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I had students ask me, just last week, to define "liberal" and "conservative," "left" and "right," and "fascist." A student said that she had heard the labels for a long time, and she got them, sort of, but what would be a real definition? Since the place I teach is politically conservative and Christian conservative, I hesitated.

I said, "Historically and literally, conservatives wish to conserve the establishment or, by extension, bring back a lost norm. Liberals, historically, have believed that human happiness can be increased and improved, and human liberty improved, by change. As for the fascists, they were a party in Italy who placed power at the center of their ideology and the concept of the revival of a Roman Republican ideal of virtue. The Nazi Party in Germany was fascist in some ways, but it added in social Darwinism."

I'm always on notice, in a way, since I'm a Suspected Liberal, so I keep that in mind. I wanted them to understand that it's a reasonable toughie: is the best to come through changing things, or is the best already on earth and found by preserving or recreating a past? A couple of faces looked suspicious, but most accepted that my definitions were probably right, if squirmy.

Today's conservatives are not usually conservative at all. They do not seek to conserve or preserve existing laws, but rather to recreate a mythical period of nuclear families and ethnic certainty and prosperity. Today's conservatives are, generally, radicals. When someone stands forth and proclaims an effort to go back to a hypothetical period of free markets without laws that is presumed, on the basis of Locke, to have existed, that person is just as much of a radical as a Marxist proposing to tear up the government to go back to "primitive communism" that is presumed to exist based on observations of American Indians reported in the German periodicals of the 19th century. In other words, there is absolutely nothing "conservative" about Paul Ryan that isn't conservative about Huey Long, and that includes fundamental outlook (more of that after the split).

What's more striking, though, is that we have lost a real conservative type since the "Reagan revolution" in 1980: we have lost the skeptical conservative. I did not bring up to my students the question of outlook on human benevolence, but it's one of the defining elements of the conservative/liberal split. Are humans, by nature, rotten little vermin who will bite the hand that feeds them and the teat that nurses them, or are they essentially benign and only vicious when under duress? Do we need to police against humanity or do we need to liberate it?

Not long ago, we had a diary about David Pogue's technology columns. The diarist contrasted a worker's use of software with Pogue's reviews. Pogue sees software as an artistic and functional matter -- design, in short -- and proles on the front lines have only a close up view of the affectations of a piece of software and how they limit and limn a person's ability to work. Consider the iPad from afar, and it is a total object, a complete design, and an enclosed aesthetic experience. Consider it from up close, where all you have to do all day is enter data into patient records, and you'll find the lack of keys irritating. These are aesthetic statements in the overall project, but they are objects to the worker.

Clouds in the sky, where they belong. A grid put over them as a comment on how analysis of the natural attempts to make the analog bend to the digital.
John Ruskin says somewhere that the problem with beautiful objects is that they're apt to be the most useless things. This happens, of course, because of the repose of beauty and the stasis of observation. The aesthetic almost demands an uninvolved appreciation, and the sublime an involved one. (I'll leave it for other people to draw out the implications for software/computer reviewers.)

I mention Pogue because of his fame and because technology is a fulgurite of the lost conservative. We are all familiar with the dynamic. A new piece of technology gets announced, and we get pre-pre-release reviews of how This Changes Everything. The thing appears, and some people start saying that It Stinks. Then, it turns out, It's Dangerous! If only we hadn't listened to us when we were so amazed by ourselves!

"Skepticism (is) the virtuous mean between two vices: absolute knowledge and absolute ignorance."  -- Odo Marquard, "Skeptics: A Speech of Thanks," in In Defense of the Accidental
The conservative can be motivated by an interest in the status quo or by a resistance to the emergent, and a liberal can be motivated by antipathy to the status quo or by an interest in the emergent order. Similarly, the likelihood of trust in change or human agency for change is tempered by one's beliefs about human nature: do we need to be watched or set free? Do we have the answers deep within, or will we all go wild if set loose?

In the twentieth century, things got a bit. . . strange. Let us take for granted the point of view that humans are naturally untrustworthy: can they then be made trustworthy by systems of control or by technology and science? This has been the liberal split, traditionally. Liberals who took the dark view of humanity could say that greater freedom was possible by carefully designing the least onerous state with the greatest aid (the enlightenment) and by a continual faith that "the proper study of Mankind is Man" (Alexander Pope, Essay on Man).

We invested in very careful modulations of law, and we argued with ourselves over whether to trust the local community or the national one. In the midst of that argument, we opened a gap for opponents. Moreover, we kept believing that it was a) possible, b) likely that experts could guide policy to improve our social policy. However, all of this was dedicated to the belief that things could get better and would get better, that rights would be improved and wrongs addressed.

The conservative movement ceased to be conservative with Goldwater and Reagan. Prior to that, it was genuinely an attempt at protection. It was a far more clear protection of the invisible structures of property, corporate rights, and wealth concentrations than it became (for a while), and it harkened back to gilded age and roaring 20's and the like. It took a basic assumption that things work just fine, that people know best, that there is a benevolence to the family and the neighborhood that will heal any macroeconomic storms.

