Monday, June 21, 1999

Week of 06/21/1999

The Failure of Conservatism…
…as a leading force for change.
- by David Matthews 2

OK people.. I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who have read my articles and have been saying to themselves "gee, this guy is a good conservative."

Once upon a time that might be true, but not now.

Once upon a time I was a supporter of the Reagan Revolution. Sold on the two-party lie that you were either a Democrat or Republican and nothing else mattered. Sold on the bit that liberalism was a failure. I believed those things were true.

Today, though, I’m a libertarian. I talk about the Big Lie with conviction. I still believe that liberalism was a failure, but now I also believe that conservatism is a failure as well.

If there is one group that I suppose I can thank (and you can blame) for my switch to libertarianism, it would have to be the religious crusaders. In the mid-1980’s they were running rampant across the country getting legislators to ban things. Ban this exhibit. Ban that book. Ban these theaters. My first thought was "What ever happened to the First Amendment?" The Moral Majority really loved the "freedom of religion" part, but they just never got the part about "freedom of speech." And guess what? Today’s theocrats still have a hard time with it.

Now fast forward a few more years to the Bush administration. The hot issue was abortion. The religious activists and pro-life groups were running roughshod with their protests. About that time I asked conservative columnist Robert Novak why conservatives still wanted government to tell people how to live their lives. I had thought being a conservative meant getting government "off our backs and out of our lives." That was, after all, the credo of the Reagan Revolution. His response to me was something I won’t forget. He said that conservatism is all about "going back to what has worked before."

"Going back to what has worked before."

Let’s think about that for a minute. We are approaching a new era not only in technology but in society in general. We are entering into concepts that have never been experienced before; issues that weren’t even dreamed of twenty years ago. How can we go back to what has worked before when we’re dealing with stuff that wasn’t around before? It’s sort of like trying to fix a stealth jet fighter using specifications from the Spitfire fighter planes of World War II. Sure you might get some of the general items right, but when you get into the details such as the engine and the electronics you’d be horribly lost.

The same applies with conservatism. For instance, the traditional conservative philosophy about work is that the harder you work and the more diligent you are in your work and sacrifice all for that work, you’ll get to keep your job. But how many of us have worked our fingers to the bone, have sacrificed everything - happiness, family, friends - just for the job, only to be laid off? How many people, after being laid off, haven’t been able to get a job that will support their families? How many of us have had to change jobs five, six, even ten times in the past decade? Such situations - unheard of even ten years ago - are incompatible with conservative philosophy.

Then there’s another question about "going back to what has worked before." Go back to when? How far should we "go back" to? Ten years? The Reagan Revolution? When junk bonds and corporate mergers ran rampant? When the only ministers making headlines were disgraced ministers? Tempting, even today, but many conservatives would still shudder.

Twenty years? When America was a "paper tiger?" The decade of free love, disco, Watergate, and trying to forget about Vietnam? Definitely not for a conservative!

How about thirty years? The decade of the Beatles, Vietnam protests, assassinated national leaders, free love and free drugs? No, the conservatives would rather we forget those years.

How about we go back fifty years? World War II. No, definitely not a time to go back to.

How about sixty years? The 1930’s. The Great Depression. Too depressing for too many people.

How about the 1920’s? The age of flappers, declining morals, Prohibition Wars, and Al Capone. The economy was just like it is today.. only it crashed miserably in 1929.

Too far, you say? How about forty years? The 1950’s..

Ah, there’s the catch! The era many conservatives say were great years. Mind you, we’re not talking about the late 1950’s, the era of the civil rights movements, "Elvis the Pelvis," Playboy magazine, and rock-and-roll. We’re talking about the early to middle 1950’s - the era of McCarthyism, fallout shelters, the Cold War, the Korean War, "duck and cover" exercises, and, most particularly, the last time Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. These are the days conservatives want to "go back" to.

Well I know there are plenty of conservatives that right now are itching to E-mail me to say "WHOA! We don’t want to get America back to the 1950’s - we just want to get back to that level of contentment that existed." Well, who doesn’t? But were those days really as contented as we like to think they were? How many of us back then were eyeing our neighbor to make sure they weren’t a communist? How many of us back then were afraid that the sudden flash at night was a nuclear explosion and not the headlights of an oncoming truck? Sure we may not have had to worry about crime then as we do now, but did that mean we didn’t have to worry about crime at all? We like to think the times were simpler back then, but once we take off the rose-colored glasses and really remember what the times were, we don’t want to really get back to those days.

I’m not trying to bash every conservative. There are a majority of people who look at the future and are scared, and I don’t blame them. I’ve looked at the trends we are turning towards and I sometimes ask myself if I have a place in that future. Unfortunately for me I don’t have the rose-colored past I can turn to and say those were simpler days and wish I could return to them. Life WASN’T simpler for me when I was younger, it only seemed that way compared to some of today’s aggravations.

And being a conservative is not just an American concept. There are scores of Italians who have said they may not have liked how Benito Mussolini ran their country during World War II, but at least he made the trains run on time. There are people today, after only a few years of freedom in Russia, that want to go back to life under the old Soviet Union, because at least that was stability. And how do you think the Ayatollah Kholmeini was able to sway the people of Iran to overthrow the Shah and bring about literally a conversion from progressive Iran to a die-hard theocratic country? By playing to their traditional values and beliefs and wanting to go back to the old days. Guess what folks - they’re conservatives too. You may not like it, but it’s true.

There is something else that is lost when we look towards conservatives for leadership - namely progress. Our ability to advance beyond our current situation. That cannot happen when our leadership is looking backwards, towards regression. 200 years ago the United States was founded from a belief that all men were created equal. Such a concept didn’t exist anywhere else in the world! Conservatives of that time weren’t looking for forge a new country based on such a belief - they were asking to return to British domain. They saw what would be known as the American Revolution to be a pointless struggle. Conservatives, by definition, abhor untested ideas and actions, the very building blocks of innovation and invention.

And before we close out this argument, let’s go back to that Reagan Revolution credo about "getting government off our backs and out of our lives." Conservatives, even to this day, talk about things like "less government" and "more personal freedom." Problem being, conservatives have been for anything BUT less government and more personal freedom.

Conservatives along the lines of French post-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre have instead talked about establishing order at all costs. To quote from Maistre: "We start with the supposition that the master exists and that we must serve him absolutely." One can easily substitute the word "Lord" for "master" and you get a quote worthy of the Christian Coalition. I wouldn’t be surprised if Georgia’s Congressman Bob Barr even quotes from de Maistre. Even conservatives with the caliber of England’s Edmund Burke have a rigid adherence to government control instead of individual freedom. If anything, conservatives have traditionally adhered to a more socialistic standard of life than liberals. So much for the myth of "more personal freedom."

Oh, conservatives can claim to support "less government," but only as long as it’s not a conservative government. Anything outside of that is just shop talk by political spin doctors.

Let’s get brutally honest here.. history is meant to be learned, not repeated, and certainly not relived. And that’s not to say that there is no room in society for conservatives. On the contrary, they play an important role as the brakes to a progressive movement that at times can go out of control. They remind us about some of the little things that we may forget from time to time. But just as we don’t expect to drive our cars on nothing but brakes, so too must we try not to rely on conservatives to "lead" us into progress, because by their own definition they cannot bring progress, only regress.

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