Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Should This Man be Our President?

If you’ve never seen a conservative cite the US Constitution to defend somebody else’s human rights, maybe you wonder why. After all, common decency and patriotism seem so clearly to dictate the opposite!

Ronald Reagan called Russell Kirk the “prophet of American conservatism,” and the New York Times said that Kirk’s 1953 book, The Conservative Mind "gave American conservatives an identity and a genealogy and catalyzed the postwar movement.” Bear this in mind when you think about John McSame.

Among his Ten Conservative Principles, Kirk lists (1) belief in an enduring moral order; (2) adherence to custom, convention, and continuity; (3) belief that certain arrangements are proper by virtue of antiquity, such as the right to private property; (4) conviction that a healthy society requires diversity in “orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality;” (5) belief in human imperfectability—not imperfection, but imperfectability; and (6) conviction that private property is the basis of civilization and freedom.

If you want a primer on the intellectual basis for conservatives’ opposition to the constitutional doctrine of equality, start there.

The first three principles establish a devout reverence for things as they’ve always been and explain why conservatives think government must not correct social wrongs, prevent environmental catastrophes, regulate the market, tackle global warming. To conservatives, each of these steps (a) infringes on the rights of private property owners and (b) violates the divinely ordained social order.

Though most of us believe in enduring principles of right and wrong, conservatives see the established moral order in terms of the medieval Great Chain of Being. A (white, male) God sits atop the chain, followed by angels, (white, male) princes and potentates, birds, fish, animals, plants, and so on. (Women and people of color are understood to be in there somewhere under white men.)

Though long discredited by the theory of evolution, the Great Chain remains the perfect conservative metaphor for the “moral ” universe. This helps to explain fundamentalist conservatives’ outright hostility to science–especially to evolution.

Add their extreme devotion to tradition and the conviction that humans are incapable of evolving morally (see Calvin, also Original Sin) and you can see why conservatives believe they are mandated to oppose equality on the grounds that it is both illogical and unnatural.

It gets worse. The next three principles both sanctify social injustices with the claim that because God ordained them forever they are part of a perfect order, and also equate owning private property with being morally superior.

This, too, is derived from Calvin (see “TULIP"). In time, Calvin’s “doctrine of Election” emerged as the ideal justification for capitalism’s worst tendencies. Conservatives reasoned that if God really has damned some and saved others up front, we ought to be able to tell which is which. Well. Obviously wealth is proof of God’s pleasure and poverty is proof of God’s anger. You can hear it preached in any fundamentalist church and many evangelical churches today. (That might explain their popularity.)

On these Calvinist origins, conservatives built a massively self-serving justification for greed, and a determination to blame only the individual for his or her inequality. This heritage explains Republicans’ hostility, despite clear evidence to the contrary, to the fact that some inequities are systemic (say, sexism and racism), and others result from events totally beyond human control (like Katrina or the Great Depression). Regardless of the problem, “individual responsibility” is the conservative’s only answer.

As a result, conservatives not only wish to leave gaping inequities in place. They also feel just fine about making the poor even more miserable. Possibly you've noticed?

Those who believe poverty is a sign both of God’s displeasure and of a person’s individual failings reason that the poor are supposed to be punished. Maybe you can see why there’s no light between George Bush and fundamentalist Christians.

What I’ve written here is shorthand. If I’m not exactly saying that Calvin made Bush screw New Orleans, I am saying that Calvin certainly didn’t inspire him to help out. (See also Naomi Klein’s explanation of extreme capitalism (aka Chicago School economics, "free trade) for more about why Bush watched New Orleans drown--while eating birthday cake with John McCain.)

I’m saying that John Calvin explains why George Bush and John McCain can cheerfully exploit and oppress the poor (and deny veterans decent care and a GI bill) and still claim to be living a “Christian” life. Calvin explains why all conservatives think Roosevelt’s New Deal is accursed no matter how undeniably, phenomenally successful it was at creating and maintaining the world’s most productive and stable middle class. Despite the facts, conservatives still believe that social safety nets (a) interfere in the ordained social order (but airplanes don’t), and (b) undermine our moral character (unlike lying and occupying foreign lands in order to steal their assets).

A nasty, neo-Darwinian view of human relationships has convinced conservatives that cooperation undermines us. Only the richest, meanest, and most selfish of us will survive. (I call this quasi- Ayn Randism "neo-Darwinian" because, as Riane Eisler points out, Darwin never said “fitness” means being a sociopath.) In effect, this makes the richest and meanest SOB the conservative’s ideal Moral Man (and I do mean "man").

There, at a glance, is is the why of conservatives’ holy marriage of corporatism to fascism.

Last but not least, Kirk shows us why conservatism is so closely aligned with Far Right racist organizations; why socially respectable conservatives never angrily repudiate white supremacists; why Fox News and Ann Coulter speak to the conservative soul, and why Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh are just so many John the Baptists to Bush’s Call-me-Jesus. For them, racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia aren’t just matters of political expediency. They go much deeper than the desire to preserve white heterosexual male privilege and sweep elections. This stuff is bred in the conservative bone.

For me, all this exposes conservatives' radical political activism for what it is: an inherently corrosive, endlessly corrupting “end justifies the means” oddly theological war on the US Constitution. It’s plain in Gonzalez’s tactics to deny the vote to the poor and minorities, the GOP’s black-box vote fixes, the lies behind Iraq (the profiteer’s wet dream), our embracing torture and domestic spying despite the law, and all the billions in kickbacks to crony pharmaceuticals, big oil, and Halliburton/KBR.

Conservatism is a big tent, all right.

Certainly not all conservatives are raving white supremacists, but all white supremacists are extreme conservatives. And even though most conservatives might not be aware of their Calvinist intellectual roots, every conservative policy—from tax breaks for the wealthy to privatized prisons to global imperialism and minority oppression—stems from these antiquated ideas. You can hear them, outright and whole, in the megachurches, subtly and in fragments at the Yale School of Business, and vestigally in a backwoods Illinois roadhouse.

Sadly, these beliefs are what they are. Sadly, too, they tell me that Obama-like plans for enlightened bipartisanship are likely doomed. We just aren’t dealing with Eisenhower any more. (PS: Read Jeff Sharlett's The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.)


Morningangel said...

Great blog, Pico, insightful. This is need-to-know stuff, and you've done an awesome job exposing it. This is going up on my blogs-to-read list.


Pamela said...

Pico, you give conservatives way more credit than they deserve. You actually think that these folks even know who Calvin is? The plain and simple truth is that conservatism is EASY. Black and white takes no thought, no discussion, no uncomfortable feelings. Conservatism allows you to keep living the way you want to live, ignoring those who need your help, without feeling badly. It's an escape from the depth and complexity of reality.

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