Sunday, September 7, 2008

Long-Term Risks for Conservatism


Some elite thinkers might think that I sully myself by writing with even the tiniest sympathy for figures like McCain, Palin, or Ted Nugent, as in yesterday’s post. And I admit it’s hard to know when to stay above the fray and when to risk looking like a partisan participant in it — and this problem is one that market-leaning conservatism in general has, for reasons stretching back at least to the Enlightenment but perhaps inherent in the human condition, at least so long as we engage in politics.

To put it another way: you sometimes have to envy the old internationalist communists, thinking (as children of the Enlightenment) that they had the one solution for all times and places. They were disastrously wrong, but precisely because of their universalism they were probably plagued by far fewer doubts — and fewer accusations of “hypocrisy” — than conservatives (I don’t know who that unnamed White House staffer was who supposedly spoke disparagingly of “the reality-based community,” but I don’t think anyone could honestly survey the history of the left and right and say that the left has historically been more deferential to local reality).

But despite the fact that deference to local conditions (including smalltown U.S. customs) is a form of tolerance, history and demographics may eventually make conservatism — still treated as if it’s a universalizing, homogenizing force in the rhetoric of figures ranging from neocons to antiglobalization activists — seem instead like special pleading by a specific ethnic/cultural minority (or rather, a historical majority in the U.S. that will inevitably one day become a minority here, as it is in the larger world).

Palin, for example, appeals to my parents (and to me, and to Megan McArdle’s mom to boot, and probably to a lot of other people’s moms) for reasons having more to do with abstractions like “pluck” than with ethnicity, yet she literally leaves P. Diddy worrying, “I don’t know if there’s any black people in Alaska” (though he has since decided he’d enjoy playing hockey with Palin, so her appeal may be broader than some expected).

And not all black people are P. Diddy, which is just as well — but the point is that old-fashioned cultural appeals (even if we optimistically assume they bring out good, freedom-loving, universally-applicable qualities in people) are rearguard actions in the long run.


Of course, that doesn’t really bother (a) pessimistic paleoconservatives who assume it is their destiny to go down with the good ship Old Republic anyway or (b) neocon/Reaganites who (in my experience) tend to overestimate the power and pervasiveness of their rather narrow (not bigoted, just boring) conception of “normal.” That is, there are a lot of Republicans, some of them among my favorite people, who tend to assume (not literally but metaphorically/aesthetically) that the world is sort of like a large, placid suburb plus a few baffling trouble spots — and thus that cultural inertia will always be on their side (since, for example, “normal people who aren’t crazy” prefer PTA meetings to hacking their neighbors with machetes).

Long term, though, they’re going to need arguments and/or results so convincing that they’ll play in Peoria and in Punjab without hypocrisy or contradiction (go ahead and call me a globalist, but the whole world has to someday see itself as part of the “us” with no or virtually no “them”).

And I’m well aware that’s why some free-marketeers would say we have to bet on some form of liberalism or neoliberalism in the long run (and thus focus on steering liberalism in as free-market a direction as possible instead of fighting liberalism), because Punjab will never buy whole-hog into the package of philosophical ideas and cultural signals that sells in Texas.

And I’m well aware that that’s also precisely why some other capitalists (not to mention plenty of leftists) would say we have to give up on the wider world and embrace the local (let Punjab be Punjab and Peoria Peoria).


But the homerun of course, from a libertarian perspective, is getting the right things universalized and the right things kept local. Some good ideas travel, some don’t. And it’s tricky knowing to what extent the U.S. can still be talked about as if it’s a locality (something that generates a stokable hometown pride) and to what extent it’s not only tactically inept but quite literally rude to do so. Palin seems ordinary to some and like a weirdo from a specific weird state to others, you might say.

To take a semi-personal example of a less economic nature, if I say “Merry Christmas” in a blog post (which I haven’t), it’s sort of a step toward openness, tolerance, and the mainstream on my part, since I’m an atheist and would generally prefer to avoid mentioning the holiday, if left to my own devices — but to some people, the well-intended greeting would make me seem even more parochial than usual, as if I’m just echoing my white, Christian ancestors and ignoring, say, my Jewish and Hindu readers (to take two of my other favorite ancient, mistaken worldviews as examples).

To put all this another way: I wish capitalism really were the irresistible, globe-straddling, nationless, rootless, unstoppable, abstract force that leftist jerks like Antonio Negri think it is, if only so that one could more easily maintain its smooth machinery without inevitably getting tripped up on the lumpier, messier chunks of local and traditional politics upon which the machinery rests (if corporate logos really had a mesmeric and loyalty-commanding power to rival the flag, as the Naomi Kleins of this world would have you believe, this whole capitalism-spreading project might all be much easier — not that real corporations and abstract market rules are synonymous, which is another part of the problem).

As it is, talk abstractly and you get accused of ignoring local reality (“Tell that to the people already on welfare! And to Andean Indians!” etc.). Talk in detailed terms of local reality and you risk sounding more partisan than you are, or like you’re deploying cultural Trojan Horses for nameless-faceless-heartless ends, which to some extent you are — but only because people resented your effort to talk abstractly (“No, see, I’m not saying there’s anything inherently good about the fur traders here per se, I just meant that when those first settlers came here…”).

I have no good solution, obviously — nor can I even resign myself to agnosticism, knowing that if I do so, some people will eagerly seize the opportunity to take it as a victory for any and every non-capitalist policy they like (e.g., you haven’t successfully persuaded everyone yet, therefore it’s time to stop trying and just accept the welfare state/majoritarian democracy/affirmative action/etc./etc.).

I just have to hope the whole general mess gets nudged in a slightly better direction once in a while. There will be no global revolution followed by utopia — and that’s not my fault.

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