Culture of Paranoia, Culture of Trust

Paranoia is easy to wave away and laugh about. The craziest of conspiracy theories are known about by almost any American. It is redundant, in respectable company, to even say a conspiracy theory is crazy. But this condescension toward the paranoid misses the fundamental relevance of paranoia.

This country is a paranoid society, I would argue. It goes beyond the radical conspiracists and affects us all. There could be many reasons for this state of affairs. The most obvious one is that we live in a large and diverse country. Few other countries come close to the distance found here between geographic regions and ethnic cultures. Furthermore, the distance between the powerful and powerless is at least as vast and growing vaster. In the space between these distances, there is much room for fantasizing and projection, for fear and mistrust.

I find myself more sympathetic and understanding of paranoia than many people, partly because I have my own paranoid leanings. I came of age reading Robert Anton Wilson and listening to Art Bell on Coast to Coast AM. I tend toward considering all perspectives, even when they seem improbable, if only for amusement and the exercise of my imagination. This isn’t to say I will waste my time trying to make sense of incoherent ramblings or unsupported speculations. Nor does it mean I won’t judge harshly and call bullshit. I’ll look at someone’s evidence and claims, but I will do so critically with utmost intellectual standards.

I take paranoia seriously because it feels like an all too reasonable response to the world we live in. Particular paranoid responses often aren’t plausible or relevant. Sometimes they can lead to harmful beliefs and dangerous behaviors. Still, paranoia taken on its own terms is a useful and maybe a necessary attitude. It simply tells us that there is something that isn’t known and that such is a less-than-optimal situation. So, even when paranoia leads to an invalid conspiracy theory and/or problematic levels of mistrust, the impulse itself shouldn’t be denied or ignored.

Truth often hides in odd places, if we dare to look. But we can’t know what truth that might be until we look for it. When we notice paranoia, we should take very seriously what is provoking it.

There are plenty of issues an American should be paranoid about. Trust needs to be earned, most especially in a supposed democratic society. Yet particular individuals and groups in our society have proven to be questionable in their trustworthiness. We have endless examples of trust being abused and betrayed, often in major ways.

One of the greatest of injustices in this country, of course, is that of racism… or call it racialization, racial bias, institutional racism, racecraft, the New Jim Crow, whatever. Everyone acknowledges the dark past beginning with slavery, but political correctness has made it near impossible to speak openly and honestly about the continuing reality and the enduring repercussions.

From Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness The New Reality of Race in America by John L. Jackson:

“Most commentators don’t emphasize, however, that the stakes of political correctness are located in a slightly different place than our conversations on the matter imply. The culture of political correctness actually generates one of the essential foundations of contemporary racial distrust. Since most Americans aren’t as transparent as Archie Bunker (even when he’s trying to hide his ethnocentrism), PC policies actually lose their ability to cultivate the kinds of good-faith dialogues they are meant to foster. Instead, blacks are stuck in the structural position (vis-à-vis white interlocutors) of their ancestors’ slave masters: they see smiles on white faces and hear kind words spilling from white mouths without the least bit of certainty about whether those gestures are representative of the speakers’ hearts. “The American Negro problem,” wrote Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in the 1940s, “is a problem in the heart of the American. It is there that the interracial tension has its focus. It is there that the decisive struggle goes on.” And it is there that the search for racial honesty and truth continues today. But not in the same ways that Myrdal emphasized.

“When individuals’ words and some of their actions can no longer be trusted, we look for other seemingly invisible and interior clues about people’s racial positions. We long to look past calculated performances and into the very hearts of men and women. Social analysts should take the features of this need, this search for de cardio racism, seriously—this racism attributed to the hearts of other-than-explicitly racist actors. De cardio racism is imagined to be a kind of hidden or cloaked racism, a racism of euphemism and innuendo, not heels-dug-in pronouncements of innate black inferiority.

“We’re living in a moment when what I’m calling de cardio racism has elbowed out room for itself at the head of America’s political table, right alongside still operative de jure and de facto forms (think of sentencing disparities for possession of crack versus powder cocaine as a contemporary version of the former and our seemingly effortless, self-perpetuating reproductions of residential and educational segregation along racial lines as a twenty-first-century instance of the latter).

“Given this newfangled reckoning of American racism’s potentially cloaked animosities, the white man’s newest burden is hardly lightened by political correctness—just as black people’s deepest racial suspicions are only bolstered by America’s current penchant for dressing up every ideological position (no matter how reactionary or elitist, partisan or self-interested) as simply another better version of egalitarianism.”
(pp. 77-80)

Without genuine public discourse, the silence belies something unspoken and unadmitted.

“As an anthropologist studying how black people talk about race, I’ve heard this silence described many times and in many ways, but one young security guard in Brook – lyn, New York, captured the thrust of the de cardio racism critique most succinctly: “They were sending dogs to maul black kids in the street forty years ago, and all of a sudden there are no racists in America at all.” De cardio racism asks, where did all of yesterday’s racial wolves go, and why do all these sheep seem to be standing around licking their chops?””
(pp. 88-89)

Racism hasn’t disappeared. It has simply mutated into some strange creature, a mind parasite that burrows deep (as the Toxoplasma lies hidden in the brain of rats telling them that they want to run fast in open spaces, that the smell of cat urine is actually a pleasant smell to be sought out). Hidden behind political correctness and post-racial colorblindness, the infestation of this soul-sickening mind-warping racial oppressiveness goes untreated.

“The point isn’t that race is less important now than it was before. It’s just more schizophrenic, more paradoxical. We continue to commit to its social significance on many levels, but we seem to disavow that commitment at one and the same time. Race is real, but it isn’t. It has value, but it doesn’t. It explains social difference, but it couldn’t possibly. This kind of racial doublethink drives us all crazy, makes us so suspicious of one another, and fans the flames of racial paranoia. Nothing is innocent, and one bumps into conspirators everywhere.”
(p. 11)

This isn’t to deny the progress that has been made, but it is to look deeper past the superficial narrative and into the even more intransigent problems.

“The demonization of public racism is clearly a social and moral victory, but it has come at a cost. Political correctness has proven tragically effective at hiding racism, not just healing it. In sacrificing noisy and potentially combative racial discussions for the politeness of political correctness, we face an even more pernicious racism, a racism that’s almost never explicitly declared, except among the closest of confidants. But as the “White Like Me” skit’s lampoon shows, people recognize the fact that racism might be even more effectual under the cover of color blindness and rhetorical silence.”
(p. 91)

The fact that political correctness has become the ultimate defense of racism is one of the saddest results of all. The words of political correctness are invoked like an invisibility spell. With this talismanic use of magical words, all the old racisms simply take new form and in some ways they are more powerful than before. Now they are presented, instead of as belief and bigotry, in the guise of neutral observation or even scientific reality.

We Americans live in a society, not just of vast geographic and cultural divides, but also of vast racial and class divides.

There is no other major developed country in the Western world with equivalent high of rates of economic inequality and no other country anywhere in the world with even close to our high rates of incarceration rates; other high rates of social problems could be added to these two egregious examples. The injustice of this American society is beyond comprehension. Those on the bottom or those threatened with ending up on the bottom have a lot to fear. If you are deemed useless or simply in the way in this society, you will be lucky to fall through the cracks rather than be ground beneath the wheel. And no one in the mainstream media will bother to report on your sad fate. You’ll just be another faceless number or maybe not even that.

It is hard to blame people, under these oppressive conditions, for lashing out at shadows.

“When you wire skepticism and paranoia directly to questions of racial discrimination and inequality (and in a context where economic inequality is rising just as social safety nets are deteriorating precipitously), you then have a perfect storm for severe responses to severe times.”
(p. 200)

The danger in our society isn’t in being paranoid but in not being paranoid enough, especially if you are part of the economic underclass or worse still the racial under-caste. But paranoia speaks of deeper undercurrents still. In a society of fear, the sickening taint of mistrust and doubt seeps into our very pores.

“De cardio racism can even be hidden from the very person who harbors it. They may not even admit racist feelings to themselves. If we were all self-aware and totally self-transparent, every psychotherapist in the country would be begging for bread.”
(p. 237)

Now there is paranoia for you. The monster lurks within the unsuspecting. Look in the mirror, if you dare, and see what may look back.

The more we deny something the more we fear being judged to be in denial. Still, it isn’t just that this judgment may come from others but that we too have suspicions about ours own potential guilt, a sense of past sins and ongoing complicities. Everyone understands that each of us harbors ugly thoughts, cruel grudges, repressed memories, and who knows what else. So much of civilized behavior is pretense, as much to convince ourselves as others. For certain, political correctness isn’t a recent invention. People have been speaking around uncomfortable truths and dangerous ideas for as long as humans could speak.

“The eighteenth-century French philosopher Voltaire once claimed that human beings really only speak to conceal what they truly feel, as much to miscommunicate as anything else. Humans are complicated and dissimulating creatures with the uncanny ability to misrepresent themselves and their deepest inner thoughts, to be purposefully economical with the truth. It could be as harmless as a “little white lie” about how good your child was in the school play or as catastrophic as a governmental cover-up of Watergate-like proportions. And there are few areas of public life where people put these gifts to work as often as they do in the context of discussions about race.”
(pp. 89-90)

It doesn’t even matter if we’d rather not admit to what underlies our own thoughts and motivations. The data points toward the inconvenient knowledge of our all too human tendencies. Research shows a million examples of hidden biases and prejudices, many of them racial.

“Although nobody went on CNN or Fox after the Hurricane Katrina disaster to proclaim that they would like to donate money to white victims instead of black ones, a Washington Post/Stanford University study found that white Americans were willing to provide more financial assistance to white victims than black ones, to the tune of about $1,000 extra a year. And the darker the victim, the less money she would have received, with lighter-skinned blacks benefiting from about $100 more per month than those who couldn’t pass the brown-paper-bag test (i.e., those not lighter than a brown shopping bag). Americans may hardly admit it in public, but they are clearly willing to put their money where their color biases are.”
(p. 88)

I have my doubts that we, as a society and as individuals, would know how to be non-racist, even if we tried. We are the products of our society and are no more capable of being colorblind than Pavlov’s dog could be mute to the sound of the bell.

“If psychologists have shown that people don’t even necessarily know what makes them happy, they may not be able to identify exactly what makes them potentially hateful or discriminatory either. If we can “stumble on happiness,” we might be able to stumble right into prejudice as well.

“The more blatantly racist a society has been in the past, the steeper its climb out of explicit racial discrimination and the harder it is for contemporary citizens to shake fears of de cardio racism. The farther we advance from overt racist doctrines and laws, the more material traces those past sins leave behind, which means all the more surfaces to which contemporary racially charged paranoia might stick.”
(p. 95)

Alleging that our dark nature is to be found in our genes or elsewhere instead of the unconscious hardly alleviates the paranoia. Ours is a society full of people claiming secret sins are hidden away within the hearts, minds and bodies of their neighbors, coworkers and fellow citizens. All white people have hidden racist beliefs and thoughts. All black people (along with other minorities) have hidden inferior genes and culture. And all of society has hidden structures of privilege and oppression, of class warfare and cabals of special interest groups. Endless seething nightmares of paranoia.

The real dark secret is the paranoia itself. We all go on acting normal as these dark visions play out in the background of our daily activities and interactions. It isn’t about proving one’s own preferred paranoia and disproving all others. The paranoia itself always speaks to our shared reality. The question is: What does it signify? What are we really afraid of?

“Rumors about race, racism, and racial distrust are not just fringe beliefs held by a few hard-line crackpots, not even the kinds just mentioned. They define the surreal core of all racial stereotypes and race-based social policy. Race, as a concept, is only useful as a way to ground conspiratorial claims—about research on inherent cognitive differences between social groups or about secret government surveillance technologies. Race is one of the shortcuts we use to convince ourselves that the social differences we see in the world merely reflect more latent and inflexible differences in genes or culture. And racial paranoia is the realization that we are all far too afraid and polite to deal with any of these assumptions head-on.”
(pp. 108-110)

Racial paranoia is just another expression of the return of the repressed. If we don’t deal with an issue at the conscious level, our unconsciousness will find a way to force the issue and command our attention. The central conflict of race itself demands resolution.

“In the early 1970s, psychologist Joseph White penned what is now one of the most classic formulations of black paranoia as a reasonable response to white racism. “Part of the objective condition of black people in this society is that of a paranoid condition,” he writes. “There is, and has been, unwarranted, systematic persecution and exploitation of black people as a group. A black person who is not suspicious of the white culture is pathologically denying certain objective and basic realities of the black experience.””
(p. 189)

There is more to racial paranoia than fear-fueled suspiciousness and dark visions. Very much real social conditions, historical and present, give plentiful evidence for mistrust. How could the average black person in this society not at the very least have some occasional misgivings? Heck, I’m a relatively privileged white male and even I have healthy skepticism about the good intentions of certain people who share this society with me. A bit of paranoia is a perfectly normal response when faced with such deeply entrenched power structures and power disparities.