"When you deal with your brother, be pleasant, but get a witness."  -- Hesiod, Works and Days
In the 1960's, liberalism's triumph allowed conservatives to stereotype and mock. The social worker "tearing families apart," the wronged father denied visitation rights, even the snake pit mental health facilities, all got blamed on the culture of the expert. Education posed its own crisis with Why Johnny Can't Read, but it kept coming back with perpetual answers -- implying, obviously, that the problem was never addressed. (Jonathan Kozol's indictment remains the best, in my opinion, as the ground truth of public education precludes any expert answers at all, of any sort. Additionally, public schools need funding from state legislatures that prefer to not increase funding, and so it is politically necessary for them to report a crisis, even though this plays against their interests at large.) The conservative had a chance to mutate and exploit, but only by abandoning the idea of conserving an existing status quo.
1998, Chapel Hill NC, what a person sees in a front yard: Global Warming = Flood = ?
Ronald Reagan, like Goldwater, trafficked in trollop memories. More than Goldwater, Reagan portrayed an imagistic vision. His speeches had tableaus in them of the "strapping young buck" eating a steak with SNAP money, the "Welfare queen," and his lost America was Nixon's "silent majority" turned into a "moral majority" trapped in a Saturday Evening Post cover that was spread checkerboard over the nation. None of the images he offered were statistically valid or could be addressed with policy, because they were attributes abstracted.

The point of the parables Reagan conservatives told was to gain votes by isolating and putting on trial the belief in experts, on the one hand, and the belief in moderating behavior, on the other. We know that Americans support aid to families, that they support Medicare, that they support the Department of Education, but the Reagan conservative did not actually propose cutting services, only taxes, and she did not speak to a goal of enriching the wealthy, but of granting "freedom" to the individual against the collective. The Reagan conservative never bothered to find out how many people on Welfare had means exceeding the poverty line, or by how much. He did not need to find the woman with fourteen kids in a Cadillac, because that would mean reforming Welfare's procedures to improve it.

In his speeches, Ronald Reagan spoke repeatedly of the good nature of Americans. In fact, this emphasis on the innate goodness of Americans is a cliche in the speeches of today's post-Reagan "conservatives." It is offered as a pander, but it is also a hinge for the argument that government should be destroyed. In fact, Americans are so exceptional in their good nature that Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin have to offer a posteriori definitions, whereby a person is a "real" American only by demonstrating the virtue of agreeing with today's Republican Party.

Reagan, and his rhetorical followers, sought to use caricatures of "the state": Branch Davidians, Ruby Ridge, Elian Gonsales, Terry Schiavo, and play them. "This is what you get when you have too much government," they'll say. They use "political correctness" anecdotes, true or invented, as examples of "liberal control of speech." They're absolutely agog at the "scientists say bumblebees can't fly" canard.

"We are born crying, live complaining, and die disappointed." -- Thomas Fuller
Needless to say, Reagan did not propose retention. This is why it was the "conservative revolution," which would otherwise be called a reactionary movement. He, and the Republicans who have followed in his evangelical footsteps, have used symbols and spoken of half of their plans. Instead of saying, "We want to eliminate pensions," they will say, "We want to give employers greater freedom." Instead of saying that they want to cut you out of the Medicare you've paid for since you started busing tables at 15, they say that they want to "cut taxes" or "lower the debt" that they obviously did not incur, because you never see them spending money on "government." They just spend money on "security" and "safety."

Who has been lost? Well, Everett Dirksen is dead, but so is his party. (He's the one who said, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon it adds up to real money.") The conservatives used to include people who wished to resist change because of a suspicion about human goodness or institutional efficacy.

The most famous case of such a conservative is Jonathan Swift. Swift was a Tory, and yet he said that he did not think that aristocrats were worth much. In Gulliver's Travels (book III), the wide eyed Gulliver goes to the magic mirror and summons ghosts. There he sees the ancestors of famous noble people and finds many that were stable boys and thieves. Swift did not believe that inheritance made humans better. In fact, he seemed to think it made them worse.

He was a conservative because the nobles, having been brought up wealthy, had been to the best schools and had been taught their obligations to the poor and how to behave socially. Compared to the "stock jobbers" who were coming up and getting rich, they were far better rulers, he thought. Their advantages were without merit, but, since they were there, they made them better at the job than social climbers.

The 1940's - 60's conservative was, if not plutocratic, more like this skeptic than today's full believers. Today's Republicans have absolute knowledge. They come at a situation with a belief system rather than an investigation, and thus their answers are repetitive and predictable. (Loss in 2008? "Messaging is the problem." Loss in 2012? "Messaging is the problem, and branding.") Because they begin from a position of belief in a set of assumptions about human nature, government, and history, there can never be a novel answer. Similarly, though, their revolutionary agenda is open ended just as it is hypocritical.

Today's radical "conservative" takes a position for "small government." However, such a person is in government. The Republican politician wants the civil service of the U.S. to disappear, but not the legislatures, executives, or the committees, councils, and arms of these offices. Further, "small government" has no meaning, and so it can never be achieved. "Anti-regulation" cannot be achieved, either, because it has no qualification on it. Do we mean "no regulations that cost productivity" or "no regulations that have no justification in abuses" or "no regulations at all?" Further, the politician will regulate the regulatory capacity of agencies. It's like Louis Gohmert wanting no regulations and inserting a rider to the budget that the President cannot play golf using government vehicles.

We need skeptics. We need conservatives, the real ones. They're horribly annoying and duplicitous at times, but they can check us for enthusiasm. We need someone to say, "Left on their own, people will make mistakes" and "Left on their own, people will do absolutely nothing" as well as people who believe that the revolution is a mouse click away or that the New Jerusalem is due to be landing on top of the state of Idaho in a few years' time.

Originally posted to A Frayed Knot on Wed Mar 20, 2013 at 12:42 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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