Thursday, March 21, 2013

Conservatives Own Their History

I have often argued that to accept a worldview requires you to accept the history of that worldview — its genesis. You have to own that history. Frequently, this can be painful. Lots of worldviews have some nasty underpinnings. For example, the history that I must own because of my education in psychology is pretty dark. Indeed, many of my classes dedicated significant amounts of time to discussing the manifold failures of science and ethics that peppers the history of psychology and psychiatry. Owning, understanding, and thus learning from that history was a primary element of our education.

Not owning one's history generally requires revisionist history, whereby the nasty elements are either ignored (denialism), reduced in significance (reductionism), or reframed in such a way that makes those who enacted the bad stuff seem less bad — sort of a reverse ad hominem attack. Most of the time, these forms of revisionism don't hold up to even the slightest analysis. How, then, can people possibly believe them?

I don't think that they do.

Almost all revisionist history is found on the extreme ends of the spectrum. I don't want to say conservatism exclusively, because forms of extreme liberalism can be similarly insane. In the U.S. at least, "conservatives" are almost wholly responsible for this sort of behavior.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Capitol, recently. Conservatives are giving up on the revisionism publicly. Previously, they would vociferously deny racism and jingoism and try to fight on the same terms as the liberals and progressives. It doesn't take too long on a well-known progressive website like Alternet or Mother Jones to find extensive analysis of the inconsistencies inherent to this strategy. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it generally turns out to be bullshit.

It results in the Republican party currently trying to argue that their strategy will increase racial quality, increase tax revenue, increase good, decrease bad, and so on. Of course, as I mentioned, it takes little effort to find inconsistencies in this rhetorical strategy, but the current conservative movement is relying on its adherents not doing research. That works in the short term, but the slow death currently being suffered by the American conservative movement shows that it doesn't work in the long term.

Thus we have a few Republicans coming out saying that Republicans need to, for lack of a better term, stop being stupid. The most notable one that springs to mind is Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana -- a state that has taken full advantage of Bush's school voucher program to send its children to dozens of newly opened fundamentalist Christian schools.

Unfortunately for the future of the party, the majority of them are not doing this. They are reacting to the changing political landscape, though, and this is coming in the form of cracks —  cracks in their public facade behind which hides all of the nasty stuff that has been festering under the surface for the past seventy-five years. Overt racism, misogyny, fear, and intolerance were all more or less obvious, but they were hidden behind euphemism and circumlocution, and if those speaking the hate were ever called out on it, they would fall back on said euphemism and circumlocution to say that their attacker was "seeing things."

Now, though, not we have cracks. I suspect that these cracks represent the death throes of a fading social entity, to wit, the conservative, post-Depression social mores that defined the Greatest Generation and many of the Baby Boomers.

Some recent and salient examples of these cracks are Antonin Scalia barely hiding his homophobia and racism. We have dozens of examples of lesser people doing similar things, and while not nearly all of them are letting their defenses down enough to see all of the 'isms therein, they are letting them down enough to see the strange rationalizations that they use in private.

The example that sticks in my mind, and the example that triggered this article, was a set of comments from a variety of people in the Republican Party about how Joseph McCarthy was justified in fueling the Red Scare, and indeed, the Red Scare itself was completely reasonable. Again, this is unsupported by the evidence, but it is significant because the pretense of generally agreeing with the historical consensus has been dropped. No longer do they try to argue that the Soviet Union was a threat, but the Red Scare itself was wrong. Now they admit that they think that any charge against "evil" is justified in the righteous fire of American Freedom. They are now using the argument that McCarthyism was justified as support for whatever social crusade they believe needs to be enacted today.

The moral and philosophical ancestors of the current conservative movement are no longer being rejected by the conservative movement. They are owning their history, and I think that that is a big deal.

As I mentioned, I think that this represents the death throes of a social system. When faced with adversity, and unable to reconcile their views with the emerging mores, the movement is doubling down on their beliefs and are rejecting the rhetorical assumptions that have previously defined the arguments.

By rhetorical assumptions, I mean the set of unspoken beliefs about the definition and value of certain words that underlie a discussion. At the most basic layer, we have terms that are representative of physical phenomena: ball, cloud, rock. But anywhere above the basic layer of language, values and judgements are attached to the words: good, freedom, mother, bad. These values and judgments come from the massive and complex system that gave rise to the people using the words. The further apart two people are vis-a-vis their rhetorical assumptions, the more difficult communication becomes, because most of our higher level language is predicated on these assumptions. It can reasonably be argued that the history of philosophy has been a three-thousand-year-old process to strip away assumptions in a quest for a perfect language.

Many of today's rhetorical assumptions were defined with the last major social shift: the counter-culture. I'm using that term to describe everything that exploded post-WWII: feminism, civil rights, free love, drugs. The educated progressives of the day helped to define the values on which our modern language rests. Sixty-five years ago, a white person could casually describe a black person as a nigger in public with little fear of retribution. Today, though, doing so would be social suicide.

This is because, for all intents and purposes, we won the culture war. For a long time, the reaction of those on the losing end was to complain about "political correctness." That's the reason why that term is always used in a negative way. Political correctness is the sigh of the oppressed bigot.

Now, we have the oppression being cast off. They aren't going so far as to call anyone who is anywhere past off-white as a nigger, although I am confident that they are doing so in private, but they are complaining about how whites are the oppressed. Whites need to be afraid. Whites are under attack. They then look to a glorified past of white supremacy to show how "their" world is crumbling away.

And in their bizarre minds, this is true. They are still raging against a culture war that they lost decades ago. Rush Limbaugh has lost, as best as I can tell, damn-near all of his sponsors after his attacks on Sandra Fluke. Fox News ratings, though still easily #1, have fallen for the past many years. Gay marriage went from having minority support to majority support in less than five years. Acceptance of misogyny and the patriarchy is becoming widespread.

These are all good things from a reasonable perspective, but those who lost the culture war are not reasonable. They are angry. They are afraid. And they are going to make life miserable for the rest of us until they finally die out.

At least, as the Tea Party has put in stark display, these people are no longer pretending to be arguing the same things as us. They are openly admitting that they reject reason and rationale. They are openly admitting that they are speaking a different language from me. They are openly admitting that there can never be a common ground, and we are seeing this in Congress. There is no hope. All we can do is relax, and wait for the inevitable day when the world of the white conservative does precisely what white conservative are afraid of: pass into history.

So, my dear conservatives, roar and rage all you like. We won the war. The rest is just a waiting game. And I'm a lot younger than you, so I have all the time in the world.

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