“What detractors pooh-pooh as irrational racial paranoia might represent an appropriate, if incomplete, response to euphemized forms of racism today.”
(p. 214)

So, what kind of response is needed?

Simply trying to be more reasonable and rational won’t save us. We humans never lack for reasons, never lack for an ability to rationalize and explain away. The surface level of our thoughts and words is just so much distraction. If we seek justice and fairness, there is no way for us to keep an objective distance and keep ourselves clean from the inersubjective muck of it all. It is all too personal for all involved.

“As a society we should never pretend that we have successfully reasoned or legislated our way out of race’s suffocating grasp. Our historical investment in it is too dynamic and affective for that, too irrational and deep-seated. We are being naive if we think that we can sit down and intellectualize ourselves out of its sticky clutches, if we imagine that ending explicit commitments to blatant types of racial discrimination must mean that we are done with racism’s awful legacy for good. It is a trap that scholars fall into as well, assuming that all they have to do is objectively “deconstruct” race, prove it isn’t real in the biological ways that we once thought, and then imagine that by doing so they have somehow inoculated us all against its most hazardous features, dulled its sharpest talons. That isn’t nearly true.”

“We want to believe something very similar about racism and accusations of racism. If we can prove that a particular allegation of racism is unfounded or untrue, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief and try to move on. That is part of racism’s power. It tricks us into thinking that we can wish it away with a string of logical premises and conclusions, with a singular decree of guilt or innocence. We fantasize about isolating this thing and determining its measurable impact once and for all, especially now that blatant forms of racism have been so thoroughly demonized in mainstream society.”
(pp. 84-85)

Yeah, I’ve lately read a number of books whose authors could be accused of falling into that intellectual trap. I’m not sure it is an entirely fair accusation, but I understand the point. Intellectual analysis of data is just a tool. It is one tool among many and no less useful when needed.

If I had an accusation against the author of this book (John L. Jackson), I might say that he didn’t ground his argument in enough intellectual analysis of data. His argument would have been so much stronger had he been as thorough as, for example, Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. It was the data-driven strength of Alexander’s presentation that made her book so effective in its impact and hopefully its influence.

I love that Racial Paranoia presents fresh insight and an innovative perspective. So, I wouldn’t judge Jackson too harshly for I understand his purpose. He is making a very important point that maybe no one else is making, at least not in the way he is making it. The only comparable book I’ve come across is Racecraft by Fields and Fields. Both books try to get beyond the standard repeating of data and, in doing so, try to get past the cognitive traps of our own making.

Some have criticized Jackson for what the perceived failure to more fully include the problems of more overt racism, but I especially think that is unfair.

“I do want to argue that racial paranoia isn’t racism, but racism is also still alive and well (even in its more explicit guises). I don’t want to privilege individual psyches over larger structural forces. In fact, I want to argue that a structural transformation in the American racial order created current versions of race-based paranoia. All I suggest is that we not simply reduce accusations of racism to simplistic assessments of truth or falsehood. We shouldn’t just try to vet them for provable accuracy and then go on to something else once we think we’ve shown a particular allegation to be unfounded. Instead, I want to remind us that we now live in a political atmosphere that promotes racial dissimulation and insincerity. The self-conscious parsing of racial speech brings a certain kind of distrust and bad faith into the center of every interracial conversation, even if through the back door and against some people’s best intentions.”
(pp. 195-196)

His point is that taking seriously racial paranoia is a necessary and essential part of our dealing with the more concrete racial problems that confound us.

“We promote racial paranoia when we combine discussions about color blindness with silent acceptance of continued structural differences in racial realities.”
(p. 206)

As such, racial paranoia is a sign of our collective failure. It is proof of how far away we still are from coming to terms with the real issues at hand.

There is a further issue that brings me to my own thoughts on American society. Jackson touches upon this in the following:

“Some critics downplay the significance of Americans’ publicly concealing their racial biases in mixed company, even as some of these same naysayers admit that most blacks and whites don’t have many substantial relationships with one another. In fact, political scientist Robert Putnam argues that Americans who live in diverse communities are more likely to disengage from civic life than those who live in homogenous racial and ethnic enclaves. This just further highlights fellow political scientist Diana Mutz’s persuasive contention that “participatory democracy” (civic engagement, people rolling up their sleeves and taking part in political life) and “deliberative democracy” (substantive discussions about political life) operate at cross-purposes to one another.13 If the lack of racial intimacy breeds distrust, the increase of interracial contact only makes good-faith social dialogue and interaction a casualty of that social mistrust. Social distance can make the heart grow frightened, but it takes more than just passing a diverse array of strangers on the street to allay those fears.”
(pp. 202-203)

I’ve so far spoken only of our culture of paranoia. That is the challenge before us. But what is the antidote? I would suggest that the only force equal to the task would be a culture of trust. The fact that this country has such a culture of paranoia could be interpreted as demonstrating how weak is our culture of trust, but I don’t know if that is actually the case. Conditions supporting each might not be oppositional.

The reason I say this is because the United States, in the studies I’ve seen, measures relatively high as a culture of trust. Not as high, of course, as Germany or Japan. Still, we’re not doing too bad, better than most countries. Besides, one might point out that, if not for a significant culture of paranoia in Germany, the Nazis wouldn’t likely have come to power by scapegoating so many people.

A culture of trust is about social capital. And a culture of paranoia is one possible result of insufficient social capital. But a finer point must be added that there are many kinds of social capital that serve different ends.

That is what Jackson explains in the quote directly above when he says, ““participatory democracy” (civic engagement, people rolling up their sleeves and taking part in political life) and “deliberative democracy” (substantive discussions about political life) operate at cross-purposes to one another.” Maybe so. If so, that is quite a dilemma. I doubt it is a forced option of one or the other, but it could imply a necessary third that bridges the two, a factor of social capital that is of a higher order.

This is shown by yet another study. Children who grow up in multicultural communities tend to become more socially liberal as adults. For a social democracy, the ultimate form of social capital is social liberalism. Without it, social democracy can’t function. Multiculturalism teaches kids how to tolerate and accept, how to cooperate and compromise with those who are different.

As this all shows, it isn’t simply a matter of social capital or its lack. Rather, what is required is a balance of social capital that achieves a particular end. A different blend of social capital would be required in a traditional society than in a modern society. In speaking of cultures of trust, we must consider what kinds of trust toward whom and for what purpose.

A kinship-based society would measure low in these kinds of studies for people in those societies only trust kin, but their trust of kin is very strong. In America, there is less trust (or loyalty) to large extended families. Few Americans could honestly speak of having a traditional clan or a tribe to which they belong. Also, as we aren’t an ethnic nation-state, we don’t have the same kind of patriotism and communitarianism found in the countries that do measure highest as cultures of trust. The Japanese when dealing with other Japanese know that they can make business deals on a handshake for someone’s word is their honor and, when the Japanese fail by their own sense of honor, that means social death and if severe enough a responsibility to commit suicide. We Americans aren’t so honor-bound.

Even so, we Americans have our own variety of trust. Unlike societies of kinship and ethno-nationalism, we are more likely to offer trust to strangers more quickly and with fewer reservations. We are more likely to assume someone is trustworthy until proven otherwise, especially in terms of face-to-face personal interactions.

My dad gave an example of this. His career led him to visit many factories. He remembered visiting a closed-down Japanese factory, but Japanese management were wary about him seeing their operation since he was an outsider, not just an outsider to Japan for he was also an outsider to the company. In visiting American factories, it was more common for management to let him freely wander around factories that were actively being used.

This might relate to a behavioral trait I’ve heard many foreigners observe in Americans. Americans on average are more openly gregarious, quick to help others, go out of our way to make people feel welcome. But to many foreigners this feels superficial. I can only imagine that it is something like how my Midwestern mother felt when interacting with our Southern Belle neighbor in South Carolina, a cordial friendliness that was just a formality. This observation of foreigners seems to show that there are two levels of trust. In everyday interactions, Americans act trustingly. But otherwise, Americans go by the policy that deeper trust needs to be earned. We don’t give someone that deeper trust simply because they share our kinship or our ethnicity.

Racial paranoia seems to operate on that deeper level.

It goes back to slavery, as Jackson explains. Many slave masters weren’t so wealthy that they could sit around sipping iced tea on the veranda. They had to be out there working in the fields with their slaves. Even for wealthier slave masters, their entire lives were intimately entwined with their slaves and, in the more isolated Virginia plantations, this went as far as slaves being part of an extended sense of family. It was the simultaneous closeness and distance between people in a slave society that necessitated trust even as it provoked paranoia. Segregation offers a false portrayal of geographic separation, but the reality is that people lived separate lives while often living next door to one another. Even after slavery, whether as sharecroppers or servants, blacks in the Deep South tended live near the whites they worked for. My Southern Belle neighbor, for example, had a black woman who was her personal servant for years and only lived a few blocks away.

A similar dynamic has happened also between other diverse demographics: ethnic groups, regional populations, etc. This is an immigrant nation and so that has meant diverse people have had to learn to work together, even when there was potential for animosities and inequalities. This has been magnified by the American tendency to move around a lot from region to region. American-style cooperative trust goes hand-in-hand with wary mistrust.

It could be that the paranoid imagination is how societies process divisions and conflicts. As people imagine dark possibilities, they imagine brighter possibilities as well.

Along with being an immigrant nation, the corollary is that this is a dynamic society. There is a constant influx of immigrants and, about every few generations, a new large wave of immigration comes along. This has meant that, unlike traditional societies with established ethnic populations, Americans in general has never been able or particularly interested in trying to remain unchanging.

Like all of modernity, this dynamic instability is taxing on human nature. There is an endless need for negotiating and renegotiating relationships. No seeming certainties go forever unchallenged.

This reminds me of my eternal fascination with boundaries and boundary types. I’ll let this angle bring me into my concluding thoughts.

The reason race is most prone to paranoia is because it isn’t an objective category. It can be almost anything to anyone. This is clearly shown with issues of definition. Even relatively dark-skinned North Africans are technically Caucasians. A large number of American blacks have as many or more European genetics than African genetics. There is a long history of light-skinned blacks passing as whites and also some examples of whites passing as blacks (e.g., John Howard Griffin). Then there are all those ethnic groups that have struggled to fit into American categories: Italians, Irish/Scots-Irish, Eastern Europeans, Jews, etc.

America is one of those places where differences come to die, although some take longer than others, race being one of the more stubborn. There are few ethnic immigrants whose American-born descendants aren’t assimilated within a few generations, often along with marrying across ethnic divides.

As boundaries shift, everything else shifts along with them: social identities, religious practices, communities, etc. And so we as a society shift from what is known to what is unknown, to what has been to what might be. This past century has been a time of the greatest shifts in American history. It shouldn’t be surprising that, when so much is up in the air, paranoia would become rampant. Of the uncertainties of our age, racial identities and categories are among the most challenged. A large part of the population today has few if any ancestors who were in America during slavery or even Jim Crow. The very history behind racial dogma is becoming ever more irrelevant, and so its ideological nature is becoming more obvious.

At the same time, the historical racial divides have been growing as the class divides grow. The racial order that benefits the few is increasingly becoming harmful to the many as those in power become increasingly oppressive in maintaining all aspects of the social order. It is in the interest of those least worthy of trust to discourage the development of a culture of trust.

The only thing that can move all of this forward against such resistance is public dialogue. Even paranoia expressed is more constructive than silence.

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Racecraft: Political Correctness & Free Marketplace of Ideas

Here is a passage that is absolutely brilliant. The authors cut to the heart of the issue like a surgeon with a scalpel.

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life
by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields
pp. 40-44

Sometimes the fog of racecraft rolls in at the last minute, as a derailing non sequitur to an otherwise logical argument. A few years ago, the New York Times reported that scientists who conducted an epidemiological study of asthma among schoolchildren in South Bronx produced damning evidence about environmental pollution caused by heavy truck traffic. Their study identified the particle emissions, cited the location of major highways, and, through resourceful data collection, drew conclusions about the children’s exposure, in specific neighborhoods, at different hours of the day, to “very high fine particle concentrations on a fairly regular basis.” The correlations emerged: “Symptoms, like wheezing, doubled on days when pollution from truck traffic was highest .” It would seem as clear as noonday that class inequality had imposed sickness on these American schoolchildren. Yet the article’s summary tails off into confused pseudo-genetics. To a list of contributors to high asthma rates that includes heavy traffic, dense population, poorly maintained housing, and lack of access to medical care, the article adds “a large population of blacks and Hispanics, two groups with high rates of asthma.” Racecraft has permitted the consequence under investigation to masquerade among the causes. Susceptibility to filthy air does not depend on the census category to which the asthma sufferer belongs. And even if that susceptibility is (to whatever degree) genetically determined, Dr. Venter’s account of his own asthma stands as a reminder that “genetic” is not equivalent to “racial” or “ethnic.”

