Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Do Conservatives Think You're Stupid?

A particularly inspiring post on democracy and conservatism at Body and Soul. Taking off from this article (by Philip Agre, a UCLA professor.) Agre takes a dim view of conservatism:

Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

Jeanne D'Arc agrees. She adds:

Traditional conservatism is the polar opposite of democracy. It assumes people can't -- or shouldn't -- think for themselves, and that they have to be lead, either by fear or p.r. (or a combination) to accept the natural order in which some people  rule and others are ruled.

What leaves most progressives, even centrists, banging our heads against the walls and mumbling about pharisees and hypocrites is that this is obviously as true of modern conservatism as it has been of conservatism for thousands of years, and yet an astonishing number of people think that the nature of conservatism has changed, and that now it is somehow all about freedom and allowing every individual to achieve everything he or she can.

This is a significant point. The right has been selling itself as the party of self-reliance - of freedom, of indepenbdence for some time now. They do this in the face of the facts - they have never been the party of self-reliance, they have always been the party of protecting the positions of those who have the power and money, now. That has not changed, and indeed, the current administration has dropped a lot of the pretense - they still use the words, but they seem barely able to contain their laughter at the rubes who still think they are a party of anything other than fuck you.

Anyway, Jeanne goes on to note - relevantly in the wake of the disatrous election last fall, with all the gnashing of teeth and searching of souls indulged in by the left, the seeking of positions to abandon and images to create - that copying the tactics of the right - "Where's the money for our p.r. machine? How do we create the mechanism to make our mindless drivel as much a part of the common wisdom as theirs? How do we learn to do this propaganda thing?" - is a losing game:

Which is not an unreasonable reaction, but it's based on the disturbing -- and conservative -- notion that most people are so deeply stupid, or at least so uninterested in the world, that they can only be reached in the dishonest and patronizing ways conservatives have been reaching them.

God help us if that's true, because if it is, we've already lost.

Conservatism thrives on ignorance (which is not, by the way, to say that all, or even most, conservatives are ignorant; if you're one of the elect, conservatism is quite rational). It's not just that conservatives are better at exploiting innate ignorance, but that conservatism itself -- the idea that if we let our superiors make the tough decisions, and generally do what they think is best and in their interest (oh, wait, we're not supposed to think about that) all will be right with the world -- depends on cultivating  lazy habits of mind and a sense of personal ineptness when it comes to understanding the world.

I can't disagree. Under all forms of conservatism, even the libertarian varieties, is that assumption - that people - the mass of people - really can't make rational decisions, so we - who can make rational decisions - must at least make sure that they can't touch us, and at most actively make those decisions for them. And given that pattern, those assumptions - she is right as well, that if we adopt their methods - simplifying the message, trying to argue with sound bites and image, then we will simply play into their hands. That approach assumes the stupidity of the people - and since conservatism shares that assumption, it will benefit from it.

The problem with what she says is that, first - the left has been (and is) perfectly capable of authoritariamism. And has been, often enough in its history, as simple minded and paternalistic as the right. It is probably begging the question to say that leftist authoritarians and paternalists are "really" conservatives - but it's not an approach I would want to abandon. But that is a topic for another day - today - I'm with Jeanne.

The most basic liberal belief is that people can and must challenge what they're told, and figure things out for themselves. And at the heart of that is a faith that ordinary human beings are capable of that action. To me, the best thing about blogs is that they feed that faith. Every day they provide proof that the country is full of people with no power, and no pretensions to expertise, who nevertheless have things to say that trump most of what you hear from those whose job it is to pretend they know what they're talking about.


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