Thursday, August 16, 2007

Answer to a Question About 'Conservatism'

Steven Andresen recently asked a question about how to define 'conservatism' as a comment to my Why Pseudo-Conservatives Are Not 'Conservative' post and since my reply is longish I thought I'd add it as a new post.

I believe the term 'conservative' has been hijacked by right-wing extremists in the US and thus tends to mean what ever they want it to mean even if what they believe contradicts the dictionary definition of 'conservative' and even if the principles they say they espouse are self-contradictory. Could I direct your attention to the four part series of posts I wrote called "What Does 'Conservative' Really Mean?" that starts here?

So-called "Christian Conservatives" are usually right-wing extremists who come closer to qualifying as fascists than anything 'conservative'. I do not use the term 'fascist' lightly. Robert Paxton recently published a really excellent book called "The Anatomy of Fascism" which very carefully examines the appropriate uses of this term. Paxton is a historian at Columbia and has spent many years teaching, writing and thinking about fascism. Here's his definition (p. 218):
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in an uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of
internal cleansing and external expansion.
While we have not yet realized a state of full-fledged fascism in the US Paxton demonstrates that movements can approximate fascism and there can be precursors. I suggest that the Christian right's preoccupation with 'moral decline' in America, it's preoccupation with seeing itself as the butt of a war on Christianity (let me know if you want an example), it's culture war against liberals, it's development of a compensatory cult of 'purity', it's mass-based militant nationalism ("America: Love It or Leave It"), it's collaboration with the traditional elites of the Republican Party and many in the corporate and military elites, the gradual but constant abandonment of democratic liberties under the Bush administration, the redemptive violence against abortion doctors and clinics, the goal of internally cleansing "secular humanists" and an external expansion that apparently knows no bounds (see Chalmers Johnson's "The Sorrows of Empire" and "Nemesis"--all of these elements are precursors of American fascism.

Sinclair Lewis is reputed to have said, "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross." I suspect this came pretty close to being an accurate anticipation and if Lewis said it his statement was made in the 1930s.

1 comment:

steven andresen said...

You said that the kooks, pardon my way of characterizing them, have hijacked the word "conservative" and are using it to prettify a movement that should not bear the name. You seem to think that the quasi-conservatives, that I call kooks, are in many ways just fascists.

I think that a lot of this is old news. I am under the impression that political writers have been trying to point out the fascistic characteristics of the conservative movement for a long time. They've done it so much I hear the argument that they are like the boy who cried wolf. The conservatives are really not fascists, we are told, but they are being portrayed as such so much that no one will pay any attention to the change-over if it would ever actually occur.

I don't think that you are saying anything different than what I had tried to say about the "quasi-conservatives" in my original comment. It's hard to indicate any distinctions between different kinds of odd conservative movement. I believe there are differences between the neo-cons and the christian zionists, for example.

I guess, I wonder what the point of pointing these distictions out might be. Do we want to argue that the kooks are beyond the pale and no one should be paying any attention to them? I don't see that kind of strategy getting anyone anywhere. The kooks are still in control of the government, if not 30% of the electorate.

Are we wanting to question the reasoning behind the kook movements? That would be interesting. But, I'm not sure anybody has the will to follow through with any critique of their foundations.

For example, you said in one of your posts about the meaning of conservatism:

"Conservatives recognize that humans are possessed of evil impulses that need to be controlled; they would emphasize the human propensity to selfishness, pride, a will to power, ruthlessness, willfulness, self-indulgence, arrogance and belligerence, as examples of the evil human impulses that require control. Control takes place through an ethical emphasis upon self-control as well as the restraints of traditional moral doctrines and institutions (Ryn, p 3). It is the recognition of these potentialities for evil that made conservatives recommend prudent, moderate social change and mistrust the ‘large speculative schemes’ of human reason that could so easily be a cloak for private ambition and will to power. It is not clear how one can deny this conservative observation; human impulses to power, self interest and self indulgence, ruthlessness, arrogance, pride and belligerence are difficult to deny."

I want to say, the kooks fit right in here if you allow their understanding of the stresses our country has been under. So, in the event of our society being attacked by people bound and determined to destroy it from within, they may rely on their moral doctrines and institutions where they may feel there is real stability, and be willing to jetison as irredemable the mechanisms of democracy, for example, as flawed compromises.

If you seem to have a preference for traditional conservatism, because it preserves a non-fascist state, they may just respond to you by saying that you are living in a dream world where nothing has ever changed. You have not recognized the threats upon our moral doctrines and institutions that democracy makes possible.

I'm sure this was the argument the nazi party guys made to each other and to the German people. They said, you cannot deny the threat to our morality posed by the communists or the jews.

I want to say the reason one should question whether the kooks are really conservatives at all, is because we are interested in knowing just how we must respond to the real problems facing us. Do we go with conservatives, or liberals, or others who have some different take on things? That is, the puzzle isn't so much about how all these people are different amongst themselves, but how we can know who to listen to for guidance about what to do?