Some of the oddest racecraft moments come when scientists yoke modern genetics to folk notions. In the controversy over Dr. James D. Watson’s remarks in London, some of his defenders charged his critics with a “politically correct” retreat from science, insisting that good science requires a free marketplace of ideas . Researchers must be free, they implied, to salvage the old bio-racist ranking of superior and inferior races, regardless of the collapse as science of its core concept, race. But it is doubtful that those foes of political correctness would wish to rehabilitate that part of bio-racism that once identified inferior white races.

If they took their own position seriously, they would applaud the writings of such eminent American scientists of the late nineteenth century as Edward Drinker Cope and Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (dean of Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School during the 1890s) on the inequality of races, not simply their work on dinosaurs and the earth’s history. Cope advocated both “the return of the African to Africa” and restrictions on immigration by “the half-civilized hordes of Europe.” Shaler agreed, characterizing those hordes as inferior “by birthright ,” “essentially in the same state as the Southern Negro,” and distinct from “the Aryan variety of mankind.” Popularizers hustled bio-racist “science” into public policy. Madison Grant, who advocated “Nordic” superiority in his 1916 best-seller, The Passing of the Great Race: The Racial Basis of European History, purported to map class inequality onto physical traits, such as height:

The Nordic race is everywhere distinguished by great stature. Almost the tallest stature in the world is found among the pure Nordic populations of the Scottish and English borders, while the native British of Pre-Nordic brunet blood are, for the most part, relatively short; and no one can question the race value of stature who observes on the streets of London the contrast between the Piccadilly gentleman of Nordic race and the cockney costermonger [street vendor] of the old Neolithic type.

In 1924, the lay and scientific streams of bio-racism converged in the Immigration Act of 1924 (which excluded European races deemed undesirable) and the Virginia Racial Integrity Act (which prohibited “miscegenation”). In the same year, Virginia adopted a law (upheld by the US Supreme Court three years later) providing for compulsory sterilization of persons held to be “defective and degenerate,” a group that included “the shiftless, ignorant and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” The Nazis followed these developments closely. When they decided to weed out the “unfit,” they had American models of how to proceed, from administrative searching of family trees to sterilization. They became “the dark apotheosis of eugenics.”

In 1946, Leslie C. Dunn, a distinguished geneticist and part of a group intent on severing genetics from eugenics, wrote that the field “had developed … out of the racial problems presented so vividly to the United States by the great immigration of the early part of the century.” Consistent application of the “free marketplace of ideas” principle today would restore to bio-racism and eugenics the respectability they once enjoyed. Instead, “inferior white races ” vanished from the lexicon of bio-racism, to rematerialize outside its purview as “ethnic” groups. The “shiftless, ignorant, and worthless” white people vanished altogether. No one attributes to political correctness the demise of bio-racism as applied to white persons. So, the free-marketplace-of-ideas apologia for Watson’s bio-racism as applied to black persons turns out to be a familiar interloper, the practice of a double standard.

One of the present authors some years ago tested the limits of the free market in racist ideas. A crotchety yet likable right-wing colleague approached, looking disquieted and in need of moral support. He was “having trouble” with a certain black student in his bio-psychology class. What was wrong, he wondered, with saying that “black people may, or (mind you) may not, prove to be intellectually inferior to white people? In science, you frame a hypothesis, devise an experiment, find out.” The student raised her hand and, when recognized, blasted him. “Do you know So-and -So (the student in question)?” asked the bio-psychologist. (The author did happen to know the student in question, an eighteen-year-old single mother of twins who was as bright as they come and not one to brook insult.) “Why can’t she grasp that there’s a scientific approach to things , blah , blah?” Finally, the author put a question. “If, as you say, there is no hypothesis that science excludes, why not try this assignment ? Let your students pick any white ethnic group and any stereotype commonly applied to it, greedy, mendacious, dumb, drunken, gangsterish, and so on, then formulate a hypothesis, design the experiment, find out.” The colleague’s face froze.

Race-Racism Evasion

The following is a passage from Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields. I offer it here as an important point is made articulated. The key conclusion to be found is the specific section where the authors write:

Confronted with the intellectual arguments against the concept of race, my undergraduates react by grasping for another word to occupy the same conceptual space. “I don’t feel comfortable saying ‘race’ after your class . But I don’t know what else to call it,” is a characteristic response. At the suggestion, “Why not ‘ancestry,’ if that’s what you’re talking about?” they retreat into inarticulate dissatisfaction .

A very good question the authors ask: Why not speak of ancestry?

Nearly everything that is worthy of being spoken of is more clearly and fully found in categories of ethnicity and nationality (although I would also add socio-economic class and other related factors). The classifications of race don’t tell us anything we can’t discover without them. All that race does is conflate separate issues and obscure hidden causes.

From Racecraft (pp. 100-102):

“Race” appears in the titles of an ever-growing number of scholarly books and articles as a euphemism for slavery, disfranchisement, segregation, lynching, mass murder, and related historical atrocities; or as unintentionally belittling shorthand for “persons of African descent and anything pertaining to them.” 13 The more dutifully scholars acknowledge that the concept of race belongs in the same category as geocentrism or witchcraft , the more blithely they invoke it as though it were both a coherent analytical category and a valid empirical datum . In place of Jefferson’s moment of impassioned truth-telling, his successors fall back on italics or quotation marks, typographical abbreviations for the trite formula, “race is a social construction.”

The formula is meant to spare those who invoke race in historical explanation the raised eyebrows that would greet someone who, studying a crop failure, proposed witchcraft as an independent variable. But identifying race as a social construction does nothing to solidify the intellectual ground on which it totters. The London Underground and the United States of America are social constructions; so are the evil eye and the calling of spirits from the vasty deep; and so are murder and genocide. All derive from the thoughts, plans, and actions of human beings living in human societies. Scholars who intone “social construction” as a spell for the purification of race do not make clear— perhaps because they do not themselves realize— that race and racism belong to different families of social construction, and that neither belongs to the same family as the United States of America or the London Underground. Race belongs to the same family as the evil eye. Racism belongs to the same family as murder and genocide. Which is to say that racism, unlike race, is not a fiction, an illusion, a superstition, or a hoax. It is a crime against humanity.

No operation performed on the fiction can ever make headway against the crime. But the fiction is easier for well-meaning people to handle. (“ Race,” I have written elsewhere, “is a homier and more tractable notion than racism, a rogue elephant gelded and tamed into a pliant beast of burden .”) Confronted with the intellectual arguments against the concept of race, my undergraduates react by grasping for another word to occupy the same conceptual space. “I don’t feel comfortable saying ‘race’ after your class . But I don’t know what else to call it,” is a characteristic response. At the suggestion, “Why not ‘ancestry,’ if that’s what you’re talking about?” they retreat into inarticulate dissatisfaction. Instinctively, they understand that, while everyone has ancestry , only African ancestry carries the ultimate stigma. Therefore, what they are unknowingly searching for is a neutral-sounding word with racism hidden inside, which is what “race” is. The apparently blameless word permits students to reabsorb into the decorum of the routine something whose essence is not just indecorum but monstrosity: the attachment to fellow human beings of a stigma akin to leprosy in medieval Europe, only worse, in that it sets beyond the pale of humanity not the leper alone but the leper’s progeny ad infinitum.

Domesticating such a monstrosity for presentation in civilized company requires believers in race to attempt cosmetic repairs of its most obnoxious peculiarities. One such peculiarity is the fact that, effectively, there can be only one race, since the one-drop-of-blood or any-known-ancestry rule applies only to African ancestry; indeed , the rule ceases to function at all if applied to more than one type of ancestry. The cosmetic applied to the resulting asymmetry and invidiousness is “whiteness ,” whose champions purport to discover “racialization”— and therefore races— all over the shop. A further sleight of hand defines race as identity so that “white” also becomes a race. Similar cosmetic embellishments claim “agency” for the victims in creating race or deodorize it by tracing its origin to “culture” rather than racism. But people no more fasten the stigma of race upon themselves than cattle sear the brand into their own flesh. And, no matter how slipshod the definition of culture, no one can seriously assert that one culture unites those whom American usage identifies without hesitation as one race.

One Purity To Rule Them All

What is with purity and a particular kind of thinking on the right?

There are the Tea Party types who attack RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). There are other ideological purists like S. Freeman with whom I was discussing JFK.  As he said in our discussion (quoted in full in part 4 of my JFK series):

People would have a MUCH clearer understanding of the political system, of politics in general, and of the ideological orientations (including the basic conservatism of Kennedy) IF people did not work constantly to muddy the meanings of ideological terms, and if we did a much better job teaching ideology in our education institutions.

That fear of muddying and the complaint about the lack of necessary ‘education’ to ensure right-minded thinking. Those damn liberals don’t even know what liberalism is with their constantly getting everything a “little bit muddy”. Freeman seems a bit obsessed with mud and ideological uncleanliness.

A similar thing is found with ethnic nationalists, race supremacists and even human biodiversity advocates. There is a fear that too much mixing or mixing at all will destroy something fundamentally good. There is a belief, contrary to the evidence, that there is something pure in the first place that must be defended. All of human evolution and history has been a process of mixing and mixing again. If humans weren’t born with an instinct to mix it up at every available opportunity, we wouldn’t have so much genetics of Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Purity, such a strange concept. And disgust, such a strange response. I understand that these impulses play an important role in human psychology. I don’t mean to dismiss them as irrelevant. I only mean to point out how endlessly fascinating it is the way they manifest in these modern times. Liberals get blamed for utopianism, but this purity impulse seems more utopian to me than anything liberals ever go on about.

What would the fantasy world of purity look like if these people were able to achieve it?

An entire society with pure races and ethnicities, pure ideologies and education. Everything with a place and everything in its place. Imagine a world purified of all that doesn’t fit, all that is mixed and ‘muddied’. All impurities eliminated or isolated. A pure world of pure people with pure thinking and pure behaviors. Where right is right and wrong is wrong, where white is white and black is black. Where this and that, us and them are clearly demarcated and firmly separated. Where visions are constrained and boundaries are thick. A world of order and authority, of rules and laws, of mores and standards.

More interesting, if these various purists were the only people left in the world, it would be fun to watch them fight over their respective purist agendas. Whose vision of purity would be the one purity to rule them all?

I want add something here as a side note, instead of starting a whole new post.

I’ve recently been writing a lot about races. Some of my most compelling thoughts have been on eugenics. According to HBD theory, distinct genetic populations are created through social engineering, either eugenics or something like eugenics (e.g., manorial lords deciding who can and can’t get married). In this context, purity of races has to do with social control: who is controlling whom and to what purpose that control is serving. HBD theorists interpret the data as showing very specific genetic-based behavioral tendencies were being created.

I argue that races aren’t biologically real while also arguing there is nothing to stop us from making them real. I see the racial social order in America as essentially a eugenics program with such things as anti-miscegenation laws playing a similar role to that of manorial lords determining marriages. It isn’t an issue of there existing pure races. The real issue is the desire for pure races, a centuries old dream that some are still dreaming. It is one of the most powerful visions of purity ever imagined by the human mind.

It just occurred to me, however, that there is an even greater example of a vision of purity being used as enforcement of social order. That example is India’s caste system. That is an awesome example, not just centuries old but with roots that are millennia old. If one wanted to test HBD theory, that would be where to look. How genetically distinct are the caste populations? And if somehow one could control all the social/environmental factors (an impossible task, I acknowledge), what genetic-based differences might be observed? No one knows.

The caste system is different than the race system, but there is an ideological affinity between them. I’d love to read a book that compared them and looked at all the evidence: genetic, cultural, political, etc.

On the small-scale, purity impulse is just a psychological defense against, for example, eating rotten food that might make us sick. It has a very simple purpose and a very basic survival value. However, when brought to the level of all-encompassing absolutist ideology, it becomes something entirely different. In whatever form it takes, the impulse toward purity when it gains control of a society can be powerful indeed.

Single Men and Human Biodiversity Theory

Over at hbdchick’s open thread, a person named ckp left a comment:

There’s the thesis that outbreeding among north-west Europeans contributed to their disavowal of nepotism, clan rivalries, advancement of capitalism, etc. They trusted distantly related people more than did their more inbred cousins in southern and eastern Europe. This brings me to my confusion – in European colonies the attitudes towards the natives seems to be the opposite of what this hypothesis would predict. Northwest Euro colonizers (British, Dutch, later the Germans ..) had very restrictive rules about how different ethnicities interacted with each other – segregation and apartheid. In contrast, the more clannish Euros mixed much more freely with the natives and imported slaves – the Portuguese are canonical examples, but the Spanish did the same. I would have thought that it would be the other way around.

Is this a problem for the hypothesis? Or is it accounted for in a way that I haven’t grasped yet?

Those are the kinds of observations I tend to make. I always have these nagging doubts about HBD theory, a sense that many aspects therein are dependent as much on the data excluded as the data included. There is so much data that it is hard to account for it all. I’ve specifically wondered about demographics like this about gender and marriage rates.

