Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Conservatives Look at "Who" and Liberals Look at "What"

I drive to work everyday past a home that has on its lawn an old army transport vehicle with a sign on the side that says, "Jane Fonda Traitor Bitch." What fascinates me about the truck is not only the holding of a 35 year old grudge -- that in itself is more than a bit odd -- but that after the Pentagon Papers, such a grudge would seem meaningful. To examine it will help illuminate one of the central differences in basic worldview between the left and the right.

George Lakoff contends that political discussion is not merely about policy differences, but about superiority of the lens through which we make sense of the world around us. This is in line with a long tradition in philosophy, including most notably the work of Kant, that contends that there is a necessary contribution by the mind to create the ordered world we experience out of the unordered jumble of perceptions that come in through our eyes and ears. We need organizing principles, an operating system running underneath the programs to make sure everything comes together coherently. Conservatives and liberals, the argument goes, do not merely have different goals or values, but different ways of constructing the world from the facts.

This difference was on display this weekend when TheWife was chatting with some distant older cousins who were defending the practice of forced integration of Native American and Australian Aboriginal communities, especially the children, in the breath immediately after they criticized the Soviets for doing it in their homeland of Lithuania. Angered and exasperated, she later asked how they could be oblivious to their hypocrisy.

The answer is that they are not at all hypocrites, her FoxNews watching relatives simply do not share a foundational presupposition with my liberal wife. She argued that in all of the cases, you have cocksure elites, unquestioningly secure in their belief that they have the one and only true proper way to live, and who contend that those who do not live that way need to be converted and that they will thank us later for the shocks to the testicles it took to show them the light. This is ignorant and wrong. It is rule by the bullies and it is immoral. If they can see when it was wrong when it was done to them, why can't they see it is wrong when it is done by them? The difference, I responded is in where you two are looking -- you are looking at the "what," they are looking at the "who" -- and therein lies one of the major differences between liberals and conservatives.

For conservatives, the game is never in questions; it is only a matter of who is going to win. On the line is absolute power. Control is the goal and in a dog eat dog world, it is either us or them. If you are not for us having all the power, then you are for them. You are with us or with the terrorists. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The game is invariant, it is simply a question of having the combination of the power and the will to win. We have the power, without question, and thus it simply becomes a question of will.

Liberals, on the other hand, see the game itself as that which needs changing. They see conservatives from all sides locked in the international relations equivalent of stupid frat boy games of punching each other more and more viciously to see who will flinch first and they think the whole thing stupid, childish and counterproductive to the real lives of real people, people who are needlessly suffering. It is not a question of winning or losing the game, it is a question of stopping the game and playing something else, something cooperative, a game that will not convey absolute power to any side.

Indeed, the terms conservatives and liberals are the wrong terms to use here. They indicate political left and right, but that's not what is at issue here. What we are really talking about here is authoritarianism vs. anti-authoritarianism. There have been horrible authoritarians on the left and the right. We can point to the same sort of play for absolute power by American neo-conservatives, British colonialists, Augusto Pinochet,... as by those who espouse far left ideologies like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. In the same way, you can hear anti-authoritarian views on the left and the right (Karl Popper is an example from the right). It just so happens that at this place and at this time, contemporary views line up so that nationalism and the justification of authoritarian actions by it are coming from the American political right.

The anti-authoritarian left does something that the authoritarian right cannot make sense of, they broaden the scope of discussion. The left acknowledges that the system is a human construct which we can -- by considerable political effort and at considerable financial cost -- radically overhaul. We can change the sociological factors that help create the society we live in. The right ignores sociology, instead positing only a very naive atomistic psychology of freedom to individuals. This is what is behind the conservative rhetoric of "personal responsibility," it is all about making sure that the focus remains on the individual and that consideration is never given to changing the structure within which the individuals are embedded.

The motivation for this is in part protection of privilege. Those who benefit most from the system surely don't want it changed by those damn do-gooders. But it is most vociferously supported by those who are the most oppressed by the system. Level of education is correlated not only with political affiliation, but also with income. Those who are getting the short end of the stick are the ones defending it. The "Jane Fonda Traitor Bitch" truck is clearly owned by someone of fairly modest means. A small house. An old car in front. Someone who got the shaft from the Bush tax cuts, but thinks that they need to be made permanent. What is up with that? But it's no different from rooting for a winning sports team. How often do you hear fans say, "We won!" as if they had ever set foot on a playing field much less a weight room. By identifying yourself with the winner, you yourself can consider yourself to be a winner. By identifying yourself with the powerful, you can consider yourself powerful, even though you don't actually have any power.

And this is why certain men LOVE the game of absolute power. They have no power, but by portraying it as a fight of good against evil for control of the planet and by putting fish and ribbon shaped stickers on their cars, they can convince themselves that they do, in fact, have the power they lack. To be anti-authoritarian and to try to change the game signals that you are a wimp who doesn't think we can win the game and so wants to pander to the other side instead of giving them what they deserve. It isn't a move of maturity in their eyes, but one of weakness and weakness is the ultimate sin.

Jane Fonda was not trying to get Americans killed, she was not trying to cost us the war-- she was trying to stop the war. But if the one options you consider possible are us winning or them winning and she isn't helping us win, she must therefore be trying to cause us to lose. It isn't the same thing when the we did it and the Soviets did it, because in the one case we did it and in the other case they did it. And if the only cases you allow are for someone to do it, it must be us or them.

The game for them is one of competing gangs of schoolyard bullies. We are opposed to the very act of bullying, an option they won't even put on the table. Look at the way we set up our discourse. Conservatives have Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter -- bullies one and all. Their minions love to be the little yippie dog at their heels thinking they are now pit bulls. Liberals on the other hand prefer NPR and the NewsHour with their balance, if not center right lean, having to endure Cokie Robert's interminable drivel makes us feel as if we have been fair in hearing every side as we hold on to our views.

The question is not liberal versus conservative. To do that we would need to be playing the same game. We first need to answer the authoritarian versus anti-authoritarian question.

Cross-posted at Philosophers Playground

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