All Rights Reserved © 2002 Thomas W. Day
Webster's defines "conservatism" and "conservative" as "a disposition in politics to conserve what is established . . . a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions and preferring gradual development to abrupt change . . . the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change . . . tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions. . . " Pretty depressing outlook, don't you think? Two hundred years ago, this sort of person would be labeled a "Tory," an English-monarchy-loving, King George IX sympathizer. If you believe that the majority of Americans are conservative, it follows that the majority of Americans are, apparently, ready to rejoin the United Kingdom.
Most like, it's safe to assume that the majority of humans on this planet are conservative. Personally, I can't tell conservative Republicans from conservative communist Chinese. If you swing far enough to either political pole, you end up at the same spot. Communism fails because government is a flawed concept. Everybody's-business-is-my-business rightwing conservatism follows the same flaws. In the end, the government ends up serving itself and the interests of those who provide power to the government. When that happens, you can't tell the right from the left unless, as Pete Townsend theorized, "their beards have all grown longer overnight." Pete was hoping for the impossible when he imagined there would be a time when we "won't get fooled again," though. Since most of us are conservatives, we're easy to fool.
Supposedly, the opposite of a conservative in today's political jargon is a "liberal." Webster's defines that philosophy as one who is "not bound by authoritarianism. . . [and who is] associated with ideals of individual expression, economic freedom, greater individual participation in government, and constitutional, political and administrative reforms designed to secure these objectives . . . one who is open-minded or not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional or established forms or ways." I'm sure these sound like terrible characteristics to most of us. Damn revolutionaries! Since I've always had a dictionary within reach, I've never had any problem considering myself a liberal. Even adding "tree hugging" to the description has no effect on my identification with liberalism. I like trees and I'm a liberal.
Words are funny things. In modern media-speak, words end up meaning what we are told they mean, not what they are intended to mean. Like the marketing folks say, "image is everything." If the media, politicos, and the rest of the conservative Powers That Be tell us being a "liberal" is a bad thing, we believe it. It's obvious, from reading the liberal definition, why that crowd would like us to think conservative. It's in their best interests to convince the rest of us that a conservative philosophy is good for everyone. Because it's particularly good for the minority who are in the driver's seat. Conservatives live to "conserve what is established," resisting change even when change is past necessary and well into damn-near-too-late-to-save-the-world. Why the majority of us care what the ruling minority wants is something I've never understood.
Here's one theory, though. Many Americans pretend to be conservatives, not because they want things to stay the way they are but because they don't want them getting any worse. Now that's a courageous, but understandable, position. Too gutless to look out the window because there might be something scary there? The problem with this tactic is that if you're not getting better, you're always going to be getting worse. In sports, the phrase is "the best defense is a good offense." In politics, if the ruled class isn't trying to kick the ruling class' butt, we're all spiraling the toilet bowl.
In times of political hopelessness it's comforting, to me, to remember that less than 1% of the early American population deserves to be called members of our "founding fathers." That's the small percentage who participated in the American Revolution. The rest, the overwhelming 99%+ rest, were too occupied with survival, collecting wealth, or drinking homemade beer to bother themselves with independence. The rest were conservatives.
Today's liberals have decided that too many negative connotations apply to the liberal label, so they are taking to calling themselves "progressives." I don't think that tactic will work. If a word, "liberal," filled with as many positive attributes as that word owns, can end up being an insult, "progressive" doesn't stand a chance. Although I do like the truthful insinuation that the progressive opposition would be, by default, "regressive." Regressive is a much more honest term to describe the majority of card-carrying Republican conservatives. Often, these younger-than-me folks refer to a mythical time from their youth when citizens "took responsibility for their actions" or when the government was less intrusive in our lives.
