A Phantom of the Mind

Liberalism often gets defined narrowly. This is true at least in mainstream American politics, by which I mean the present dominant society with its dominant frame.

It isn’t just conservatives and right-wingers misrepresenting liberalism, as seen with the arguments of Russel Kirk (also, consider Thomas Sowell, whose view of conservative constrained vision is similar to Kirk’s conservative claim of balance, both arguing against the imbalance supposedly expressed by liberal and left-wing extremism). Even certain kinds of liberals will fall into the same trap. Take for example the strange views of Jonathan Haidt.

This wasn’t always the case. In earlier 20th century, liberalism was praised widely by major politicians (including presidents) in both of the main parties. What this implies is that liberalism was seen more broadly at the time.

Consider Eisenhower’s words when he stated that, “Extremes to the right and left of any political dispute are always wrong,” and that “The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.” Yet, in speaking of extremes, he saw liberalism as part of the moderate and moderating middle:

So that here we have, really, the compound, the overall philosophy of Lincoln: in all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with the peoples money or their economy, or their form of government, be conservativeand dont be afraid to use the word. And so today, Republicans come forward with programs in which there are such words as balanced budgets, and cutting expenditures, and all the kind of thing that means this economy must be conservative, it must be solvent. But they also come forward and say we are concerned with every Americans health, with a decent house for him, we are concerned that he will have a chance for health, and his children for education. We are going to see that he has power available to him. We are going to see that everything takes place that will enrich his life and let him as an individual, hard-working American citizen, have full opportunity to do for his children and his family what any decent American should want to do.

Even in his brand of fiscal conservatism, he advocated for the wildest fantasies of progressives (unions, social security, etc) and defended a top income tax bracket at 91%. It is obvious that what he considered conservative back then would be considered liberal today. He was much further to the left than today’s Democratic Party. So, his moderate middle was also much further to the left than it is at present.

What stands out to me in Ike’s worldview is how he perceives liberalism. Political ideologies in the US get defined by governance and economics, which he sees as the territory of conservatism but not of liberalism. Instead, liberalism is at essence about people. Liberalism expresses the human quality of a good society. In that society is created by and for people, liberalism is an atmosphere that permeates the concerns for the public good. It is the broader guiding vision, the moral standard for our shared humanity.

* * * *

Let me return to the narrow view of liberalism. I came across a Clark L. Coleman who argued for the position of Russel Kirk. He writes that,

Kirk’s point is that conservatism is based on a balancing of numerous principles that society accepts as social goods. For example, we balance the need for law and order with the desire for individual liberty. We balance the desire to propagate our Christian heritage, and the benefits of having a religious populace, with the desire for religious freedom and the wariness of the problems of having an established state church. We seek equality under the law, but temper that with the recognition that institutions (church, marriage, military, et al.) must be exclusive to some degree to accomplish their missions. We desire the strength that nationalist feelings produce, but recognize that they lead to a warlike nation if untempered by other concerns, etc. A kind of Aristotelian moderation is central to conservatism.

Whatever that may describe, it isn’t the actual existing tradition of mainstream American conservatism. So, what is he describing? I really don’t get the argument being made. Obviously, this conservatism is envisioned as an ideal state, rather than the mundane reality of politics as it is. But what purpose does that serve? If this conservatism doesn’t accurately describe most self-identified conservatives, then whose conservatism is this? Is it just a conservatism for detached intellectuals, such as Kirk?

Anyway, Coleman goes on to offer the other side. He explains what forms the basis of everything that isn’t conservatism, most especially liberalism:

In contrast to conservatism, liberalism is an ideology in which a particular concept of “fairness and equality” is the principle that trumps all others; libertarianism is an ideology in which “individual liberty” is the principle that trumps all others; and Marxism is an ideology in which a certain definition of class struggle is at the center of all policy decisions and all analyses of the world. Empirical evidence to the contrary means nothing to ideologues; telling them that their One True Principle is insufficient to analyze all public policy would require them to undergo a complete change of world view.

I’m not familiar with the details of Kirk’s views. I don’t know if this is a fair and accurate presentation. But I do know it is a common view among conservatives, specifically more well-educated conservatives. It is even found among conservative-minded liberals such as Jonathan Haidt, who sees conservatism as a balance of values in contrast to liberals as inherently imbalanced and hence prone to extremism.

This argument is a rhetorical trick, so it seems to me. It’s a strategy of the Cold War. The 20th century was a conflict of ideologies. Those ideologies can be labeled and categorized in various ways, but this version of conservatism gets safely removed from the entire ideological debate. It is a declaration that conservatism is above and beyond all discussion and disagreement. This is a stance of refusal to engage.

I felt irritated by that argument. It felt dishonest. In response to Coleman, I expressed my irritation by saying that, “If conservatism isn’t an ideology, then neither is liberalism. Only an ideologue would make an argument that one is an ideology and the other not. That would be a classic case of projection. It isn’t helpful to make caricatures of and straw man arguments against opposing views, attitudes, and predispositions.”

Coleman responded in turn with a defense that touches on the heart of our disagreement. He writes that, “Your comment does not engage my explanation at all. Kirk’s definition of ideology was standard until the common usage became fuzzy. It is not a caricature or straw man.” He is accusing me of not engaging because I don’t accept his premise, but I don’t accept his premise because it is an unproven assumption.

That is intriguing. Coleman is so confident that his view is right. He claims that it was only later that “common usage became fuzzy”. Even many other conservatives would disagree with that claim. This would include Eisenhower, who began his presidency the same year Kirk published The Conservative Mind. Of course, the likes of Kirk and Coleman would simply assert that anyone who disagrees with them aren’t True Conservatives, a pointless assertion to make but it sure does end debate.

* * * *

Both Eisenhower and Kirk were arguing for balance and against extremism. It was something in the air at the time. Across the political spectrum, many Americans were seeking  a new vision  to unify the country in the post-war era. For certain, conservatives like Kirk didn’t have sole proprietorship of this early Cold War attitude. It was the frame of mainstream debate at that time, rather than simply being one side of the debate.

For a while now, I’ve been trying to disentangle the mess of American political ideologies and labels. It’s been on my mind going back at least to the early Bush administration, at a time when I was studying the social science research on personality types and traits, but my questioning has grown stronger in recent years. I began to articulate a new understanding of what liberalism and conservatism mean, both attitudinally and historically (also demographically). I was forced to think more deeply and challenge my own previous assumptions, because the data I was looking at indicated a much more complex social reality.

It is because Coleman and Kirk take a dogmatically ideological stance that they can’t deal with this complexity that refuses to conform to narrow categorical boxes. I didn’t want to fall into the same trap. I want to fully understand various positions on their own terms, even if not on their own rhetoric.