To hbdchick’s credit, she did her best to make sense of this data:

i think the difference probably stems from the differing migration patterns between the nw european colonizers vs. the iberians: the britich, dutch, and germans tended to migrate in whole family units — mom, dad, the kids (see Albion’s Seed on this, for example) — whereas the iberians tended to be mostly males (at least early on — i’m not sure why this was, actually — did they have an excess of second sons or what?). with the mostly male spaniards and portugese in the new world, of couse they were going to “fraternize” with the locals, because they wanted wives (and there were comparatively few iberian girls to choose from)! the nw europeans in north america — they were arriving with whole societies in tow — priests, merchants, farmers — and all with their families. they were really and truly transplanting themselves and their (ideal) societies in the new world.

If she were correct about this difference, the issue may well be fully explained. It is certainly correct that in the northernmost colonies immigrants were more likely to come as family. However, that wasn’t true for the colonies from the Dutch to the Deep South.

“Colonial New Netherland (New York), like Jamestown and other trading post colonies, attracted single men, few women, and even fewer families.
Dutch Americans by Herbert J. Brinks

“In sharp contrast to New England, which was settled mainly by families, most of the settlers of Virginia and neighboring Maryland were single men bound in servitude. Before the colonies turned decisively to slavery in the late seventeenth century, planters relied on white indentured servants from England, Ireland, and Scotland. They wanted men, not women. During the early and mid-seventeenth century, as many as four men arrived for every woman.”
Life in Early Virginia

​”a. Surviving males competed for the affections of the extremely scarce women, whom they outnumbered nearly six to one in 1650
b. Although they were still outnumbered by three to two at the end of the century, eligible women did not remain single for long
c. Families were both few and fragile in this ferocious environment; most men could not find mates and most marriages were destroyed by the death of a partner within seven years”
Chapter 4: American Life in the Seventeenth Century, 1607-1692

“Unlike the New England experience, where young, single men faced a high likelihood of marriage, bachelors in the Chesapeake often remained unmarried into their thirties or beyond.”
Single Men in America by Carl Robert Keyes

Furthermore, this trend of men outnumbering women was true beyond just the beginnings of a few British colonies. In general, “The majority of seventeenth-century English emigrants were poor, young, single men…” The reason for this is, coming “from the bottom rungs of English society”, that “Two-thirds of English settlers came to North America as indentured servants”; single male indentured servants, of course, being more sought after (also, maybe more available along with more willing).

In fact, this trend wasn’t just a general truth in the colonial era. It was also a general truth during the early American period and well into the 20th century. The reason it was so enduring is that America is an immigrant nation and American immigrants for most of our history have been disproportionately single men. This demographic and cultural history is explained well in a passage from David T. Courtwright’s Violent Land (Kindle Locations 69-87):

“Anyone who looks closely at the underside of American history will find mostly young and single men. They have accounted for far and away the largest share of homicides, riots, drug dealing, and the like. This pattern is common to all societies. But the American experience with young, single men has been unusually bad because, until recently, the country has had a higher proportion of them in its population than the European, African, and Asian nations from which its immigrants came. America’s violent history was played out with a bad hand of cards dealt from a stacked demographic deck. As an immigrant society America experienced a more or less continuous influx of youthful male workers, resulting in a population with more men than women for every year prior to 1946. In a monogamous society, many of these surplus young men could not marry. Insofar as young, single men are any society’s most troublesome and unruly citizens, America had a built-in tendency toward violence and disorder.

“The demographic tendency was heightened by cultural and social influences. American men, especially southerners and frontiersmen, were contemptuous of other races and touchy about personal honor, which they were inclined to defend by violent means. American men drank a great deal of hard liquor and grew up in cultures that equated drunkenness with obstreperousness. American men, particularly those of the lower classes, resisted attempts at religious conversion and the feminized style of life associated with it. They often took their recreation with other men in bibulous places of commercialized vice, such as gambling halls and saloons, thereby multiplying the opportunities for violent conflict. The guns and knives they carried increased the likelihood that such conflicts would have fatal results. When killings did occur the police and courts were often unable or indisposed to deal effectively with them.

“This mixture of demographic, cultural, and social characteristics guaranteed that American society would experience unusually high levels of violence and disorder, but not that American society would be uniformly violent and disorderly. These troublesome elements-the surplus of young men, widespread bachelorhood, sensitivity about honor, racial hostility, heavy drinking, religious indifference, group indulgence in vice, ubiquitous armament, and inadequate law enforcement-were concentrated on the frontier. An expanding subnation of immigrants within a larger nation of immigrants, the frontier was, at least as far as white Americans were concerned, the most youthful and masculine region of the country and, consequently, the one most prone to violence and disorder.’

“The frontier was the principal arena of single male brutality in American history. Tens of thousands of drunken and disorderly white frontiersmen perished prematurely, as did countless native and animal inhabitants whose territory they despoiled. Nor is the carnage entirely in the past. Insofar as the frontier experience has become a foundation of the national self-image-that is, insofar as Americans continue to think a manly man is someone with a gun and an attitude-it continues to influence the amount and type of violence in the United States, as well as our collective response to it.”

As Brian Ehresman wrote, along with mentioning of single males: “The South also did not have as good of relationships with the Native Americans as the other regions.” Now that is a major understatement. Even with New England’s rough relationship with the natives, there was a pathway to assimilation and there never was an equivalent to the Trail of Tears. Northern communities with strong foundations of family life, churches and civic-mindedness allowed for assimilation in a way not as possible in the South and it wasn’t for a lack of trying by the natives in the South. Prior to the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee went further than any other tribe to model their entire lifestyle on the example of white people, even owning slaves like their fellow white Southerners.

What made the Iberian and French people so much less clannish than the British? And what is the relationship between clannish cultures in immigrant nations and high rates of single male immigrants? Or is there any direct relation at all? The single male immigrants in the British colonial South had many native women who were theoretically available to marry, but these British men were apparently more resistant to going native than were the Iberian and French men. Why is that? Maybe it is because Iberia and France had long histories of ethnic mixing and so more collective experience with multiculturalism. But if so, how can this cultural element explained by HBD theory?

Here is my personal speculation. Maybe it has more to do with proximity to the Roman Empire and also the nations that maintained longest the political traditions of the Roman Empire. The empires of France, Spain and Portugal followed closest the example of the Romans.

The one thing that the Roman Empire did well that allowed them to survive for so long was multiculturalism. This multiculturalism wasn’t always about inter-marriage/breeding between ethnic groups. Actually, the Roman model purposely allowed for separate ethnic cultures such as the ethnic enclaves and islands of Jews. This model can still be seen in Spain and France to this day. Take for example the Basque who live along the border of these two countries or, as another example, the independent Roma in Spain.

I’ve also speculated that the only reason the United States has lasted as long as it has is because the Northern multiculturalism was able to moderate all of the diversity in this country. It was the South that nearly tore this country apart. The American culture that developed in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern region was in many ways a repeating of the pattern going back to the Romans. I’ve pointed out how William Penn was strongly influenced by French culture and how the French Huguenot immigrants had great influence in shaping important elements of American culture.

Just speculations, of course. Whatever one speculates, it is odd the correlation between single males and the enduring American culture of violence, xenophobia and racism. It is also interesting to note that, as this correlation weakened as the gender ration equalized in the late 1800s to early 1900s, the Southern states lost and the Northern states gained political power. Maybe the Civil War was essential in killing off so many of those single men and so allowing a shift in American culture to happen.

Foundations and Frameworks

Even after a four post spree on JFK, my mind was stuck on the discussion. What was catching in my craw more than anything was Thomas Sowell’s constrained and unconstrained visions.

I don’t know if Sowell understands what is so significant about this distinction.

Like many conservatives, I get the sense he merely wishes to use it to dismiss liberalism and rationalize it away. In the conservative telling, the constrained vision conforms snugly to the cold hard reality of depraved human nature (or to Christianize it as ‘fallen’; or to state it less dramatically as psychologically limited) whereas the unconstrained vision is ungrounded idealism and impractical utopianism or worse (basically, the same aforementioned depraved human nature but let loose to run amuk or unanchored to run aground).

This can feel, at its worst, like a Manichaean opposition of Good vs Evil or else just righteous submission vs the temptation of sin. The moral of the story is this: Humans are limited and their only wise recourse is to grimly accept this limitation. Anything else will lead to oppression and suffering, failure and tragedy, immorality and wrongheadedness. No one can deny that it makes for great emotion-rousing rhetoric. However, as for sober-minded analysis, it seems less than useful for actually understanding the intricacies of human nature.

Considering this, I’d rather not fall into the same trap of over-simplified thinking and unfair portrayals. Neither constrained nor unconstrained is more real than the other, certainly no more conforming to human nature. They are both, after all, expressions of the same human nature. Each holds a piece of the puzzle, an aspect of truth. We must take each seriously on its own terms, and not try to force one into the terms of the other. That attempt at ideological enforcement is the sin I charged against conservatives seeking to co-opt JFK’s legacy.

The ever-present problem is that I’m coming from a liberal-minded perspective in judging these conservatives. Co-opting a liberal icon or liberal strategies and rhetoric, that is precisely what (reactionary) conservatism is all about… or so argues Corey Robin and I partly agree. It is as I argue with being a “little bit muddy” is precisely what liberalism is all about. The motivations of one makes little sense to the motivations of the other.

This is a more serious issue than it first appears. The liberal/conservative distinction may be greater than most realize. It’s not just that they operate according to different terms. I’ve been coming to the conclusion that they operate on entirely different levels of thought and behavior, entirely different social and psychological realities, entirely different which isn’t to say entirely exclusionary and oppositional, not necessarily so.

That is a major insight that has been dawning on me.

Conservatism and liberalism, as general categories, maybe aren’t polar opposites. Maybe the reason conservatism so easily allies with or gets combined/confluent/conflated(?) with right-wing ideologies is that conservatism is more on the opposite end of the spectrum from leftism. My suspicion is that liberalism is something else altogether, a separate spectrum stretched between liberal-mindedness and anti-liberal-mindedness (Is it akin to the dualistic pairing of anarchism and authoritarianism?). From the conservative point of view, it seems difficult to understand liberalism other than as a facade for leftism, most often the dread communism. Likewise, from the liberal point of view, there can be a tendency to see conservatism at best as soft fascism or paternalistic fundamentalism.

I sense a complexity that gets hidden behind all the rhetoric. Some conservatives can seem quite liberal-minded. And some liberals can seem quite conservative-minded. According to mainstream ideological thought, this obviously makes no sense.

Constrained and unconstrained begins with a simple division: inclusionary vs exclusionary, narrow vs broad, closed vs open, etc.

This is seen in studies based on simple observations such as eye movements. Conservatives tend to remain focused and undistracted whereas liberals are constantly shifting their eyes to look about at faces around them. Some have speculated that this focus is why conservatives are disproportionately found in professions that are narrowly defined with clear limits, articulate rules, and systematic procedures (e.g., lawyers, managers, and surgeons).

However, from this simple division, complex worldviews form about which much else aggregates. There is more going on here than merely focused or not.

Conservatism seems more basic. In times of stress or tiredness, cognitive overload leads everyone into conservative-mindedness. Our focus narrows as we look for the problem or stressor, seek out the potential enemy or other threat, draw inward to save our reserve of energy. It is much more difficult to shift into liberal-mindedness and maintain it. It is a ‘higher’ cognitive functioning and requites a higher cost of effort and energy.

What is achieved with this extra effort and energy?

I’ve wondered if liberal-mindedness is built on conservative-mindedness in the way civilization is built on tribalism.

When civilizations are under stress, people return to tribalistic behaviors in seeking safety in their nation, race, ethnicity, kin, or religion. Liberal-mindedness, like civilization itself, is not entirely natural in that it is a redirecting of human nature toward conditions quite different from the conditions in which human nature evolved. Civilization probably wouldn’t even be possible if not for this redirecting of liberal-mindedness into greater unconstrained visions. Civilization is the outward manifestation of liberal-mindedness; in turn, civilization is what enables and sustains liberal-mindedness.

This isn’t to say liberal-mindedness is a modern invention. I think it was always there, but it just would have played a lesser or more mediated role in simpler societies. Every society needs some people with liberal-minded abilities and everyone needs some liberal-minded abilities some of the time. Still, it seems more like a secondary functioning within conservative-minded tribalism. The shackles of the constrained vision in this kind of society are less often loosened and only for brief periods, but the unrestrained vision of modern social democracies can’t operate that way.

Conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness could be better understood in the framework of Spiral Dynamics. Conservative-mindedness is more about the basic levels of individual and social development, the base of what Ken Wilber would call a holarchy. Liberal-mindedness maybe isn’t even distinct and maybe can’t act independently at those basic levels. Full liberal-mindedness is more of an emergent property, gradually taking form but only at a very late stage in development is it able to assert its own authority. At the more complex levels of individual and social development, liberal-mindedness comes into its own, becoming something entirely new and unpredictable. Being children of modernity, we forget how strange is our socially liberal modern society. We take it for granted and don’t understand how fragile it is, how easily lost or destroyed. Regression ever threatens.

