Thursday, February 01, 2007

Outdated political definitions: conservatives and liberals unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains

There was an argument--that is to say, a lively discussion--in Tuesday's comments section in the "Cold hubris" post. The subject was political definitions, such as "conservative" and "Left."

It started about here, and went on--and on and on. Read it if you want some background to the sort of confusion that can reign when trying to pin down what are in some ways outdated and poorly defined political concepts and categories.

I use these terms--liberal, conservative, Right, Left--myself, because they are in such common parlance, but I agree they are misleading. None of these groups are unitary by any means (and hey, whatever happened to that good old epithet from my youth--"reactionary?") "Fascist" is another one that has come to mean, simply, "bad person trying to do something I don't like."

Redefining these terms, or trying to come up with new ones, is a huge undertaking, one I'm not about to tackle this moment.

Besides, plenty of people have done it before me. One of them was Steven Den Beste. Here is his attempt at a comprehensive reordering of the political grid, and here is a description of his own political leanings (he's conservative because he's a liberal--read it and it will make sense. And, for those of you unfamiliar with Den Beste, he was one of the best bloggers ever; my paean to him can be found here.)

What I'd like to focus on now is the commonly offered definition of "conservative" as "one who seeks to preserve the status quo." This definition is wholly inadequate for today's conservatives, and actually leads to quite preposterous results, as stated here by the commenter "a guy in pajamas":

Hmmm.... So every administration is conservative, because they try to preserve their own power. I.e., those in power are always conservative. E.g., Clinton was progressive when elected, but conservative afterwards. Hmmm... methinks this is a simplistic definition of 'conservative.'

Another example: Hitler was progressive when he was trying to change the status quo of the Weimar Republic, but then became conservative when he actually held power and tried to maintain it.

It seems like a joke of sorts--or a meaningless semantic exercise in which a political term "conservative," which was originally derived from the word "conserve," has become defined as almost identical to it, which it most certainly is not.

And, lest you think "guy in pajamas" is setting up a straw man--au contraire. In fact, this is the very definition used by the authors of the seminal study of conservatism cited in the Psychology Today article you've heard so much about, the Jost study (the other part of their definition of conservative was "tolerant of inequality"--and don't get me started on that).

Guy in pajamas is merely paraphrasing Jost, et. al, who actually do state that Stalin was originally a figure on the Left but arguably became a figure on the right because he wanted to preserve the Soviet system. Now, just let that sink in: Stalin was a conservative for supporting an entrenched Communist regime--the important word here being "entrenched."

I think we can all agree--I fervently hope we can all agree--that this is an absurdity. But it's an absurdity into which many fall, because the original definition of "conservative" on which it's based is incorrect.

Oh, it may have once been correct in a certain limited set of circumstances. For instance, way back when powerful monarchs were in vogue, those looking to preserve that status quo against those wanting to limit the divine right of sovereigns would have been called "conservative" at the time. But time marches on--even for conservatives--and those olden-day conservatives have virtually nothing in common with most conservatives of today who tend to believe (note that word "tend;" there are always exceptions) in less central government, not more; and in the importance of individual rights and liberties. Just those things those old liberals were fighting for.

After all, libertarians today are conservatives, and they are fairly radical (as in, "extreme," not "Leftist"--see the quicksand that looms everywhere, waiting to trap us when we try to use these words?) in the changes they advocate. And, of course, no one could accuse neocons of wanting to do business as usual in the international sphere--leave that to the realpolitikers, who now seem to include most of the formerly radical Left. Go figure.

And don't liberals want to return to--or conserve--many aspects of the glory days of the 60s, or the Clinton administration?

Oh yes, but neocons are "conservative" because they champion the spread of old-fashioned pre-modern (is that the opposite of post-modern?) ideas such as liberty and justice for all (that's in the Pledge of Allegiance, so it must be conservative, right?) But didn't liberals used to do that, at least in theory? Once again, you can twist these definitions almost infinitely to try to fit them into a framework where they just don't make much sense without the gyrations. Which means they're not all that helpful.

But they are the only words we have at the moment to use, and they at least have some common meaning that we all think we understand. I strongly urge you to read that Den Beste essay in which he suggests some different ways of ordering things. He's got quite a few dimensions, such as conservative/revolutionary, liberal/autocrat-elitist, realism/idealism, tolerant/conformist/, capitalist/socialist, individual/group, and opportunity/result (yeah, I know, too complicated--it will never replace the old liberal/conservative).

Here's an excerpt:

This is where Michael [Totten]'s argument, based on a single axis, breaks down. The people he refers to as "liberals" aren't liberal. For lack of a better term, we'll have to call them "leftists" for the moment. The vocal leftist movement which has been revealed in the last year in the US manifests as being elitist (i.e. not liberal), idealistic (not realistic) and conformist (not tolerant). There's a lesser dedication to equality (over inequality) but it's not totally consistent because it is a side effect of a basic choice of groups over individuals and to some extent of socialism over capitalism. And within the US right now, they're revolutionaries because they strongly disagree with the status quo. It is because they are revolutionaries that we tend to categorize them as being "leftist"; it has nothing to do with liberalism as such (especially since they aren't liberal)....

And here's still another attempt, by Jerry Pournelle, to redo the political classification system, this time with two axes, statism and rationalism. It's worth a read, as well. And anyone interested in wading into the works of Den Beste (allow a bit of time--his stuff is loooong, but worthwhile), click on any of the above links to his blog, and then look on the right sidebar and click on the "best of" link (I've done this instead of adding a direct link myself, because each time I've tried to do so Blogger goes nuts and messes up this entire post of mine).

So, what do I think? I think conservatives tend towards the following: especially interested in individual rights, identity, and especially responsibility over group rights, identity, and responsibility; and in general favoring smaller government over big, including a more laissez faire approach to capitalism (which they also favor over other economic systems). Liberals tend in the opposite direction, and Leftists even more so in the opposite direction--including a liking for socialism, and an increased dislike for the US and the West in general.

That's it, at least for now.

Oh yes--and bigotry, narrowmindedness, rigidity, self-interest, political wrangling, hypocrisy, lies, and inconsistency know no sides--they are equal opportunity characteristics.

Powered by Blogger