My colleague Jay Lake put up a rather interesting post at his blog, explaining why he spends a fair amount of time banging on about the ills of Conservativism in the United States: why he thinks it’s not just wrong-headed philosophically, but also dangerous both practically and pragmatically, and why he has a difficult time interfacing with Conservatives or Conservativism due to a complete lack of compatability with what Jay believes is the evidence-based, rationalist Progressive Liberal mindset.
I wanted to touch on some of the points Jay makes, and make a few suggestions of my own, as well as a few (friendly?) rebuttals, with links where applicable. I am a conservative (note the small c) and a Science Fiction writer (note the caps SF) so I think I’ve got skin in the game. I’m also LDS, which is a Christian denomination, albeit different from many of the larger Christian denominations in the country — thus a different perspective on questions and difficulties as they pertain to the practicing and influence of religion.
But first, Jay’s opening declaration:
The problem, I think, is that the modern conservative position has become unreasonable, in a most literal sense, founded on a combination of willful ignorance and deliberate intellectual dishonesty. Many of the things conservatives say and do don’t arise from honest differences of opinion about the world and how it works and should be run. This isn’t about divergent views of policy or preference of philosophy. These issues don’t have two sides in any rational world, any more than a dispute about the existence of gravity has two sides. No, these foundational conservative opinions arise from flat-out lies. And based in lies, the conservative worldview then generates more lies in a vicious downward spiral of destructive feedback.
I remember when I lived and worked in Seattle, one of the most liberal U.S. cities. In the years after September 11, 2001, it was common to hear 9/11 conspiracy theory dropping from the lips of self-styled Progressive Liberals: that Bush/Cheney had planned the attack in order to foment war, that Bush/Cheney had planned the attack in order to get rich off of Haliburton contracts, that Bush/Cheney had planned the attack to excuse a military land-grab on Gulf oil states, et cetera. These were openly spoken and accepted conceits among some of the work-a-day, self-labeled Progressive Liberals I knew, and they were practically gospel in the halls of some of Seattle’s better-known academic institutions, such as Seattle Central Community College, which I attended — SCCC being the epicenter for many an anti-Bush, anti-war march during the last decade.
My takeaway was that these people had to be nuts. Even if you hated Bush/Cheney with a passion, how could you actually believe that a U.S. President of any political stripe, or his VP, would plan and execute, much less willingly permit, something like 9/11? Especially when there wasn’t a shred of actual, independently verifiable proof to back up the claim? Had people lost their minds?
And yet, the 9/11 conspiracy theories were openly embraced by many, many Progressive Liberal Seattleites, to include highly-educated, very-intelligent folk who were otherwise reasonable and shrewd in other matters. Yet the emotionally charged nature of 9/11 — combined with the bitter afterwash from the contentious 2000 U.S. election season — seemed to have combined to make it possible for these otherwise reasonable and deductive Progressive Liberals to reach for a purely inductive, thoroughly politically-tainted, wholly outlandish explanation for a horrific national event which had clearly overwhelmed almost everyone’s worldview.
So I take it with a grain of salt when Jay says Conservatives latch onto ideas for which there can be no rational, plausible, scientific or forensic proof — as if this is a Conservative problem alone? I have seen great masses of Progressive Liberals do precisely the same thing. I just think the conditions have to be right. And the nature and quality of the “lie” (Jay’s word) has to be flattering to pre-existing Progressive Liberal ideas about the world, and how the world functions.
My suggestion then to Jay is that irrationality and the acceptance of falsehoods is not a Conservative problem per se. Rather, I suspect it’s a human problem that cuts across ideological boundaries.
I would also suggest that intelligence and/or raw IQ contain within them a whole other set of bias bug-a-boos. It’s routine for us self-styled Smarty Folk to think that our Smartyness shields us from the errors of the commoner. Apparently there is scientific evidence which indicates we are full of crap in this regard. A cautionary for Right and Left alike, since each side is filled at the top with Smarty-Smarty-Pants who think their Smartyness is bulletproof.
Now, to some of Jay’s specifics.
He cites a poll stating 58% Republican belief in Creationism — that the world is only a few thousand years old, that the evolution of species over time is false, and that God made humankind from whole cloth; literally out of the dust of the Earth.