My own views have shifted a lot over time. More recently, I’ve been moving toward the almost the mirror opposite of the Kirkian position, without even knowing that was what I was doing (as I have little direct familiarity with Kirk’s writings):

It seems to me that liberalism isn’t inherently or inevitably opposite of conservatism, at least in American politics. Conservatism has become conflated with the right-wing in a way that hasn’t happened on the opposite side of the spectrum. There is still a clear sense of distance and disconnection between liberalism and the left-wing for the Cold War turned the left-wing into a scapegoat that liberals felt compelled to disown or else be attacked as commies and fellow-travelers. Liberals have instead for the most part embraced the role of the middle, the moderate. I’ve even sensed that liberals have taken up the role of the traditionalists in defending the status quo which is what traditionalists did in the past. I’ve speculated that conservatives or at least reactionary conservatives attack liberals for the same reason they attacked traditionalists in earlier times. Left-wingers are the revolutionaries and conservatives have become the counter-revolutionaries, meanwhile liberals have sought to moderate between the two.

Much of my thought has been driven by social science research. I’ve sought to make sense of the insight that, “It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal” (Skitka et al). That indicates an aspect of the broadness of liberalism. The ease of the liberal-minded to switch ideological positions points to something fundamental to liberalism itself and hence something lacking in conservatism. The liberal worldview is able to cover a larger area of ideological terrain. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it demonstrates how little conservatives understand the real weaknesses of liberalism.

One political philosopher that has forced me to rethink even further in this direction is Domenico Losurdo. He is a Continental European left-winger and a critic of American liberalism. His book on the counter-history of liberalism is challenging for any American, for the framework of his thought can feel alien and perplexing.

In my first analysis of his views, I ended up conjecturing that, “Maybe liberalism is more of a worldview than an ideology, a worldview that happens to be the dominant paradigm at the moment. As such, everything gets put into the context of and defined by liberalism.” I elaborated on this point later on, in a discussion with C. Derick Varn (AKA skepoet), the person who introduced me to Losurdo’s work:

In response to Losurdo, I’ve played around with a broader definition of ‘liberalism’ than even he offers. I see ‘liberalism’ in some ways as the ultimate product of the Enlightenment, the basis upon which everything else is built, the ideology everything else is defined according to or against.

Liberalism isn’t an ideology in the way conservatism, libertarianism, Marxism, etc is an ideology. No, liberalism is the ideological framework for all of those ideologies. It is the paradigm of our age.

This connects to why I don’t see conservatism as the opposite of liberalism. Instead, I see conservatism as the opposite of leftism. Liberalism is both the center and periphery of modern politics.

I’m not sure any ideology has yet fully challenged the liberal paradigm. So, I’m not sure any ideology has yet freed itself from liberal taint. We’ll need something even more radical than the most radical left-wing politics to get the thrust for escape velocity.

Now, that is turning Kirkian thought on its head. And I did so without even trying. My purpose was simply to make sense of evidence that had been perplexing me for years. This conclusion emerged organically from a slowly developing line of thought or rather web of thoughts. It makes sense to me at the moment. It has great explanatory power. Yet like anything else I offer, it is a tentative hypothesis.

* * * *

It is now more than a half century since Kirk wrote about his views on conservatism.

It is true that back then, prior to the Southern Strategy, conservatism was a more moderate political movement and may have played more of a moderating role. However, that is most definitely no longer the case, which implies that Kirk’s view of conservatism was historically contingent, at best. He failed to find the heart of conservatism, whatever that may be.

Still, even in the context of the 1950s, it would be hard to take conservatism as some genuinely non-ideological framing of and balance between the ideological extremes. Conservatism, as Corey Robin argues, has always had a central element of reactionary extremism. Or, as I’ve often said, there is a good reason American conservatism is linked to, rooted in, and identified with classical liberalism rather than classical conservatism or classical traditionalism.

My approach is influenced by a larger view. Both larger in terms of historical time and larger in terms of spectrum of positions. The historical is particularly important to my understanding, and I find myself pairing the historical with the etymological. In a comment from a discussion about liberal bias and the meaning of liberalism, I explored some of the background:

If we look at the history of the word ‘liberal’, it didn’t originally relate to an ideology. The original meaning was related to freedom (liber). The earliest use of it was in terms of “liberal arts”, i.e., free inquiry. Another early use was in terms of a free person, i.e., not a serf or slave or indentured servant. In modern history, the main meaning of ‘liberal’ has always directly referred to being liberal-minded: not literal or strict; not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms; etc.

Even in its earliest use, ‘liberal’ meant the same as we mean it today such as being free from restraint, the main difference being that only after the Enlightenment did it take on a more clearly positive interpretation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people would use liberal in the sense of being free of bigotry or prejudice which has the exact same meaning today. All of these basic meanings haven’t changed over the past centuries since it was first used in 1375. It was only in the mid 19th century that liberalism became a politicized term, long after classical liberalism had become a defined ideology. Limiting liberal to a single ideology is a very recent phenomenon and one that has never been agreed upon since a number of ideologies have been labeled as ‘liberal’.

Conservatism, as a descriptive word applied to people, is a much more recent term. It is for this reason that conservatism has a much more narrow context of meaning than liberalism. So, conservatism always has been defined in contrast and reaction to liberalism, specifically within the parameters of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought.

* * * *

An issue that has been gnawing at mind for longer than almost any other single issue is a particular inconsistency in conservative thought. I’ve come to call it symbolic conflation, which is just to say that conservative identity uses symbolic rhetoric that obscures its own real meaning and purpose.

This isn’t meant as a dismissal, but more as a sociological assessment. As I argue about symbolic conflation, it plays a far different role in society than does the liberal approach. I tend to see conservatism and liberalism as psychological predispositions and social phenomena. They are patterns of cognitive behavior, both individual and collective. “Liberals,” in challenging conservatives, “want to loosen up the social order, but they don’t want to pull out the lynchpin.” As I further explain:

This is why liberals can be more conservative than even conservatives, moderating the extremes. The reason conservatives rule to the extent that they do so is because liberals allow them.

Social order is a strange thing. It would seem even stranger that conservatives take social order for granted more than do liberals. I suppose this is the case because for conservatives social order always has to largely play out on the level of unconsciousness.

None of this is meant directly as a criticism of conservatism. Conservatism can be used in the service of beneficial social orders just as easily with destructive social orders. The deal conservatives and liberals have is the following. Liberals won’t do an all out assault on the symbolic conflation that holds social order together and conservatives will incorporate liberalism into the social order so as to strengthen it. Whether this is a good deal, whether this is symbiosis or codependency (certainly not opposing ideologies in a simplistic sense) is another matter. I offer it just as an observation and analysis of how society seems to operate.

