Wednesday, October 08, 2008

"Conservative" conventional wisdom does a head-stand

A quick observation on a moment from last night's debate:

I'm not interested here in arguing that my guy won or the other guy lost; my interest is more a matter of philosophy than of politics.

What follows is an excerpt from Hilzoy's live-blogging of the debate. I'm not being facetious when I say that I no longer recognize the terms liberal and conservative as used today when I compare them to how they were used back in the dark ages of the '70s (when [full disclosure] I grew up in a Texas household so Republican that we weren't entirely sure Nixon should have resigned). But one formulation from those days remains in place today: conservatives say they want smaller government in favor of more personal responsibility; liberals see government as a mechanism for improving people's lives and righting inequities of, it seems, every sort.

That's what made this bit so striking to me. Hilzoy does a pretty good unvarnished paraphrase of its contents (I watched the debate, too). The parenthetical comment is Hilzoy's:

9:30: Qu [sic]: What sacrifices will you ask of Americans? McCain: we will have to examine programs and cut some. I have cut defense spending. I will examine earmarks. I will freeze spending, except for vets, defense, "and some other vital programs." (I wonder which?)

9:33: Obama: after 9/11, the country was willing to come together. But we were never called to service. Energy: we will all need to think about how we use energy. We need more production, but we can also start thinking, as individuals, about our choices. And government can help make sure that you can weatherize your home, etc. Also: young people especially want to serve; we should provide opportunities, so that our troops are not the only ones who do this.

One addition to this summary: Hilzoy did leave out a small but not insignificant part of Obama's response, when he mentioned that Bush, in the days immediately after 9/11, encouraged Americans to go shopping--Obama said that that didn't square with his (Obama's) understanding of sacrifice. But what strikes me is that McCain frames "sacrifice" here in terms of what government will have to give up. Unless I'm just overlooking it in my recollection, he says nothing about what citizens should/must be asked to do along these lines--which is, as I understood it, the thrust of the question.

Obama, though, does address that thrust--and indeed could have said more. As one example, some conservative folks made hay of Joe Biden's statement last week that paying taxes was "patriotic." It struck them as absurd. But consider that the present wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the first since we've had an income tax that our taxes have not gone up so as to help pay for its cost. Some have made the argument that if the War on Terror is indeed the danger of the magnitude the government claims it is, why aren't we all being asked to contribute more than the surrendering of our civil liberties (sorry--couldn't resist) to this cause? That lack of a call to service and sacrifice to face this danger struck struck these observers as being, at best, inconsistent: Well? Should we citizens be doing more, or not?

At any rate, it strikes me that Obama's response is actually the more "conservative" one, with its calls for accountability and service from citizens as well as government in a time of what we are told is a collective need, if by "conservative" one sees as a part of its meaning a valuing of tradition. This country does indeed have a long tradition of asking its people to sacrifice in those times of collective need. Where is the Scary Black-Radical (Straw)man in that response? Far from being some sort of Muslim-controlled Manchurian Candidate sent to destroy our nation, Obama's response to the woman's question is an honoring and affirmation of that long tradition. Embedded in McCain's response, it seems to me, is the default setting that it's government's job to take care of everything that needs taking care of but, by golly, it just may have to do a bit less for a while. But y'all just go on about your business now like nothing's wrong, as best you can.

Sure: I'm stating McCain's position here pejoratively. But on the other hand, speaking for myself, I can't help but see in Obama's response an appeal to something fundamentally American, something that the "conservatives" of the Bush administration and, now, the "conservative" John McCain, for whatever reason, have set aside at a very time in our history that we most could use it.

Oh, yeah: speaking of Scary Black-Radical (Straw)men: will you just look at this latest viral smear of Obama? Don't turn away--really, really look at it: The only way we can become equal as a people to the ideals we say we embody as a nation is by looking at something like this and calling it what it is to its face.

It's sad, isn't it, the depths to which some people will stoop and muck about in the sewers of their own obsessions and then foist them on us.

Well? Are you outraged or terrified yet by this exposure of our nation's reptilian brain? No? Well, there's more where this came from.


Cordelia said...

Re not recognizing the "liberal" and "conservative" positions one grew up with: the mix-up, and I think we keep seeing this, has to do with fiscal conservatism (which Obama is advocating) vs. socio-political conservatism (McCain, Republicans). Democrats have always advocated a genre of fiscal, or economic, if you will, conservatism that engages with the creation and sustenance of social programs, hence the mistaken "big spender, more government" label, whereas the socio-political view of the market promulgated by the Republican party upholds a liberal, aka free market system, where a lack of government oversight gives rise to the image of the non-interfering conservation of the market qua natural organism. In the years of, I daresay, "our" childhoods, the socio-political and economic approaches to the market(s) by each party rather magically appeared to align alongside via the notion that personal responsibility and "government as a mechanism for improving people's lives" are incompatible. The rift between socio-economics and economics now has simply revealed the Republican (conservative) expectation/paradox that has lurked behind their politics since the '70's, if not before: the market must improve people's lives, so the government must insure its existence; personal responsibility becomes, is, has been Rand's Egoism, where one is only responsible for oneself and altruism (read: social liberalism) is a fool's game. Well, thanks for the opportunity. I've apparently been saving that up.

John B. said...

Heh. Thanks for not continuing to save it up. I think you're on to something here; it certainly squares with some things I've read recently that the big dynamic driving our politics is really class inequity, disguised as some other inequity.

This also reminds me of Ta-Nehisi Coates' argument that affirmative action is essentially a sop to the historically-disenfranchised: it ends up benefiting, by and large, those folks who, if they had been born white males, would sooner or later have benefited anyway; and its implementation costs (literally and figuratively) those in power very little. In the meantime, though, the root causes of the uneven playing field--poor education, weak economies in minority neighborhoods, poor health care, etc., etc., etc.--remain in place because of our collective unwillingness to rile up white folks by getting enough of their money and passing laws to fix these things. Those things, too, would require sacrifice; the fact that we've not been asked indicates a we're under a different sort of "Go Slow Now" political philosophy: not of the quest for racial equality, but of the quest for a more level field of economic opportunity.