A blog by Barry Edelson

Revolting and Offensive

Conservatives Are Almost Always Wrong

A group of latter-day revolutionaries gathered at the harbor in the nearby village of Northport the other day for a rainy re-enactment of the Boston Tea Party. The event was not organized for historical purposes but as a protest against high taxes. Though the organizers claimed to be nonpartisan, the local newspaper reported many comments from among the several hundred onlookers denouncing government spending in general and the "socialist" policies of the present administration in Washington in particular, marking the assembled few as a largely conservative crowd. Ironies abound. In the first place, the protesters have apparently forgotten whatever history they once learned in school, because the original Boston Tea Party was not a protest against high taxes per sé, but against taxation without representation — i.e., the American colonists had no voice in the English parliament with which to oppose the levying of taxes. Even more amusing is that America's actual colonial upstarts were not conservatives, but radicals. The conservatives in those days were the Tories who defended the crown against the pending revolution. If they had had their way, Americans would have continued paying their taxes to the mother country even to the present day.

That conservatives find themselves on the wrong side of an issue should come as no surprise to any student of political history. Since societies do not stand still, as a friend recently observed, conservatism, by definition, means always coming down on the wrong side of history. The wonder is that a movement that has been so consistently wrong over such a protracted period of time could have any following at all. The very term "conservative movement" is in itself a contradiction in terms, as the only movement that conservatives favor is backwards, in the direction of some imaginary prelapsarian state of bliss. They plainly believe that if those idiotic liberals would just shut up and go home, the country could return to its traditional, God-supported business of unfettered capitalism and unregulated liberty, the best known recipe for universal happiness.

There are more than a few problems with that proposition, apart from the obvious one that it is unsupported by facts. The quasi-religious fervor with which today's conservatives frame every one of their arguments as a fundamental defense of "liberty" flies in the face of many of their most deeply cherished "principles". They appear to see no contradiction in denying the liberty of others through their unyielding opposition to abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research or the teaching of evolution, not to mention the regulation of banks and inspection of the food supply. Even a cursory glance at the nation's history provides a litany of the evils of which the conservatives of their respective eras proudly stood in defense: slavery, forced removal of native Americans, child labor, disenfranchisement of women and blacks, segregation, to name just a few of the more egregious examples. Apparently, liberty to many conservatives means being free to exploit and oppress others without government interference. Have you never wondered where a politician of a certain stripe would have stood on a particular issue of a past era? The game is not entirely hypothetical. Take, for example, a relatively enlightened conservative, George H.W. Bush, a man who evidently does not harbor prejudices; and yet, as a member of Congress in 1964, he voted against the Civil Rights Act. As president, he rightly defended the rights of minorities, even going so far as to champion the Americans with Disabilities Act. But as a defender of conservatism in that decisive moment of his early career, he was thoroughly and incontrovertibly wrong. His political success in later years owed everything to his becoming, by the standards of the earlier era, a liberal.

"Last one in, lock
the door behind you"
is not a governing

The specter of any number of conservative hotheads railing nightly on television about the coming takeover of the country by Obama's tyrannical forces (not able to determine whether the threat is fascist or communist, they have apparently decided merely to alternate between the two) goes beyond even the ordinary paranoia of those who have fallen from power and don't see a path back into the light. These talking heads look an awful lot like the derby-headed, umbrella-wielding toff on Monty Python who worked himself into such a state of hysteria at the perceived excesses of his society that he literally foamed at the mouth and fell over backwards. As Jon Stewart observed earlier this week, conservatives seem to have confused tyranny with losing. They're so unaccustomed to being in the minority, perhaps, that it hasn't yet dawned on them that, when you lose, you're not supposed to get your way any more. An even more subtle and serious analysis was offered by George Packer in this week's edition of The New Yorker, in which he wrote that people often see "reflected in the mental structure of one's enemy a mirror of their own feverish simplifications." For example, if gun enthusiasts are creating a shortage of ammunition because of their recent hoarding, as has been widely reported, it is not because of any well-founded fear of the government's intention (or ability) to take away the people's fire power, but an intensification of a pre-existing delusion that led some people to arm themselves to the teeth in the first place. During the Cold War, the fear of Soviet invasion was ample justification for making assault rifles and other un-civilian weaponry available to the general public. After that threat disappeared, the "jack-booted thugs" of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (as it used to be known) became the favorite whipping boys of Hestonites and survivalists. One is reminded of animated cartoons from the middle of the last century in which stereotypical mountain folk sit in rocking chairs on their rickety front porches, the requisite shotgun cradled across their laps, as they lie in wait to ambush the "revenuers". If one has been raised to identify oneself with an extreme version of individualism in which any law, any tax, any interference of any kind is a threat to one's very existence, then it is not hard to find enemies at which to point one's weapon: even at the very government whose defense of the borders provides the freedom to espouse any nonsense we like.

Another irony, of course, is that the rantings of self-styled defenders of freedom, some of whom have come perilously close recently to calling for armed rebellion against the elected government of the United States, only makes it more likely that the hated government will be forced to clamp down on them in some way. That they are free to pollute the airwaves and cyberspace as they see fit, and to buy all the guns and ammunition they can afford, is an irony that is utterly lost on them. Of course, extremists are alway deeply lacking in the ability to appreciate irony.

We have not even touched upon the religious element that further poisons the well of modern conservatism. Though the evidence grows by the day that evangelical Protestantism is incompatible with an enlightened existence on Planet Earth, conservatism continues to burden itself by kowtowing to the dogmatic know-nothings in its ranks. Demography, time and progress are powerfully arrayed against them. In another generation or less, a self-professed Christian candidate for office who denounces equal rights for homosexuals will be as doomed to failure as if he suggested a return to slavery. And when all of those secondary and largely irrelevant "social" issues are stripped away, what are conservatives left with but their age-old whining about taxes? Well, guess what: liberals don't like paying taxes, either. I live in a region in which taxes are indeed crippling for many; I count myself among the many unfortunates who, when looking for a house, had to reject any number of lovely properties I could otherwise afford had the taxes not been absurdly high. But being against taxes is not a governing philosophy; in fact, it's the opposite. The last administration in Washington proved beyond a doubt that a party that doesn't care about government is certain to do a lousy job of running one. They even muffed the one thing they claimed to believe in so deeply, the war in Iraq.

If conservatives wish to make themselves useful and return to the fold of rational discourse, they might pose this question: what if taxes are high only relative to the poor quality of services the public receives in return? What if we actually had well-maintained roads and bridges, efficient and pristine public transportation, and universally excellent public schools? Would we still think taxes were too high? Perhaps; there are probably Norwegians who think their taxes are too high, too, but they know that mounting a protest against taxation is tantamount to undermining all the good things the government provides for them every day of their lives. Then again, even asking such a question would mean admitting that government has its place, which American conservatives are genetically incapable of managing. Well, if they wish to tie themselves to the mast of a ship that has sprung leaks in every part of its hull, that is their right. It's still a free country, despite their protestations — and concerted efforts — to the contrary.

April 11, 2009

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