Without delving into a purely religious argument, I am not sure what such a percentage says about Conservatives or Conservativism. Jay seems to be saying that since Creationism is provably false, such a large percentage of Republicans adhering to Creationism is indicative of a mindset that happily imbibes falsehood to a dangerous degree. That, in fact, much of what is wrong with Conservatives and Conservativism is rooted in this fundamental questioning (denial?) of what science now considers iron-clad: that the Earth is in fact billions of years old, that the evolution of species over time is incontrovertibly proven via fossil records and more recent examples of breeding programs for the domestication of plants and animals, and that there’s precious little archeological evidence to support the short-span view of humanity’s time on Earth.
Personally, Jay’s not going to get an argument from me about the head-scratching assertions of Creationism. I am religious, but I never had an issue with evolution, nor fossils, nor the geologic record, nor a billions-of-years time scale. And I know a lot of other people in my particular religious community who are the same — for whatever reasons, the LDS culture largely doesn’t mind evolution, nor the overlapping geologic and factual evidence associated with it. I personally believe God provided the actual spark of life, and that He had a hand in the slow development of species on Earth over vast amounts of time, but since science itself cannot yet explain how life actually began (see: Miller-Urey experimentation) the question remains open. Thus I believe it’s not wholly irrational or anti-science to suspect that something Divine may have been going on three and a half billion years ago.
Do I expect other people to take my personal theory at face value, or accept it for their own use as fact? No, not really. It is my belief, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to claim my belief as fact. All I ask is that I be permitted to hold this belief without being called crazy, or dangerous, or being banned from polite intellectual conversation.
And I think a lot of conservatives would say the same.
Now, Creationism itself in the U.S. is largely driven by a very specific group: Fundamentalist Evangelicalism. And there can be no question that the Republican Party has a lot of Fundamentalist Evangelicals in it. But I think it’s worth the time to make the distinction between what Fundamentalist Evangelicals may believe, or even push forward as policy, and what Republicans or Conservatives et al believe. Because not all of us who are Conservative are Republican, not all Republicans are Creationists, nor is Fundamentalist Evangelicalism the end-all definition of what it is to be Republican or Conservative, any more than all Progressive Liberals are Atheist Marxist Communists. Some are. Not all.
And yes, Jay probably ought to be concerned if it’s true that 58% of registered Republicans are anti-science in the way that Jay infers. I would only suggest to Jay that it’s a favor to the rest of us who are Conservative without being Republican or Creationist that he refine his language. Because when you attack a big, assumedly-homogenous target with a fat paint brush, blackening friends along with enemies, it has the unfortunate tendency of increasing the amount of “noise” on the channel. Ergo, people who might otherwise hear you, stop hearing you. Why should they, when nothing they say or do prevents them from being lump-summed in your argument?
Personally, I believe Creationism in the classroom is a bad idea, and I don’t support it. Sunday school is Sunday school, and when I was growing up we learned science five days a week — parents fearful that their kids will be pulled away from church by those five days a week, ought to look more carefully about how they’re spending that holy seventh day. I believe if your gospel is a good gospel that speaks to the hearts of men, the kids will be okay. And nobody needs to be afraid of our children learning how biology works, what fossils really are, or that the Earth is an old, old Earth, and that Man is a recent arrival on the scene.
Side anecdote: my daughter is privately tutored due to her being well advanced academically, beyond what the public schools can do for her. Her textbooks are unique in that they include God while rigorously explaining science just as well as any textbook I ever had at that age. She also adores PBS science programs just as much as I did when I was a kid. When I was her age, I loved Carl Sagan’s COSMOS series. For her, it’s Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Brian Greene. She even wrote Brian Greene fan mail. He sent her an autographed 8×11″ photo. Yah gotta love kids, and geek celebrities. And my point being: my personal experience is that the rabid divorcing of science from spirituality, and vice versa, sometimes seems both wrongheaded and unnecessary. A well-rounded, rational person can have both.
Jay’s second citation is that 47% of Republicans are in denial about Global Warming. Again, I would stress that not all Conservatives are Republican, and that there is not (so far as I can tell, speaking as a conservative) a mass Conservative “denial” of climate change. What I see being debated among Conservatives (and with Progressive Liberals) is whether or not the amount of climate change is in fact directly caused by human fossil fuel burning, whether or not the amount of climate change is going to be catastrophic for human habitation on the Earth, and whether or not drastic government curbing of fossil fuel use or development will in fact have any reasonable impact on the problem as perceived.
