Sunday, November 22, 2015

Charity Starts at Empathy

Once again, "compassionate conservatism" remains the reigning champion of oxymorons.

Regarding the Syrian refugees, I am getting really tired of hearing "We should take care of our own people first" from those who are opposed to doing that too. It is particularly ridiculous from the religious right.

Let me address these ubiquitous hypocrites directly:

"Take care of our own"? Didn't you oppose "Obamacare" and the expansion of Medicaid? Didn't you call Social security "theft"? I guess when you say "Charity starts at home," you mean literally in your own home. Congratulations, conservative Christians! You fail remedial Bible study. Again. Take a hint: You cannot embrace Ayn Rand and Christianity simultaneously.

But don't take it from me: That's what she said.

Of course, you also fail basic patriotism at the same time. Do you need a visual aid? Should I post a photo of the Statue of Liberty and the caption "Your argument is invalid"? America's identity as a nation of immigrants should be sufficient to establish how utterly unpatriotic the conservative response is. How much must I dumb it down? Attention, Ben Carson: It's not brain surgery.

But why should that surprise anyone? Everything about the conservative temperament and enterprise is inherently unpatriotic. Conservative coldness is but one facet of this self-evident fact. Examples abound. But this situation is a perfect storm of interrelated factors that illustrate how conservatism is unpatriotic in every imaginable fashion. This goes beyond hypocrisy or irony.

Let's begin with some definitions. Patriotism is not nationalism even though people routinely confuse the two. Nationalism is loyalty to some ethnicity or piece of turf. Patriotism is loyalty to liberty, equality, and democracy. And, of course, conservatives loathe those three ideals. Patriotism is not hostility to people from other places. As I pointed out in my book, the American and French revolutions were by definition internal conflicts rather than external ones. They were also revolts against traditional established orders and therefore not something that conservatives in either country can comfortably look at too closely (so, of course, they don't). Patriot rebels on both sides of the Atlantic cheered-on each others' revolutions which were, at least initially, grounded in secular Enlightenment ideals which conservatives also loathe. To use two Cold War phrases, patriots exported revolution hoping for a crown-toppling domino effect throughout Europe. Many of the founders also favored greater economic equality, but I have already covered that a few times before. They were at heart internationalists - citizens of the world like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine - who championed universal human rights and opposed oppression everywhere.

Some were more radical than others, but even the British Viscount of Bolingbroke embraced what he called "a doctrine of universal libertarian benevolence" that was "universalist rather than specific to the English." Although it eventually decayed into nationalism, his patriotism was originally "actuated by the noble Principles of universal and unconfin’d [sic] Benevolence," conducive to "the Peace and Prosperity of Mankind."(1) He died in 1750 - well before the crisis with the colonies came to a head - but before then, he wrote a lovely fantasy in which the king declared Britain a republic and abdicated.(2) In short, compassion drove a lot of political thought during the Enlightenment. True patriotism is universal, humanist, and humanitarian. As I wrote in my book:
Thus, conservative callousness is not just unconscionable but un-patriotic because actual patriotism is essentially empathy. This generous, humanist internationalism was best summed up by Thomas Paine when he wrote in The Rights of Man, “[M]y country is the world, and my religion to do good.”
Of course, conservatism runs counter to all that. Take democracy. Pat Buchanan bemoans “the worship of democracy as a form of governance.” “Like all idolatries, democratism [sic.] substitutes a false god for the real, a love of process for a love of country.” Of course, you cannot honor the Constitution if you scorn process. Accordingly, our country's first Chief Justice said, “We, sir, idolize democracy.” There is that idolatry already. Ultra-nationalists like Pat Buchanan are not patriots because they cannot be patriots.

And Pat Buchanan is no exception - not anymore. He was the first to suggest building a wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. At the time, it was cited as evidence of his extremism. Today, much of the GOP field endorses it. Extremism has been mainstreamed. The point is that all these political traits are interrelated: the racism, the nationalism, the scorn for democracy, etc.

As I wrote in chapter 9, "Liberty, Equality, and Empathy," patriotism is both animated and sustained by compassion and participation. Of course, I am not the first to point that out. In The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Stephanie Coontz showed how small-r republican virtues were built on a sense of collective responsibility for society and others - but not in the prudish way that today's conservatives presume:
In the Jeffersonian tradition, public engagement was considered the primary badge of personal character; honor and virtue were political words, not sexual ones. They designated an individual’s “civic altruism,” especially a man’s willingness to take on political responsibilities. To describe someone as a “private” person was unflattering; a preoccupation with private morality and happiness, no matter how upright, had antisocial connotations.(3)
Our founding fathers were pretty hardcore about civic altruism. For example, Dr. Benjamin Rush said, “Every man in a republic is public property” (imagine Glenn Beck's reaction to that!) and John Adams had similarly opined that a republic required “a positive Passion for the public good” that should be “Superior to all private Passions.”(4) (emphasis original) This was no ethos of selfish individualism, nor one that was focused on the family, so both wings of the Republican Party are fundamentally at odds with the culture of a true republic. The "me and mine" mindset does not fit. It is simply anti-civic.

But, again, this should not surprise anyone. The bunker mentality and paranoid, selfish fallout shelter ethics of the Tea Party is incompatible with the very concept of a republic. As Thomas Paine explained in The Rights of Man, a republic is all about the “object for which government ought to be instituted, and on which it is to be employed, res-publica, the public affairs, or the public good; or, literally translated, the public thing.”(5) (italics original) So, Republicans scorn the origin of their party’s name!

Putting self and family before others is a natural reaction but it is also myopic and potentially destructive. Therefore, it should be kept in check and resisted. That is part and parcel of the civic virtues that a republic requires to function. Ironically, Republicans do the opposite painting selfishness and insularity as virtues because they are in the thrall of Ayn Rand and family-fetishizing theocrats. But the phrase "natural reaction" is just another way of saying doing the easy thing - and practicing virtue is rarely easy. Conservatives love to lecture others on self-restraint, but their selfish id is anything but restrained. As I wrote before, half their anti-"nanny state" rhetoric is hostility to social programs, but the other half is adolescent resentment towards the chores of citizenship or being told "be nice to your sister."

It has been repeatedly pointed out that the greatest terrorist threat America faces is domestic: You are far more likely to get killed by a "patriot" militiaman than a jihadist. But what applies to terrorism applies to assimilation. Our country cannot afford to home any more conservatives. They threaten our secular society and do not understand our way of life. I am not being flip. I mean this quite literally.  Roughly half the American electorate is hostile to America's operating system, so we should not be surprised that their strategy is always sabotage. As Thomas Frank wrote in The Wrecking Crew, sabotage is both the ends and the means. He meant against America's government, whereas I mean against America's identity. But policy and culture support one another: They are two sides of the same coin.

It is high time we recognized it


(1) Christine Gerrard, The Patriot Opposition to Walpole: Politics, Poetry and National Myth 1725-1742 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 7.

(2) David Armitage, “A Patriot for Whom? The Afterlives of Bolingbroke’s Patriot King,” Journal of British Studies 36, no. 4 (Oct., 1997): 397-418. 

(3) Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 99.

(4) Ibid. 96-97.

(5) Thomas Paine, The Life and Major Writings of Thomas Paine: Includes Common Sense, The American Crisis, Rights of Man, The Age of Reason and Agrarian Justice, ed. Phillip Sheldon Foner (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993, 1974) 369.

No comments:

Post a Comment