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Hold the line!


Benjamin Sibelman
Living Worlds Productions

Hold the line!

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Reading bdunbar's livejournal hasn't been easy lately, because while an opposing view is always useful for refining one's own beliefs, political opposition tends to make me unreasonably angry and defensive.  I'm not alone in this; I once read an article about a psychological study that found that challenging someone's political beliefs causes an emotional reaction very similar to religious fervor.  We're compelled to defend our ideology with zeal and anger, and to do our best not to really listen to our opponents lest their ideas sow any doubt in our minds.  This article, linked from this post, is particularly worrisome to me in that sense because it's written by a convert (there's no zealot like one), and that famous Churchill quote has always made me nervous: "Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has not heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains."

So here's me being defensive, and since there's no defense like a good offense:

Conservatism, far from being the only position for people with brains, is the easy way out of having to think about disturbing realities.  Conservatives get to believe that:
  • It's generally okay to be selfish, because Adam Smith said so.

  • For rich and middle-class conservatives: My life is basically okay, so everything must be fine. No need to worry about the state of the world.

  • If anything is wrong, I can just point in the general direction of Washington, D.C. and say "that darn government never does anything right," because:

    • I don't like paying taxes or having to detour around road work.

    • Most days I'm not the victim of a crime or stuck in a burning building, just irritated by noisy police and fire-truck sirens in the distance.

    • My water, sewer, gas, electric, phone, cable, and internet bills come from companies, not the government that built the pipes and wires.

  • Poor people are often scary and always remind me that not everything is fine, so it's okay to ignore and disparage them, assuming that it's always their own fault that their poor (or at best that my donations to my church are enough to deal with the problem).

  • For conservatives with no military connections: I don't have to experience the horrors of war directly, so it's okay to ignore any such concerns and assume that the military is doing the right thing by "staying the course" in Iraq.
Now for the more directly defensive part: Mr. Mamet is correct to observe that the most vocal liberals spend too much time complaining about how everything is going wrong, because that's not actually what liberalism is about. We don't believe everything is wrong, merely that everything can be improved:

Image source

And our government, being theoretically beholden to the people's needs, is far more obviously improvable than the corporations, who are principally beholden to small groups of major shareholders. So liberals agree that the government as it exists now is corrupt, often incompetent, and sometimes downright evil. But we believe in its potential to be improved, and to act as the engine of progress--because it has been that engine throughout American history. Government abolished slavery and created laws that (imperfectly) draw us closer to the ideal of equal opportunity for all. Government actions essentially created the agrarian, industrial, and service-based incarnations of the middle class, and we look to it now to push the transition to a technology- and green-collar-based incarnation for the twenty-first century. Government made initial investments in scientific and medical advancements, government has kept the citizenry (imperfectly) educated so we can contribute to progress--I could go on.

But of course all this thinking about how we need to change and improve things is hard to do. Maybe only people under 30 have the energy for it, and then they convert to conservatism later in life out of sheer exhaustion.
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