Unfortunately I think this issue has become so politically charged that it’s difficult to approach it dispassionately. There’s a lot riding on whether or not governments actually move to curb or ban fossil fuels.
My personal view is that we’re not technologically ready yet to “get off oil” as the t-shirt says. We don’t have a reasonable replacement for the internal combustion engine (diesel or gasoline) and even most hybrids or electric cars rely on fossil-derived energy in one form or another. Wind, solar, and nuclear, by themselves, just aren’t there yet. And this means artificially curbing or banning fossil fuels will have detrimental (possibly severely detrimental) economic and lifestyle repercussions. Shall we go back to the horse and buggy? Not everyone lives in an urban metropolitan area where they can bus, bike, or walk to work, school, and home. To say nothing of how do we move goods and food around the country and around the world.
Will it all be worth it, especially if we cannot yet prove that there will be any reliable reduction in global temperatures, nor stabilization of climate to what we might pretend to call “normal?” From what I know of the geologic record of climate, having parsed papers and opinion articles, viewed PBS documentaries, etc, the global climate is forever in flux: a series of oscillations within oscillations, and affected by and/or dependent on numerous factors beyond human control: volcanic activity, plate tectonics, the gulf stream, sunspot activity and solar cycles, etc. So much so that I think the mass aggregate of uncontrollables is so great, to presume that one thing — fossil carbon fuel emissions — is somehow driving the current cycle off an unrecoverable cliff, seems one-dimensionally at odds with what the scientific record tells us actually happens.
Now, it may be that we have a warmer future ahead of us. Seas may rise. Rains and snows may come, or not. But then again, this is how it’s always been. And I am not sure I’ve yet to run across a serious body of Conservatives who collectively deny any of this. Only the subject of, “What do we do about it?” is in contention. The Conservative answer seems to be: do nothing, at least as long as the alternative to doing nothing proffers us no tangible, iron-clad benefit, and may in fact prove economically and socially harmful. People remember the DDT ban. Well intentioned. But with dreadful unintended consequences.
Now, in Jay’s view “doing nothing” about climate change might be a bad idea, and I don’t begrudge him his right to explain in detail why. I have explained my particular view — mine, and I am a conservative among Conservatives — so I leave it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
Personally, and to expound just a bit more, I’d like to see more private and government research spending on energy concepts that can realistically replace coal and oil in the long-term. As stated earlier, wind, nuclear (fission) and solar can only fill part of the need. And it’s a practical guarantee that the world’s total energy use and requirement will only go up as time passes, not down. If we must “do” something about climate change and global warming, let’s “do” it in the form of developing an additional option, above and beyond what we have now. Leave the current system in place, develop what fossil resources we have left for the benefit of our current civilization, and put together something that will be even better for our children, or their children after them. Sustainable fusion? Better batteries to hold more power from improved solar collectors? As a Science Fiction writer, this is where my imagination goes. Not bans and retrograde outlawing of existing fuels and technology.
Jay follows on with a citation that 63% of Republicans believe Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction in its possession prior to the 2003 invasion, thus justifying invasion as part of the Global War on Terror. I have to chuckle when I see the Huffington Post cited as a source for anything, but that’s just my own source bias talking, so I will take Jay’s citation at face value.
The late, great, outspoken atheist and iconoclastic quasi-Progressive Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying he supported the Iraq invasion for all kinds of humanitarian reasons that had nothing to do with oil, or WMD, and I think my personal opinion somewhat mirrors his. So to me a poll about how many Republicans believe Iraq had WMD is about as relevant as a poll about how many Democrats believe that 9/11 was an inside job. Both statistics perhaps point to a disquieting tendency on the part of people — not just Republicans, not just Democrats, not just Conservatives or Progressive Liberals — to believe what sounds right to them, based on their particular biases and feelings on something which at first blush may appear incontrovertible.
Frankly I think the WMD argument was unnecessary, both before and after the invasion in 2003. And speaking as a servicemember (Chief Warrant Officer, United States Army Reserve) who joined in 2002 prior to the invasion, I was not motivated by WMD. Perhaps many Conservatives (and conservatives?) need to believe the WMD argument to justify the invasion and occupation. To my mind it was unnecessarily unfinished business from 1991 when Bush The Elder failed to remove the Hussein regime properly, at a time when we had far more troops and equipment on the ground — and a better rational to do it, too. Thus it was better later than never.
