George Will's Lies Fails To Save Conservatism

As actually existing conservatism goes down in flames, one of conservatism's leading lights, George Will, has written an op-ed "The argument for conservatism," attempting to revive its reputation.  Will's task is a more ambitious one than simply attempting to claim that Bush 28% is not a conservative--a growing effort that Glenn Greenwald shoots down.  It's a re-affirmation, not a denial--at least formally.

Over at TPM Cafe, Greg Anrig, vice president of programs at The Century Foundation, has written a detailed take-down of Will, "Fisking George F. Will's 'Case for Conservatism'".  It's a very good piece, but it's bogged down by its typical liberal, Enlightenment, reality-based orientation, while Will soars on wings of rhetoric, unbound by the petty gravity of facts.  Indeed, his whole point is to erase as many facts in as short a period of time as possible.  That's why he gets the big bucks. So let's go for the jugular, why don't we?  Let's go for the really big lies.

Will makes four significant claims about conservatism--one implicit--that are at best mistaken, and at worst, flat-out lies.  First, that conservatives care uniquely about freedom. Second, that social conservatism doesn't really matter. Third--implicitly--that conservatism is based on principles it espouses. Fourth, that conservatism is a realist philosophy. Let's go through them one at a time, and see how mistaken they are.

Lie #1: Conservatives Care About Freedom

Will's central thesis is an old, old, old one: conservatives care about freedom, while liberals--the word has the same root as liberty!--only care about equality (whatever that is).  

That's right, conservatives, who have repeatedly, enthusiastically backed dictatorships abroad--Mussolini, Franco, Samosa, Pinochet--repressive measures at home--slavery, segregation, McCarthyism--and intrusions of personal liberty from the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790s to the PATRIOT Act and warrantless wiretaps of today--are all about liberty.  Not so the liberals, who went to jail under the Alien and Sedition Acts, who fought a war to end slavery, laid down their lives to end segregation, had their lives ruined by McCarthyism, and have been called "traitors" for opposing the loss of liberty under G.W. Bush's repeated attacks on America's core values.

Will puts it like this:

Conservatism's recovery of its intellectual equilibrium requires a confident explanation of why America has two parties and why the conservative one is preferable. Today's political argument involves perennial themes that give it more seriousness than many participants understand. The argument, like Western political philosophy generally, is about the meaning of, and the proper adjustment of the tension between, two important political goals -- freedom and equality.

Today, conservatives tend to favor freedom, and consequently are inclined to be somewhat sanguine about inequalities of outcomes. Liberals are more concerned with equality, understood, they insist, primarily as equality of opportunity, not of outcome.

There are so many lies here, it makes ones head spin, which is why I focus on just one--the central lie that conservatives care more about freedom than liberals do.  The next step of the arguments, of course, is that because liberals care too much about equality, they happily sacrifice freedom.  But one cannot get to that next step if the first one is found wanting--as the brief list of historical examples reminds us that it is.

It's not just ancient history, either, as Will subtly suggests by saying, "Today, conservatives tend to favor freedom." Suppressing the freedom to vote is emerging as a key underlying element of the unfolding US Attorneys scandal.  Stripping rights from the First, Fourth and Sixth amendments have been central features of Bush's so-called "war on terrorism," repeatedly supported by the conservative establishment attacking liberals as "traitors" for even trying to discuss such losses of freedom.  And the questions asked as part of the General Social Survey (the most cited and most respected survey of American public opinion) show that liberals are consistently more supportive of free speech rights for unpopular groups--not just communists, socialists, atheists and gays, but also racists and advocates of military dictatorships.  

How to make sense of the yawning gap between this record and the conservative claim to care about freedom?  One way is to realize that liberals and conservatives mean different things when they use the word--as George Lakoff argues in his book, Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea There's a great deal of truth in what Lakoff has to say, and a lot for liberals to learn from his book.  But there's also a much simpler answer that's also true.

