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Monday, December 14, 2009
Orwellian Language Part One: Conservative
Part One: Conservative
The first word that the right in this country absolutely had to hijack was “conservative.” They did this because the word seems to suggest a certain amount of moderation, and a reasoned, rational approach – as opposed to “radical” which they sought to apply to all things liberal, and “reactionary” which is a far more accurate way to describe them.
First of all, let’s take a look at the word “conservative” as we understand it today. It has, along with "liberal" been unfortunately loaded with a lot of unnecessary political baggage meant to described the positions that one with that label is supposed to hold: anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, anti-labor, anti-regulation, low-taxes, hawkish on defense… The modern conservative movement is an awkward mix of libertarians and religious funny-mentalists at home (two group with very much mutually exclusive social agendas, BTW) and a hypocritical mix of libertarians, who say that the gov’t should stay the hell out of the lives of Americans, and Hawks, who think our gov’t needs to control, as much possible, the lives of every non-American abroad. (And God forbid we ever listen to any other country, even our allies, and even when it’s in our own interest to do so! We’re AMERICA dammit! And we know best!) OK, this is admittedly a caricature, but I submit that it’s a fairly accurate one: The beliefs that I present in a mocking fashion are nonetheless sacred to most in this group!
But it wasn’t always this way.
The was a time when BOTH parties has conservative and liberal wings. At one point, prominent Republicans such as Teddy Roosevelt belongs to the “progressive” wing of the party. (And “progressive,” of course, is a word that modern liberals have attempted to re-brand themselves under!) It was the conservative Democrats who regularly delivered almost every state south of the Mason-Dixon line, from Texas to Florida to the Democrats every year from the Civil War to the Civil Rights era. (Since 1964, however, that trend has obviously changed, as conservative Democrats became Republicans!) Likewise, it was the Liberal (meaning libertarian) Republicans who consistently delivered the Northern Cities and States to the Republicans. (And again, since 1964 the East Coast, from Maryland on up, has trended consistently Democratic, as the same liberal Republicans became Democrats (though admittedly other demographic factors and changes were in play as well.) But this trend has been going on since 1964 for the Republicans and the Right to monopolize the word “conservative.” In the late 1960’s, this may have made sense, linguistically. Beyond that, the term has had to be perverted from it’s philosophical meaning to continue to fit their political agenda.
If you strip the word of it’s political implications, one possible definition of philosophical or social conservatism might be “the desire to maintain the status quot" or "to minimize the deviation from the status quot.” Liberal, to contrast the two, would be one who seeks something very different form the status quot, one who seeks to change the way things are. Taken this way, the term really means “moderate” and, since BOTH parties have rather a few changes they’d like to make, most of both the Democrats and Republicans could then be accurately described as “liberals” – they would just be spilt into left-wing and right-wing liberals, while the "conservatives" would the be the centrists in both parties, and would agree on many positions with each other, as well as differ from the rest of their party on many issues as well. Over the years, in order to advance their agenda, each party has made efforts to reign in (or kick out) most of these “conservative” members. Ironically however, if centrism and party in-fighting is any indication, it would seem that the Republicans have been more effective at doing this: They are the party of Right Wings “liberals” and between the defection of Arlen Specter to the out come of the NY-23 congressional election in 2009, they are showing diminished patience for these “conservatives.” The Democrats, on the other hand, between the Blue Dogs and the Republican defectors have shown far more of a big-tent mentality and thus far more "conservative" cred.
Now, brace yourself, because it will surprise many of you to hear me say this… There is rather a bit of rational wisdom in this type of philosophical conservatism! Here are two ways to view it, coming from diametrically opposed points of view, that both support this conclusion:
1) From a religious or intelligent design standpoint, one can argue that things are they way they are because this is how God intended them to be. And who are we to claim that we know better than God? So… proceed with caution! (IOW: conservatively.)
2) From a Darwinian standpoint, at any given time, things have arrived at their current state through the ongoing struggle and survival of the fittest. The current species, economic and business models and system of governance and politics all came about through years of struggle and competition in which only the best would win at every given stage and thus, if not perfect, the current status quot would be at least optimized, based on initial conditions and everyone’s competing ideas thus far. So, again, proceed with caution, or IOW: act conservatively.
