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Posted by gustav at 01:01PM, Monday, December 01st, 2003

The roots of political division?

My new theory about people and their world-views, in which I think name-calling is very useful.

The other night I had an idea that I think may explain the central difference between conservatives and liberals. Liberals are called bleeding heart for a reason: we have the ability and inclination to empathise with our fellows. Conservatives find that very concept repulsive. I think it's because their core value is building up barriers to separate themselves from the rest of the world. Those barriers can take any form: mental; intellectual; physical walls (putting people in prisons); financial; religious; or political party-based. Conservatives are obsessed with the idea of otherness -- but only as a negative. I think liberals are drawn to and fascinated by the Other -- archetypal ideas of it and their worldly incarnations -- and seek it, try to connect with it, through any means available. Conservatives utterly lack the ability to understand that, and they abhor anything that might help them understand the Other -- anything, like drug use, that helps people break down the barriers of self. They're terrified of having their world-views challenged or altered (altared?). Us liberals like to dissolve the mental barriers that separate us from all sorts of things: we like looking at the beauty of the natural world; we're puzzled and inquisitive about why other people seem to act so differently from us; we're excited by experiencing elements of new and foreign cultures. We're called liberal not so much because we give away material possessions (I certainly have few to spare in this economy), as because we freely extend our thoughts and attempts at understanding to practically everything we encounter. We're interested in sharing not so much money, or just more abstract material possessions like national parks, but also in sharing ideas and information. We call conservatives close-minded because we can't understand why they don't find those things as appealing as we do.

I don't think this is a world-shattering revelation. It's more a way of connecting a lot of memes that float around. I'm all in favor of grand unified theories, social and otherwise, that help me understand how the world operates. I find the behavior of lots of people utterly baffling, and conservatism is one thing with which I've always had trouble empathising. I'm not going to claim I know why there's this core difference, but I do think it explains and connects a whole lot of otherwise random stuff. It's why we tend to think of conservatives as rigid, and why they tend to think of liberals as loose, among other things.

A deeper question, for me, is why so many prominent conservatives seem to be such hypocrites. I'm not naive enough to claim that hypocrisy is the sole property of those the "public" deems to be on the right. Clinton certainly had his share of it when he was signing the Defense of Marriage Act whilst diddling interns -- then again, I wouldn't exactly call him a leftist by any means, and I'd characterise that particular piece of legislation as reactionary and woefully protectionist. I do see a lot of whoppers, produced by the right, out there in public view right now. Rush Limbaugh's latest bought of hypocrisy can be effectively explained by the barrier-notion, I think: he can criticize others for doing drugs and "whining" about addiction and class-, political-, or social-victimization as long as they're poor, or hippies, or black or brown, or leftist. Those are all ways he can separate them from himself. He may not even see his own hypocrisy when he suddenly claims political victimhood and addiction as excuses, because, after all, he's so entirely different from the people he was ranting about on his radio show -- different enough that anybody can see there's no parallel, or so he thinks. The Bush II administration seems to go further, though. It's not as easy to claim separateness as an explanation for, for example, believing in states' rights when the issue at hand is environmental regulations but suddenly needing a national constitutional amendment when one state looks like it may deem straights-only marriage in violation of its own constitution. There's certainly a tremendous incidence of double standards: picture the administration howling about the Geneva Convention when Iraqi media show photos of U.S. soldiers, and then, days later, proudly parading Iraqi POWs to every TV station that would take pictures (never mind the flagrant violations of Guantanamo Bay). But they're so pervasive amongst many on the right that I start to wonder whether it can purely be explained by conservatives thinking they're so different, that a wholly different set of rules applies to them. They can't possibly share the same rules of conduct, be held to the same standards of decency and public scrutiny as anyone so different -- anybody not white, straight, male, old, healthy, and rich.

Maybe those barriers of separation are so extremely rigid that they permeate one's every waking thought, so that conservatives become unable to understand how we on the "left" can possibly empathise with people different from ourselves, and then don't see the irony when conservative pundits appropriate liberal terms like "hate speech" and use them to stifle dissent and debate. Maybe they just don't see the contradiction when they use "hate speech" to describe liberals objecting to, for instance, George Bush declaring the anniversary of Matthew Shepherd's brutal, bigoted, deadly gay-bashing "Marriage Protection Week," when what we originally meant by "hate speech" was the kind of angry, obtuse-to-facts rants about homosexuality being bad for families and bad for religions, with its undertones suggesting that doing violence to such people must really be for the good, that Bush constantly spouts and that influences kids like Shepherd's murderers to be so terrified of a slender barely-over five-foot-tall guy breaking down barriers of what these sheltered men consider sexual normalcy that they feel they have to kill him. What we mean by hate speech is speech that encourages people to kill Others -- gays, blacks, women, children, transsexuals, Arabs, etc. What they mean by hate speech seems to be "dissent" -- questioning authority or disagreeing with "dominant" ideas; the kinds of freedoms upon which this great country was founded. I don't think they see the difference.

