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Monday, November 26, 2012

Basic Nature of Conservatism Invites Co-option by Plutocracy

For all the folderol about the conservative and liberal minds, we can say without contention that there are certainly differences in the underlying history or biology of people who end up manifesting quite different reactions to the world around them, many of these differences unrelated to the details of belief.  And it is my deepest suspicion, increasingly supported by brain studies, that different ones of us are made differently in subtle ways resulting in a variety of reactions to the social conditions in which we live (see Chris Mooney’s book, ‘The Republican Brain’). 

How much these differences can be summarized into simple patterns is still a question, but a most basic distinction, independent of specific beliefs is really not so difficult: conservatives want and need everyone to be like them and liberals are not displeased when some people are different from them.

There are two types of liberals in this model, those who have learned by experience that everyone can’t be like them, even if they might want them to be, and those who are actually invigorated by the differences of others. Conservatives are of two types as well, those who see difference as a discomfort and social inconvenience to be avoided as much as reasonably possible and those who see difference as a danger and a crime for special condemnation.  It is important to note that the details of the difference are not the issue so much as the simple fact of difference.

It is a mistake to get caught up in the details of difference; detail is not the point, but only the definitional force of difference itself that matters.  The detail is only a means to an end [1], a condition of membership and not an adaptation to reality.  And because the details of belief are conditions of membership, these positions must be held with much greater fervor and certainty than other ‘elements of truth’ would ever be in actual practice.

A corollary condition follows: liberals are not primarily concerned with being like those around them, focusing more on events and evidence for decisions, while conservatives are more deeply sensitive to fitting in with what they perceive as prevailing attitudes.  The major method for influencing attitudes and decisions for them is to show that many people “just like them” think a certain way. 

These were both very useful habits of thought and action in our originating tribal life…when both attitude systems were represented with some equality and there were social expectations for honesty and fairness.  Conserving existing attitudes is important for social coherence and responding to culture-free evidence is vital for adaptation to the larger Reality.  However, if each system is isolated from the other and is allowed to form the view that its own result is absolutely correct while the other is absolutely wrong, neither system of thought can fully function in the total social context: the essential functional role of adapting species behavior to the larger exigencies of life on the earth. 

And it must be noted that in their most aggressive forms the conservative view must reject liberalism while liberalism can accept the differences presented by conservatism, though rejecting its absolutism as, at a minimum, counterproductive and distorting of reality; and finally noted that conservative rejection can be expected to be strident and liberal rejection of conservatism can be expected to be compliant and issue based [2]. Conservatives seem to try to understand liberals by trying to see what liberals do to make everyone think the same and liberals try to understand conservatives by studying how conservatives relate to reasoned, logical presentations of evidence; both, therefore missing the essential qualities of the other.
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The principles of philosophical and scientific decision making have been considered in great depth for thousands of years and need not be labored with here.  And the ways of those who are invigorated by the differences of other people function quite differently than fear of difference.  For now it is the process of ‘being like everyone else’ and ‘everyone else being like you’ – an essential tension – that is interesting.  It is unlike the “easy” discoveries of difference among people who value, or at least accept, difference.  How does one go about displaying one’s views, basic congenial communication, when to do so risks that the views may be seen as different from those around them?  There have to be coded processes, learned and practiced, that let a thought be exposed and then quickly withdrawn if it is suspected of divergence; a sort of ‘now you see it now you don’t,’ with a 2-second no foul rule. 

One of the consequences is that everyone can believe that everyone else thinks just as they do – and can, therefore, live in the perfect bliss of a completely accepting world.  A select group of opinion makers are appointed or self-appointed; people, who by virtue of their talents at perceiving, distilling and projecting the coded forms of many popular views, instruct others in how to say and how to do those things that support the common code (think tanks, for example).  The irony is, of course, that the attempt to manage a ‘completely accepting’ world is made by creating unspoken rules and codes by which differences are rejected.

