"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Ogre On The Right - Political Demonization Of Conservatism And The Erosion Of Liberal Democracy

Anyone who had grown up in the Fifties in a family with Republican allegiances which had to do more with being ‘a good guy’ and ‘one of the fellows’ – a Babbitt hale-fellow-well-met conservatism of the Fifties – than any serious political commitment, would have never questioned the rightness of it all. Politics were never discussed at home, or especially around the dinner table, because in that unwoke time, Americans had simple likes, simple dislikes, and a sense of community. 

If New Brighton espoused traditional, conservative, Eisenhower values, then who were we to question them.  One voted and was done with it.  One tolerated the Finklesteins and the Carlsons for their dissonant views and allowed some acknowledgement for Adlai Stevenson and his political progenitor, Henry Wallace, but such views were always marginalized – not because the burghers of the town had considered them seriously and rejected them, but because dissonant views were always thought disruptive and disassembling.

This is not as Betty Crocker and Norman Rockwell as it seems.  There was a significant resonance to the political unity of the day. Were politics and political philosophy all that important and defining? Hardly.  People in the ‘vast American wasteland’ were working hard for their families, their churches,  and their country, no questions asked.  The power of uniformity.  The coalescing, unifying, satisfying force of conformity.

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This notion of course was considered dumpster trash in the Sixties, the generation of disassembly, love-the-one-you’re with, individualism and free-spirit rejection of all things past; but that errant generation is long gone and the values that have been the foundation and mortar of every human civilization are being reconsidered. Cato the Elder, Roman philosopher and educator, might have been on to something when he constructed his lessons for Rome’s future leaders. 

Honor, courage, respect, duty, and compassion were as important as battlefield strategy, political savvy, and economic judgment.  Cato’s fundamentals – the reasons why Rome defended its territories, went to war, and extended its empire – had less to do with temporal priorities and exigencies, than they did with the nature of civilization per se.  Cato understood – as did Christian and Jewish philosophers after him – that the foundations of society and the civilizations which represent them all have similar, unchangeable principles; and regardless of the political rightness or myopia of imperial decisions, they were based on unchangeable principles. Cato wrote of a singularity of purpose and absolute commitment to moral achievement.

Seneca, Epictetus, and Plutarch as well as Cato were Roman moralists who provided the intellectual and philosophical foundations for the education of the future leaders of the Empire.  All of them stressed respect, honor, discipline, courage, empathy, intellect, and reason.  The young Roman aristocrats might have been born with wealth, breeding, and culture; but without the foundation of a moral education they would weaken; and both they and the empire would suffer. The self-confidence needed to be a Roman leader, these philosophers knew, came from a certainty about moral principles.  Right action would be rewarded and respected.

These moral principles are not relative.  They are as absolute as the Ten Commandments and have guided kings, priests, and common men since the first human settlements.  Men collectively and instinctively knew that given a human nature rooted in survival, venality, greed, aggression, cruelty, and dishonor would be the rule; and therefore evolved a set of principles which, although idealistic and hopeful more than practical, had to be codified if not deified.

Individual rights as envisioned by the Founding Fathers were always protected as long as they were expressed within the context of the interests of the community.  Jefferson was quite specific in his explanation of ‘the pursuit of happiness’.  It was  never meant as a defense of vanity or personal self-worth; but only as a validation of the individual within his larger community.  Jefferson and his colleagues would be appalled by today's promiscuous expression of personal identity and rights attendant.  Community and nation always come first, they averred; and individual enterprise, the engine of social progress, could never overstep social bounds.

Which brings us back to Cato the Elder.  There is such a thing as the body politic, the commonweal, the nation of similar ambitions.  Everyone has issues with American government – high taxes, wars of adventure, social and economic inequality, failing education, and a host of other issues.  Yet few people would condemn the nation and its 300 odd million residents for today’s progressive tar brush of universal racism, authoritarianism, civil abuse, and disregard for justice.   Most people respect and revere the country in which they were born or have chosen to settle.   Few will argue or even quibble with its idealism, avenues to opportunity, or equal rights.

In other words, more than a few Americans believe in the fundamental values and principles of Cato the Elder and the many philosophers who preceded him.  There are such things as absolute moral values, and even a cursory glimpse of history quickly reveals them.   No civilization has been without them.

In all the hysteria surrounding Donald Trump and progressives’ dogged attempts to impeach him, these essential Jeffersonian, Catonian, Biblical principles have not disappeared.  The conservative values of human dignity, personal responsibility, a faith-based morality, and the absolute right of individual expression have not been lost; and despite the Grand Guignol, the latter-day guillotine, Robespierre, and the Terror of the French Revolution, and the witch-hunting trials of Salem, these values have neither been eroded nor lost.