The freedom that conservatives talk about is their freedom--not "liberty and justice for all," but  liberty and justice for them.  As the Dictionary of the History of Ideas says in its entry on liberalism:

The hero is free, or freer at least than the ordinary run of men; and the cult of the hero is common to many societies in which freedom, as the liberal thinks of it, means nothing.
This is the "freedom" which conservatives cherish--though without actually having to do anything heroic, like fight in wars they cheer from their keyboards.  It is the freedom of the slaveowner to own slaves. The freedom of the President to ignore laws he doesn't like. The freedom of corporations to ignore labor laws in breaking unions (and then pay petty fines years later, as a minor cost of doing business).  In the way of crumbs, it also includes the freedom of ordinary whites to discriminate against blacks, and of ordinary men to discriminate against women. But its essence is the freedom of the few to rule the many, the freedom of the powerful to dominate the weak.

Thus, history shows the real meaning of the saying that "conservatives care about freedom, while liberals care about equality"-- liberals care about liberty for all, while conservatives just want it for themselves.  Indeed, liberals believe that "as long as one man is in chains, I am not free"--a precept fully in line with the teachings of Matthew 25:31-46, in the midst of which Jesus says, "Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me."

This is, of course, precisely the opposite of Will's intention.  He wants to argue that equality is the enemy of freedom.  Liberals, on the contrary, believe that "freedom" without equality is just code-name for privilege, which is what conservatives are really all about.

Lie #2: Social Conservatism Doesn't Really Matter

What of the second lie, that social conservatism doesn't really matter?  Will surprisingly dismisses social conservatism from his equation in a single sentence--not even as the subject of that sentence, but as a mere aside:

Here is the core of a conservative appeal, without dwelling on "social issues" that should be, as much as possible, left to "moral federalism" -- debates within the states.
I will not try to say what the subject of this sentence is. At this point, Will's op-ed has devolved to the level of incoherence.  One thing, however, is grammatically certain: the subject of the sentence, "the core of a conservative appeal," is not the social issues, which Will insists belong to the states, and thus clearly cannot be considered vital to conservatism as a national phenomena.  Of course, it's really no secret that corporate (so-called "free market") conservatives hold religious conservatives in contempt.  It is, however, a lie to say that they are not part of the conservative package. Indeed, they are more than part of the package.  They are by far the largest source of its foot-soldiers and its voters.

The amazing disappearing act that Will does with these legions is characteristic of his deep intellectual dishonesty.  But it is also entirely necessary for him, since politically social conservatives care about little else than depriving others of their liberty--be they women with unwanted pregnancies (or even just seeking birth control), gays seeking marriage and other forms of equal protection under law, artists expressing unconventional views or science teachers just trying to do their jobs.  Put simply, it's hard enough for Will to maintain his fiction of liberty-loving conservatives without the likes of Pat Robertson, James Dobson and company running circles around him chasing demons.  If they were allowed to make an actual, substantive appearance in his op-ed, then all would be lost.  Hence, they do not appear.

Lie #3: Conservatism Is Based On The Principles It Espouses

This brings us to lie number three: the implicitly lie that conservatism is based on principles it espouses.  Will goes on at length about what these principles are--at least in contrast to the the supposed principles of liberalism. But virtually everything that Will says is a lie, at least if used to described the social conservatives who outnumber the George Wills of the world by a considerable sum.  In fact, conservatives have long ago given up on reconciling their differences of principle.  They adopted a label--"fusionism"--instead.  They're inconsistent, and they know it.

Their hope of success lies in creating an incoherent public discourse, and they've been damn good at creating one for the last 30 years or so. On the one hand, conservatives like Will preach against "big government" telling people how to live their lives.  On the other hand, theocratic conservatives like Robertson, Dobson and others are salivating over the prospect of bringing back the Spanish Inquisition--in a purely American version, of course.  The one thing they do have in common is that liberals are their enemies.  But having an enemy in common is not a principle. And that is what conservatism is really based on: us vs. them, having enemies in common. Top of the list: liberals.

Lie #4: Conservatism is A Realist Philosophy

All the above reflects on conservatives' fundamental lack of realism, which goes far beyond failing to recognize the threat of global warming.  Conservatives' longstanding distrust of science is just one facet of their anti-realism.  Conservatives never trusted science.  But nowadays, they don't trust history, either.  

There was a time when conservatives were all about history. History taught us that everything liberals thought or wanted was bunk: we had always had slavery, blacks had always been natural slaves, women had always been naturally inferior, etc., etc., etc.  Now that history (and the liberals who helped make it) has proved conservatism consistently wrong on so many fundamental subjects, there's little wonder why conservatives pay so little heed to history.  Conservatives today are what Will wants to talk about.  And why not? History makes conservatives look bad.  Not just bad, but really really bad.  Like monsters, actually: supporters, defenders and apologists after the fact for slavery, segregation and the legal subjugation of women.

