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Conservatives: What’s wrong with them?

In the grand tradition of men wondering what it is that women want, or grownups discussing the depravity of youth, I think it’s time to address the Conservative Problem. Story after story comes out about hawks who never served in the military, closet gays with public homophobia, and now I hear about a church pastor and apparent serial rapist who helps decide on women’s health at the national level. The mind boggles. Inquiring minds want to know what the hell is going on.

Let’s start by going back to basics. People younger than seventy, or possibly a hundred, won’t remember this, but in the Old Days conservatives were supposed to be the voice of caution. They argued against spending too much money on hard luck cases, but, strange to say, this was not because they wanted the money for themselves. In those days, conservatives tried to hold down spending because they feared bankruptcy. They also argued for larger armies because they feared war. So, yes, they were a voice for fear, but fear does have a useful function. It keeps us away from harm.

So far, so good. Nothing crazy there. These are not the conservatives I’m talking about. These are not the Conservative Problem.

The problem is radical conservatives, who have taken fear to the realm of insanity.

One of the few remaining unmentionables is to point out that fact. After all, a cornerstone of democracy is respect, and few things are less respectful than labelling someone a loony. On the other hand, continuing to tolerate people who are dismantling tolerance is idiocy of another kind.

There are many different kinds of insanity: repeating actions that have never worked, expecting magical effects from unrelated events, and generally being disconnected from reality. Every kind seems to be represented among radical conservatives. I’ll rehash the usual evidence.

Consider the “just say no” campaigns, especially the ones dealing with sex. In thousands of years of recorded history, telling people not to have sex has not worked. So the conservative solution to a lethal disease like Aids is exhortations not to have sex. Likewise, no one has ever been forced to be free. So the solution to Middle Eastern despotism is an invasion.

One could argue that the cover story has nothing to do with the real motivation, such as stealing oil or finding a cheap way to ignore a public health problem. I’m sure that’s true for many of the politicians involved, but if the only trouble was corrupt kleptocrats, we wouldn’t be fooled for long. The power of radical conservatives comes from those who really believe that the light they see at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train. That’s why it is important to identify the vision for what it is.

Evidence of irrationality is not limited to things that can double as convenient excuses. The US reaction to terrorism is another case in point. The country was turned on its ear over a few envelopes containing anthrax. Meanwhile, vaccine stocks for flu and measles are currently depleted to the point where the next epidemic will claim hundreds of lives. (Luck has kept us from having an epidemic so far, which is not the same as having effective countermeasures.) Similarly, millions of tons of air, ship, and truck cargo enter the country with barely a glance, while security agents worry about the quantity of explosives grannies might be hiding in their shoes. This is hysteria, not caution.

Interestingly enough, radical conservatives don’t deny their disconnectedness from reality. On the contrary, they seem to be proud of it, judging by the now-famous quote reported by Suskind in the NYTimes Magazine (Oct. 17, 2004). “We,” said a senior adviser to Bush, “create our own reality,” unlike those in the “reality-based community” who are reduced to studying it. Usurping God’s role as Creator seems like a strange thing to do for an administration that prides itself on faith, but lunacy and consistency don’t usually go together.

Being uninterested in reality is not necessarily harmful (so long as there’s someone to provide dinner and do the laundry), but radical conservatives seem to demand everyone’s participation in their delusions. It’s interesting to understand why this is so, especially for its value in predicting what they’re likely to do next.

Psychologists have studied conservative and liberal attitudes. Conservatives, both problematic and normal, have something the boffins call “reduced stimulation seeking.” In other words, conservatives avoid the unfamiliar, the unknown, and the new. That’s hardly a surprise, since it’s almost a definition of conservatism. (See Jost et al., 2003, Political conservatism as motivated social cognition, Psychological Bulletin 129: 339-375 for recent research and original sources spanning decades, all the way back to 1936. The article can be ordered downloaded here, but I haven’t found direct links.)

Psychologists have also contributed the perspective that shows where those feelings fit on the whole spectrum of fear-related attitudes. The normal roots of conservatism lie in the same caution anyone needs for self-preservation, which is what makes it hard to realize that extreme forms are not normal. It would be like hearing someone laugh, and then realizing that they’d been laughing for no reason for twelve hours straight.

The critical point about feeling fear is the predictable reaction. Nobody says, “Ooh, my brain chemistry is very interesting today.” Instead, an external threat is found, even if none exists, that can explain the feeling. The tendency grows, for instance, to see communists islamists behind every problem. The sense of persecution is central to the world view, and only the labels change.

Given that conservatives generally feel higher levels of fear, it clarifies why right-wingers also tend to find a group, or groups, whose fault it must be. Anyone will do as a target–blacks, Jews, women, or the liberal media. The only actual requirement is that the group be no real threat, so that they’re safe to dump on.

Another psychological characteristic shared by many conservatives is an orientation toward authority rather than self-direction. It stands to reason that a heightened sense of fear would lead to a desire for a strong protector, whether that is a specific person or a group. If the fear is strong enough to unseat reason, then strength becomes the most important thing. Once it is more important than truth or justice, the government ceases to be one of laws and becomes instead the biggest dog on the block. (Or tries to.)