Such complex societies as ours can only maintain themselves by reversing the priorities of the tribalistic social order. As conservative-mindedness began as the foundation for liberal-mindedness, the latter then becomes the frame for the former. A modern society can only function well as long as conservative-mindedness operates within a liberal-minded social order. Ultimately, for the unconstrained vision to be itself, it can’t exist within the constraints of the constrained vision. However, the constrained vision can fully operate within the unconstrained vision. The relationship between the two can’t be at the same level of functioning.

To put this in political terms, social democracies can allow for religion but only to the extent that church and state are kept separate. Social democracy and theocracy are mutually exclusive. Similarly, kin and state must be kept separate as social democracy and nepotism are also mutually exclusive. Social democracy requires the emphasis be put on the greater whole rather than subordinating the whole to the parts.

The foundation, by definition, must remain at the bottom of the house. A foundation can no more be the entire house than tribalism can dominate and rule over a complex socially democracy. Each has a role to play and they can only play their role to the degree they function according to their respective purposes. If the foundation becomes unstable, the whole house is brought down to the same level, an equality created by leveling downward. That is to say, the house falls down.

Modern civilization feels so precarious as we keep wondering about how strong the foundation is. This is a reasonable worry.

We have little faith in the stability of the house because we have little understanding of its architecture. For too long, we simply trusted it to remain standing. But for a house to remain standing, it must constantly be repaired and fortified. We have too many occupants and not enough architects and builders. We are coming to realize how little we understand about why houses remain standing… or what brings them down.

This is problematic, to say the least, because this liberal/conservative relationship is not understood. But this lack of understanding isn’t inevitable and certainly not desirable. We need to get past polarization and find balance. What we see as being separate and at odds is actually part of the same human nature. If all of this didn’t work together, civilization wouldn’t be possible in the first place. A house divided… well, ya know…

There is a good reason for why even modern conservatives are relatively liberal-minded compared to conservatives in the past (or even most liberals in the past). And there is good reason for why liberal-mindedness increases with each generation as the complexity of society increases. This is most definitely not meant to dismiss conservative-mindedness, the very foundation of human nature and civilization. It is just that it must be kept in mind that foundations have very specific purposes. To try to place the foundation on the roof would lead to disaster.

At the same time, there is good reason for why liberals so easily revert to conservative-mindedness. There is much more to a house than its foundation, but a house isn’t very stable without a strong foundation. It is because liberals are so capable of switching between liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness that they are able to fully secure the frame to the foundation. Conservatives are less capable in this, as research shows. Still, they have another talent. They become reactionary conservatives by co-opting the products and artifacts of liberalism and then using these to adapt. This process is the way conservatives strengthen the foundation, thus more firmly strengthening the walls that attach to that foundation, and thus allowing new floors to be built at the next level.

Conservatives working at ground level and liberals working above. In between, what they are building together takes form.

This co-opting can be annoying to liberals, but it is necessary. What annoys liberals is that conservatives won’t admit that co-opting is what they’re doing, won’t give liberals credit for their efforts. Liberals seem more willing to treat conservatives as equals, as fellow builders. The conflict is that conservatives seem less willing to offer respect in return. It isn’t just that conservatives won’t admit their agenda to liberals. As far as I can tell, they don’t even admit this to themselves.

There is something about conservatism that is resistant to self-awareness. Foundations, after all, aren’t designed for letting light in. They are optimally made to be buried, secured deep in the ground.

That is fine as far as it goes, but it would be nice if conservatives learned to appreciate the value of also building windows and doors in order to let light  in. With light, we can then look upon the foundation and see if it is well built or if it needs further strengthening, see if there are any leaks or cracks in the basement. Conservatives seem afraid of what they might see or what others might see, afraid that if a critical eye is turned to the fundamentals of society that the whole thing will become vulnerable from our loss of faith. But what is the point of strength at all costs? Sure, walls built like foundations without windows and doors could potentially be very strong walls, but such a structure wouldn’t be a house and there would be no easy way to repair it as needed.

What I wonder is what would happen if this shared building process were to become conscious and out in the open. Couldn’t conservatives remain who they are while working with liberals and giving them their due? I think they could. However, as far as I can tell, they can only do so within the liberal framework. If liberals can accept a conservative foundation, why can’t conservatives accept a liberal framework built upon it?

How is a well functioning liberal framework built when liberals are less interested or able in forcing their liberal-mindedness onto others? Or to the degree they do attempt force, how do liberals resist becoming increasingly conservative-minded and so having their guiding purpose weakened? Conservatives have a great ability and compulsion to force conservative-mindedness onto others. Liberals, at their worst, are weak and pathetic. This is why liberal-mindedness isn’t the foundation. Nonetheless, liberalism has its role to play. But how do we convince conservatives to stop obstructing, to stop preening over what a lovely foundation they have and let others build something worthy upon that foundation?

Too often, it feels like liberals can’t win for losing. Can’t gain the upper hand except by playing according to the rules of conservatism and becoming conservative in the process. Liberals have to somehow get conservatives to believe that it is in their own conservative-minded interest to defend the liberal social order. Conservatives have to come to understand that merely defending the foundation won’t by itself ensure that the house remains standing. If they like living in this house of social democracy with all of its modern benefits and comforts, then they too have to accept responsibility for maintaining it.

Liberals can’t force conservatives into this understanding. But there are other tools besides force. It takes more than a hammer to build a house. So, what are these other tools?

Foundations are symbolic of short term interests. Conservatives are very focused and so are good at this. However, conservatives lack the vision to see what could or should be built upon the foundation or how the foundation is built limits what later can be built upon it.

Enslaving black people and creating a slave-based constitution is an example of this. This was a conservative social order based on hierarchical authority and justified by fundamentalist religion and classical thought. It was very strongly structured and certainly wasn’t overflowing with liberal-minded social democracy. Because of this, the unforeseen consequences were dire.

Even for the self(ish)-interests of the white aristocracy, this ended up not being beneficial in the long term. It was a bad deal all around. The liberal-minded during the revolution foresaw this, but the conservative-minded paid them no heed. There is more to building a strong nation than simply building a strong founding. It is necessary to know what the end result will look like and what good is achieved by it. There was no way a nation built on slavery wouldn’t lead to vast suffering and conflict. We are still suffering the consequences to this day.

The foundation was strong, but it was a bad foundation. The problem is that it is hard to dig a foundation up after a house is already built on top of it, a house that is now inhabited. Conservatives would be wise to unconstrain their vision a bit and look beyond mere foundations. Trying to use the present to remake the past doesn’t solve the problems built on the past.

A conservative could argue that many liberals, on the other hand, don’t have much appreciation for foundations at all. That very well might be true.

Foundation building isn’t the talent of liberals. Liberals are able to build grand edifices, as even conservatives will admit. I push  this point a little further in arguing that civilization itself is the grandest of edifices made possible by innovative liberals, by the dreaming and scheming liberal mind.

Nonetheless, even though foundation building isn’t their talent, I find it interesting that liberals can worry more about foundations than conservatives. Liberals instinctively understand their grand edifices will stand or fall depending on the foundations. But since foundations are closer to the conservative nature, they tend to take them more for granted… or something like that.

This is an issue I’ve tried to make sense of before.

This is how liberals in America can become quite conservative-minded, sometimes seemingly having forsaken their liberal-mindedness in the process. Liberals have done this because they want to save what they have already built and are afraid to build further until it has been secured. Reactionary conservatives, however, can feel like a mutant species of ideology. They have gone so far in the direction of co-opting liberalism that they seemingly forget their roles as conservatives. They aren’t necessarily any more loyal to the foundations of traditionalism than are liberals.

This is where my metaphor begins to break down. How do we make sense of this American phenomenon of conservative-minded liberals and reactionary-minded conservatives? How can we get conservatives to act conservative-minded so that liberals can go back to being liberal-minded?  Or is there a way to shift this strange dynamic toward a constructive end?

JFK’s Ideology: The Real Debate

(Part four of four: one, two, three, and four)

Before I offer my conclusion, let me begin with the last thoughts of S. Freeman from our dicussion. In response to what I’ve written so far, he stated the following:

You are correct to say that perceptions of ideologies change. I do not believe ideologies themselves change much beyond being refined or some of their principles being reinterpreted to gain a clearer understanding of the ideology. However, as noted, people start using terminology (ideology) in different ways so a word (liberal, democracy) no longer means what it originally meant. This, at least in part, is a failure of our educational institutions. I also think these changes are not accidental, but often are deliberate to confuse and mislead people. Republicans are, and have been since the 1960’s Lockean Liberals on economic issues. They are very poor Burkean Conservatives on social issues. I say very poor because their positions on social issues contradict several Burkean principles. Thus Republicans are something of a blend of Burkean Conservatism and Reactionaries on social issues. I was in a debate at a university with one of these guys on Columbus Day a year ago. He strongly argued most amendments to the Constitution were unconstitutional, specifically including the 13th Amendment. To which I responded by saying, “then, slavery still should be legal, and African Americans still should, or at least could, be slaves. He said, while he personally opposed slavery, that was the intent of the authors of the Constitution, and therefore, it was/is wrong for government to outlaw slavery. He’s considered a conservative, but that is not Conservativism; that’s reactionaryism.

Democrats are Lockean Liberals on social issues, but not on economic issues. They lean toward Burkean Conservativism in the sense they (seek to) implement policies that disproportionately favor the propertied class and maintenance of a fundamentally anti-democratic oligarchy in the name of democracy.

People would have a MUCH clearer understanding of the political system, of politics in general, and of the ideological orientations (including the basic conservatism of Kennedy) IF people did not work constantly to muddy the meanings of ideological terms, and if we did a much better job teaching ideology in our education institutions.

With his assassination, JFK  can feel like a useful unchanging marker by which to measure and judge. But we can’t get around how the distance of time has made his image hazy in our minds. Our views of JFK may say more about us than about JFK. That may bother Freeman more than it bothers me. In my liberal-mindedeness, such uncertainty feels less disconcerting and troublesome. It is just the way the world is.

Crazy as I am, I see the real debate only beginning as the superficial debate is ending. The debate never was about JFK, not on a fundamental level. What was actually being contested was not just JFK’s ideology or even ideology in general but our shared sense of human nature and social reality. It’s not only about who gets to define the terms of the debate for even more importantly is who gets to define the parameters of meaning, define how and why it matters at all.

In the discussion of JFK’s ideology, I only came across one analysis, imperfect as it is, that gets close to this deeper vein of thought. John C. Goodman (in Was Kennedy a Conservative?) says that, “An ideology is a set of ideas that cohere.” He continues:

Socialism is an ideology. So is libertarianism. Suppose I told you that socialists believe the government should nationalize the steel industry and the auto industry. You would have no difficulty inferring what their position is on nationalizing the airline industry. Right? Suppose I told you that libertarians believe in a free market for tinker toys and ham sandwiches. You would have no difficulty inferring that they also believe in a free market for Rubik’s Cubes.

Sociologies are different. They represent a set of ideas that are often incoherent. These ideas are likely to come together not because of reason, but because of history or happenstance. Not only do the ideas not cohere, they may be completely contradictory.

The problem with Goodman’s analysis is that he is using this description of sociologies as a way to dismiss them. He is more like Freeman in wanting absolutist, self-contained ideologies. An ideology ought to be precisely what it is and nothing else. The fact that actual existing politics rarely if ever meets that standard really irks this kind of person. It seems wrong and unacceptable. Ideologies should be clearly stated and purely expressed.

In the above article, Goodman was quoting himself from his own blog (a practice that I fully condone). His attempt to discern why a sociology is not an ideology followed what amounts to a complaint about what gets called “modern liberalism”:

Let’s put this a different way. Given that liberalism is the dominant political ideology and given that it largely replaced 19th century classical liberalism, is there a place I can go to find why the proponents think it’s so much better than the ideology it replaced? If the answer is “no,” why is that?

The answer, I believe, is that liberalism is not an ideology at all; it is a sociology. The same may be said of conservatism. (Incidentally, Friedman did not call himself a “conservative;” he called himself a “classical liberal.”) I’ll save the conservatives for another day.

Goodman doesn’t come off as very well informed. He dismisses that liberals today have a coherent vision. He dismisses without even seriously considering the case of what liberals actually believe. Many liberals have presented coherent ideologies of liberalism, but Goodman is entirely clueless of this (as some commenters noted in his blog: John Walter and MarkH). In my discussion with Freeman, I made the point that liberalism, including classical liberalism, is a lot more complex than those on the right would like to admit — as I explained it:

This demonstrates the problematic analysis of separating so-called classical liberalism and so-called modern liberalism. Modern liberalism began to form centuries ago. And classical liberalism didn’t take on its modern meaning until the twentieth century. A bit of a confusion in labeling, I would say. It is a modern confusion, though, and isn’t how those in the past would have thought about these ideological worldviews and tendencies.

It is better to think of such distinctions in terms of the Enlightenment. Paine was in the Radical Enlightenment tradition begun with Spinoza. Burke followed Locke’s tradition which is called the Moderate Enlightenment or the Counter-Enlightenment. The Enlightenment most clearly started with Spinoza, but for the British and Americans the Enlightenment they are familiar with is that of Locke. Jonathan Israel writes of this distinction in several books.