In thinking about this inconsistency, I realize how it connects back to the Kirkian theory of conservative balance. It also occurs to me that this goes back to Edmund Burke. The critics of Burke complained about his inconsistency, something I’ve discussed before. That is important since many conservatives, Kirk included, have seen the Anglo-American conservative tradition as having its roots in Burkean politics. Kirk is using Burke’s claim of balance as a defense against inconsistency:

[O]ne who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end, and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise.

I guess Kirk isn’t necessarily offering anything new.

* * * *

Going by Coleman’s explication, there are two basic ways of thinking about ideology.

The first definition is as a system of beliefs (or ideas). But that isn’t what Kirk’s conservatism is concerned with.

That brings us to the second definition which, “roughly, is a set of one or two principles from which an adherent attempts to see all of life, and which he refuses to broaden even when empirical evidence indicates that his one or two principles are insufficient for deciding correctly all the great matters of life.” Ideology, in this second sense, is directly related to the ideologue as in a true believer who is dogmatic, narrow-minded, and rigid.

The problem with that view is that what is being described is precisely liberal-mindedness. By definition, liberalism is generosity of mind and spirit. Conservative’s are being haunted not by some dark shadow cast by liberal ideals, but by their own imaginings. They project their own fears onto all other ideologies, while denying their own ideological culpability.

If one thinks too long on all of this, conservatism begins to seem like smoke slipping through one’s fingers. Burke was a progressive reformer who belonged to the party on the political left, but was remembered by most for his reaction against the French Revolution. He never settled into principled position that defined his politics. By his own admission, his politics was the shifting of a boat on an ocean.

All in all, Burke was more like a mainstream Cold War liberal reacting to (real and perceived) enemies of the state and of the status quo. Maybe Kirk himself was just another one of those liberals being pulled by fear. Maybe that is what Anglo-American conservatism has always been about.

That reminds me of the quote by Irving Kristol. He said that a neo-conservative, the central form of modern American conservatism, is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” There are a number of things interesting about that.

First, he defines neo-conservatism using the same Burkean argument as Kirk, as here described:

an ideology but a “persuasion,” a way of thinking about politics rather than a compendium of principles and axioms.[12] It is classical rather than romantic in temperament, and practical and anti-Utopian in policy.

Second, I sense genuine insight in the admission that conservatism has its origins in liberalism. The liberal in reacting to fear becomes a conservative, but conservatism as such only exists in the reaction. That fits the social science research about liberalism.

It’s possible that, as Corey Robin theorizes, all of conservatism is defined by reaction. The supposed mugging could be literal or metaphorical. The point is that the conservative is responding to something with fear, even if it is only in their own imaginings. Some people find themselves temporarily in reaction while others get permanently stuck. The latter are what we call conservatives.

Permanent reaction is a strange way to live one’s life, for reaction isn’t anything in itself. An independent non-ideological conservatism is a phantom of the mind.

Human Condition

Human nature and the human condition
by The Philosopher’s Beard Blog

“The distinction between human nature and the human condition has implications that go beyond whether some academic sub-fields are built on fundamental error and thus a waste of time (hardly news). The foundational mistake of assuming that certain features prominent among contemporary human beings are true of H. sapiens and therefore true of all of us has implications for how we think about ourselves now. There is a lack of adequate critical reflection – of a true scientific spirit of inquiry – in much of the naturalising project. It fits all too easily with our natural desire for a convenient truth: that the way the world seems is the way it has to be.

“For example, many people believe that to be human is to be religious – or at least to have a ‘hunger for religion’ – and argue as a result that religion should be accorded special prominence and autonomy in our societies – in our education, civil, and political institutions. American ‘secularism’ for example might be said to be built on this principle: hence all religions are engaged in a similar project of searching for the divine and deserve equal respect. The pernicious implication is that the non-religious (who are not the same as atheists, by the way) are somehow lacking in an essential human capability, and should be pitied or perhaps given help to overcome the gaping hole in their lives.

“Anatomically modern humans have been around in our current form for around 200,000 years but while our physiological capacities have scarcely changed we are cognitively very different. Human beings operate in a human world of our own creation, as well as in the natural, biological world that we are given. In the human world people create new inventions – like religion or war or slavery – that do something for them. Those inventions succeed and spread in so far as they are amenable to our human nature and our other inventions, and by their success they condition us to accept the world they create until it seems like it could not have been otherwise.

“Recognising the fact that the human condition is human-made offers us the possibility to scrutinise it, to reflect, and perhaps even to adopt better inventions. Slavery was once so dominant in our human world that even Aristotle felt obliged to give an account of its naturalness (some people are just naturally slavish). But we discovered a better invention – market economies – that has made inefficient slavery obsolete and now almost extinct (which is not to say that this invention is perfect either). The human condition concerns humans as we are, but not as we have to be.”

The Final Rhapsody of Charles Bowden
A visit with the famed journalist just before his death.
by Scott Carrier, Mother Jones Magazine

“Postscript from Bowden’s Blood Orchid, 1995: Imagine the problem is not physical. Imagine the problem has never been physical, that it is not biodiversity, it is not the ozone layer, it is not the greenhouse effect, the whales, the old-growth forest, the loss of jobs, the crack in the ghetto, the abortions, the tongue in the mouth, the diseases stalking everywhere as love goes on unconcerned. Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or a redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine that it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can affect real change, that our civilization, our governments are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead and that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness … then what are we to do?”

Bullshit Jobs

The Robot Economy and the Crisis of Capitalism: Why We Need Universal Basic Income
by The Philosopher’s Beard Blog

“Finally, and more positively, a basic income would allow us to take advantage of the liberation offered by material abundance. As the anthropologist David Graeber noted in a recent essay, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, when you look at the content of most of the work people do these days, “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.” The cult of work has persisted long after it stopped really making sense and the material prosperity prophesied by Keynes came to pass. A great many people are trapped in jobs that are wholly or mostly pointless – Graeber has a particular go at corporate lawyers and university administrators – simply because they need to earn a claim on the productivity of the economy somehow, and automation has reduced the number of jobs in industries that make or do things that are actually useful, like growing food or building things.

“Artificial intelligence would undermine most of those pseudo-jobs, to the extent that they are worth doing at all, while a basic income would provide us with the freedom as a society not to set out to create a new set of pointless jobs, as flunkies to the new upper-classes, say. Finally we would be able to stop wasting half our waking lives on activities that really don’t matter whether we do them or not. Finally we would all have the right to the dignified leisure of the gentleman, not the hopeless and morally stigmatised inactivity of the unemployed. We would be able to live our lives for ourselves, though whether we would use that freedom to embark on noble projects and philosophical contemplation, or merely to watch more TV and play golf is another matter (and one I have tried to address elsewhere).”

