Monday, May 19, 2014

What's a Conservative? (Part 1)

My daughter has civics this year in 8th grade, so it's time to explain to her what a conservative is. This is not easy, because conservative-the-noun was launched on a trajectory a half century ago that has shifted it inexorably away from conservative-the-adjective, in much the same way the universe is now believed to be expanding outward from its origins at an ever faster pace, in defiance of gravity, driven by some force not yet understood.

There are many qualities commonly associated with conservatism, e.g. a suspicion of "the collective", a dismissing of root causes, a belief in personal responsibility, a tendency to see black and white where liberals might see grey, but one place to start is with the first two definitions of conservative, as found in Websters' online dictionary.

a : tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions
b : marked by moderation or caution

Now, a present day conservative faced with the first definition of what it means to be conservative--essentially that change is bad--might say that keeping things the same would be fine if things had always been that way. But they haven't. It took a lot of change to reach the present. Since change is bad, past change must be undone. Therefore, the existing conditions and institutions must be dismantled, particularly things like Social Security and the Environmental Protection Agency. This goes not only for governmental institutions but also for nature, as will be explained later on.

How do we undo past change? The second definition of conservative, "marked by moderation or caution", would be fine if the past change was only moderately bad. But this is not the case. The past change is viewed as having been very, very bad, and so, in the words of Barry Goldwater in 1964, "...extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice ... and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." In other words, a conservative cannot be marked by moderation or caution in a world so dangerously changed. This has led to conservative-led government shutdowns and other forms of brinksmanship that are anything but cautious.

Given the grave state of affairs that past change has placed us in, it is therefore impossible for a conservative to be conservative. That conservatives have jettisoned the definition of conservative, but not the label, has led to some confusion. The story of Superman would have been confusing, too, if he shed the coat and tie but kept calling himself Clark Kent while parading around in tights. I know, the analogy doesn't quite work because Superman was trying to protect the status quo, but you get the idea.

As with political institutions, nature too is highly suspect. The sort of conservative prominent today has no interest in saving what nature is or once was, or preserving any of the regulations that might keep it from changing, but instead wishes to consume as much of nature as possible, as fast as possible. If it benefits the economy in the short term, then old forests should be cut down, underground resources should be dug up and consumed, and any limits on the redistribution of chemicals--sometimes called pollution--that happens as a result should be voluntary.

Now, this may seem like a highly unconservative embracing of change, but in fact it is not. The trees in that forest were not there 500 years ago. And the oil, coal, etc. were not underground a few hundred million years ago. 20,000 years ago, glaciers had bulldozed much of the earth. Therefore, to cut the trees down or to dig up the underground fuels is not a change so much as an erasing of past change.

One problem conservatives have faced recently is that the economy in its current form is itself radically changing the planet's climate, i.e. the longer we keep the economy dependent on fuels from underground, the more the climate will change into something no humans have ever witnessed or attempted to adapt to. This is because the atmosphere and the underground are closely related. The more we  dig up fossil carbon, and tinker with the chemistry of the atmosphere by scattering all that extra carbon to the winds through exhaust pipes and chimneys, the more the climate changes. A radically changed climate brings lots of collateral damage--coastal cities destroyed by rising seas, agriculture crippled by extreme droughts and floods, vectors of disease spreading to new areas. We're already getting a taste of how destabilizing this can be--the unprecedented flooding in Colorado and Bosnia, unusually long and deep droughts in Australia, Texas and California, and the extraordinary devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan. This may seem to put conservatives in a bind. Either the economy must change or the planet's climate will.

Some conservatives have responded by denying that this change is even occurring. But others have dropped denial and actively embraced this change, finding that beneath this seeming contradiction is a consistent policy. While the nation must return politically to a previous, unregulated, un-safety-netted state, the climate should be free to return to what it may have been, say, 50 or 100 million years ago. Though the change may prove disruptive, even disastrous, it should not be perceived as change, but as a stripping away of all the accumulated change that has occurred over many millions of years. If coastal populations and all their associated infrastructure have to be shifted to higher ground, this is not change but a return to a time when those coastal communities did not exist.

All this stripping away of past change places conservatives in the role of destabilizing current order. In other words, conservatism has evolved to a point where a conservative most closely resembles the definition of a radical: "a person who advocates thorough or complete political or social reform; a member of a political party or part of a party pursuing such aims." Time will tell if the gravitational pull of conservative-the-adjective can ever overcome the radicalizing forces at work on conservative-the-noun. In the meantime, despite my efforts to explain, my daughter can be forgiven if she remains baffled by the political reality being handed off to her generation.

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