Universal Translator

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The GOP’s Mythic Quest for Purity

Just an open question, throwing it out there for others to ponder, but what is it about the Conservative mindset that drives them to such extremes?  Is it a need for intellectual simplicity, a basic unwillingness to grapple with the complexity of the world around them?  Is it a desire to reduce all issues to a single Manichean moral vision, with a clear distinction always and easily drawn between good/bad, right/wrong?  Is it fundamentally an authoritarian drive, a need to identify an “other, an ideologically impure group” against which they can rally themselves as members of the “true faith”? 

I’ve begun thinking the modern GOP’s radicalism is systemic in nature.  That is, Conservatives seem to think it a virtue to take extremist positions solely for the sake of taking extremist positions.  As George Bush famously said, they “don’t do nuance.”  For modern Conservatives extremism is a feature, not a bug.

And so in the last GOP presidential debate Herman Cain was asked about his recent statement that he would consider negotiating with terrorists if necessary to win back captured American soldiers.  Almost the entirety of the field jumped all over him for this, because as everyone knows “you don’t negotiate with terrorists” – and there cannot possibly be any exceptions to this rule or any extraneous circumstances in which it might not apply.  

And then Ron Paul delighted many of us watching when he asked if that didn’t mean Ronald Reagan was wrong when he sold arms to Iran in part to secure the release of American hostages?  The rest of the field was fairly well gobsmacked as to how to respond.  

More below the fold.

I can’t even remember all of the pledges, oaths and various purity tests the Republican presidential aspirants have been asked to take, swear and submit to.  Off the top of my head:  there must be no new taxes, taxes must be lowered, the Affordable Care Act must be repealed, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell must be reinstated, they must acknowledge that marriage is only between a man and a woman, they must deny the existence of both climate change and evolution, they must commit to building a fence between the United States and Mexico, they must promise to outlaw the imaginary threat of encroaching Sharia Law, and they must acknowledge that black people were better off being kept as slaves.  And there must still be many, many more that I’m missing.  Have they been asked yet to take a stance on The War on Christmas?

In America, economic ideology runs a broad spectrum.  At one end there are extremist radicals like some (some, I said) at the Occupy Wall Street movement who believe that all commerce and the capitalist system itself is inherently unfair and inevitably degrades and humiliates people. 

In the middle you’ve got mainstream liberal economists who believe that capitalism is an extremely powerful engine for creating real wealth and that – properly directed so as to prevent it from becoming rapacious – it can be an amazing boon to society. 

And then at the other extreme end of the spectrum you have “free market fundamentalists” who believe that capitalism and the free market should never, under any circumstances, be regulated in any manner whatsoever.  The GOP and all of its presidential candidates fall squarely in this last radical category.

And, by the way, it was that phrase “free market fundamentalist” that caught my eye this morning.  Normally when one hears the word “fundamentalist” it signifies a religious fundamentalist.  But there, too, modern Conservatives do not disappoint.  Before one can join the ranks of true Conservatives one has to believe that the Bible is literally true and inerrant (even where it makes two mutually exclusive statements), that evolution is “just a theory,” that Israel must occupy Jerusalem in order to bring about the Second Coming of Christ, and that the Rapture is likely to occur in our lifetime (even though the Bible never even mentions the Rapture which, y’know, seems like kind of a big omission). 

There are plenty of truly devout and religious people who don’t believe this claptrap and are capable of considering their religious beliefs in a more nuanced way (there’s that word again!) but not in the modern Conservative movement.  For them, unless you subscribe to the most extreme Christian views (but not the ones involving mercy, forgiveness or charity – never those) you are not entitled to call yourself a “real Christian.”

And on, and on, and on . . . .   Conservatives fret over who is a “real American” and how many have strayed (all the other Americans who don’t agree with them) from the true American way.  They fret over the many ways America has deviated from the perfect purity of vision originally held by our Founding Fathers (y’know, the one involving slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, and prohibiting the direct election of senators).  They lament the “suicide of America” by its society becoming increasingly diversified and – not incidentally – much less white.

But perhaps all these are just varied manifestations of a single something intrinsic in the very idea of Conservatism.  A few years ago Mark Sumner, writing at Daily Kos, put together a provocative essay titled Aliens, Elves and the Politics of Utopia that I highly recommend clicking through to read in its entirety. 

Sumner begins his essay describing the religious festivals held in ancient Babylonia in which the Babylonians’ Creation Myth would be repeated endlessly, year after year.  Sumner sums up this religion as

a fantasy. . . .  I mean that the religion of that great kingdom looked backwards.  It celebrated a time not like the humdrum time of human existence.  The texts were all about a mythic period in which the important events had already occurred.  Human beings were incidental to these events.  They showed up only in the final act of the story . . . .  Everything important had already come to pass before people reached the stage.  The best that humans could do was to remember the acts of these gods, to emulate them, and – through ceremony – to participate in the time that never had been and never ceased to be.

Sumner contrasts that with the religion being created by the captive Israelites, which he describes as science-fiction.

As Thomas Cahill pointed out in The Gift of the Jews, the reason that the Hebrew religion became so much more important than that of other Middle Eastern tribes wasn’t because Noah is a better character than Gilgamesh, it’s because the Hebrew religion wasn’t caught in endless lesser repetition of the good old days.  It wasn’t locked into the past.  It was linear.  It looked, in the words of the venerable prophet Buzz Lightyear, “to infinity and beyond!”

Sumner then argues that the Liberal mindset, which is fundamentally forward looking, is a science-fiction mindset, whereas the Conservative mindset, which celebrates and reveres a mythic past from which we somehow fell (the 1950s and Leave it to Beaver, the perfect original Constitution and our flawless Founding Fathers), is a fantasy mindset.

I can certainly see his point.  And it isn’t like a reverence for a mythic past is anything new.  The Greek poet Hesiod, describing history, recounted a Golden Age that fell to a Silver Age that fell to a Bronze Age that became an Heroic Age that fell, finally, to an Iron Age.  His Ages of Man was, ultimately, a history of our corruption. (The Roman poet Ovid actually managed to make this history worse, inasmuch as he omitted the Heroic Age altogether).

I suppose that for many, throughout all of human history, our lives were always better “back in the good ol’ days.”

And maybe this is what I’ve mistaken for extremism for extremism’s sake.  Maybe it isn’t extremism per se that Conservatives are chasing, but purity.

After all, if one starts with the premise that everything originally begins perfect and uncorrupted and can only degrade over time -- not improve -- then one ineluctably is led to believe that the only way to improve matters is to pare away the corrupting influences that muddied them in the first place.  There is no need to “interpret” the Bible or the Constitution in light of today’s needs . . . today’s needs should be constrained to fit these existing documents.  And there is no need for any new economic research or to listen to anything that this Keynes fellow has to say – Adam Smith already proved that completely unregulated capitalism always serves the greater good. 

Of course Smith actually said no such thing, but Conservatives seem to know as much about Smith as they do about the actual Bible or Constitution:  next to nothing.  But that fits the theory too, of course, because after all what they are chasing is not a pure and perfect past that can ever be recaptured but a pure and perfect fantasy that they created for themselves to believe in.

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I dunno.  As you may be able to tell, these were just some thoughts I was muddling through over morning coffee.  I’d enjoy hearing from someone else with any insight into this topic.

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