In both instances, if one wants to act “liberally” (whether from the Right or Left) they’d better have a darned good reason for doing so, and be able to clearly identify WHY the current state of affairs resembles neither a divine vision, nor a Darwinian optimization. The modern liberal, when arguing economic matters, might point out that the current state of affairs in most industries in NOT the result of the free market, nor of competition, but rather the result of HUGE corporations, now inefficient, bur flush with cash from prior but no longer sustainable successes, managing to stifle competition, and the complicity of the federal government in letting huge companies merge, creating fewer companies with more individual power – hardly the vision of free market competition! So their agenda, with includes increased gov’t regulation of industry and more power to labor groups, could be described as liberal (changing the status quot) and yet, still be justified from the “conservative” perspective since most industry giants now use their resources to act more to protect their own survival (to protect themselves from having to compete) than for any optimization of the society overall. The modern conservative (what I’m would call a “right-wing liberal”) justifies their agenda by trying to recapture “divine vision” that existed at some point but, for whatever reason, have been pushed aside.
Perhaps the most clear example of how the language has shifted might be shown in the Right’s (and Left’s) positions on Abortion. The status quot is that Abortion is legal, with some restrictions, mostly involving minors. It does not receive direct federal funding and is covered by many, but not all, insurance plans. THAT’S the status quot. Pro-Choice versus Pro-Life describes which way someone would like to see the laws changed and “conservative” versus “liberal” would describe how MUCH they’d like to see the laws changed. Someone who WANTS to see all restrictions listed, and use federal money to subsidize abortions would be described as a “pro-choice liberal.” Someone who wants to see some restrictions enacted, but still wants to protect core abortion rights (as I’ve described in my position piece on Abortion) would then be described as a “pro-life conservative.” (Who’d a thunk I’d ever be described thus?) The Right's actual (or so-called) pro-life agenda of eventually banning ALL abortions, could then only be described as “pro-life liberal.” You see: There is nothing inherent to either of the word “conservative” or “liberal” that describes how you should feel about ABORTION. They refer only to the way things are, and whether you want no, or only minor changes, or large, sweeping changes. Only PRIOR to the Roe v. Wade decision would “liberal” necessarily suggest a pro-choice stance, since that would have been a significant change from the status quot. POST Roe, the only "conservative" positions would be those that keep the law as it is, but try to apply the relatively easy to agree upon “middle ground” as, for example, I proposed doing (See? There IS some Wisdom in conservatism! LOL) -OR- to make relatively minor relaxations of the current restrictions, and make a few, narrow exception to the Hyde act. (That would be a Pro-Choice Conservative position, which practically IS the status quot.)
But there are two ways thing can change: They can change… and they can change back! And here is where we have two divisions within the “liberal” philosophy. You’ve got the “Progressives” who are forward looking, and try to fix the errors of history that remain with us through unlucky chance, and “Reactionaries” who look to the past with a sense of envy, a sort of longing for an idealized world that they perceived was lost. (A world, BTW, that one can argue never really existed, or is being idealized, but we’ll save deconstructing the good ol' days for another post!) One can see easily where the religious fervor current gripping the Right would fit it nicely with this world view – paradise lost but looking to be regained and all that. Given that, it is clear that we have plenty of both “Liberal / Progressives” as well as “Left Wing Conservatives” in the Democratic Party, while the Republicans are comprised of “Liberal / Reactionaries” and an ever shrinking number of “Right-Wing Conservatives.”
Now... I do realize that the word “conservative” is no longer used this way, but the purpose here is to demonstrate how the Right is distorting our language to their own ends. I realized that, when I was growing up, and I thought of myself as “conservative,” I was taking the classic definition; that of being a moderate. And to this day I remain a moderate. A decidedly LEFT-WING moderate, but a moderate none the less. (Anyone who doubts this can look at my list of 10 most hated liberals!) My viewpoint of “conservatism,” relative to the status quot, might be best demonstrated in my health care plan: Rather than reinvent the entire system, I seek to use the parts that WORK from within the current system (insurance companies managing cost, market forces, risk pooling) and only seek to change the parts that don’t (non-mandatory participation, refusal of coverage, preexisting condition, lack of choice, etc…) In my professional life, I don’t reinvent the wheel if I don’t absolutely have to – better to find an off the shelf solution that’s already been tested, than to incur all the development costs of creating a new one!
And THAT to me is conservatism. It has nothing to do with Right vs. Left, Religion vs. Secularism, or Republican vs. Democrat. It has to do with the preservation of the status quot vs. either Progressive influence or Reactionary influence. (And for the record I was almost ALWAYS side with the Progressives over the Reactionaries – thus my strongly Democratic voting record of late!)