Have you ever been around a monumental construction built of playing cards, experienced the tension and narrowed limits of movement required to allow the construction to have some permanence of existence?  First, the reason for the ‘castle’ is not questioned, but taken as a given reality.  And second, acquired from the first, all the behaviors required to avoid endangering the ‘castle’ are also considered essential.  The zone of influence expands from the table on which the construction sits to the allowable patterns of movement around the room, to the opening and closing of windows, to which doors have to be closed and opened in a given order, to the passing of trucks on the highway, to the flushing of a toilet in an upstairs bathroom, to…

A difference between this metaphor and the coming to a common pattern of conservative “reality” is that in the metaphor the movement of influence can be plainly seen.  However, the “I can only be safe if I am just like my neighbor and my neighbor is just like me” idea leads as irrevocably to the rejection of science, to a 6,000 year old earth and to religious fundamentalism…just as irrevocably as the requirement of having “no breezes around the card castle” leads to having to be sure that the door to the kitchen be closed before going onto the porch.

Of course, we all have our systems for measuring and informing others about what we are willing to talk about and willing to do at the various levels of relationship, that is not at issue, but it is the systematic process maintaining the illusion and reality that ‘you believe as me’ and ‘I believe as you’ acting as a primary social construction that defines a major part of the conservative constituency.

Conservatism is a way of life in a way different from liberalism, which is more a habit of thought.  The rejection of difference requires complete systems of control for all aspects of life in ways that the acceptance of difference does not.  It is really this ‘way of life’ that we so often hear is in need of defending.

This leads to present so-called conservative positions, while based on these quite deep human habits of thought and attitude, being co-opted purely as devices to herd people into groups that can be manipulated for the crassest reasons of power and influence.  But this simple and cynical fact doesn’t change the reality that these are fundamental ways to approach the experience of life.

A conservative-liberal synergistic dynamic works when liberalism supplies the belief system and conservative process maintains it; conservatism is uniquely ill-equipped to supply its own beliefs since its function is not to respond sensitively to the variations in reality, but rather to standardize beliefs for purposes of social cohesion. Liberalism does not produce social cohesion by its normal functioning. For these reasons, today’s “conservative” and “liberal” constituencies must contain their own actual conservative and liberal parts.  In a terrible perversion, the “liberal” function in American Conservatism, and increasingly elsewhere, has been taken over by the plutocracy (and as total plutocratic power increases it becomes more and more a “reality to be dealt with” in liberal consideration).

Since self-identified groups of humans require some means of feeling connected together by common habits and beliefs, then great influence can be had by supplying the form of those habits and beliefs. The obvious “enemy” of such an ascension to power would be those who might question both the elements of detail and whole idea of difference in the first place – who might wonder at the efficacy of a card castle in the living room – the liberal frame of mind.

And so an effective pincer-movement forms naturally, a movement that is episodic in human history, the conservative mind’s drive to eject difference is met in symphony with the powerful’s need to prevent any questioning of their devices of domination; and it always takes on a recognizable form: ‘kill the heretic.’  However, it is vital to recognize and keep clearly in mind that one set of forces is coming from the habits of the conservative mind and that another, using the same language and devices, is coming from the cynical forces of the powerful.  Unfortunately, this is a difference that the construction of the conservative “reality” is perfectly designed to obscure.

[1] It is a mistake to get caught up in the evaluation of detail, certainly a part of the liberal thought habit to look at statements for their content.  The detail of religious position, taxation, infrastructure repair and development, sexual issues, class issues, education issues, wars, sources of and responses to terrorism, ad infinitum, are means to ends and can be added to, subtracted from and changed endlessly without affecting the basic role of the rejection of difference as a way of solidifying a social construction.

[2] We see this so clearly in the conservative opinion makers, following the election, literally yelling that acceptance of the election result is not possible.  They will never compromise, never admit defeat beyond agreeing that it has happened (though for nefarious reasons).

