Since then there have been 111 more. So, 150 in the first month after Trump’s election and about 5 per month since then.

In New York and California we now have a total of 60 incidents, for an average of 10.34 per 10 million people; and in the Southern states listed above there have been 13 incidents, for an average of 3.51 per 10 million people. So about three times as many incidents per capita in the liberal, coastal states compared with the Deep South.

Note that no incidents at all were reported in Mississippi or Arkansas; and one each in Louisiana, Alabama and South Carolina. So evidently the thing to do if you want to escape hate is move to the South!

The government can’t change reality

“The idea that a government would see it as its duty or within its power to redefine what a family is is a sign of a fatal misapprehension. A culture is not defined by its laws; rather, the laws are defined by the living culture. It’s not like murder and theft become bad because governments enact laws against them. Neither do families become different because judges decide that laws will be misconstrued and votes overturned to redefine what a family is. All that does is assure that the police powers of the state will now be used against anyone who does not go along with the insanity.”

Joseph Moore, “Politics as the Least Important Thing“, Yard Sale of the Mind blog, September 16, 2016.