Yes, the future of Iraq remains cloudy. The invasion and occupation didn’t always go as planned or hoped. But if Iraq had just one future under Hussein and his ilk — perpetual despotism — there have at least been planted the seeds for change and difference, although as Egypt and Libya tell us, removing a dictator doesn’t always guarantee progress if the culture isn’t prepared to offer up and support better leadership. So I will hope for Iraq, both because the people there deserve better than they’ve had (especially the Kurds) and also so that the shed blood of my brothers and sisters in uniform will not have been in vain.
Jay cites a poll of two Southern states indicating a lot of Southern Republicans probably think Obama is Muslim. Again, I think it needs to be said: just because some Republicans in Mississippi subscribe to a thing, does not necessarily indict all Republicans, nor all Conservatives, nor all of Conservativism. Obviously for Jay this is just part of a pattern of wrongheadedness on the part of Conservativism et al. I get it. Jay’s sensitive to seeing such a pattern, just as Conservatives are sensitive to seeing patterns of government encroachment on gun rights or the expansion of state entitlements through social programs. Each side tends to be “programmed” to hunt and peck for certain data points which then become emblematic of a larger problem.
But really, so what if some Southerners think Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim non-citizen? Americans, in the aggregate, unfortunately believe a lot of stuff they shouldn’t believe. How many people still believe Ronald Reagan deliberately fostered AIDS and allowed it to spread in the United States, to take out blacks and homosexuals? I still see that old yarn pop up from time to time on forums like DemocraticUnderground.com and I can only conclude (again) that there is an underlying need on the part of a certain percentage of people — not just Americans, not just Conservatives, but people — to buy into conspiracy theory. Birtherism is like Trutherism in this way: shadowy alternative hypothesis which slithers through the grudging conversations of the ideologically disgruntled.
Frankly, I find Birtherism to be a complete side-show. There are plenty of solid Conservative fights to pick with Obama on policy. Trying to claim he’s both Muslim and not a born American — as a way to invalidate his Presidency — is like rearranging deck chairs on the titanic. It’s done, folks. He’s been in office for four years, almost. The time for that “debate” passed about six years back, before Obama even ran for President, and I’m honestly embarrassed that Birtherism persists among some of my Conservative cohorts. Usually I make the points I just made: even if true, and I don’t think it is, the time for the debate is gone.
And whether or not Obama’s a Muslim? Might as well worry about Obama being a (gasp) Mormon, for all that it matters. The mind that frets over both is a mind I don’t necessarily take seriously. Yes, people do it, and I think that sucks, and I think some notable Conservative media mouthpieces have tried to combat Birtherism, because it’s not just a red herring, it’s an unnecessary and destructive red herring.
Alas, people be what people be. A certain percentage will believe in junk conspiracy regardless of who they are, or what ideological affiliation they claim to have.
Jay finishes up tackling taxes, guns, and concludes with the same summation I originally reached when I lived in Seattle: are these people nuts???
Jay then asks the question: How do you reason with people who insist on being so literally unreasonable?
My answer is multi-faceted.
My answer also applies equally and entirely to Conservatives too.
I repeat: my answer applies equally and entirely to Conservatives too.
1) Begin to separate out the reasonable from the unreasonable, and don’t treat Conservativism (or Liberalism) as a monolith. It’s more like a salad of partially overlapping Venn circles. Every Conservative (Big C, small c) or Liberal (Big L, small l) overlaps a little bit (or a lot) with other Conservatives (or Liberals) but there isn’t a group mind. Yes, large bodies can appear to be moving as a whole — Fundamentalist Evangelicals — but then this is also true of bodies on the Left too: NAACP, NOW, etc. At fine detail, usually it’s just individuals sorta-kinda agitating in one general direction, though if pressed, they’d reveal differences amongst them. Sometimes, big differences.
2) Among the reasonable, find friends or at least associates you believe to be of reliable character and conscience, and use them as examples. Too often I think our political analysis is simply a race to the bottom: we seek and illuminate the worst-case turds, as if these people or these groups are in fact “average” for the entire whole. Westboro Baptist Church is no more representative of 21st century American Christians et al than the Symbionese Liberation Army is representative of 21st century American Liberals.