ON THE PHENOMENON OF BULLSHIT JOBS
by David Graeber, Strike! Magazine

“The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them” [ . . . ]

“Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

“If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the – universally reviled – unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.”

American Empire

The Immorality of Preventive War
by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., History News Network

“One of the astonishing events of recent months is the presentation of preventive war as a legitimate and moral instrument of U.S. foreign policy.

“This has not always been the case. Dec. 7, 1941, on which day the Japanese launched a preventive strike against the U.S. Navy, has gone down in history as a date that will live in infamy. During the Cold War, advocates of preventive war were dismissed as a crowd of loonies. When Robert Kennedy called the notion of a preventive attack on the Cuban missile bases “Pearl Harbor in reverse,” and added, “For 175 years we have not been that kind of country,” he swung the ExCom–President Kennedy’s special group of advisors–from an airstrike to a blockade.

“The policy of containment plus deterrence won the Cold War. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, everyone thanked heaven that the preventive-war loonies had never got into power in any major country.

“Today, alas, they appear to be in power in the United States.”

Can You Say “Blowback” in Spanish?
The Failed War on Drugs in Mexico (and the United States)
By Rebecca Gordon

“All in all, the U.S. drug war in Mexico has been an abject failure. In spite of high-profile arrests, including in 2014 Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who ran the Sinaloa group, and in 2015 Servando “La Tuta” Gómez, head of the Knights Templar Cartel in Michoacán, the cartels seem as strong as ever. They may occasionally split and reassemble, but they are still able to move plenty of product, and reap at least $20 billion a year in sales in the United States. In fact, this country remains the world’s premier market for illegal drugs.

“The cartels are responsible for the majority of the methamphetamine sold in the United States today. Since 2006, when a federal law made it much harder to buy ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in this country, the cartels have replaced small-time U.S.-based meth cookers. The meth they produce is purer than the U.S. product, apparently because it’s made with purer precursor chemicals available from China. The other big product is heroin, whose quickly rising consumption seems to be replacing the demand for cocaine in the United States. On the other hand, marijuana legalization appears to be cutting into the cross-border traffic in that drug.

“The Washington Post reports that almost 9% of Americans “age 12 or older — 22.6 million people — are current users of illegal drugs, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.” That represents a one-third increase over the 6.2% in 1998. It takes a lot of infrastructure to move that much product.

“And that’s where U.S.-based gangs come in. Urban gangs in the United States today are not the Sharks and Jets of West Side Story. Certainly, there are still some small local groups formed by young people looking for family and solidarity on the streets. All too often, however, today’s gangs represent the well-run distribution arm of the international drug trade. In Chicago alone, 100,000 people work in illegal drug distribution, selling mostly into that city’s African-American community. Gang membership is skewing older every year, as gangs transform from local associations to organized, powerfully armed criminal enterprises. Well over half of present gang members are adults now. The communities where they operate live in fear, caught between the gangs that offer them employment while threatening their safety and militarized police forces they do not trust.

“Just like U.S. military adventures in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the U.S.-Mexico war on drugs has only left a larger problem in place, while producing blowback here at home. A particularly nasty example is the cartels’ use of serving U.S. military personnel and veterans as hit men here in the United States. But the effects are far bigger than that. The DEA told the Washington Post that Mexican cartels are operating in more than 1,200 U.S. cities. In all those cities, the failed war on drugs has put in prison 2.3 million people — in vastly disproportionate numbers from communities of color — without cutting demand by one single kilo. And yet, though that war has only visibly increased the drug problem in the same way that the war on terror has generated ever more terror organizations, in both cases there’s no evidence that any other course than war is being considered in Washington.”

The New American Order
1% Elections, The Privatization of the State, a Fourth Branch of Government, and the Demobilization of “We the People”
by Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch.com

“[B]ased on developments in our post-9/11 world, we could be watching the birth of a new American political system and way of governing for which, as yet, we have no name.

“And here’s what I find strange: the evidence of this, however inchoate, is all around us and yet it’s as if we can’t bear to take it in or make sense of it or even say that it might be so.

“Let me make my case, however minimally, based on five areas in which at least the faint outlines of that new system seem to be emerging: political campaigns and elections; the privatization of Washington through the marriage of the corporation and the state; the de-legitimization of our traditional system of governance; the empowerment of the national security state as an untouchable fourth branch of government; and the demobilization of “we the people.”

“Whatever this may add up to, it seems to be based, at least in part, on the increasing concentration of wealth and power in a new plutocratic class and in that ever-expanding national security state. Certainly, something out of the ordinary is underway, and yet its birth pangs, while widely reported, are generally categorized as aspects of an exceedingly familiar American system somewhat in disarray. [ . . . ]

“Otherwise, a moment of increasing extremity has also been a moment of — to use Fraser’s word — “acquiescence.” Someday, we’ll assumedly understand far better how this all came to be. In the meantime, let me be as clear as I can be about something that seems murky indeed: this period doesn’t represent a version, no matter how perverse or extreme, of politics as usual; nor is the 2016 campaign an election as usual; nor are we experiencing Washington as usual. Put together our 1% elections, the privatization of our government, the de-legitimization of Congress and the presidency, as well as the empowerment of the national security state and the U.S. military, and add in the demobilization of the American public (in the name of protecting us from terrorism), and you have something like a new ballgame.

“While significant planning has been involved in all of this, there may be no ruling pattern or design. Much of it may be happening in a purely seat-of-the-pants fashion. In response, there has been no urge to officially declare that something new is afoot, let alone convene a new constitutional convention. Still, don’t for a second think that the American political system isn’t being rewritten on the run by interested parties in Congress, our present crop of billionaires, corporate interests, lobbyists, the Pentagon, and the officials of the national security state.

“Out of the chaos of this prolonged moment and inside the shell of the old system, a new culture, a new kind of politics, a new kind of governance is being born right before our eyes. Call it what you want. But call it something. Stop pretending it’s not happening.”

The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic
Chalmers Johnson, pp. 1-3

“As distinct from other peoples on this earth , most Americans do not recognize— or do not want to recognize— that the United States dominates the world through its military power. Due to government secrecy, they are often ignorant of the fact that their government garrisons the globe. They do not realize that a vast network of American military bases on every continent except Antarctica actually constitutes a new form of empire.

