Conservatism: A moribund philosophy
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – It is heartening to see that a piece I wrote a while back seems to be achieving some degree of vindication. I had suggested that the political and social zeitgeist was on a pendulum swing that was approaching the end of its swing to the right, and was about to make a return swing to the left; a change I see as long overdue. Every day that passes supports my contention that the conservative movement that has prevailed in North America has had its day; it has been fraying at the edges for some time now and, as its core is insubstantial, the centre cannot hold. With some luck, some help from us, and with history’s guidance, we may be about to enter a new age of optimism, forward thinking, growth, prosperity, and decency among humans.
For that is what a predominantly left wing or liberal political and social paradigm promises: hope, progress, and compassion. And that is precisely what is stifled under the conservative or right wing paradigm that has brought this continent and much of the world to its current state of malaise and disarray. Conservative principals are just that; they seek to conserve…they reject the notion of progress, as progress necessitates leaving something behind as we move forward.
Conservatism, in contrast to liberalism, is a pessimistic worldview. Conservatism arises from a fear of change fueled by an unspoken assumption that things are (or were) as good as they can ever get. It proceeds from the hopeless view that mankind has reached the end of its growth, that problems are too great to be vanquished and that it is folly to try, that all we can do is accept things as they are and try to reduce our suffering and that of our families, even at the expense of the rest of society.
The liberal worldview, meanwhile, believes in the perfectibility of mankind, and that all problems can be solved…it assumes the optimistic and hopeful perspective that human beings can address any problem and surmount it, given enough knowledge and human cooperation.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
JFK said that and, unlike Newt Gingrich who promised moon colonies to his supporters in his failed primary campaign in 2011, he was serious, he meant it, and he succeeded in pushing his vision through to fruition, although, because he was assassinated, he never lived to see it.
That quote could never have originated from a conservative political candidate. The conservative viewpoint derides such optimism and such a positive view of human possibility; Gingrich was laughed to scorn and quickly retreated from a vision that would have involved investing in a project that conservatives see as science fantasy and liberals see as a surmountable challenge. They, in effect, choose not to take up a challenge…because it is hard.
Historically the conservative paradigm has always prevailed in societies that are, at best, stagnant. More often, when the conservative viewpoint becomes the society’s paradigm, it prevails over the decline and death of that society. That happened in Rome; that happened to Egypt, that happened to ancient Greece, and that arguably happened or is happening to Great Britain. Optimistic, forward looking, intellectually liberal societies are invariably those that experience Golden Ages and halcyon periods…the Byzantine Empire, the Athens of Pericles, Renaissance Europe. Even a short retreat into conservatism can have a profound retarding effect upon the growth and progress that liberalism fosters. When Savonarola briefly pushed the people of Renaissance Florence back into conservatism, the result was the ‘Bonfire of the Vanities” in which countless irreplaceable works of art were burned and lost to history. Even Botticelli, buying in to the religious conservatism that Savonarola espoused, is said to have tossed some of his greatest pieces onto the pyre. Fortunately, hope, liberalism, and sanity returned, and the pendulum swing was sharp but brief. Savonarola himself was burned at the stake shortly after that disgraceful episode, and the Renaissance proceeded apace.
The conservative domination of society and politics that has been like a hobble on the growth and progress of society for the last nearly half century seems to be crumbling. It is failing because humans are better than the conservative view holds. Of course there are mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging louts who are fit for nothing more than Jerry Springer and monster truck rallies; the world has its share of dimwits who immediately bristle when confronted with anything they don’t immediately understand or can’t instantly classify; they exist now and always will. But people, intelligent people, are tired of finding themselves treated as though that worldview has anything to recommend it, and as if one is somehow occupying the moral high ground to refuse to think, to aspire, or to improve.
The complacency of the conservative is starting to be challenged once again by the awakening liberal. For far too long the brightest and the most inspiring among us have sat back and allowed the grim, grey, hopelessness of the conservative worldview dominate the political and social landscape; that is coming to an end. A liberal resurgence is something for the conservative to fear, and the fear in the air is palpable; the hysteria and panicky, vitriolic rhetoric that permeates the conservative blogosphere and airwaves testifies to that. And yet a liberal renaissance is an exciting and exhilarating time in world history. The future opens up, the light trickles and then floods back in, and hope blossoms. As the pendulum swings away from the grim, hopeless right, the world comes back into focus and, like a forest waking up from a long winter of discontent made glorious spring, everything is possible once again.
It’s time to stretch, brush our teeth, and shake the cobwebs from our right wing slumber…there is a lot to do, and we are the human race; we can do it.