While despite the leadership of the most aggressively conservative President in recent years, it seems as though Jeffersonian liberalism is a thing of the past, the principles of the Enlightenment long forgotten, and the more recent, practical political and economic reforms of Ronald Reagan irrelevant.  Despite the progressive juggernaut of race, gender, and ethnicity; the promotion of the gender spectrum and the rise of transgenderism; and the endorsement of a one-world, idealist, exceptionalist foreign policy, conservative values and political imperatives have not gone away, and in fact are in their re-ascendency.

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There are few outside the coastal political establishment who favor a social reconfiguration of human sexuality.  Most reject the idea of a fungible sexuality, a ‘whatever’ view of human biology.   The whole idea of drag queens, transvestite teachers, cross-dressing, Folsom Street S&M parades, and Bay-to-Breakers gay exhibitionism is foreign, unacceptable, and at best suspect.   Even if one were to dismiss the many Biblical injunctions against homosexuality and intractable endorsement  of a male-female union; and even if one were to disregard Lawrence, Tantrism, the Tao, Ying-Yang, and Lingam-Yoni existential male-female sexual potency; and even it one were to assume that there will always be room for sexual outliers in any community, the progressive idea of an indefinite, indeterminate, sex-in-flux reality cannot possibly be taken for anything but political posturing.

There is an assumption among the progressive Left that Francis Fukuyama notwithstanding (Fukuyama declared quite naively that with the fall of the Soviet Union, the millennia of contentious, bloody era of history would now be over), the end of social history – one characterized by race, gender, religion, and ethnicity – was here.  No longer would anyone in this new progressive idyll ever again look askance at people of color, alternatively sexed men, or anyone of any race or national origin.

What the advocates of this new social idealism ignore is a fundamental principle of human nature – ‘Stick to your own kind’, a persistent, perennial mantra of suspicion of ‘the other’, the outsider, the foreign, and the potentially dangerous. The Others must be suspected until they subscribe to majority norms.  Barack Obama, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice are no longer outsiders but insiders.  The ‘Street’, the venue of bling, machismo, gangs, and gangsta style, lionized as ‘indigenous’ and culturally valid, will always be outside, marginalized and poor.

The ‘woke’ Left has insisted on diversity and inclusivity at the expense of community; but there can be no Republic as Jefferson and his colleagues envisaged it if such divisionist tendencies prevail.  There can be no nation until all subscribe to the same fundamental values – a uniformity of shared principles.  These principles have not changed since the days of Cato the Elder.  Why? Because honesty, respect, courage, compassion, and responsibility with duty to the commonweal are the sine qua non of all supposedly advanced, mature civilizations.

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Ah, say critics, this Utopian vision is ipso facto elitist, white, and sexist – a forced community subscribing to antiquated values.  The real, new world, is configured differently, and the old rules do not apply.

Nonsense, of course, for regardless of how radically configured human society may become, it will always rely on the same unifying, moral principles.

Which is why the universal vilification of the conservative Right, is misguided, divisive, and wrong-headed.  A recollection of the values of the Bible, Christianity, and Western cultural history; a review of philosophers from Sophocles to Sartre; and a re-reading of Shakespeare’s Histories, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky will confirm the authenticity and perennial application of fundamental Western ideas and the correctness of conservatives’ claim to a moral higher ground.

Forget Donald Trump - noise, Sturm und Drang, vaudeville, and circus side show all wrapped up in one, delightfully outrageous, impertinent, and incendiary – and focus on the ground beneath his feet, the beliefs of his base, of Middle America, of conservative America. Although the media have made fun of the traditions that have underlay American society since its inception and disparaged any sense of historical reference, most Americans know that the future does not lie on the gender spectrum, on the Street, or in a vast, multicultural, hodge-podge.  It lies within the diptychs of Cato the Elder, the Federalist Papers of Hamilton,Sophocles and Plato, Kant and Kierkegaard, and the religions of East, West, and in-between.

It is this dismissal of fundamental Western values which have lead to the dismemberment of the Union.  The selfish and self-centered politics of identity have corroded the body politic and have enabled the breakup of a once-whole Republic.  This is not to suggest a return to the ignorant homogeneity of the Fifties, but to endorse the fundamental values of cultural, philosophical, and spiritual homogeneity which has characterized it from its beginning.

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