“Our country deploys well over half a million soldiers, spies, technicians, teachers, dependents, and civilian contractors in other nations and just under a dozen carrier task forces in all the oceans and seas of the world. We operate numerous secret bases outside our territory to monitor what the people of the world, including our own citizens, are saying, faxing, or e-mailing to one another. Our globe-girding military and intelligence installations bring profits to civilian industries, which design and manufacture weapons for the armed forces or undertake contract services to build and maintain our far-flung outposts. One task of such contractors is to keep uniformed members of the imperium housed in comfortable quarters, well fed, amused, and supplied with enjoyable, affordable vacation facilities. Whole sectors of the American economy have come to rely on the military for sales. On the eve of our second war on Iraq, for example , the Defense Department ordered 273,000 bottles of Native Tan sunblock (SPF 15), almost triple its 1999 order and undoubtedly a boon to the supplier, Control Supply Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and its subcontractor, Sun Fun Products of Daytona Beach, Florida. 1

“The new American empire has been a long time in the making. Its roots go back to the early nineteenth century, when the United States declared all of Latin America its sphere of influence and busily enlarged its own territory at the expense of the indigenous people of North America, as well as British, French, and Spanish colonialists, and neighboring Mexico. Much like their contemporaries in Australia, Algeria, and tsarist Russia, Americans devoted much energy to displacing the original inhabitants of the North American continent and turning over their lands to new settlers . Then, at the edge of the twentieth century, a group of self-conscious imperialists in the government— much like a similar group of conservatives who a century later would seek to implement their own expansive agendas under cover of the “war on terrorism”— used the Spanish-American War to seed military bases in Central America, various islands in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines.

“With the Second World War, our nation emerged as the richest and most powerful on earth and a self-designated successor to the British Empire. But as enthusiastic as some of our wartime leaders , particularly President Franklin D. Roosevelt, were for the task, the American people were not. They demanded that the country demobilize its armies and turn the nation’s attention to full employment and domestic development. Peace did not last long, however. The Cold War and a growing conviction that vital interests, even national survival, demanded the “containment” of the Soviet Union helped turn an informal empire begun during World War II into hundreds of installations around the world for the largest military we ever maintained in peacetime.

“During the almost fifty years of superpower standoff, the United States denied that its activities constituted a form of imperialism. Ours were just reactions to the menace of the “evil empire” of the USSR and its satellites. Only slowly did we Americans become aware that the role of the military was growing in our country and that the executive branch— the “imperial presidency”— was eroding the democratic underpinnings of our constitutional republic. But even at the time of the Vietnam War and the abuses of power known as Watergate, this awareness never gained sufficient traction to reverse a Cold War-driven transfer of power from the representatives of the people to the Pentagon and the various intelligence agencies, especially the Central Intelligence Agency.

“By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and with it the rationale for American containment policies, our leaders had become so accustomed to dominance over half the globe that the thought of giving it up was inconceivable. Many Americans simply concluded that they had “won” the Cold War and so deserved the imperial fruits of victory. A number of ideologists began to argue that the United States was, in fact, a “good empire” and should act accordingly in a world with only one dominant power. To demobilize and turn our resources to peaceful ends would, they argued, constitute the old-fashioned sin of “isolationism.”

I’m a Confused Hypocrite

“Identity is the Ur-form of ideology.”
~ Theodor Adorno

I was considering my confused identity.

I typically identify as a liberal, but I always mean that in the broadest sense. First and foremost, I’m psychologically liberal. This means I’m generous in attitude, if not always perfectly so in practice. More specifically, I am or seek to be: open-minded, curious, not ideologically dogmatic, lacking in group loyalty (especially in terms of groupthink, although I’m strong in personal loyalty to those I care about), tolerant of differences, tolerant of cognitive dissonance (tolerant of the differences within myself and hence tolerant of my own confused identity), etc.

I’m accepting of ambiguity even as I’m desirous of clarity. I’m critical of hypocrisy and try to avoid it, but I know that I fail. I’m inconsistent and it seems to me all humans are inconsistent. Inconsistency isn’t problematic as such. Rather, it is the unawareness of one’s inconsistency. I try to lessen my sin of hypocrisy with a dose of humility.

One of my favorite sayings is that, “It’s complex”. That is my way of saying that, although I have many opinions based on what I hope is good info and careful thought, in the end I just don’t feel all that certain about lots of things. I could be wrong, to put it lightly. No doubt, there is more that I don’t know than I do know.

On a more personal level, I’m both an idealist and a philosophical pessimist. I’m a radical skeptic (zetetic), which translates to my being skeptical of even skepticism. I’m an equal opportunity agnostic. I question and doubt everything, and that can be a quite demoralizing attitude at times when coupled with my streak of depression. I’m agnostic about belief and unbelief. I sometimes identify as an agnostic gnostic, just for shits and giggles.

All in all, my liberalism is one of the most central aspects to my identity. It is at the heart of my confusion. In ideological terms, I have many tendencies and concerns. I’m equal parts: progressive, communitarian, civil libertarian, social democrat, “rat park” municipal socialist, and on and on.

I’m socially globalist/internationalist (a humanitarian or maybe better yet a Gaian), but I simultaneously lean toward minarchism in my politics and anarchism in my economics (e.g., anarcho-syndicalism). Yet I’m not against big government or big anything on principle. It’s more of a practical emphasis, of wanting to bring the world back down to the human level, to the level of lived experience and living reality (non-human included), of personal relationships and communities, of a sense of place and a sense of home.

On the other hand, I can’t say I’m against such things bureaucracy or technocracy, per se. Nor am I necessarily opposed to capitalism and big biz. I really don’t care about such things in and of themselves. What I do care about is democracy and hence freedom, which to me are always most fundamentally personal and interpersonal, not mere abstractions or theories.

If any particular ideological system can be made to align and support democracy and freedom, then more power to it. I don’t feel I’m in a position to predict what new forms and directions society might take, but I wouldn’t mind a bureaucracy and technocracy of the variety portrayed in Star Trek: The Next Generation. As for capitalism and big biz, I just want a genuine free market which means a democratized and socially responsible economics, whatever that may be (obviously, present capitalism and big biz fails that standard to an extreme degree).

My biggest concern is about externalized costs, the free rider problem, and the precautionary principle (all of which I consider to be most fundamentally conservative-minded and so, at least superficially, opposed to my more typical liberal predisposition). More than anything, I’d like to live in a society that (1) is wise and (2) is not self-destructive. Our present society is highly dysfunctional and I feel that I have internalized much of that dysfunction. I’m a confused person because that seems like the inevitable fate right now of any person who is self-aware and of a concerned attitude.

I want to live in a world that is worth caring about. I want to live in a society that considers me worth caring about.

Because I’m a liberal, I’d like to believe such a world and society is possible. The disconnect from what I’d like to believe and what is present reality is more than a bit disconcerting. It’s downright irritating and frustrating. It would be easier to be righteous than confused, but I’m never able to maintain an attitude of righteousness for very long. Righteousness is more tiresome than even depression.

