Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

What happened to our political discourse?

When I came back to America after a thirteen-year absence, a friend told me that political arguments had gotten "mean" in America during the time I'd been away. Everything I've seen in the three years I've been back has pretty much confirmed that.

"Mean" is not new in American politics. Whenever we have issues people get passionate about, there's bound to be a lot of name-calling. I think there's something different about this phase we're going through, though I can't quite put my finger on what it is.

Before I brought my wife to this country, I tried to explain the political lineup in America and how it differs from Europe. A few salient points:

-The European Right, starts at our left-of-center.

-Leftism in America has essentially absorbed liberalism. That makes no sense in Europe at all, where they are traditional enemies. "Liberal" in Europe means something far closer to conservative or libertarian in America. In America, "liberal" has come to mean something like "moderate socialist". That's why Americans who are closer to the old conservatism of Barry Goldwater tend to call themselves "Classical Liberals".

-America is the only place where "conservative" means "defender of traditional liberties" (whether you agree or not that that is in fact what conservatists these days are all about). In Europe, "conservative" often means "royalist".

-Leftist ideologues do in fact dominate the social sciences and humanities in academia. This is something that visiting academics from Eastern Europe notice immediately. In response, conservatives and libertarians have created a political/academic sphere of think tanks to develop and support their positions.

-The profession of journalism is also heavily oriented to the Left, though unlike academia there is a very lively opposition.

-Though what there is of a political consensus in this country is probably moderate-slightly-inclining-to-conservative, the issues are framed by the extremes of both Left and Right. This means that discussion of issues on which most folks would rather compromise is dominated by the most extreme positions. Two characteristic examples of this are abortion and gun control.

So where am I on the political map?

Well, I love the market economy, which moves me along the conservative-libertarian axis. I also love this easygoing hedonistic civilization of ours, favor legal drugs and have gay friends. That moves me towards the liberal-libertarian quadrant. I'm also big on the Second Amendment, consider myself an ardent patriot and believe strongly in "peace through superior firepower" - conservative. Pornography I neither consume* nor wish to see banned - liberal. I'm pretty absolutist about freedom of speech and the press - except that I think some issues framed as "free speech" and "free press" are nothing of the kind.* I like democratic systems in general - populist, but think that voting rights have been extended to too many people - elitist!

I call myself a "small-l" libertarian (that is, a sane one), or sometimes a Classical Liberal. Conservatives I often admire, I just don't happen to be one. I am though increasingly sympathetic, now that they seem to have lost a lot of ugly baggage.

I remember an occassion in Warsaw when my wife (pregnant with our firstborn at the time) and I were touring with a couple of friends, who are prominent in the international libertarian movement. One mentioned that he thought conservative libertarians were a "disease" of the movement. I replied, "Hey, watch it there! I'm about to become a father, that could be me you're talking about in a few years." I can only look back and chuckle now.

At any rate, my wife took it all in and came up with one of her straight-to-the-heart summaries of the situation. "So what it amounts to is that if you're a libertarian, you're dismissed as a nut. But being a conservative is dangerous, because they're really hated."

In future posts I will explore:

What happened to Liberalism?
What happened to Conservatism?
What happened to Libertarianism?
Nothing happened to Leftism - it's still the same.
Three cheers for the mushy middle!
Tinkering with democracy.
You do not live in a #$%&ing police state!

*Acually I like pictures of beautiful naked and semi-clothed (much hotter if done right) women. You know, the classic Playboy kind. Hard-core porn doesn't much interest me. I figure that either I'm getting some, in which case I don't need porn, or I'm not. In which case, it's no favor to eat steak in front of a starving man. And when I'm looking at a beautiful woman, I want to imagine that I'm making love to her - not watch someone else.

**A very perceptive feminist for example, once pointed out that child pornography is not a case of "freedom of expression" but the record of a crime. And about sedition during wartime; if you're in a streetfight and someone yells "I'm on HIS side!" - I don't know about you but I'd donate a punch in his direction. "Thanks for making that clear buddy."


  • At 3:58 PM, Blogger Gilmoure said…

    David Brin calls Neo-Cons Kleptocrats and says they're a reactionary movement to the enlightenment and want a return of autocratic rule. They've just cloaked themselves in conservative clothes.

  • At 8:10 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    David Brin is one of those authors whose laundry lists I'd read. His notion of 'Otherness' (see future post) has become a pillar of my world-view.

    That being said, I have to point out that the Englighenment was not an unmixed blessing. (But then, what ever is?)

    Marxism is every bit as much a child of the Englightenment as Classical Liberalism and both Adam Smith and John Locke held views that were incorporated into Marx's system.

    Smith held to the labor theory of value - but then, there wasn't anything better around at the time. It's a significant, but probably not fatal error of the system.

    But Marx, like Locke, held that the human mind is a tabula rasa at birth, i.e. that there is no such thing as "human nature". This idea fuels the malignant utopianism of the 19th and 20th centuries with their desire to create a new kind of human being - by force.

    I suspect that neo-con covers a lot of ground, but most of them seem to be ex-Leftists. (Ex-Liberals tend to become neo-Liberals, a misnomer if there ever was one. A "neo-liberal" is an OLD liberal.) So I have to wonder if they know something we don't about that maligant utopianism of the Left and it's present unholy alliance with the worst of anti-Enlightenment fanatisicm.

    They do seem to have brought a lot of baggage about government power for social engineering with them.


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