But in ignoring--nay denying-- history, conservatives turn their backs on their claims of realism and principle as well.  For how can one claim to be a realist, but deny the facts of history?  And how can one claim guidance from eternal principles, whose past one not only disavows, but denies?

Will's claims about conservatism's realism are stated quite simply and dogmatically, rather like a catechism, at the very end of his piece:

Conservatism is realism, about human nature and government's competence. Is conservatism politically realistic, meaning persuasive? That is the kind of question presidential campaigns answer.
Leaving aside the implicit argument that successfully lying about a war hero's record is evidence that conservatism is "politically realistic," let's continue the historical thrust of my earlier remarks.

The flowering of modern liberalism in the 18th Century Enlightenment involved a far-reaching critique of existing institutions and the assumptions behind them (including assumptions about human nature), which conservatives of that time reacted against, on the grounds that individual human reason could not possibly fathom the complex organic relationships embedded in those institutions and assumptions.  Conservatives claimed to be realists, rejecting either arid rationalism or fantastic theories. On this view, history's lessons were embedded in the social institutions--including those from monarchy on down through serfdom and slavery--that had survived down through the ages, and we not to be questioned by feeble intellects of individuals.  

This was, of course, a specious argument, coming at a time when Europe's institutions had been under a process of almost continual change since at least the 16th Century Reformation, if not the 14th Century Renaissance.  But it has become even more obviously specious in the centuries since then, during which conservatives have opposed every major change that has made the modern world what it is today--far more egalitarian, democratic, prosperous and free than anything the world has ever seen before, for all the faults that yet remain to be addressed.

Against this history, conservatives have invented a history of their own, though considerably shorter in duration.  In this history, the 1950s was the Garden of Eden. America was, indeed, the shining "city on a hill" that its mythic history claimed it both was and should be.  Then liberals came along, made the big bad 60s, and all has been lost ever since.  There are, of course, three fundamental problems with this story: (1) History did not begin in the 1950s. (2) The 1950s, while better than previous decades in the 1900s, were not perfect by any means. (3) The most truly attractive feature of the 1950s--the broad prosperity and optimism for the future--was itself primarily a result of liberalism's political dominance since the election of 1932, including the creation of a substantial welfare state--though still significantly smaller than its European counterparts.

All these facts the conservatives ignore, pressing on with their mythological tale.  The 1950s represents the good, traditional America.  The 1960s represents the evil, liberal America, which has poisoned us ever since. But what actually happened in the 1960s?  Segregation was outlawed, discrimination was outlawed--both against blacks and against women--and blacks got federal protection for their right to vote.  It is difficult indeed to sell most people on the idea that this represented a loss of freedom--but that is precisely what conservatives like Will are arguing, if you get right down to it.

Conclusion

The task before us now is to put an end to all this nonsense.  Sure, there are lots of things that conservatives have said over the years that make plenty of sense.  (Conservatives of one generation can do a respectable job of embracing what their grandparents fought bitterly against.) But none of that gets to the core of what conservatism is all about.  Actions speak louder than words, and all the fine words that various different conservatives have uttered over the centuries cannot atone for what conservatism as a whole has meant: recurrent hostility to the essence of what America is all about--a republic with liberty and justice for all.

Tags: conservatism, freedom, George Will, liberalism, realism (all tags)

Comments

8 Comments

George Will is an idiot

Seriously, I have never understood what anyone (even on the conservative side) sees in that arrogant gas bag.

by dpANDREWS 2007-06-05 08:38AM | 0 recs
It's Not Often One Sees A Cartoon Character

in real life.

Seriously.

Although I had a friend in college whose father was the spitting image of The Checkered Demon.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-06-05 08:48AM | 0 recs
Re: It's Not Often One Sees A Cartoon Character

He called the NEA a "national menace" and "as frightening, in its way, as any foreign threat."

He's the scary one.

by misscee 2007-06-05 10:18AM | 0 recs
Liberty vs. Equality

Great diary.

That said, there is a sentiment on the left that equality matters separate from "liberty for all." I'd say that basically underpins the liberal/left split.

