LarryM Asks a Good Question

In a comment on my rant re: right-wing tribalism, LarryM added:

There are many, many people on the cultural right who want to marginalize me & people like me as much as I want to marginalize them. You aren’t one of those people, but you make common cause with them on a daily basis. Do you worry about that sometimes? If not, why not?

I’ll try to give you an honest answer, which is hard because honesty will require an elliptical answer.

As I often mention — and I know it’s pretty tiresome — most of the people in my life are politically left-of-center, most are social liberals, and lot of them set out to lead lives informed by postmaterialist convictions, which you might call bohemian. I definitely fall into that last camp, at least when it comes to my unfulfilled aspirations, and I really do think that a certain kind of ambition and status consciousness can be poisonous. These categories I’ve identified don’t always overlap. I know a few “crunchy cons” who fall in that last category, for example, and I actually think that is a pretty coherent, comfortable place to be. I wouldn’t quite put myself in the crunchy camp — I’m too much of a modernist and, frankly, too much of an instinctive cosmopolitan to be a distributist — but I’m sympathetic to it, and to the effort to see society and the economy as a seamless whole. Because this is my milieu, I encounter a lot of people on its fringes who are intolerant snobs, unreflective simpletons, and miscellaneous jerks: I think this is true of any of us. A decent share of the people we encounter on a daily basis will be bozos. It so happens that I encounter far more lefty bozos than righty bozos, which I have to assume wouldn’t be the case if I didn’t live and grow up where I do/did.

Right. So what about the conservatives that I know? Well, the conservatives I know are far more the most part really self-questioning, thoughtful people. The conservatives I know who care about Iraq, who consider it their key issue so to speak, are generally people who’ve spent a lot of time there and have made some sacrifices — really serious ones, in the case of people in the armed forces and in NGOS; less serious ones in the case of people who’ve, say, chosen work in public service in lieu of far more lucrative work in some other field — and when I disagree with them, I find myself challenged by them. I take them very seriously. I’ll stress that this group includes hawks and doves, to oversimplify, but the balance is definitely in favor of hawks.

On social issues, the conservatives I know are generally people like me — people who like and respect the social liberals in their lives, and have reached considered judgments on these issues, out of religious conviction sometimes but usually out of empirical research or philosophical reflection. I think of myself as “a social conservative,” but I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m a decidedly unconventional social conservative. My convictions on these issues are motivated most of all by an instinct for mitigating the cruelty we direct against other people. So of course I react badly against homophobia and other forms of bigotry and prejudice. I just don’t think of, for example, opponents of abortion as bigots or as people who want to control women’s bodies — I think of them as people who believe that the fight against abortion is about treating all human lives equally. Frankly, I am a very unphilosophical person, and I think of myself as “pragmatic” on the issue of abortion, e.g., some number of abortions is probably ineradicable, yet I also find the argument from women’s autonomy to have a lot of weight. That’s why I favor an abortion regime more like what you see in western Europe (a democratic patchwork that is somewhat more restrictive) than what you see in the United States (something else).

But I struggle with this stuff. We impose a logic and a narrative on events and experience that defy simple characterization. My political self-understanding is that my mother’s experiences — as a brilliant woman who married young and sacrificed a great deal, probably too much, for her family because she grew up in a patriarchal society — informs my worldview. My mother also had a much younger brother, my uncle, who was born with Down’s syndrome, and I remember being held by him as a kid and his various idiosyncrasies.

Why didn’t I end up an ardent liberal? Well, I think of the tensions and complications in any family, and the tendencies I think of as good and constructive vs. those that I don’t. This is all hard to explain. I’m culturally conservative for the same reasons I support equal rights and dignity for lesbians and gays: it reflects my limited experience of the world. I doubt this answer will satisfy anyone.

Anyway, I also sense that lots of devout religious believers — I’m not one of them — are really interested in pursuing their projects and ways of life free of outside interference. I understand parents who want to shield their children from disorder, including social disorder and the misogyny and materialism that some sense in commercial culture. I don’t identify with them, but I have sympathy for them, and I buy this idea that we need conservative experiments in living just as much as liberal experiments in living to preserve and encourage what is best in our society.