My inner child just wants the bad people to stop doing bad things. But my cynical adult self points out that I’m part of this problematic society. How can I be anything other than confused and hypocritical? How can I not fail my own idealistic standards and aspirations? Still, apathetically accepting the status quo of soul-crushing misery and injustice would be a far worse fate.

What Is Kentucky?

I was looking into the data and history on Kentucky. My motivation was diverse. I was thinking about violence, but I was more generally considering what makes Kentucky such a unique state.

North of Kenutcky, there is Ohio and Indiana. That is the earliest settlement areas of the Midwest. These particular Lower Midwest states are as influenced by Southern culture as Kentucky is influenced by Midwestern culture. Hence, the hybrid name of Kentuckiana.

In my visit to Kentucky, I mostly saw the central part of the state. Traveling through rural areas, I was surprised how much it felt like the Midwest. It wasn’t all that different from nearby Indiana, where my own Kentucky ancestors moved to. The main difference is that the barns in Kentucky are painted black because many of them were originally built to dry tobacco, although these days much of the land is being used for grazing cattle, just like in the Midwest.

Many of my Kentucky ancestors were of German heritage, another commonality with Midwesterners. Near where they lived, there is a Shaker village. The Shakers are more commonly associated with the North. Here in Iowa and throughout the Midwest, there are many Quakers and Amish as well, two other religious groups that are also found in the Upper South but not the Deep South.

Furthermore, the limestone country straddles the border region of the Upper South and Lower Midwest. My Kentuckiana family worked in the limestone industry about a century ago. Limestone country is some of the most beautiful land in the country. The streams and rivers cut through the limestone in wondrous ways. All of this border region is defined by water, where it flows and where it gathers.

Western Kentucky is a narrow part of the state. This is where it touches the narrow part of Illinois. Abraham Lincoln’s early life began in Kentucky, involved years in Southern Indiana, and then later on as an adult his political career began in Illinois. That was a common path of westward movement for many families.

The whole state of Kentucky stretches westward, defined by that very movement of the population pushing the boundary of civilization. At that western edge, the state touches upon the Mississippi river, the last great boundary of the frontier. Just across that water is Missouri with a similar set of cultural, historical, and geographic issues as Kentucky. I’m not familiar with this part of Kentucky, but I’m sure there are some old river towns there and I’m sure more industrialization happened because of it.

To the South of Kentucky, Tennessee stretches lengthwise as the twin of Kentucky. They are like two children who were adopted by different parents. Both grew up in an early history of violence. Tennessee remains one of the most violent states in the country, and yet Kentucky has somehow become one of the least violent states in the country. However, the memory of Kentucky violence is not buried all that deep.

This brings me to Eastern Kentucky and especially the Southeast stretch. This is where Appalachia dominates. So, this is where is found the long history of the worst rural poverty, the most infamous violence and fueds, and of course mining and labor organizing.

Here the state borders Virginia and West Virginia. It is through these states that Kentucky had its strongest influence of what would later come to be thought of as Southern culture. Virginia was the earliest slave colony, where a completely different line of my family was part of the first generation of slaveholding aristocracy. A couple centuries after the colonial settlement, West Virginia broke away because of the Civil War, but that wasn’t just a political split but also a cultural split. West Virginia was more defined by Appalachia and the Scots-Irish settlers.

The struggle for control of Kentucky involved many divides. It was the birth state of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s family, like Daniel Boone and my own family, left for various overlapping reasons. There was a lot of legal conflict there and so it was a highly litigious society, because of the complications of the metes and bounds system in creating property boundaries (a British system that was used throughout the South and parts of the early Midwest, specifically Southern Ohio). There was also the slave issue that pushed many people further west toward the free territories and states.

Even after the Civil war, there was still a class war element to this. The Black Patch Tobacco War was an expression of this (the Black Patch is Western Kentucky where the soil grew a dark tobacco). There was the first developments of big agriculture. A monopoly had formed that was squeezing out small tobacco farmers, and they weren’t happy about it.

The pressure on small family farms was common throughout the Midwest as well, but the difference was the response. This is where Kentuckians showed their Southern side by organizing the Night Riders who were the strong arm of the small farmers’ association. These Night Riders terrorized anyone who didn’t join the Association. Property was destroyed and people killed. They didn’t wait for distant government, state or federal, to help them with oppressive big biz and a local plutocratic ruling class. They had a tradition of taking care of their own problems.

The dark side of this is that the Night Riders ended up being hard to distinguish from the Ku Klux Klan. Blacks joined the Association at higher rates than whites, because they were hurt the most by the suppression of tobacco prices. Still, none of this mattered to the racially-motivated opportunists. Some of the terrorism was directed at innocent black farmers. They were either killed or sent packing, and their land and property was stolen (or bought cheaply at the threat of violence).

This shows a weird mix of Southern and Northern social patterns.

The violent mob way of dealing with the problem was Southern. This was also seen in the Southern-tinted edge of the Lower Midwest — for example, the KKK was a big player in Southern Indiana. A similar thing was found with the Italian Black Hand and the later Mafia in Northern cities, but my point is that this wasn’t a common way of dealing with problems in places like the rural Upper Midwest or even the Northern parts of the rural Lower Midwest (Italian immigrants and their descendants have never been a majority in the Midwest and so that ethnic culture never defined the Midwest).

Yet the Kentucky history of sundown towns where blacks disappeared from entire communities and regions is more typical of the rural North than of the rural Deep South. As in the Lower Midwest states, the blacks in rural areas had been large in number and then disappeared. This is how blacks ended up in concentrated numbers in big cities, such as Lexington or Chicago.

There used to be many blacks in rural Kentucky. However, when I visited there, I didn’t see a single black person in the rural areas. Similarly, the first settlement in the Iowa town I live in (Iowa City) was a free black community and some nearby towns had a fair number of black families a century or so ago. Then most of the blacks disappeared from the area for most of the 20th century, until recent years when they’ve begun to return.

In the rural Deep South, there aren’t many sundown towns. People forget that the rural Deep South has a large black population, as it has had since it was first settled. However, the rural Upper South is more like the rural North in this aspect.

This difference is seen in the diverging trajectories of Kentucky and Tennessee. They were split during the Civil War. Lincoln understood the symbolic and strategic importance of Kentucky. This is why one of the early actions the Union army took was to secure a famous Kentucky racehorse because of its symbolic value. The Confederates took another good racing horse that was sired by it. However, it was the Union that won the state, for the same basic reason West Virginia split off, there was too much of the population that saw little personal benefit from being loyal to a slave owning aristocracy. Also, the Northern cultural influence was quite significant.