I wouldn't dismiss equality so readily as you do.

by CT student 2007-06-05 08:59AM | 0 recs
I'm Not Dismissing Equality

This is really a very brief diary compared to all that might have been written, and I tried to keep it focused by addressing Will's mythologizing.

What you're talking about is the subject of debates on the left, and reflects an entirely different universe of discourse.  I would disagree about your characterization of the left/liberal split.  Historically, I think that radicals have argued to expand the realm of what are considered rights--whether by arguing about who should be considered rights-holders, what should be considered rights, or how the entire universe of rights-holders and rights should be conceived.

Although the language of freedom and rights is not identical, the relationship between the two is strong: radicals are generally concerned with expanding the realm of freedom, which necessitates reducing coercive conditions and pre-conditions.  Structural inequalities tend to produce both.  It is the engagement with structural realities that I think matters most here.  This creates a different gestalt, which I think is sometimes mis-represented (by all sorts of people) as a difference within a pre-determined gestalt.

You can find time periods with fairly intense restraints when this will result in the kind of face-off you're talking about.  But I think this is not what either side is fundamentally arguing for.  In such situations, both are arguing in extremis.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-06-05 09:41AM | 0 recs
For Will Freedom equals Free Markets

If you re-read Will with that in mind much becomes clear. This for example:

"Today, conservatives tend to favor freedom, and consequently are inclined to be somewhat sanguine about inequalities of outcomes. Liberals are more concerned with equality, understood, they insist, primarily as equality of opportunity, not of outcome."

For Conservatives Free Markets equate to Freedom itself, while government regulation of any type simply puts you on The Road to Serfdom.

I found an interesting piece that explains the mindset quite well. It is an authentic publication that explains Hayek and by extention the Conservative project in 18 cartoon panels.

Road to Serfdom

Note that it was originally sponsored by General Moters.

So on 'Freedom' Will is not lying, not exactly, he is just working from a mind view alien to anyone who would relate Freedom to Human Dignity rather than Capital Accumulation.

by Bruce Webb 2007-06-05 11:21AM | 0 recs
Yes, Precisely. The Slaveowner's Freedom.

Not to mention the slave-trader.

One must remember that one of the major barriers to emancipation was the cost of paying slaveowners for their freed slaves.

If the Southerners hadn't been so paranoid, and committed treason, it's very hard to see how slavery could have been abolished until they decided it made better economic sense to free the slaves and stop paying for their upkeep when they could get others to do it for them.

Of course, they can't come right out and say these things.  Which is why we have to.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-06-05 11:50AM | 0 recs
Re: George Will's Lies Fails To Save Conservatism

...The freedom that conservatives talk about is their freedom--not "liberty and justice for all," but  liberty and justice for them....

Uh, yup.

March 24, 2003

....Around 3:00 p.m. I walked to the student union to see what the activist students had wrought.  I noted that the chalked statements and outlines were smudged and wet, as if someone had hosed the area down.  I walked into the union and then came back out.  There was an individual pouring water from a one gallon jug on the chalk and diligently rubbing his shoe into the water in an erasing motion.  I approached.  "Excuse me, do you work for the [student] union?"  "No."  "Then what are you doing?"  "I'm getting rid of this."  "This is a university - we're supposed to examine ideas, not destroy them."  "They're not true."  "How do you know?"  "I know the truth."  "You do?"  "They're not true." .... "If you don't like it here why don't you go to Iraq?"  Ultimately this individual defensively states that it's his protest to erase these chalked messages.  I pointed out that if he wanted to present his ideas he could stand there and tell people, or write his own chalk messages.  He insisted that this was his protest.  "We must examine ideas at a university - we must not destroy them - no one asks you to accept ideas with which you disagree, but we should not destroy ideas."  "This is my protest."  "Have you read the Constitution?" "Yes."  "Do you believe in it?"  "Well..."  "What about the First Amendment?"  "Well, not all of it."  "What part of it?"  "Well I wouldn't want to change the First Amendment because someone might not let me express my views".... Meanwhile a friend of his approached and listened to the conversation.  A friend of mine also approached.  We started the same conversation all over again.  This time I turned to my friend and said, in as clinical a fashion as possible, "You'll note the tautology..."  This clearly irritated him.  He continued to repeat himself.  At one point I turned to my friend and said, "There's the tautology again..."

by Michael Bersin 2007-06-05 05:23PM | 0 recs

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