Desire for protection means putting oneself in the hands of a protector, that is, downgrading one’s own sense of right and wrong in favor of the authority’s. Without an internal compass, the world becomes an even more frightening place, and it is more necessary than ever to shelter behind an authority. Obviously, a less-than-benign authority could tell its loyal minions to do just about anything. In recent history, it has. And does.

The easiest way to feel part of a powerful group is to exclude someone else. Combined with the need to explain feelings of fear, there’s even more reason to find someone, anyone, to put down (in both meanings of the phrase).

The important result is that tolerance, in that world view, becomes the problem, not the solution. There is no point preaching live-and-let-live or pluralistic democracy. All it means to someone irrationally in the grip of fear is that the floodgates of evil will be opened.

One final point completes the picture of caution gone crazy. In a world view that fears what’s different and needs to exclude it, women are always available as an easy target. Even homogeneous societies have two sexes in them, one of which has less muscle. The opposite sex is mainly interesting for, well, sex. So if men are going to despise women, they’ll wind up despising sex. However, it’s kind of a drag to fight your hormones your entire adult life, so the simple solution is to put the enforcement function onto women. Before you know it, evil is being defined as sex for its own sake, and women need to stay at home to avoid being polluted.

Aside from the fact that this is no fun, the biggest problem is that it’s impossible. Trying to live against human nature has as much chance of success as jumping your way to orbit. So large numbers of people don’t actually lead the sexless lives they preach, which, to an outsider, looks like hypocrisy. On the inside though, there are mental tools for dealing with it. Among some Christians, for instance, the contradictory behaviors fit into an arc of sin and redemption (and sin and redemption and sin and redemption and so on). This is taken as evidence of God’s love, not of hypocrisy. Never say humans aren’t an inventive species.

The other effect of trying to live an impossible life is the desire for rigid rules. After all, under the circumstances, one needs all the help one can get. Again, tolerance and the freedom to live and let live are the problem in this worldview, not the solution.

Moving along to the question of where radical conservatism is headed, it’s first worth asking whether we really have nothing to fear but fear itself. Isn’t it better, it could be argued, to err on the side of caution? You can’t be too safe, right?

That seems like a reasonable view, and yet history says otherwise. How many countries have failed through fearlessness? How many have killed themselves by being too kind? None.

On the other hand, how many have bankrupted themselves building huge armies against non-existent threats? How many have torn themselves apart by destroying their own people? Every empire that fell of its own weight did it this way.

This is not to say that external threats don’t exist or that defense is a waste of time. There’s nothing wrong with caution. It’s erring on the side of caution that is unsafe, no matter how good it feels.

So, radical conservative ideas are destructive, as you might expect from delusions, and radical conservatives are crazy. That’s what’s wrong with them. Does the recognition serve any purpose, aside from the obvious satisfaction of labelling the opposition?

The advantage to seeing the insanity clearly is that one can see where it’s headed. Totalitarian governments are the only ones that can meet the needs of people for whom tolerance and freedom are the problem. That’s where they’re taking us. The writing has been on the wall for a while.

The hallmark of losing a government of law is, well, losing it. Extralegal detentions, detentions without trial, and torture are found in dictatorships. And they’re always done for the same reason: in the service of a higher good.

The US currently carries critical hallmarks of a dictatorship: detention without trial, torture of prisoners, and a population that is willing to look the other way.

Comparisons between the US and dictatorships are considered offensive, which they are. But if they fit the facts on the ground, they are also essential. Saying “it can’t happen here” doesn’t make it so.

The usual excuse is to say that in our case, it’s different. The reason why the targeted group has to lose its rights is different. It’s not the same old lunacy this time. This time it’s justified.

However, the differences mean nothing. Everything is always different. Nothing ever happens the same way twice. South African apartheid is different from Saudi Arabian, which is different from ghettoizing Jews, which is different from Hutus slaughtering Tutsis. It’s not the differences that tell us what we’re dealing with. It’s the awful similarities.

We need to get our heads around a few simple facts. No matter how reasonable it looks, no matter how great the threat (which is another way of saying no matter how great our fear), it is never all right to deprive other human beings of the same rights given to full citizens. It was insanity the last time, and it is insanity this time. There is no way to be a civilized society and do those things. It is crazy, obviously, to destroy civilization in order to save it.

For those of us who want to stop enabling lunacy, it is important to call things by their right names. We need to stop being respectful toward attitudes that destroy respect. Reserve tolerance for opposing points of view. Insanity does not need tolerance. It needs treatment.

As a person who’s heavily on the freedom side of the freedom vs caution debate, I certainly wouldn’t advocate compulsory treatment. Moonbats can live next door, if they want, so long as they keep to themselves. However, in public life, whether for voters, politicians, or media, intolerance cannot be tolerated.

If radical conservatism continues to be tolerated as something normal, it’s not hard to see what will happen. Those few symptoms–detention without trial, torture, or making up legal excuses in the name of a greater good–tell us that we’ve crossed the line. We’re not headed for the slippery slope. We’re on it. It is past time to say no. The only question now is when we’ll open our eyes and see where we’re going.


Update: July 12, 2006

It seems John Dean is getting it figured out (via Raw Story). The only thing I don’t understand is why he says it’s not generally known that conservatives blindly follow authority. It’s been obvious since the 1930s or so. I can’t even say you heard it here first. I wonder how many more years will pass before Dean and company see the rest of the whole twisted mess that I, following so many others, have been ranting about for a while now.

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