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Mediation on a Pool of Water

I was hiking in the low desert hills, built up by hundreds of small volcanic vents over millions of years – this is not only description, but also essential context. The late summer monsoons had rained well over portions of the area and while most of the water had run off or soaked down through the volcanic gravels, in places where the old lava was on the surface, pools had formed in basins of solid rock – watery mini-ecosystems in the desert.

Deserts are not like Disney movies: there is little highly animate life to see there.  Unlike the Florida subtropics of my youth with alligators, herons, gulls, snakes and myriad insects measured in hundreds per yard, a desert walk of many miles may have only the excitement of the flies-in-season or a female sparrow of indeterminate species. The times when water holes are reliably found, however, offer up a rare abundance.  It was such a day.

I stopped to observe, more meditatively than an act of science, a pool of brown-yellow water in what had been, up to 8 thousand years ago, a permanent stream flowing out of the higher volcanic hills to the east.  Little black dots appeared and disappeared over its surface. Tiny yellowish comets (fairy shrimp for the curious) came up from the hazy yellowish depths and with spiraling turns descended again. A mix of water bugs, shiny black bodies, sprinted about. Water striders, spidery-looking insects, walked on the water with God-like ease.  It was a complete world from the energizing algae to its top predators, tadpoles and damselfly larvae.  Of course, the few birds used its water for baths and nibbled a bit at its inhabitants, but these were largely externalities. Dead flies, moths and butterflies slid around the surface driven by swirling breezes. It was wonderful.

Soon the patterns of activities began to show; responses to shadows passing over the surface, one local flurry of action would follow another, moments of quiet. Seemingly random motion would bring nearly all the tadpoles to the surface at once, more than a hundred squirming black dots concentrated toward the center of the pool, and then they would appear in numbers half that or less.  In the bigger pools I had seen minnows, but not in this one.

If the rains were done for a time, this pool and others like it would dry in a few weeks, evaporating into several tiny puddles and then gone.  The animals watched today would all be dead, their eggs secreted away in rock crevices and the mud, soon to be dust. 

I could not, and did not wish to, fight off the sensation/intuition/thought of the thousands of seasons of these pools, the sensation of the kaleidoscopic spiraling of events from this moment back to the flowing stream, to the flowing lava and to the moving earth.  All of these were contained in the DNA of these little beasts before me – as certainly as the warmth of the sun and cool of the shade.  And yet they had only incorporated a tiny part of those changes – just those that let them carry on from this year’s pool to next year’s pool.

From were I sat at the edge of the water I could see very little of my own pool: there was a bit of ancient barbed wire fence along a near ridge, con-trails in the sky and, if I allowed myself to see them, the tracks of some rock-crawler truck in the old river bed beside the basalt altar that held the mud-yellow water.

When the river ran in this now dry canyon, dry except of the September pools, my own species had just come to this land as bands of stone-tooled hunters. My own direct ancestors were living in villages across middle Europe only a stone’s throw in time from the Neanderthals that they displaced.

Off in the distance I could see, from the top of nearest low hill, a city of 80,000 people. Down the slope was the yellowish pool with its thousands of inhabitants; off to the east was my own pool with its thousands of inhabitants.

These walks into the desert are always wordless meditations; to turn them into language with its meanings and rules of construction both gives them more tangible form and diminishes them toward insignificance.  The clarity of understanding is, however, not completely lost when I say that all the comprehensions about the muddy little pool were seen as absolutely the same for the city.

The simplicity of the pool, its origin seemingly owed solely to a monsoon rain, was belied by the complex biology of its inhabitants and the millions of years of evolution that made the rain their immediate source, but stoked the new water with a subtlety of DNA’s design come to by all the sophistication of that molecule – just so for the city. 

The fate of the pool, so certain and immutable: when the water is gone, the whole beautiful construction of life is gone.  I can easily see in my mind’s eye the city’s margins contracting, the contiguous sprawling dividing up into a dozen smaller isolated centers, those centers disappearing one by one until the rocks and little trees of the hill sides above the city spread uninterrupted out to the volcanic plains and hills where I am standing; the city dried up and gone, and without even leaving the eggs of its inhabitants ready for the next iteration.