Saturday, January 30, 2010

Where do I sit?

I find myself in a bit of trouble these days. I can't seem to define myself politically.

I might call myself a "recovering liberal." I recall my Democrat days very vividly. I had the idea that Democrats were nicer because they wanted to help people, while the Republicans struck me as the party of Sink-or-Swim. Yet since then I've found Winston Churchill to be right: "A young man who is not a liberal has no heart, and an old man who is not a conservative has no brains." I've lost my trust in liberal ideology, in the concept of empathy as a means for making government decisions (though not, I should stress, as a means for making personal decisions), in government solutions to social problems, and in "Identity Politics," the idea that belonging to a formerly or even recently disadvantaged political group (women, ethnic minorities, etc.) somehow entitles a person to certain privileges, among them the moral high ground. Actually, I never had much faith in "Identity Politics" at all; rather, I've believed that one's individual character matters far more than what group he or she has been born into -- and this, I once believed, was the liberal outlook. The more I saw the liberals embrace Identity Politics, the less liberal I felt, until at last I abandoned liberalism altogether.

But calling myself a "recovering liberal" doesn't do much good, because that says more about what I don't believe than what I do believe. If I reject liberal policies, does that automatically make me a conservative?

Not necessarily, with so many breeds of conservatives in the political landscape that I'm not even sure what constitutes conservatism. On the one hand, I wrinkle my nose at our hypersexualized popular culture, which seems to laud the physical far above the emotional and spiritual where relationships are concerned; yet I don't see a solution to this problem other than individual common sense and more responsibility and discipline on the part of parents with impressionable children. Censorship, more intervention from the FCC, is not the answer. Likewise, I can't bring myself to care too much whom my neighbor might be sleeping with, or to feel that my own marriage might be threatened by the two men next door. Sexuality is best left up to the ethics and conscience of each individual; it is not the business of government or the Constitution. These ideas put me at odds with a lot of conservatives.

The branch of conservatism that disturbs me most these days is that "populist conservatism" that cloaks itself in Pink Floyd's old mantra, "We don't need no education." Don't read books? Fine! You can still lead the country! You can still offer guidance when it comes to the most complex ideas and problems! I can't buy into that, nor can I see that deliberate illiteracy, the kind of which Mark Twain spoke, could ever be a badge of honor. For my part, I'm not sure I would trust any politician who hasn't read and understood Orwell's "1984." Liberal Barack Obama has probably read it, but hasn't understood it, given his affection for Nanny Government (Big Brother by another name). Conservative Sarah Palin, on the other hand, may not have read it at all. They're two sides of the same bad coin.

Knowledge should be accompanied by understanding, and I can't dispute that many very highly educated people are nonetheless quite foolish. Yet some "populist conservatives" seem to think that education itself makes one foolish, and this is a grave mistake -- the same mistake they make when they decide that because so many artists, actors, and musicians are liberals, then art, theater, and music themselves must be toxic, without value. Goodbye, beautiful baby, this bathwater's too dirty.

So where do I sit? I can't embrace a liberalism that relies on Nanny Government and Identity Politics, but neither can I endorse a conservatism that sneers at art and literature and cries in the voice of The Simpsons' Helen Lovejoy, "Won't someone please think of the children?" And I'm fairly sure I'm not alone. There must be many who find themselves in a kind of political no-man's-land, uncertain of where they belong.

One branch of conservatism seems hospitable to someone like me: the branch that favors personal responsibility over government control, and believes that government should concern itself primarily with national defense. This isn't a particularly "nice" ideology, for it won't protect individuals from the consequences of their own bad choices. But it is, I find, the most closely aligned with common sense. Libertarianism. Faith in the individual will and conscience. Oh, look -- thre's an empty seat.

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