It's hard to imagine a more intrusive government than the mind police who forced loyalty pledges out of intellectuals and Hollywood actors, the McCarthy-Eisenhower 1950's Republicans. But these kids aren't old enough to remember, or to have experienced, that group of terrorists. Fortunately, either am I, but at least I was alive during that period and read about it. Finding a positive difference in attitude or social responsibility between the Jay-Ed "I look pretty in hoop skirts" Hoover FBI and the Soviet Union's Secret Police, any time between 1948 and 1975, would be an experiment in fine detail discrimination. I would like to believe that most Americans would be unimpressed with the responsibility accepted by the radical racists, found from coast-to-coast and board-to-boarder, who ran the country, business, and most neighborhoods all through the 20th Century. Having experienced half of that century, I wouldn't have great difficulty in continuing this list of vicious and irresponsible conservative activities from the "good old days" for several dozen pages. It's old and depressing news and you'd be bored.
I think you know, or ought to know, that those Good Old Days were only good for a select group of people; mostly privileged, white, and well-connected males. In the 1950s, that group could make a kind claim to being some sort of working majority. Today, that isn't the case. Tomorrow, it will be even less true. Still, conservatism marches on.
The key conservative characteristic I see that makes me want to avoid becoming one is an omnipresent fear. Especially the fear of change. Everyone who reads, thinks, or works knows that the only constant in this world is change. Nothing is constant. Change proves that nothing about the way the world works fits the conservative definition. It's a radical fantasy. "Existing or traditional" situations are destined to become history. "Established institutions" become bone yards. No matter how much we may "prefer gradual development to abrupt change," the longer human culture exists the faster changes happen. In the first 50 years of the 20th Century, it was estimated that human knowledge doubled. That pace was about the same as the previous 50 years. Today, global knowledge doubles every 5 years. By 2020, it is estimated that our knowledge base will be doubling every 72 days. At the current rate of computer development, by 2020 we may have computers that equal human capacity. In fact, you could reasonably expect computers to equal all human capacities in that near future. In the face of that, does any aspect of conservative philosophy fit a practical application?
Fear of the inevitable seems to me to be the ultimate cowardice. A political or personal philosophy based on extreme cowardice is about as doomed as any social meme yet constructed. It's also a common thread in the history of failed cultures. All the way back to the earliest recorded Chinese governments, history is littered with the remains of cultures who tried to stop, or reverse, progress, knowledge, and change. I think you could draw an accurate line between the rise of conservative thinking and the fall of any particular culture in history. It's possible that there is a social critical mass that occurs when a significant majority of a culture's members spend a significant portion of their time trying to stop the clock, instead of doing what they can to go where progress is going. When that critical mass is breached, the culture crashes and gets replaced by the target culture that change was trying to obtain.
Monarchies, dictatorships, communism, and other conservative politics are all attempts to put an anchor on progress. These philosophical dead ends all try to maintain the status quo in the face of overwhelming momentum. To do their damage, these systems have to convince a significant portion of the general population that what's good for the ruling class is good for the ruled class. This task is a lot easier if the victims are less than brilliant. Education is the arch enemy of conservatism, which explains why progressive universities often house so many "liberals." Science and conservatism are at opposite poles of human activity.
The more technically astute the general population, the less likely that culture is to be conservative. You can see dramatic examples of that in micro-cultures within our own macro-culture. Places where fast moving technology is originating are always more liberal than where the technology is barely used and hardly understood. Compare the lower Midwest and the old South to central California (Silicon Valley, Santa Clara, San Francisco), Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Washington state, for example. The more current the technology, the more liberal the politics. The more stagnant the culture, the more primitive the technology. The best way to open up regressive, oppressive cultures may be to export technology to the work force. It seems to be working for China, as god-awfully conservative as that government is, technology and change are collecting momentum faster than the conservatives can build speed bumps.
None of this proves that some apparently technical individuals won't be conservative. Individuals may feel that change is moving so quickly that it weakens their position in society. Putting the brakes on change may buy a few extra moments, which is all an individual's career lasts in cultural time, of power and influence. A conservative technologist ought to be viewed as one of the most distrusted, interest-conflicted individuals in any culture. Never trust a man who wants to sell you a horse-drawn wagon when someone else is selling hydrogen powered rocket ships.