When Corey Robin refers to reactionary conservatives, he is speaking of the Counter-Enlightenment. Its proponents took on a lot of the same ideas and tactics as the radicals, but they used it to defend the social order against the radicals who challenged it. At the same time, these reactionary conservatives attacked the old order (the ancien regime) for its failure. So, it was a desire to replace an older hierarchy for a newer and better one.

Still, in separating the wheat from the chaff (in Goodman’s analysis), an important point can be brought forth, whether or not Goodman intended it. He is right to speak of ideologies and sociologies as two separate factors, although from a social science perspective they are a lot closer than he would find comfortable. In fitting his analysis to the social science research, his analysis needs to be reversed. There are many liberal ideologies and, to generalize a bit, only one liberal sociology (a very broad liberal-mindedness that can accompany an endless number of ideologies, including those not typically considered ‘liberal’; for example, I’ve met many liberal-minded libertarians and a significant number of relatively liberal-minded ‘conservatives’).

Liberalism is and always has been a general category and a relative term. The word itself has a fairly old etymology preceding and so not limited to specific ideologies. There is no getting around that broader meaning which is better captured by social science than political science.

So, what does the social science research show?

I’ve covered this territory many many times. For my purposes here, let me keep it simple.

First, here is my standard caveat. Liberalism and conservatism aren’t necessarily the same thing as liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness. I don’t want to absolutely equate these. However, to the degree their is any consistency and coherency to ideologies, it is because they are built on fundamental factors of human nature. Speaking of liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness is the best proxy we have in referring to a very basic distinction that we intuit.

With that in mind, the best broad descriptor I’ve so far found that strongly correlates to this distinction is that of Ernest Hartmann’s boundary types: thick and thin. As a way to bridge the sociological and political, I’m reminded of Thomas Sowell’s constrained vs unconstrained visions (not precisely the same as thick and thin but closely related in concept). What I sense in the motivation of Goodman and Freeman is a seeking to constrain ideology, to make it sit still and be a single thing, forever unchanging (i.e., give it thick boundaries). Because human morality is limited and inevitably fails because of foibles of human nature (as is suggested by many conservatives), we must constrain ourselves (and constrain others) to social orders based on constrained and constraining ideologies. That is the only purpose an ideology can or should serve.

In this manner, conservatives are tempted to define liberalism according to their constrained vision and hence to limit liberalism to a conservative-minded framework. They refuse to let liberalism speak for itself or to let liberals define themselves, refuse to allow liberalism be unconstrained according the nature of liberal-mindedness. This is how conservatives end up wanting to claim both conservatism and liberalism by claiming they are simultaneously true Burkean conservatives and true classical liberals, everything else being false idols (RINOs and mere sociologies).

This seems to be the motivation for some conservatives wanting to claim all the great liberals from the past. This strongly conservative-minded type wants to force everything and everyone into their constrained vision of an orderly reality, an orderly view of human nature, an orderly defining of ideologies. The past is safe because, as Mark Twain notes, even the radicals are safely contained within their own deaths. Past figures, no matter how while alive they may have challenged past constraints, can’t challenge the constraints of the present for their voices have been permanently silenced. Hence, they can now be made into saints and worshipped. As for the living, radicals and liberals can’t be trusted for they refuse to limit themselves to the constrained demands of conservatism. Living liberals must be dismissed while dead liberals are available as necessary to be sanctified.

To reinvent JFK as a conservative is the attempt to make past liberalism safe, cleansed of its radical challenge to authority, social order and the status quo. Moderate as he was, even JFK was too dangerous for the conservatives of his times. He pushed a blatant progressive agenda. But in the liberal movement forward, with the increasing liberalism of the population and of society, the further distanced we become from the past the more it appears conservative relative to the present. All the past becomes frozen in place, all the dead actors forced to play their roles like puppets in the conservative morality tale.

For further reading on this topic from my blog (in order of date of posting):

Is Classical Liberalism Liberal?

Liberalism: Label vs Reality (analysis of data)

Deep South, Traditional Conservatism, & Future Possibilities

Deep South, American Hypocrisy, & Liberal Traditions

Jonathan Haidt’s Liberal-Minded Anti-Liberalism

Conservatism & Liberalism: What is their relationship? What do they mean?

Haidt’s Moral Intuition (vs ethical reasoning)

Haidt & Mooney, Moral Foundations & Spiral Dynamics

Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures

The Enlightenment Project: A Defense

Criticizing Mooney’s Praise of Haidt

Republican Liberalism

Re: The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives

Liberalism, Enlightenment & Axial Age

Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination

Ideologically Confused Partisans

More Thoughts on Ideological Confusion

JFK, Little Bit Muddy: A Liberal Definition of Liberalism

(Part three of four: one, two, three, and four)

All of that was just preamble for what most intrigues me about such endless debates.

What gets me thinking about all this are the underlying issues, the fissures forming. This situation of conservatives defending a liberal like JFK demonstrates how much these labels have changed. As I’ve often noted, the entire political spectrum of the American public has shifted under our feet. This changing social reality sends all the politicians and pundits into a high-drive frenzy, not unlike the strange behavior of animals before an earthquake.

JFK was a pragmatic moderate. I must admit that I don’t get the equating of moderateness/moderation solely or even primarily with conservatism. Certainly, JFK hasn’t changed in the last 50 years since he died. It is the political context that has changed. Older conservatives are discovering the entire world they once knew is fast disappearing. In response, they latch onto any figure that symbolizes America’s past glory days. Having died in office, JFK makes the perfect screen to project upon. His bipartisan tendencies toward compromise (typical of Democrats) lacked ideological purity and so it is easy to cherrypick, as Stoll does, the aspects one likes while disregarding the rest.

I touched upon my core understanding in a comment to Klobas’ review:

Besides, even liberals become more hawkish during hawkish times, as research has shown. Following 9/11, liberals who saw more repeated video of the attacks early on became stronger supporters of the war hawk policies of the Bush administration. Those liberals who initially only heard radio reporting remained more skeptical/wary/resistant of hawkishness. […] 

It is irrelevant that JFK went part of the way with the war hawks. Liberal Democrats went part of the way with the war hawk Bush administration, but that didn’t mean that all the Democrats were really conservatives pretending to be liberals. Obama has followed the Bush war policies without much change, but that doesn’t mean Obama is a conservative pretending to be a liberal (although I’ve always questioned to what extent Obama is a liberal since he has never identified as such; nonetheless, the real issue is that conservatives consider Obama a liberal despite is not being a dove).

JFK wasn’t any more of a war hawk than many other Democratic presidents and politicians. I don’t know if that necessarily makes him a liberal, but it is hard to see that as evidence of him being a conservative.

My worthy opponent in that discussion, S. Freeman, made a decent argument to the contrary and he does so with an amusing story:

Parts of your response remind me of the story of Little Johnny and the mud puddle. Little Johnny asks his mother if he can go out to play with Little Billy. Little Johnny’s mother says no because they are about to go off, and Little Johnny already is dressed. Ultimately, she relents with Little Johnny’s solemn promises to be careful and stay clean. A few minutes later, Little Johnny returns, covered in mud from his waist down. As his mother scolds him for breaking his promise and getting into the mud, Little Johnny explains he and Little Billy were running when they saw they were running toward a large mud puddle. In trying to avoid the puddle, their feet got tangled up and both boys went flying. Little Johnny’s mother was not impressed and continued to scold, to which Little Johnny said, “But Mother, I just fell half way into the mud puddle. Little Billy is fell completely in and is covered in mud from his face to his toes. The point is, while Kennedy may not have “gone all the way” with the war hawks, and while there may have been many war hawks at that time (I was alive then, and remember those times well, including Kennedy’s highly incendiary rhetoric and his baiting Khruschev at their summit. Your argument is Kennedy only got a little bit muddy while the warhawks were covered completely in mud. It may to you and to other readers, but to me, it just does not pass the “mud” test. Had he been less reckless, less belligerent in both rhetoric and action, I might agree with you. But Kennedy, in his less than 3 years in office, had more confrontations with the Soviet Union than did Eisenhower in his entire 8 years in office. Kennedy’s hands just are not as clean as you tend to present them.

That way of looking at the world demonstrates a fundamental distinction between liberalism and conservatism, specifically in the context of liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness. As a liberal-minded fellow, I don’t think in dualistic terms of either muddy or not muddy. There is a big difference between a grown man who gets a little muddy while simply going about his work and little boys jumping in mud puddles.

My suspicion is that JFK would more likely understand this liberal-minded viewpoint than he would the conservative-minded either/or dualistic thinking. JFK didn’t get a little bit muddy because he believed in the principle of being muddy. A strong defense, like tax cuts, was a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

What the likes of Stoll and Freeman don’t understand is that liberals are more accepting of being a little bit muddy. Heck, this is that very famous moral relativism that liberals are always getting accused of by conservatives. Most liberals acknowledge it is a muddy world, but they tend to see that as less of an excuse to embrace an ideology of mud and foresake one’s duty to try to remain as clean as possible under muddy conditions.

As I’ve argued many times this can be both a strength and a weakness. I briefly mentioned it in my discussion with Freeman when I spoke of the divergent liberal responses to 9/11. Here is what I was speaking of:

Liberals who gleaned most of their news from television in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks increased their support for expanded police powers, bringing them closer in line with the opinions of conservatives, a study by a UW-Madison researcher shows.

In contrast, heavy newspaper reading by liberals was related to lower levels of support for expanded police powers and for limits on privacy and freedom of information, basically reinforcing the differences between liberals and conservatives, says Dietram Scheufele, a journalism professor who conducted the study.

“TV pushed the two groups together in their thinking about post-9/11 policies, such as the Patriot Act. It made liberals more conservative. It took them away from what they initially believed and pushed them more toward a more conservative law-and-order stance,” Scheufele says.

The study, soon to be published in the journal Mass Communications & Society, is based on a survey of nearly 800 residents of Tompkins County, N.Y., in the fall of 2001, shortly after the attacks. Its results have been validated by two subsequent national surveys.

The survey showed that among liberals who watched little television, about 20 percent favored more government police powers. But about 41 percent of liberals who were heavy viewers of TV news supported such measures – much closer to the 50 to 60 percent of conservatives who supported greater police powers, regardless of how much TV news they watched.

The gap between conservatives and liberals widened, however, among heavy newspaper readers.

About 39 percent of light-reading liberals backed restricting freedom of speech in the days after the attacks, versus 31 percent who were heavy newspaper readers. Among conservatives, about 66 percent favored the limits, and nearly 70 percent of heavy readers backed the restrictions.

“Newspaper reading tended to reinforce partisan leanings, partly because it is more selective, readers have more options and seek out their own viewpoints,” Scheufele says. “By contrast, TV coverage is very linear, doesn’t offer any choice and was more image driven. You saw the plane hitting the building time and time again.”

I more thoroughly discussed this issue in a post of mine from last year. That post goes a long way in explaining why liberals easily get confused with conservatives, especially during times of fear and anxiety. One of the talents of liberals is the ability to act like conservatives. As quoted in that post, the psychological reasons for this are summarized well in a paper by Jost, Federico and Napier:

Given that nearly everyone wants to achieve at least some degree of certainty, is it possible that conservatism possesses a natural psychological advantage over liberalism? Although answering this question is obviously fraught with challenges, several lines of research suggest that this might be the case. First, a series of experiments by Skitka et al. (2002) demonstrated that “the default attributional position is a conservative response,” insofar as both liberals and conservatives are quick to draw individualistic (rather than system-level) conclusions about the causes of poverty, unemployment, disease, and other negative outcomes, but only liberals correct their initial response, taking into account extenuating circumstances. When a distraction (or cognitive load) is introduced, making it difficult for liberals to engage in correction processes, they tend to blame individuals for their fate to the same degree that conservatives do. Skitka et al. (2002) therefore concluded, “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” (p. 484; see also Kluegel & Smith 1986, Skitka 1999). Research by Crandall & Eidelman (2007) takes this general line of reasoning even further, showing that a host of everyday variables associated with increased cognitive load and/or increased need for cognitive closure, such as drinking alcohol, lead people to become more politically conservative. Both of these lines of research are consistent with the notion that conservative styles and opinions are generally simpler, more internally consistent, and less subject to ambiguity, in comparison with liberal styles and opinions (e.g., Tetlock 1983, 2007; Rokeach 1960; Tetlock 1983, 2007). A third reason to suggest that conservatism enjoys a psychological advantage over liberalism comes from research on system justification, which suggests that most people (including liberals) are motivated to adapt to and even rationalize aspects of the status quo, that is, to develop and maintain relatively favorable opinions about existing institutions and authorities and to dismiss or reject the possibility of change, especially in its more radical forms (Jost et al. 2004a). Studies show that justifying the status quo serves the palliative function of increasing positive affect, decreasing negative affect, and making people happier in general, but it also undermines support for social change and the redistribution of resources (Jost & Hunyady 2002, Napier & Jost 2008a, Wakslak et al. 2007).

