All Things in Moderation

The purposes of our trip to Oklahoma and Kansas were twofold: 1) take a long-delayed road trip, with the intent of “chilling” a bit; and 2) gather material from and become familiar with Kansas—Manhattan in particular—as a resource for a novel I’m writing in which Manhattan is one of several settings. I did not expect nor plan to explore my prejudices with respect to conservatism, nor did I anticipate I would come to understand (at least part of) the genesis of conservatism and ways in which liberals/progressives might work toward reaching consensus with conservatives.  But I did both. I came face-to-face with my prejudices about conservatives and conservatism and I think I’ve learned how to begin the task of solving social and political problems in bipartisan fashion.

We (I guess I’m using the royal ‘we’) attack the use of pesticides, drilling for oil, corporate farming, planting cash crops instead of food crops, etc., etc. What we fail to understand, I think, is that the people on the receiving end of our criticism perceive our attacks through two lenses: 1) we are attacking them, personally, because of what they do and the way they live; and 2) we offer no suitable alternatives to enable them to live decent lives if they were to sacrifice the livelihoods we so readily condemn. In addition, our non-religious holier-than-thou attitudes are just as ruffling to them as their religious holier-than-thou are ruffling to us. We’re creating the perfect storm for absolute rejection of anything we suggest. Our arrogance is breeding distrust, opposition, and hatred. With our constant barrage of verbal attacks on their intelligence, their decency, and indeed their humanity, why are we surprised that they respond in kind? We have become Pavlovs and they have become the subjects of Pavlovian experiments; we’ve trained conservatives to respond to our every word with venomous responses, regardless of what we’ve said. We’ve trained them to assume that, each time we open our mouths, we are attacking their way of life.

All right, perhaps we’re not the Pavlovs. Perhaps we are the experimental subjects. Maybe we’ve been trained to respond with loathing to every utterance. But does it really matter who is the trainer and who is the trainee? Doesn’t it make sense to shed the automatic biases against every assertion and attempt, instead, to understand a different point of view? I get the impression from both staunch conservatives and resolute liberals that any willingness to even listen to the other side is traitorous. People who fall into either steadfast, unwavering position, in my opinion, admit to their fears that the “other” might be capable—through some magical mental elixir—of brainwashing us to see some semblance of value in the other perspective. And that fear is born of ignorance and intolerance and bigotry. I’m calling both of you out, conservatives and liberals. You’re both guilty of closing your minds so as not to put your precious chauvinism at risk.

Back to my trip and the genesis of my understanding of conservatism. One’s environment plays a central role in one’s attitude about reality and righteousness. If I had grown up on a farm where a good corn or wheat or soybean crop were absolutely requisite to paying my bills, I might be rather protective of the pesticides I had learned were required to produce a good crop. Without them, I probably learned, the crops would not be as productive and could, in fact, fail. If the first inkling I had that pesticides were controversial came from people who said pesticides were causing wildlife to die in alarming numbers and, moreover, the people who use pesticides are personally responsible for the decimation of wildlife and for birth defects, I might get my back up. If, on the heels of those assertions, came accusations that I both knew the consequences of my use of pesticides and ignored them because my motive was unadulterated greed, I might get defensive. If my accusers then claimed I did not care who or what was hurt today or for generations to come by my recklessness, I might get downright angry.

Now, I did not hear these ideas or anything like them on my trip. But as I watched farmers work their fields, I imagined how they must have responded to liberals who attacked their way of life. For most of my life, the approaches I have heard from the left have been confrontational and angry. They assume everyone has heard or read all the information they have heard about pesticides (and the environment in general, militarism, religion, etc., etc., etc.); and anyone who does not share their zeal and enthusiasm for their positions must be willfully stupid, greedy, slow in the head, backward, nasty, monstrous, and deserving of any number of other negative descriptors. I give equal credit to the right, who without giving it a second thought instantly dismiss anything expressed by a liberal as dangerous, treasonous, communistic, and utterly poisonous.

It’s gotten to the point that attempts on either side, liberal or conservative, to engage in reasoned arguments are rebuffed out of hand by the opposition. There’s no room for discussion; both sides have staked their positions; they’ve drawn their lines in the sand and are unwilling to even consider that there’s a shred of truth in the positions taken by their adversaries. I am not writing this to show how I am somehow above this irrationality; I am in the thick of it. All of us who are not actively attempting to reach out to people whose views directly oppose our own are guilty of perpetuating this madness. Leaving aside his positions on anything (if he has any positions that can be nailed down), conservatives’ embrace of Trump is a shining example of where things have gone. Conservatives do not necessarily like Trump, though many say they do. They embrace Trump because he opposes the rest of us, the people who do not embrace conservatism. To use a well-worn phrase, conservatives embrace Trump because “the enemy of mine enemy is my friend.” Liberals do the same thing. We (or at least many of us) cling to every word of liberal mouthpieces like Rachel Maddow, Michael Moore, Bill Maher, et al. For conservatives, when Trump lambastes these same people and all who think like them, he is their friend. And when Maddow and Moore and Maher attack conservative positions, regardless of any irrationality or other annoying characteristics they may bring to the table, they are liberals’ friends.

This is madness. We, the collective we, have manipulated ourselves into positions in which what matters to us is not so much the positions a person takes but the enemies we share. The more common enemies, the closer our bond, regardless of the fact that our positions on specific issues may be diametrically opposed to one another.  While visiting the Eisenhower museum in Abilene, Kansas, I was reminded of many things Eisenhower did, did not do, or stood for that would be rejected by either liberals and conservatives today: the massive Federal spending for the interstate highway system; his negotiated settlement of the Korean war; his failure to get the government out of agriculture; his failure to moderate the Republican Party. Yet his Presidency accomplished something virtually no presidency since has done: he kept the country at peace, albeit a strained peace. Eisenhower, perhaps as well as any other president, worked collaboratively with his supporters and opponents to achieve consensus where it was achievable. His lessons seem to have been lost on both the Republican and the Democratic parties and their adherents. I cannot speak as a conservative to this loss. But as a proud liberal, I am embarrassed that otherwise intelligent people today seem to have lost their ability to see the decency in compromise. Instead, they view compromise as a moral failing; they see consensus-building as abandonment of their core principles. I think that’s true of conservatives, as well; but I can say with some degree of certainty it’s true of many if not most liberals.

I don’t know who started us down the road to condemnatory politics, but if liberals have half a brain they will stop engaging in their Pavlovian reactive rage and will begin to actually listen to their conservative peers. They will try to understand their opponents’ positions and, instead of attacking their premises as nakedly aggressive and uncaring and unprincipled, will try to moderate their own positions in an effort to give conservatives a carrot to moderate theirs.

This has been a socio-political rant.  You may now feel free to go about your lives, provided you attempt to step back from the inflexible positions you (or I) take about all things social and political.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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