The arc of Am politics – conservatism

Just today a gentleman was on Book TV talking about the origins of the terms left and right, liberal and conservative, progressive, etc. Let me add my two cents as to what real conservatism would look like.

The first thing we have to do is step back from self-interest. Keeping things the way they are, i.e. defending the status quo, is often considered the hallmark of conservatism. I disagree; that’s just self-interest. Seldom do you see anyone who is getting screwed by the system defend the system. One exception: I remember meeting a fiercely libertarian guy in about 1965 who had emigrated from Lagos, Nigeria. He was very poor, living as a Black man in 60s America, and literally had no place to live. But he rejected government involvement in his life. How did he get by? If he got sick, he begged doctors for care and usually got it, according to him.

We might consider him a true conservative when it comes to a libertarian view – he thought drugs were OK but government medical care was not OK. And he stuck to his guns as far as I knew (I only had one conversaton with him and never saw him again). But that is the problem I alluded to above, the self-interest angle; most conservatives act not out of principle but out of self-interest. So let’s divest ourselves of those folks and look at what might be a true conservative agenda.

Hillary Clinton was derided by the right for titling her book It Takes a Village by means of a bumper sticker saying “it takes a family to raise a child”. Their idea clearly was that Hillary Clinton was arguing for government as the village. So let’s see what the conservatives mean when they say it takes a family.

Their vision is of a lone farm house on the prairie where success is assured by hard work. Dad is a bit of a cowboy, but he cannot be a real cowboy b/c cowboys are loners and absent fathers and husbands and he must build a strong family to be a real conservative. He acquired his land through a government program of land giveaways ——— OOPS!!! where’d that come from? Dad receives government support and bank loans guaranteed by the government to buy supplies to farm every year.

Mom has children depending on how often dad wants to “do it”; she has no control over that b/c they are also very religious and sex is pretty much the man’s business and not discussed since it is part of that nasty business God cursed us with, etc. This part is really hard to figure out, at least for me. The reality of an isolated life is that mom’s delicate plumbing won’t get maintainance and so she may die early enough that dad has to remarry, complicating this ideal American Christian family. Who gets the farm when dad dies?

Complications are not dealt with well by conservatives b/c their vision depends on black and white, concise rules followed by everyone with punishment available for anyone straying. Religion and lynch mobs take care of that part. One reason a lot of people flee to the cities is that besides being isolated and boring and hard, farm life is highly restrictive. Not that there cannot be strange goings-on on farms, but these things get out and ruin one’s social reputation.

Unless one is in control. Control comes through wealth and wealthy people, back when most people lived on farms and farm-dependent small towns, owned land. Acquiring more land was not just through purchase but through manipulation of the courts and the banks. Don’t forget, the courts are part of the government, but conservatives who are not real conservatives don’t mind using the courts and other facets of the government to their own benefit.

One story about how wealth can bring a degree of independence was told to me by my father-in-law. In the small Texas town he lived in, the man on the hill, the town’s rich man and boss, owned a nice car. Naturally, he had a Black chauffeur. He also had a pretty young White wife. One day a man came running from the town to the great house to tell the great man, “Your wife is riding around town in your car sitting up under that nigger with his arm around her!” The great man replied, “That’s my wife and my nigger and it’s none of your damned business!” Hmmmm. I wonder what was going on there, but no one in town had the nerve to criticize or their livelihood would go down the drain.

BTW, you might laugh at my specification that the great man’s wife was White, but my father-in-law told another story of a big-time White farmer who hired them and followed the highly unusual custom of sitting down to lunch with his Black field hands. They all wondered at this until someone revealed he had a Black wife and family up in Oklahoma. This was all in the 20s and 30s in East Texas.

Now that I have done my bit to pick apart the conservative image of an ideal rural America based on shared values, let us look at what a real conservative landscape might look like.

First of all, people would live in groups. Man is social and it is impossible to find people living isolated cowboy lives in any numbers for any length of time outside of special circumstances like cattle drives or military forays or peripatetic monks or wandering scholars. Buddhism’s monks live in the sangha, Christianity’s monks live in monasteries, Judaism’s rabbis are family men; the hermits and the stylites are rare – even Simeon stayed on top of his pillar only 37 years.

Families would abound in a conservative environment, but discerning the form of the family could be tricky. In some families, women are isolated from men as far as possible. In some constellations, children tend to spend most of their time in age-graded ranks, to the extent of living in their own sub-communities. Most of the time, poverty prevents too much isolation within family groups and, in fact, most people in the history of mankind have lived in extended family groups. Not long before I started studying anthropology, it was almost synonymous with the study of kinship systems.

How are these families formed? In most societies at most times, marriages are family alliances. In the desperate loneliness of the prairie, the first train smokin’ is the one you hitch yourself to. In most cases, some choice is exercised if there are enough to choose from. The free market in sex and mates scares the bejeezus out of most people in the world, but young people find it incredibly enticing. Not only do you get to pick your mate, but you get to try out various ones to the extent you wish.

Somewhere along the way, most parents wish to have a little control over their darlings, even if it is no more than raising them with values and a strong self-concept. Many people do not trust that and prefer religious prohibitions. Those don’t work b/c religion is one of the first things people throw overboard in the anonimity of the big city.

And that is one thing, among many, that draws us to live in ever larger aggregation, cutting ties. We love family but families tell us what to do. We love community, but communities force reputations on us. Religion comforts but sets limits on us. And so forth. Anonymous cities allow us to get rid of all that plus give us choice, lots of choice. Just look at the reaction of visitors from home at our new diets; they are amazed and even horrified at the arugula and endive in place of fat back and gravy.