Dialogues on these issues tend to get caught up in dogma and descend to unhelpful name-calling (coming up next: a helpful definition of fascism). One reason there seems to be no prominent debate in this country about the relative worth of liberal and conservative philosophies is that people falling into these two camps have different notions of the nature of debate. Many conservatives like to reduce debates to one or two notionally simple points, relevant or not; for example, the refrain from Fox News during the largest mass demonstrations in world history, those preceding Bush's war on Iraq, was that anti-war equals anti-American. It's pointless to delve into why conservatives choose to label as unpatriotic anyone exercising the historically American, Constitutionally-protected right to dissent. But the reaction from the dissenters illustrates the nature of the difference. Rather than hammering our own simple, easily-digestible sound bite (War is murder, which makes everyone calling for it a murderer!), we on the left, with our predisposition to embrace pluralism and varying points of view, tended to assume, I think unfortunately, that what the ideologues on the right were after was actual nuanced debate. The result was no debate, because, really, what the right wanted was simply streets washed clean of any opposing viewpoints. Why, after all, bother with debating ideas, when a simple Reinigung will suffice?

We liberals think that everyone, like us, wants to share ideas and insights, and will treat our insights with respect, as carefully constructed thoughts emanating from reasoned, sentient beings. Carefully dissociating oneself from others -- not necessarily those around you, your peers, but from the masses unlike you, the ones you don't see every day, by conscious choice or not -- is pretending that other viewpoints than yours are not the product of sentience and reason. It's a nationalistic world-view; the sort of thing we liberals decry, and, therefore, are less apt to engage in. We want to engage Bush on fine points such as facts, figures, and constitutional law; he simply wants to deport us, or otherwise remove us from view -- his and everyone's. Thus we end up with Guantanamo Bay and the doubletalk "free speech zones."

These notions also extend to our relative conceptions of Progress. Leftists envision utopias where everyone is an intellectual, if that's her cup of tea; otherwise they're free to farm, or race boats, or build furniture or search for life in outer space; at any rate, they all have the free time to pursue hobbies and interests and passions, without the government interfering in anything that doesn't do people irreparable harm. Rightists envision a jackbooted nation with no hippies in it, no one to the left of W. Thus, they spout telling mantras such as "America: love it or leave it." Leaving it may have been an option in Colonial times, but it's less practical advice now, on our crowded planet. These hominems also reflect a mistaken belief that people who think America could be better than it is don't love it. This is one of the biggest points of hypocrisy in conservative thought, and perhaps the origin of the label itself, which refers to fear of change. Conservatives, on one level, don't believe change is necessary for improvement. On the other hand, they're constantly calling for changes -- laws to ban gay sex and marriage; laws to put "criminals" away for longer times; laws to reduce privacy and erode constitutional liberties; laws to move powers from congress to the executive branch. It's hard to see how these changes are any less than the changes the left would like. Perhaps the difference is that the rightist idea of change only encompasses change to which they object. They can't imagine other kinds, or, perhaps, simply don't think silencing other viewpoints is change, so much as the "natural" order of things -- their own utopian vision.

Am I being hypocritical by making such broad assessments of whole groups of people? Perhaps; on the other hand, it's hard to debate if the rules are different for each side, and objectifying -- dehumanizing -- huge numbers of living, thinking, individual people, accurately or not, is what conservatives do best in our pop culture. Conservatives are the first to do it, and the first to scream when it's done to them. Part of aging, maturing, and learning for me is trying to lessen the Ego; but that process of letting conflict flow away becomes most difficult upon seeing oppression and pain inflicted up close. It's frighteningly easy to dismiss such suffering as nonexistent when you make sure you never see it. Minorities, and those who "only connect" to underclasses of any sort, don't have that luxury. With political debate in this country reduced to nationalist cries of "not a patriot!," and Orwell looking increasingly accurate aside from the matter of two decades, I worry for the future of a land that was once the freest on Earth. It's important for those of us who would reject nationalism and fascism to stand up for what rights we still have, embrace labels like liberal, humanist, and socialist, point out what those labels really mean, and return this country to the service of Us, The People.

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