Tennessee is clearly Southern, but Kentucky is different. It isn’t part of a single region. Rather, it connects quite diverse regions. The Lexington metropolitan area is quite a different world from rural Appalachia. In 2002, an Eastern Kentucky sheriff was assassinated during a political rally. That is an area of all kinds of violence, once famous for moonshine and now famous for illegal drugs. It is what people think of as Kentucky, but it is just one part of the state.

Still, I don’t mean to even dismiss that small corner of Kentucky or the whole of Appalachia. I’ve written about how it is misleading to speak of blacks as having weak and broken families (see here and here). Black family ties and communities are surprisingly strong, when considering all that they have going against them. Stronger in many ways than what is found among middle-to-upper class whites.

The same goes for poor whites in Appalachia. They actually put a lot of value on family and religion, just like blacks. In some ways, it is because their values are so strong that they are so poor. They refuse to leave their families and their homes, their land and their communities just to chase dreams of wealth and social mobility. They are traditional conservatives, something mainstream American conservatives don’t understand with their obsession about some unbalanced notion of fiscal conservatism, economic well-being and success at nearly any cost.

That is something rural Appalachians do share with rural people all over the country. Many people see them as having been left behind. That might be the case for some of these people who feel trapped by circumstances, but I wouldn’t generalize. These poor people could move, but they’ve chosen not to. Besides, where are they going to move to? The entire country is economically hurting. Would being poor elsewhere be an improvement? Sure, in the big city, they could get better access to public services and maybe better education… but at what cost? They would lose everything and everyone they know. They would lose their roots and their cultural identity.

My family left that world behind. They chased the American Dream and slowly climbed the social ladder. My Indiana-born mother, descendant of poor Kentuckians, went to college and became an upper middle class professional. She assimilated into mainstream culture, including losing her Hoosier accent. Yet, for all the sacrifices made, the middle class is now under attack as has been happening a long time for the poor working class. Not unlike the Black Patch Tobacco War or the Appalachian mining strikes, big business is making life hard for so many people and so few feel that big government is on their side.

States like Kentucky are more representative of America than others may think. Kentucky isn’t just some backwater frozen in time. Kentuckians are a part of what it means to be American.

* * * *

An additional thought:

I realized that I had left out one of my favorite things. Kentucky and some of the nearby states have something that defines the region more than anything else, at least in my mind. It is what defines this particular culture and how it manifests in communities and politics.

I became familiar with this type of culture through my experience of North Carolina, specifically the Blue Ridge Mountains. North Carolina is another fascinating state with an unusual history. Some consider its early rebellious population as being the true starting point of the American Revolution.

Like Appalachia, all of North Carolina wasn’t as easily accessible. It formed an area of refuge between two great slave societies, Virginia and South Carolina. This laid the foundation for a different kind of political tradition, more progressive than its coastal neighbors.

This can be seen in the many diverse communities, communes, monasteries, retreats, and colleges. The reason I was in North Carolina was as an employee for several summers at the Black Mountain YMCA camp. It previously had been a well known alternative college that attracted some of the greatest thinkers at the time. That was my introduction to a different kind of Southern culture than I had grown familiar with from years living in South Carolina.

In the mountains, roads crisscrossed in such a way that I felt like I might come across almost anything around the next bend. There were hidden nooks everywhere and thick forests covered the land. There is a sense of freedom in this that people have sought for centuries.

Appalachia is similar the Upper South in general, specifically Kentucky. Even on the western side of Kentucky, there are rolling hillsides and winding roads. It’s not like the parts of the Deep South that have been heavily developed and it’s not like the flat farmlands to the horizon of much of the Midwest. It’s inferior soil and rocky landscape has protected it. A very different feel from Iowa, for example, which is the most developed state in the country. Big agriculture tried to rule Kentucky, but the conditions weren’t right for it. There just aren’t many massive farms in Kentucky, as found in the Midwest.

So, the land is cheaper. If you want to live on your own private mountain or start your own alternative community, a place like Kentucky is a good choice. The Upper South was less known for building infrastructure, but there are enough roads for travel purposes. For good and bad, there is a tradition of being against big government and high taxes. The live-and-let-live worldview allows a certain kind of freedom, even though in the poorest areas it also leads to some not so nice results. A fair number of rural Southerners still like to take care of their own problems, if we are to go by the data.

I wouldn’t want to go tromping through the poorest of Appalachia any more than I’d want to walk through the poorest of inner cities. Still, that has little to do with the average person living in these places. If we ended the War On Drugs, there probably would be great and positive changes seen in poor communities all over the country. There is a long history for why poor people, blacks and whites, have a lot less trust of outsiders and of government. There is a reason that so many poor people, rural and urban, learn to take care of their own problems, as best they can.

I wouldn’t be the first person to see a cultural connection between poor white Southerners and poor black Northerners. Those poor black Northerners mostly descend from poor Southern populations. It is a common culture. Many of the rural blacks who left Kentucky ended up in Northern inner cities. Even some of the rural whites who headed north also found themselves in similar circumstances, although like my family it was a bit easier for them to escape through upward mobility, not always though. The prejudice against Southern whites was strong among Northern whites because they were competing over the same jobs with the same white privilege.

Anyway, I was wanting to note that the Midwest did have some of the same community traditions as the Upper South. That is seen with the communities of Amish, Shakers, and Quakers. The Amish have been successful in refusing to fully assimilate to mainstream American society, not unlike certain populations of Appalachians. It was more challenging, however, in the more highly populated and developed Midwest to escape the forces of and demands for assimilation.

I find it comforting that there are still communities and populations that have managed to maintain some of their traditional cultures and ways of life. Outsiders may think that the self-isolated Amish and rural Appalachians are backwards, but that is being dismissive. Some people even think monks choosing a life of asceticism in a monastery is also backwards. Everyone who doesn’t perfectly assimilate is somehow wrong or strange. As an immigrant nation, the dominant society has become obsessed with assimilation, sometimes force entire populations to assimilate against their will or at least to destroy whatever culture they had before.

I’d like to see a revival of the American tradition of resistance to assimilation. I don’t mean simply assimilating to yet another monolithic culture, such as a blanket Southern identity. I’d like to see communities be more independent, not just culturally but also economically and most important politically. That is what a place like Kentucky reminds me of, a place where the forces of assimilation and resistance have been fighting it out for a long time.

I don’t mean to romanticize rural life or poor communities. I just see how the dominant society and how big biz has destroyed the independence that Americans once had. Independence has to be built on identity, on the sense of who you are in your immediate community and relationships.