In the final analysis, families in a conservative community will screen our prospective mates. Many variations on the theme exist but it is not a free-for-all, standards apply and those are the standards of the family and community. This may be one of the hurdles hardest to jump over. Those little weenies find their way into those little vajayjays no matter what.

Once we have the family started we have to support it. Never having read Marx, I am reluctant to endorse his view that economics determines everything but I do believe that it does. No principle will withstand the need of people to feed and shelter their families. I remember a nuclear scientist being interviewed; he had been raised in a traditional Navaho community in immense poverty. He described seeing his little sister die of exposure on a mountainside. We will do anything to stop that from happening. We need food, shelter, clothing, health care, even recreations and we must have work to support all that.

In the distant past, we were hunters and gatherers. I follow a diet based on that in the belief that our biological selves were formed in pre-agricultural times and the food cultivated after that, from grasses like wheat to marbled meat, cannot be handled by the body evolved in pre-agricultural conditions. Our health has suffered from a less active life and cultivated food diet. Even now people in blue zones get far more exercise than most people and eat a different diet, albeit one with plenty of cultivated grains and grasses.

Living in a large, complex society does not afford us the luxury of working outdoors around our own homes…. yet. The number of people working from home via electronic communications grows daily and may offer an opportunity to live more like our ancestors but without the agricultural effort. Not only has the breadwinners’ interaction been cut down tremendously due to out-of-home work schedules, but children now have to be taught the ways of their society in a school setting distant from and distinct from their home.

What effect has that had? It is hard to say since only recently have children stopped learning their life ways at home working next to their parents. An Ojibway said the tribe had had to make a decision: learning to survive the Canadian winter was a full-time participant education and could not accomodate a school schedule, so they chose school. Just how much can a child learn being at home with parents? Child care? Home maintainance? Financial management? Compared to what they can learn at school, that’s minimal.

To do well or even moderately well in this modern economy, the child’s education must start very young. Thus the approval of the disastrous No Child Left Behind effort. If by third grade your child has not “mastered” certain skills, he is doomed to a life of penury. What people forget is that in a complex society, there are many paths and many niches. The ambitious and aware can find a way to do OK. The not-so-ambitious and the not-so-aware will get swallowed up, but they always did. Remember the serfs and the slaves? There have always been people who figured out how to make whatever system they found themselves in work for them.

But how many of us fall into that category? Rasputin was born a peasant and rose to the shadowy halls of power over an empire. How many of us could pull that one off? Napoleon was an outsider, a Corsican, as was Hitler, an Austrian. Stalin was a Georgian. They rose to the heights of power through means most of us would not want to deal in. Perhaps someone can give examples of great persons without the immense flaws of these monsters who brought death and agony to millions, but my point would be the same: we must recognize ourselves in those millions and now billions of lives of quiet desperation.

The key is to find a way that the vast majority can lead decent lives, the greatest good for the greatest number. Utopian idealism is deadly. Greed and corruption bring disaster to everyone. Think of the Latin-American oligarchs whose children must be escorted to school and who cannot have a family get-together without armed guards patrolling the premises. Do we want to live that way?

Balance, moderation, The Middle Way, equilibrium, the vital Center (from Wikipedia, Arthur Schlesinger’s writing: The argument runs as following: modern man has been detached from his moorings by capitalism and technology, and searches for a new solidarity and finds this in Communism. However, Communism has in reality been a totalitarian military dictatorship run by the Communist Party since Lenin ’revised’ Marxism to become absolutist[disambiguation needed]. Instead of supporting this totalitarian road, a strong and interventionist liberalism is needed, New Deal-style, in the tradition of American leadership in the liberal world order and of the national reforms of Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt. This would be practical, anti-utopian, and would “restore the balance between individual and community”.[1]

FDR was still president when I was born. Nevertheless, many born that same year do not follow this liberal prescription for what ails us. So I do think it is a choice we make. No guarantees but there are limits on how low one can sink, speaking in general rather than individual terms. By implication, there are also limits on how high one can rise. Here personality intervenes: there are those who either want to rule or to be dead, they will settle for no less. Atrocities are excused if they are in the defense of becoming mighty. The plantation owner was right in brutalizing his slaves and overseers b/c it permitted him to found a university with his ill-gotten gains. The answer to the moral dilemma is simple, we define the gains as not ill-gotten, well-gotten? Not illegitimate. At the moment, maybe it’s pretty ugly, but Steve Forbes can use the family money gained in the drug trade and stay honorable b/c it all happened 160 years ago and in China. Nevermind the millions of lives wasted, some of who might have found a better way than Communism to lead China out of poverty and humiliation.

The current (2010) political situation in the U.S. is unsettled. Someone uttered my thoughts recently, that the times are ripening for a third party effort. The Tea Party movement reflects a great deal of unrest and dissatisfaction. I am entirely unsympathetic to it b/c it relies on a distorted view of a nostalgic past, with no slight tinge of racist attitudes toward Obama. Nevertheless, these misgivings must be addressed. Let’s look at this writing in 5 or 6 years and see how things have worked out. If Obama has succeeded, it’ll be fun to look back on the stupid things said. If he cannot pull it together, let’s reflect on what happened, b/c I don’t think the Republicans can pull it together either.

Will a new third party be conservative? If so, will it be conservative in the way I’ve described? How will it deal with the family, with settlement patterns such as urban sprawl, with economics……. and we haven’t touched education, the environment, the military, etc. More on those anon.

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