3) When you find yourself pulling your hair out and screaming, “Are these people nuts?” you seek out that trusted source (see above) and talk to them. In my own case, my wife is my political opposite in most ways, so I go talk to her. I also write in a genre that is predominantly quasi-Liberal, so I’ve got plenty of Liberal Progressive friends to chatter with if I need to remind myself that “The Left” is not, in fact, filled with insane people. I would like for some of those Progressive Liberal friends to find and reach out to at least one family member, one college roommate, one military buddy, one co-worker, who is Conservative (or conservative) and develop some kind of understanding and relationship. Five will get you ten you already have numerous such relationships. Maybe you just need to use them more?
4) Try as hard as you can to realize that the people on The Other Side™ are not evil. Not as a whole. There may be unique individuals who are, in fact, speaking terrible stuff and doing terrible things. But this seems to be true of any large mass of individuals bigger than 10. There will be bad apples. N’er-do-wells. Miscreants. If you want to grapple with The Other Side™ productively, find the Good Guys. The ones whose Venn circle overlaps with yours in some area, despite the large differences. The overlap is your connection and if you’re determined to truly communicate, that connection is your road to dialogue.
5) Realize going in that despite your best efforts, Conservative or Liberal, even honey won’t necessarily get you any flies. Resist the urge to then turn on the fire hose of vinegar. Our nation seems rife with souls half-burned because someone from The Other Side™ took a verbal blowtorch to them over some kind of ideological disagreement. Respect the disagreement. Don’t assume it’s permanent. Don’t assume the other person is a horrid monster for failing to see it your way. People change. Sometimes it won’t be you who instigates the change. Be a friend. That right there, more than anything else, will soften a hard heart. If you can show a person you have loyalty, regardless of ideological clash, it will demonstrate character on your part that will soar above and beyond any entreaties you might make for the opposed party to come over to your way of thinking. So much so you may be very, very surprised to learn that, in the final analysis, you weren’t so far apart after all?
This is all, of course, just my opinion. I grew up in Utah, one of the most conservative places in the United States. I spent the first 14 years of my adult life living along the I-5 corridor in Washington State — one of the most liberal places in the United States. If I had my druthers I’d teleport half of liberal Washington’s populace to Utah, and half of Utah’s conservative populace to liberal Washington, and see if maybe a few perspectives couldn’t be broadened. Both ways. Too often, I think, our inability to reason with or understand each other as Americans stems from the fact that we just don’t live with and work around The Other Side™ like we probably should.
I learned things about myself — a conservative living in Liberal Land — I’d have never learned otherwise. I continue to learn things about myself, being married to a Progressive Liberal spouse. I’ve had my ideas challenged, and sometimes demolished. From the rubble, I’ve been forced to create new ideas. Not necessarily Liberal or Conservative. But better able to reflect reality as I perceive it. Which changes over time, I might add — I certainly think and feel differently about the world, at age 38, than I did at age 18.
If all of this sounds preachy, patronizing, or pompous, I want to apologize for that. I’m not here to sermonize or pretend I have all the answers. Jay peeled back the foil on the pan of Conserv-A-Pop, so I wanted to turn up the heat and see what happens. Not to argue or challenge, as much as to offer a second opinion, and a possible(?) way to move past barriers(?) I like Jay personally, and find him to be not only a disciplined and imaginative chap, but also a survivor. His cancer story has been rather amazing, and it’s not over yet. In fact, for most cancer victims, it’s never really over. So I raise a glass to Jay’s continued prolific success as an author, and as a person. And I hope this blog post is taken in good faith.
I also hope that those coming independently to the post will read Jay’s remarks, and mine. Consider where you fit on the spectrum, and whether or not you’ve been seeing the whole picture as accurately as you might have been able to?
I think we as humans have a natural social tendency to surround ourselves with like minds. We thrive (to a certain extent) when the people around us reflect ourselves back to us as the “normal, positive.” We shy away from environments that challenge this “normal, positive” self-perception. And for good reason. I don’t think we do very well, psychologically or emotionally, if we’re always being run over by a psychic cheese grater.
But I also think perpetual homogeneity has drawbacks too. I’ve seen it in Utah. I saw it in Washington State. Too much time spent steeping in your own ideological juice — surrounded by people who more or less have the same thoughts and ideas about the world — and your growth can stop. Your view can get stale. Perhaps even rancid? Challenge therefore can be good. Having your ego or your “normal, positive” self-perception rocked, can be good. I learned that when I got married, and again when I joined the military. It’s not easy. But it can change who you are for the better, if you embrace the challenge.