Sunday, May 1, 2011

My Inner "Conservative"

On September 20, 2010, I said on this blog that I would no longer use the word "conservative," that the word has lost all of its original meaning, and has become a term of convenience designating an aggressively supremacist set of right wing groups and ideologies that were anything but conservative. I still stand by that earlier post. Note that I'm using "conservative" in quotation marks in my title.

I do have a conservative (in the original sense of the term "conserve") streak in my thinking. It may come as a shock to my right wing antagonists, but I really don't have an ideology or want one. Unlike the Randians or the Marxist Leninists, I have no Primary Text or set of texts spelling out my principles in a set of iron-clad syllogisms. No, I'm not a Marxist, never have been, and have no plans to join. I suppose the closest ideology to what I want is Anarcho-Syndicalism, but not even that. I'm not a Utopian. I don't believe in the possibility, or even the desirability, of a "perfect" society. It seems to me that to achieve the perfect society in which all conflicts are resolved, then we would have to get rid of the human variety that makes conflict inevitable. I notice that all ideologues from Communists to ideological libertarians, in the end, need the heavy hand of power to realize their visions of utopia. Communism proclaimed the coming end of the state, and yet needed its heavy hand more and more to realize its ideas. That most authoritarian of libertarian thinkers, Ayn Rand, ran her movement with an iron grip on central command that Lenin would have certainly recognized. Now that some of her devotees are in positions of power, they too are finding it necessary to use the heavy hand of the state to put her ideas into practice in the face of determined resistance (see Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin).

I'll happily trade in the perfect for the good. I'll take a decent society that benefits as many of its members as possible, that refrains from harming them or humiliating them, and that actively tries to find the just path even if it stumbles and fails. We live as we can rather than as we should more often than not. Societies and states are made up of populations of people doing just that. We shouldn't expect perfection to be made from the imperfect clay of human beings. We should only expect that states and societies do their best to do right by all of their citizens. That, I would argue, is a truly conservative position.

I think Post Modernism, and its central premise that what we call reality is entirely a social construct, caught up with us and bit us all in the ass. That philosophy was originally intended to lay a foundation for multiculturalism in reaction to the reductivism of modernism. It turns out that the folks who've made the most effective use of post modernism are the right. They've taken those ideas of language as an instrument of power creating its own reality and really run with them and applied them, whether in the crudely Orwellian titles of draconian legislation or in the very sophisticated narratives Fox News creates as lenses through which its devoted followers see the world. Maybe reality does have its own integrity after all, independent of how anyone describes or interprets it. Law courts still function according to that premise even if literary criticism and right wing media do not. Science may be driven by consensus, but it too presumes a reality independent of what anyone says about it. Maybe the key to successful multiculturalism is not a whole set of competing, and even mutually exclusive, claims to reality, but a single set of agreements where those various claims can co-exist safely and productively.

In art, I think the people who believe that there is no real art anymore after Cezanne are just as wrong as the people who say there was no real art before Cezanne. Clearly I prefer the humanism at the heart of various classical revivals throughout history over the reductivism of modernism. But, that preference does not blind me to modernism's genuine claims, or to the greatness of its accomplishments. That, I would argue, is a conservative position.

Hannah Arendt at the end of her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, said that totalitarianism is not particular to one ideology over another. It is latent in all ideology, no matter what. She described all ideology as the attempt to adjust the mess of reality to fit an abstraction. She used the myth of Procrustes and his bed to illustrate her point. Procrustes adjusted his guests who didn't quite fit his bed with an ax. Our best hope is to accept the human animal for what he/she is, and adjust government and society to serve us best.

Theseus gives Procrustes a dose of his own medicine on a 5th century BC Athenian vase.

My version of Theseus and Procrustes


JCF said...

She described all ideology as the attempt to adjust the mess of reality to fit an abstraction.

"Adjusted" via violence (Power-Over). In the 5th c. BC version, I'm afraid Theseus is just perpetuating the cycle...

JCF said...

And speaking of perpetuating: US kills a killer (Osama Bin Laden).

As soon as President Obama said (in his address tonight) "This began when Bin Laden...", I could almost hear those who would shout "Nuh-uh! It started when..." (i.e., the Law of the Playground maintains in World Geopolitics {Sigh})

Counterlight said...

With all due respect, I'm glad Bin Laden is gone. I would have preferred to see him brought to trial. I understand your point about Theseus, but sometimes it's necessary to kill the monsters. I suppose this is why I can't consider myself a pacifist.

Unknown said...

I too would have rather we put him on trial.