In my post, I could easily have been speaking of Cold War Era liberals like JFK when I wrote this:

As a movement, liberalism rarely ever suffers from the condition of being too liberal for conditions have to be perfect for the liberal predisposition to fully manifest. Such perfect conditions don’t come around that often and they tend not to last very long. In moments of peace and prosperity, the general public can forget about possible threats and their emotional response becomes dampened, a contented optimism taking its place. Such a moment occurred after the Great Depression and once again after WWII, but after those brief moments conservatism ruled during the Cold War Era and into the post-9/11 Era. Liberals have at best hunkered down and at worst given their support to the conservative agenda (pushing deregulation, dismantling the welfare state, building up the military, going to war against Iraq, supporting the Patriot Act, maintaining Gitmo, empowering the executive branch, etc). Sadly, the liberal movement doesn’t make much of a worthy enemy for the conservative movement. Conservative leaders just have to say “Booh!” and liberal leaders run for cover.

The Cold War Era was far from meeting the perfect conditions necessary for full manifestation of liberalism. There is no contradiction for a liberal to be a “little bit muddy” during such liberal-unfriendly times. For good or ill, that is precisely what liberalism is all about.

(Continue reading: part four)

JFK, Proud Liberal and Professional Politician

(Part two of four: one, two, three, and four)

In this debate, I find myself more in line with what John King said in a discussion on Anderson Cooper’s show (along with Ira Stoll and Douglas Brinkley) — from the transcript:

I think it’s a debate that you have because our times have changed so much and when you think about that label, when Bill Clinton was the Democratic president after Walter Mondale lost 49 states, he said he wanted to be a different kind of Democrat.

And so parties changed. The conservative movement has gone through several changes from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan, to now when you see the Tea Party. There are some things Ronald Reagan did the Tea Party members would call liberal.

So I think part of it is as the times change and as different political movements become ascendant, you look back at prior political leaders and you try to put them into the context and the language of today and today’s politics are quite messy. So I don’t think it’s quite fair to anybody, anybody in history to take from today’s mess and look back and try to find them a place.

The point I would make, though, is that JFK was a liberal by his own definition, the same definition by which many liberals today praise JFK. He didn’t see liberals as militarily wimpy and fiscally flabby:

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

I’m not sure why liberals must concede to an unfair caricature made by conservative, a caricature that only serves the purpose of maligning liberalism. The conservative argument seems to be that, because JFK was a strong effective president, he therefore can’t be a liberal. Everything that Americans have come to love, no matter how liberal it may seem, is actually conservative. And everything that is liberal must, therefore, be morally wrong and politically a failure and generally unAmerican.

No matter the contortions necessary, reactionary conservatives have to find some way to claim a president as respected as JFK. This forces them to argue that JFK was so right as a conservative that his defense of his own liberalism must be wrong. In doing so, conservatives oddly end up arguing against JFK himself, despite his having spelled out in no uncertain terms his own ideological persuasion. JFK, in claiming to be a liberal, must accordingly either have been a liar or clueless.

A reviewer of Stoll’s book, Mark Klobas, concludes that:

The biggest problem with Stoll’s book, however, is that his entire argument is based on a false assumption about the labels he uses. Early in the book, he sidesteps the problem of defining what the word conservative meant to Kennedy by declaring that the “shifting definitions of the terms over time” rendered such an activity pointless. This allows Stoll to adopt his own definition of conservatism to make his case, one rooted in the conceit that liberals in the 1950s weren’t religiously devout, or anticommunist, or opposed to union corruption, or in favor of reducing taxes. Whether it is the result of historical ignorance or deliberate deceptiveness, it is a fallacy that undermines his entire argument and reduces his effort to a pointless demonstration of ahistoricism. The result is a sloppy and unconvincing book, one that will only convince those who want to believe that the man who once declared that he was “proud to be a liberal” was anything but.

Klobas’ review inspired some worthwhile discussion that I’ve taken part in. With my first comment, I threw out my standard position that the political beliefs and values of actual people often don’t fit the MSM-propagated ideological stereotypes and straw-man arguments, my position being related to the reasons given by John King above. I then added, in a later comment, a lovely quote by Mark Twain:

Conservatism is the blind and fear-filled worship of dead radicals.

That quote supports the view of Corey Robin in painting conservatism as inherently reactionary. I’m largely persuaded by this view specifically in terms of movement conservatism, but I’m also wary about generalizing too much. I’ve come across people who seem politically conservative in many ways while not seeming reactionary, maybe even being overtly anti-reactionary.

Then again, I suppose any ideology could theoretically be taken up by a reactionary because, as described by Robin, co-opting ideologies is the precise talent of reactionaries. Robin’s reactionary conservatives, in his telling, originally fought against the traditionalists (i.e., the pre-Enlightenment ancien régime) and yet today they stake a claim on this very traditionalism or at least on its rhetoric. That is a part of Stoll’s argument in claiming JFK in relation to his being a Catholic since, after all, the Catholic Church is one of the last vestiges of traditionalism in the modern world. Stoll goes so far as to call JFK a theocon.

But Catholicism is also behind the communitarian values that, following WWII, made Catholics the single largest group of union members. Is this communitarian aspect of traditionalism also conservative? Or do conservatives just want to pick and choose which aspects of traditionalism they will accept as they pick and choose which aspects of liberalism to co-opt? Is conservatism, at least the American-style reactionary conservatism, anything other than the taking of certain remnants of traditionalism and welding them to the established liberalisms that have become inseparable from the American identity?

In the vein of Mark Twain, this ideological confusion was stated in the following manner by Gunnar Myrdal (in An American Dilemma):

America is conservative in fundamental principles… But the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.

This relates to what researchers have found about most Americans being symbolic conservatives and pragmatic liberals. What this means is that, when given a forced choice of two options, most Americans choose to identify as conservatives instead of liberals. But this is just a label. When asked about specifics, they support mostly liberal positions. So, this ‘conservatism’ of the majority isn’t conservative in any fundamental sense.

As expounded upon in this passage by Louis Hartz (in The Liberal Tradition in America):

But how then are we to describe these baffling Americans? Were they rationalists or were they traditionalists? The truth is, they were neither, which is perhaps another way of saying that they were both. [ . . . ] the past became a continuous future, and the God of the traditionalists sanctioned the very arrogance of the men who defied Him. [ . . . ] one of the enduring secrets of the American character: a capacity to combine rock-ribbed traditionalism with high inventiveness, ancestor worship with ardent optimism. Most critics have seized upon one or the other of these aspects of the American mind, finding it impossible to conceive how both can go together. That is why the insight of Gunnar Myrdal is a very distinguished one when he writes: “America is … conservative… . But the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.” Radicalism and conservatism have been twisted entirely out of shape by the liberal flow of American history. [ . . . ]  The ironic flaw in American liberalism lies in the fact that we have never had a real conservative tradition.

Given this, what does it even mean to call any American a ‘conservative’? Or for that matter, a ‘liberal’?

Part of the confusion comes from those who seem to think conservatism and liberalism represent clearly defined ideological systems instead of general persuasions, often vague and inconsistent. Depending on context, these general persuasions can be expressed in many ways and take many forms. This understanding is articulated well by Alan Wolfe (in A False Distinction):

[E]verywhere I go, the moment I tell people that I have written a book about liberalism, I am invariably asked which of the two I mean. Classical liberalism, my interlocutors patiently explain to me, is that wonderful notion of the free market elucidated by Adam Smith that worships the idea of freedom. The modern version, by contrast, is committed to expansion of the state and, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to slavery. One must choose one or the other. There really is no such thing, therefore, as modern liberalism. If you opt for the market, you are a libertarian. If you choose government, you are a socialist or, in more recent times, a fascist.

I try to explain to people that in my book I reject any such distinction and argue instead for the existence of a continuous liberal understanding that includes both Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. But so foreign is this idea to them that they stare at me in utter disbelief. How could I have possibly written a book on liberalism, I can almost hear them thinking, when this guy doesn’t know a thing about it?

[ . . . ] I think of the whole question of governmental intervention as a matter of technique. Sometimes the market does pretty well and it pays to rely on it. Sometimes it runs into very rough patches and then you need government to regulate it and correct its course. No matters of deep philosophy or religious meaning are at stake when we discuss such matters. A society simply does what it has to do.

When instead we do discuss human purpose and the meaning of life, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are on the same side. Both of them possessed an expansive sense of what we are put on this earth to accomplish. Both were on the side of enlightenment. Both were optimists who believed in progress but were dubious about grand schemes that claimed to know all the answers. For Smith, mercantilism was the enemy of human liberty. For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.

This diversity within liberalism goes for issues like defense as much as with economics.

Some liberals are pacifists, but as far as mainstream politics goes there are probably more liberals that tend toward war hawk positions than the opposite. We aren’t a nation of pacifists and so mainstream liberalism in this country has never been primarily defined in opposition to strong defense. Reflections of this can be seen in the parties as they shift in their positions. An analysis by John C. Goodman, imperfect though it is in other respects, gets at this particular point:

Take the issue of national defense: The Kennedy-was-a-conservative crowd points to the fact that Kennedy was the pro-defense candidate in the 1960 election.

He accused Eisenhower of allowing a missile gap to occur and letting the Soviet Union become the stronger power. His solution? More silos with more missiles.

If you find it perplexing that a liberal Democrat would take that position, you are probably too young to remember that for most of the 20th century the Democratic Party was the party of war. The Republican Party was the party of peace.

In fact, a not inconsiderable faction of the Republican Party was downright isolationist. Our anti-communist Cold War foreign policy was almost completely shaped by Democrats.

Although he was a general, Eisenhower was elected to end the Korean War and give us international peace and stability. On his way out of office, he warned of a “military industrial complex.”

By contrast, Kennedy escalated the Vietnam War and his policies toward Cuba almost got us into World War III on two separate occasions.

It wasn’t until we got to the 21st century that the party’s positions had clearly reversed. Today, it’s the Republicans in Congress who worry that the sequester is taking too much away from the Defense Department. Most Democrats couldn’t care less.

Goodman makes a point I hadn’t considered. I’m not familiar with this apparently significant isolationist contingent of the GOP at that time. Richard Eskow made the same point in reference to George F. Will’s argument:

Will then pivots to the Vietnam War, citing Kennedy’s alleged commitment to that conflict as evidence of his conservative bona fides. But Will only convinces us that he himself is a creature of the 1960s, when support for military intervention was assumed to be the “conservative” position. The opposite has often been true in American history. Interventionism has often been seen as liberal and isolationism as conservative.

The warlike nature of today’s conservatives is more likely the result of their campaign donations from big defense contractors, together with their hostility toward Muslims. Kennedy’s military doctrine was incomplete, but even at its most aggressive it had nothing to do with conservatism.

According to the simplistic interpretation of the political spectrum, are we to claim these isolationists were weak liberals? Is Ron Paul a weak liberal today for believing it is wrong to belligerently and wastefully use the military? Is JFK more of a conservative than Ron Paul? I’m willing to bet Ron Paul would disagree. I just don’t see this kind of thing as a fundamental divide between liberalism and conservatism. Besides, I don’t know why conservatives would want to equate conservatism with belligerent warmongering and suicidal brinkmanship. Gene Healy of the Cato Institute wonders the same thing:

It’s a strange view that favors confrontation and foreign-policy “toughness” as ends in themselves, even at the risk of nuclear annihilation. But then Stoll has a lot of strange views on foreign policy. On Vietnam, where JFK had deployed some 16,000 troops by 1963, Stoll writes, “President Kennedy and the national security team he brought into office have been faulted for leading the country into the Vietnam War without clear objectives … a formal declaration of war [or] an exit strategy”; however, “that criticism should be discounted for [sic] the fact that South Vietnam fell to Communist North Vietnam only in April of 1975.” (If you never end the war, you never have to ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake.)

Doug Mataconis, commenting on this quote of Healy, clarified the issue at hand:

Of course, Healy’s critiques about Kennedy’s record are  precisely the kinds of things that a conservative of Stoll’s variety admires, so it’s not entirely surprising that he’d try to claim the Camelot legacy for the right. I have to agree with Healy, though, that while Kennedy’s actions may have been consistent with the views of the time they are hardly something that modern conservatism should seek to claim as its own unless it wants to return to the big government conservatism of the Bush years.

However conservatives want to define themselves, the point that Eskow makes, like Goodman, is that Kennedy was fundamentally a moderate:

In his finest moments, John F. Kennedy heard the music of his moment and made it better. That’s not conservatism, or centrism, or even pragmatism. It’s leadership.