* * * *

Possible Sundown Towns In Kentucky
by James W. Loewen, University of Illinois

General Info On Sundown Towns in Tennessee
by James W. Loewen, University of Illinois

Terror in the Night
by Ron Soodalter, Kentucky Monthly

Blacks, Gun Cultures, and Gun Control: T.R.M. Howard, Armed Self-Defense, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi
by David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, Second Amendment Foundation

The Politics of Despair: Power and Resistance in the Tobacco Wars
by Tracy Campbell

Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power
by David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito

Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America
by Elliot Jaspin

A History of Blacks in Kentucky: In pursuit of equality, 1890-1980
by George C Wright

Origins of the New South, 1877–1913: A History of the South
by C. Vann Woodward

Kentucky: Portrait in Paradox, 1900-1950
by James C. Klotter

Appalachia in the Making: The Mountain South in the Nineteenth Century
edited by Mary Beth Pudup, Dwight B. Billings, Altina Laura Waller

A Conflict of the Conservative Vision

There is one popular framework of politics that I often think about. It is the basis of a book by Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions. I was introduced to it by my conservative father.

Sowell theorizes that the political right and left are defined by two distinct visions. Conservatives and right-wingers are supposedly adherents of a constrained vision. Whereas liberals and left-wingers are supposedly adherents of an unconstrained vision.

For some reason, this popped back into my mind on my walk this morning. Two thoughts occurred to me.

First, I’m not sure how accurate it is. I always feel the need to clarify that conservatism and liberalism are not necessarily the same thing as conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. This is one of those cases where that is an important distinction to keep in mind.

Sowell is most directly talking about psychological predispositions here. But he seems to be assuming that they are the same as ideological labels as expressed through ideological movements. I have severe doubts that this is the case, not to dismiss the strong correlation. I just think something gets missed in too simplistic of categories.

When I consider conservative politics, I don’t see a constrained vision at work.

Plutocratic paternalism is not a constrained vision. Neoliberal laissez-faire globalization is not a constrained vision. Neoconservative nation-building and neo-imperialism is not a constrained vision. Corporatist progressivism that dismisses the precautionary principle is not a constrained vision. Theocratic nationalism is not a constrained vision. A large militarized police/security state with heavily guarded borders is not a constrained vision.

Yet all of these things define the political right.

Sowell doesn’t really mean a constrained vision. I think even he knows that this is the case. What he actually argues for is constrained empathy, compassion, and morality. It is an attitude of me and my own, but me and my own can be quite unconstrained. A me and my own attitude would only be constrained, if it respected everyone else’s me and my own attitude. Obviously, that isn’t the case with the American political right.

The extreme version of the constrained live-and-let-live worldview are the anarcho-libertarians. And they tend to be left-wingers.

Conservatives don’t want to constrain their vision, their power over others, or their ability to act in large ways. What they want to constrain is having to concern themselves about the consequences and the externalized costs. They choose to constrain their sense of moral responsibility and social responsibility. So, in their worldview, a corporation should have the right to act unconstrained, which is to say they shouldn’t be constrained to the rights of workers, protection of the environment, etc. Instead, everyone and everything else should be constrained to their agenda.

This angle of responsibility brings me the second thought.

When I consider Jesus’ teachings, I can’t help but feel that whatever he was preaching it for damn sure wasn’t the ideology of the political right. I’m not saying it was liberalism either, just certainly not conservatism and even more certainly not right-wing libertarianism.

Jesus’ vision was as unconstrained as one could imagine. He was preaching about an unconstrained attitude of compassion and care. It was universal love for all of humanity. No limitations. No questions asked. Just help the needy and defend the weak. It wasn’t an overtly political vision, but in psychological terms it was the opposite of conservative-minded.

The only times Jesus spoke of constraint was when people sought to act without genuine moral concern for their fellow humans. In those instances, he would say such things as,  “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” But all this was saying was that people should constrain their hatred, bigotry, and judgment in favor of an unconstrained vision of love.

I’m forced to conclude that Sowell’s conflict of visions is something other than what it is portrayed as.

* * * *

Some additional thoughts:

The ideas of constraint and unconstraint aren’t objective categories. It depends on what they are being defined according to.

What kind of constraint or unconstraint and for what purpose? Who is implementing, controlling, and enforcing the constraint or unconstraint? Who is being constrained or unconstrained? Who is benefiting and who is being harmed? What are the costs, especially externalized costs, and who is paying for them?

To be fair, all of the confusion involved can’t just be blamed on conservatives. I only focused on conservatives because it is a way of framing politics that is particularly popular among conservatives.

In reality, liberals are no more consistently unconstrained in a principled fashion than are conservatives consistently constrained in a principled fashion. Many liberals might like to think of themselves as being more unconstrained than they actually are, but liberals aren’t anarchists or anything close to it. There are more things liberals seek to constrain than unconstrain.

I personally fall more on the side of unconstraint, but not the careless and mindless unrestraint that is prevalent in our society, especially as seen among the extreme defenders of laissez-faire capitalism. I’m certainly not critical of conservatism because of Sowell’s claim of it being an constrained vision, at least not when compared to my own principles and ideals. I wish conservatives were more constrained and supportive of constraint.

I’m all the time advocating for the precautionary principle. That has to be the single greatest expression of genuine conservative-minded constraint. Yet it is political liberals who hold it up as a central value and standard, a guidepost of wise and responsible decision-making. If conservatives really gave a shit about constraint, they’d start with the precautionary principle.

I have an overall unconstrained vision, but certain conditions are necessary in order to have an actual functioning society that is as unconstrained as possible. Those conditions, in a very basic sense, are themselves constraints. The whole issue isn’t as binary as a conservative like Sowell would like it to be. The conflict of constrained versus unconstrained only exists in Sowell’s brain and in the brain of anyone who shares his view.

Many conservatives would consider me utopian in my desired unconstraint. I’m very much a leftist in my belief in human potential as being preferably unrestrained (as much as is possible), something conservatives tend to fear. I’m not seeking perfection, as conservatives suspect. I don’t even know what perfection means. That seems like another projection of the conservative mind.

What conservatives too often mean by constrained is that they don’t want to question their own assumptions. They want to take their beliefs as reality, and so constrain all of politics to their narrow view and all of society to their simplistic understanding. They want a rigid social order that constrains others to their worldview.

This connects back to my last post. Howard Schwartz, an author on liberty in American society, commented on that post. He pointed out that this kind of person is seeking stable essences for the purposes of psychological security. As I’d put it, they are constraining their own minds in order to lessen the stress and anxiety they feel when confronting cognitive dissonance.

My oft repeated position is that the world is complex. This is true, whether or not we like it. Constraining one’s beliefs about reality doesn’t constrain reality itself. I favor an unconstrained vision simply because only it can encompass that complexity. I also favor it because, as long as we have globalization, we better have a vision of social and moral responsibility that can match its scope.

Oddly, it is for this very reason I can simultaneously defend certain practical constraints to an even greater degree than is seen in mainstream American conservatism. I’m a cautious-minded progressive, a wary optimist.

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