Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Conservative Dependence On Absolutism

One of the most striking things I've noticed about conservatism/Republicanism over these past eight years (and, in many senses, the past thirty) is the consistent idea that the entire world is in black and white. Good and evil. There is no room for ambiguity, for debate, for the very idea that something may not be able to be debated in absolutes.

Even something like the Ten Commandments, for instance, something that religious Christian people of all stripes do their very best to adhere to, well, we are supposed to follow those strictures as absolutes. That is what God commanded in the Old Testament, no? And yet today many people who wear their faiths on their sleeves, such as our President, claim to follow such tenets, all while violating them.

"Thou shalt not kill"--except in self-defense, the death penalty, war, and so on. "Thou shalt not bear false witness"--except when deemed necessary by the liars themselves. Just a couple of examples of what you'd call moral relativism, except these are examples that don't apply to the party frequently accused of being the moral relativists: liberals. Instead, they apply to conservatives, who commit such acts with impunity, all while pointing fingers at us liberals, accusing us of being moral relativists.

I will not claim to be a member of a perfect political philosophy. Such claims are best left to the few remaining Communists in the world who have yet to see that their dogma long ago died. I will not claim that liberals are perfect people. If anything, we are too charitable in describing our flaws, but at least we are open about what is wrong with us. Getting a conservative to admit wrongdoing, even in situations where the evidence clearly demonstrates that wrongdoing occurred, is a battle of titanic proportions. It comes from a disease of always thinking one is right.

I won't claim that liberals have all the solutions, but after eight years of self-described conservatives running our government, after six years of complete Republican control of our government, from the Supreme Court to Congress to the White House, I can say that conservatives don't have the solutions. Six years of complete power, and we've managed to spend over half a trillion dollars on Iraq, watch gas prices go up 300%, witness our dollar sink below that of the Canadian dollar (a true low), see our infrastructure crumble, our worldwide respect decline, our allies abandon us, and our number one enemy still remains at large. We went from a budget surplus to a massive deficit, and the President continues to enable such deficits by refusing to adjust taxes on those who could afford to pay more and should be paying more, such as the oil companies, who are making record profits and get tax breaks all while reaping the benefits of $4/gallon gasoline.

Tell me, could we possible be any more screwed up than this? How can someone argue that conservative governance is better for this nation when six years of it produced these results? The best backing for an argument is results, and these results do not in any way back the argument.

Despite all this evidence to the contrary, conservatives today are still following the line of absolutism. Liberals are evil people who want to destroy your "values" (as if somehow liberals are completely without values...even if one were to buy the conservative argument on values, liberals would still have, in a literal sense, values, even if they weren't the "right" ones). Muslims are evil people who want to destroy America and its Christian heritage. The government should absolutely be able to spy on you with impunity, because that's the only thing that keeps us safe, and requiring any checks on that system puts us in harm's way. We must continue in Iraq, because that's where the bad guys are, and anyone who says otherwise is putting us in danger.

I could go on all day listing these arguments, but I believe that the point has already been made. It was crystallized by Bush's line right after the 9/11 attacks, when he said, "If you're not with us, then you are against us." You know who was the last leader to take such an absolutist stand? Kaiser Wilheim II, better known as the king of Germany in World War I. He uttered such a line in the war's prologue, in almost the exact words that Bush used (See Barbara Tuchman's excellent history, The Guns of August, for the quote). Is that the leader that the president wanted to emulate? The Kaiser lost that war, because he, too, took his eyes off the prize of France and Britain and poked America with a sharp stick, to his everlasting regret, much in the way that Bush stopped focusing on Afghanistan to go after Iraq, and neither is a success now.

Liberalism does have a downside, and that is we can sometimes argue something to death, but I'd rather have a good debate on an issue than just pull a gun from a holster and aim at the nearest perceived threat and start shooting on the premise that the target might be a danger, and that's good enough reason to attack. If they might attack us, then they are a danger, they are evil, they must be stopped, goes the conservative philosophy.

One great example of this philosophical battle is over the Israelis and the Palestinians. The conservative argument has consistently been that the Israelis are good and the Palestinians evil, even though the Israelis have been far from perfect in their handling of matters with the Palestinians. Liberals such as President Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin (a former hardliner), Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak all tried to make peace with the Palestinians. Conservatives such as Benjamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon and President Bush kept the issue at arm's length and did very little, because in the black and white of their world, Yasser Arafat was evil, they were good, and good doesn't negotiate with evil, no matter what.

Now, a fair reading of the history of that region demonstrates that the Palestinians were just as much victim as the Israelis, and neither side wanted to compromise, much as the United Nations tried to do throughout 1946-1948, and the Israelis won, and in the absolutist view, the Palestinians became evil for attacking Israel, and Israel was the good guys, valiantly holding out against the evil Arabs. It's not quite that simple, and it never has been, but conservatives argue in simplistic terms, for reasons that are beyond my comprehension.

There are many more areas where this tendency extends itself out to, such as science, education, and sexual matters. I could write a whole series of posts if I were so inclined, but I feel that the subject matter has already been covered in sufficient detail as to render a rehashing unnecessary. Suffice it to say that in science, creationism=good and evolution=bad, global warming=lies and continuing with the status quo=good. In education, teaching diversity and tolerance=bad and teaching 1950's values=good, and in sexual matters, abstinence=good and any sex education that might actually educate someone in what to do if they decide to have sex=bad.

The world is what it is, not what we wish it to be, and if conservative wishes were ponies, America would be one gigantic stable of them. We do not have the ability to change human nature, we do not have the power to make all things as we wish, and we are unable to bend reality to suit our outlook on life. We can make changes, but all changes are gradual, and gradual steps are not based in absolutism. They are based on the idea that there are gray areas, that there is more than just black and white, good and evil, etc. in the byplay of our daily lives.

Absolutism, much as conservatives glorify it, is a whimsical fantasy in life. Saying it doesn't make it true, and the practice of it proved far harder for them to do than it was for them to say it. Conservatives delighted in their power, and were corrupted by it, and spoke in absolutes about the sheer evil of a Saddam Hussein while being complicit in their own dirty activities. They speak of the horror of a Taliban society, all while pushing their own version of a Taliban society upon us. They call us liberals evil and treasonous for daring to say that maybe, just maybe, our government and our nation aren't perfect, despite all evidence to the contracy. They have, in short, talked a great game while occasionally practicing what they preach, but they ultimately fail their own test, and they do so because absolutism is, again, a complete and utter fantasy.

There are a couple of absolutes in life. We will be born, we will die, and we will be judged by the Lord upon our deaths. Those are the only absolutes we can rely on, and the rest is gray areas, to be debated and worked out according to the greater good of the people whom those areas affect. The notion that absolutism stretches so much farther than this, that it can be a governing philosophy for a major political party, is as empty as many of those who push it as a model for good governance. It is the hallmark of failure.


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