I would be less generous. I’d simply call JFK a professional politician. What some might call moderateness, I’d call realpolitik. JFK was doing what any professional politician would do during the Cold War, whether conservative or liberal. The public was demanding that their politicians be Cold Warriors. It was the mood of the times:

Similarly, as Steinglass notes, Kennedy’s foreign policy was no different than most members of his own party at the time. In those years before the Vietnam War, when the Cold War was still very, very hot, in fact, the anti-Communist containment policies that Kennedy pursued were pretty much universally shared across the leading members of both political parties. Moreover, during the 1960 campaign, part of then Senator Kennedy’s argument against Vice-President Nixon’s campaign was the allegation that existed at the time that the United States was falling behind in the race to create a sufficient stockpile of missiles capable of striking the Soviet Union in the event of nuclear war, thus endangering our nuclear deterrent. In other words, Kennedy ran to Nixon’s right on foreign policy to some extent, although it turned out at the time that existing intelligence, which Kennedy didn’t have access to at the time, showed that the so-called missile gap was largely non-existent. This is also the same John F. Kennedy who went ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion, stood up to the Soviets over the Berlin Wall, successfully stared Khrushchev down over the Cuban Missile Crisis, and expanded the U.S. involvement in South Vietnam that had started under the Eisenhower Presidency. While one might be tempted to call this a conservative foreign policy, the truth is that it was really just a continuation of the then-existing bipartisan consensus and that a President Nixon elected in 1960 most likely would not have acted any differently than President Kennedy did during his two and 3/4 years in office. Kennedy’s foreign policy was, then, neither liberal nor conservative as we understand those terms today.

Whatever the case may be about JFK’s early political career, many argue that JFK became more liberal. Joe Strupp summarizes the views of several historians:

Allan Lichtman, American University distinguished professor of history, agreed. Although he noted that Kennedy started out his presidency as a “very moderate Democrat,” he adds that “he evolved and changed over time and moved to a much more liberal position internationally and in domestic policy.”

If he had lived longer, maybe he would have become even more liberal still as did his brother, Bobby Kennedy. We can speculate endlessly and, depending on our political biases, our speculations could go in many directions.

(Continue reading: part three)

JFK, Liberal

(Part one of four: one, two, three, and four)

Some on the right have argued that John F. Kennedy was a conservative.

This argument has recently gained attention because of a book by Ira Stoll that was published this year: JFK, Conservative. It has created a bit of a stir in the mainstream media. It seems to be mostly people trying to grab a bit of the JFK assassination semi-centennial limelight.

Still, not everyone is interested in this media game of making outrageous statements. As demonstrated by the Cato Institute Vice-President Gene Healy, at least some on the right won’t embrace this tactic of co-opting liberals for the conservative cause:

Stoll lays it on pretty thick: in his telling, JFK was a great president, a good man, and—no kidding—a good Catholic. Moreover, Kennedy’s policies—his “tax cuts, his domestic spending restraint, his pro-growth economic policy, his emphasis on free trade and a strong dollar, and his foreign policy driven by the idea that America had a God-given mission to defend freedom”—show that he was, “by the standards of both his time and our own, a conservative.”

It’s a cramped, reductionist account of conservatism, one that collapses the entire political tradition into its neoconservative variant. But an even less charitable person than I could make the case that it’s a fair approximation of “actually existing conservatism,” and Stoll’s thesis has already received a fair bit of praise from commentators on the Right.

God help us. If our 35th president—fiscally profligate, contemptuous of civil liberties, and criminally reckless abroad—is a paragon of modern conservatism, conservatism is in even worse shape than I thought.

Albert J. Menendez who is the author of two books on JFK, after pointing out that “[h]e was a liberal in the context of his times, and Congressional Quarterly and others who rated his votes in Congress asserted his liberalism.”, put his conclusion more bluntly:

Certainly, Southern racists and segregationists and Goldwater supporters did not see Kennedy as a conservative. And African Americans all over the South placed his picture on their walls after Nov. 22, 1963.

Or as Leo Ribuffo, a George Washington University history professor, likewise stated it (in being quoted in an article by Joe Strupp):

“He certainly wasn’t considered a conservative at the time by the rising conservative movement like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater,”

As many have pointed out, Stoll’s argument is similar to that of claiming Ronald Reagan as a liberal. Even a strongly conservative commentator like Albert Milliron understands there is nuance in the views of politicians and yet still refuses to accept JFK into the conservative fold:

We think that JFK was as conservative as Bill Clinton. Probably the reason we didn’t jump on the “JFK is a Conservative” bandwagon.  I have often seen folks point out that Nixon and Reagan had some ‘Liberal’ ideas.  But that doesn’t make the sum total of their political life liberal, just as some of JFK or Clinton’s conservative statements or policies made them a Conservative.

Then again, I would add that there is actually more evidence supporting Reagan being a liberal. Reagan originally was a New Deal Democrat and president of a union, was a progressive who only later in life turned neocon.

Distinctions do need to be made.

Unlike Reagan, JFK never changed parties. It wasn’t JFK or the Democrats who changed. It was Reagan who helped change the Republicans when he transformed his progressivism into neoconservatism. “Republican praise of Kennedy,” explains Bernard Von Bothmer, “began with Ronald Reagan, who presented himself as a political admirer and even descendant of Kennedy.” That is because he in fact was a descendant of the progressive liberalism of the Democratic Party.

But in the process of becoming a neocon, Reagan discarded JFK’s confidence in seeing the government as part of the solution. JFK had no desire to Starve the Beast or wait for tax cuts to trickle down, as many others have articulated:

Stoll’s case for JFK’s domestic conservatism rests heavily on his commitment to a tax cut passed three months after his death. On November 22, Stoll notes, Kennedy was en route to the Dallas Trade Mart to stump for reduced rates: “he was fighting for a tax cut to the end”—the martyred Christ of supply-side economics (or military Keynesianism, depending how you look at it). Tax cuts weren’t a conservative litmus test at the time, however; as Stoll notes, Goldwater feared that the Kennedy cuts “would lead to deficits, inflation, and even bankruptcy.”
(Gene Healy, Kennedy Was No Conservative)

“It’s rather silly to portray him as a conservative,” Critchlow said, later adding that the tax cut “doesn’t make him Republican or a conservative. He was trying to pursue policies, a new policy that would address the issues of three recessions in the 1950s. He wasn’t an extreme left-wing Democrat, but he wasn’t a Republican.”
(Joe Strupp, Historians: Right-Wing Media Claims Of A Conservative JFK Are “Silly” And “Ludicrous”)

Fair’s fair, but what’s really amazing about Will is that he can’t even see that liberals would see it this way. In his mind, liberals are yearning for a 100 percent tax rate so any admission that any rate—even 91 percent!—might be too high, suddenly turns JFK into Grover Norquist.
(Matthew Yglesias, George Will Hails JFK’s 70 Percent Income Tax Rate)

Yes, JFK supported cutting taxes back in the early 1960s, but then so did many members of his own party, as the fact that he was able to get his tax cut package through a Congress overwhelmingly controlled in both Houses by the Democratic Party. That doesn’t mean, however, that, were he alive today, he’d be signing on to Grover Norquist’s tax pledge and supporting calls to shut down the government rather than agreeing to any tax increase at all. Making that argument involves nothing less than drawing the kind of false historical analogies that only a blind partisan would make.
(Doug Mataconis, John F. Kennedy A Conservative? No, Not Really)

Kennedy’s statement needs to be put in the proper historical context. When Kennedy gave that speech the top marginal tax rate – the tax rate for the nation’s highest levels of income – was 91 percent. The “conservative” cut passed after Kennedy’s death lowered it to 77 percent. Today it’s 39.5 percent, a figure Kennedy couldn’t have imagined and certainly wouldn’t have supported.

Two liberal economists, Nobel Laureate Peter Diamond of MIT and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley, recently concluded that the most effective top tax rate – the one that would create the most “jobs and income and eventually more revenue” – is 73 percent. When today’s conservatives embrace rates like that, we’ll call John Kennedy a conservative.
(Richard Eskow, The “Real JFK” – Not Conservative, and Not Forgotten)

Among historians, the general consensus is that is that Kennedy’s economic fix had a significant — though complicated — long-term effect on the economy. Nearly all agree that his policies were partly responsible for the golden era of the mid-1960s, a time when the U.S. experienced vigorous economic growth. By 1966 — almost three years after Kennedy’s death — stock prices were soaring, the economy was expanding at a rate of 6.6 percent, and the unemployment rate stood at just 3.8 percent. His agenda included an increase to minimum wage, an expansion of unemployment benefits, improvements to Social Security benefits to encourage workers to retire earlier, and greater spending on highway construction and urban renewal. In essence, he was pushing Congress to jump start the economy by increasing government spending, as NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax explained on a NPR-affiliated public radio station earlier this week.

One tool Kennedy employed to encourage an economic recovery seemingly contradicts that liberal agenda. He cut taxes — despite concerns from conservatives who feared his policies would greatly increase the deficit. In response to his critics, the president famously said “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
(Meghan Foley, JFK and Obama: The Recession Presidents)

Furthermore, Kennedy’s goal was a Keynesian demand-side cut: He wanted to create a deficit in order to assist the economy by putting money in the hands of middle- and working-class consumers. Reagan’s tax policy, a supply-side cut, aimed to raise revenue and reduce the deficit; he wanted to put more money in the hands of business leaders and the wealthy in order to spur investment.

Finally, Kennedy’s ultimate plan was to use government spending to increase purchasing power, the opposite of what Reagan wanted. As Kennedy told his economic adviser, “First we’ll get your tax cut, and then we’ll get my expenditure program.”
(Bernard Von Bothmer, The right’s JFK myth: Now they claim he was conservative)

He did so in order to run a larger budget deficit, because his economic advisers, including Arthur Okun and Walter Heller, believed this would provide a Keynesian stimulus to demand. Neither Kennedy nor his advisers believed in the subsequent supply-side theory that gained credence in the 1970s, which held that low marginal rates on the very rich were crucial to stimulate investment. One of his advisers, James Tobin, explicitly said the income-tax cut would provide a short-run economic stimulus but would do nothing to promote investment “except in the general sense that prosperity is good for investment.”

Another way to look at this issue is to look at Kennedy’s justification for the tax reforms in 1961, when he originally proposed them. The initial list of reforms does not even mention a cut in the top marginal rate. It does, however, spend a lot of time arguing for taxing dividends as ordinary income, since lower rates unfairly privilege the rich who are the overwhelming beneficiaries of dividends.
(M.S., This week in up-is-downism)

Robert Schlesinger, in US News and World Report, writes that Kennedy as a conservative tax-cutter “is a powerful myth, but it is a myth”.

Tax cuts for Kennedy, he argues, were a means to an end – in much the same way as tax cuts later proposed by Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. “The key distinction is that JFK and his successors saw tax cuts as one of many available economic tools,” he writes. “Indeed Kennedy, like Obama, favored both tax cuts and spending increases to stimulate the economy.”

“Neither Kennedy nor his advisers believed in the subsequent supply-side theory that gained credence in the 1970s, which held that low marginal rates on the very rich were crucial to stimulate investment,” writes Matt Steinglass for the Economist. “One of his advisers, James Tobin, explicitly said the income-tax cut would provide a short-run economic stimulus but would do nothing to promote investment ‘except in the general sense that prosperity is good for investment.'”
(Anthony Zurcher, JFK, conservative hero?)

I hope that clears things up.

To question JFK’s liberal credential is ultimately to question the liberal credentials of the entire Democratic Party establishment.

One could note that some have argued, Rachel Maddow most recently, Clinton was the best Republican president ever and similar things have been said about Obama (following Bush military policies and pushing healthcare reform that serves big biz insurance companies is hardly the New New Deal we’ve been waiting for). And indeed, some have more favorably and less favorably compared Obama to JFK. Unsurprisingly, as time goes by, conservatives increasingly reminisce about Clinton. Give it a few more decades and someone will write a conservative hagiography of Clinton similar to that of Stoll’s book. In the words of Jim Antle:

Noting that many contemporary conservatives now celebrate liberals they once opposed—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and John F. Kennedy among them—the late columnist Joseph Sobran predicted they would one day embrace Bill Clinton and remain conservatives in good standing. That day has come to pass.

The Democratic Party following Clinton’s third-way politics can at times feel like Republican-lite, no doubt about that. But how does that make a liberal icon like JFK a conservative of the variety defended by movement conservatives? If JFK is a conservative through and through by the standards of today and of the past, then what the heck is liberalism besides a bizarre straw-man argument made in the ‘Commie’ image of the Cold War Red Scare? Or do conservatives want to make liberalism into such a wimpy shade of its former self, so small that like government it can be drowned in a bath tub? Portraying liberals as scary and wimpy is the conservative attempt at a one-two punch.

I just don’t get the agenda behind this, other than just messing with people’s minds and otherwise creating empty media buzz. In some ways, I don’t care about this entire debate, at least not on the terms it is being held. I’m more interested in the underlying issues and motivations.

I’ll put it this way:

If conservatives want to claim JFK, fine by me. But in that case, in order to be consistent they’ll have to claim a bunch of other typical Democratic politicians. That is something I doubt many conservatives would want to do. What they want to do is somehow entirely separate JFK from his Democratic Party roots which is an impossible thing to do. To claim JFK, conservatives will have to claim the Democratic Party worldview that he represented.

(Continue reading: part two)