Friday, October 06, 2006

Conservatism's fundamental problem.

There is an interesting debate regarding the soul of modern conservatism on line worth watching or listening to. Conservative author Andrew Sullivan has written a defence of what he sees as traditional conservative thinking and argues that the Bush administration is the complete antithesis of these principles.

Sullivan argues that at the core of the conservative movements move into authoritarianism is a faith driven agenda. I think he is absolutely correct on that. Sullivan’s main flaw is that he wants to defend faith. And he uses the arguments of the mainstream Christian which, for the most part, seem to be contradictory and vague at best. So you get comments like “faith is doubt” or along those lines. It comes across as really rather meaningless.

But his critique is spot on. In this discussion conservative pundit David Brooks disagrees rather strongly. He argues that fundamentalism isn’t the way Sullivan portrays it. But then Brooks doesn’t really know fundamentalism very well. He’s not even a Christian. Fundamentalism is precisely the way that Sullivan, himself a Christian, portrayed it.

Brooks wanted to argue that fundamentalism is diverse therefore it doesn’t reflect the moral certitude that Sullivan condemned. Brooks errs. That there are fundamentalists who disagree with one another on some issues doesn’t mean that each one them isn’t absolutely sure that all the others are wrong.

I argue that there three two traits inherent in fundamentalism. And doctrinal issues per se are not on my list at all.

First, there is an absolute moral truth.

Second, I know what it is.

Third, to disagree with me is not an indication that you have made a mistake but that you are immoral.

The fundamentalist has a black and white view of reality. There is the one truth and anyone without it is wrong and to be wrong is to be corrupt, evil and dangerous. And some of the most fundamentalist authoritarians I’ve met in my life were not even religious.

As Sullivan rightly points out this is the core doctrine of governance for the Bush administration. There are the good guys and evil doers and unless you support everything the “good guys” are doing they you are helping the “evil doers.” It’s a very childish sort of logic. It is the moral reasoning of someone without the ability to think in terms of abstract principles.

Professor Lawrence Kohlberg outlined various stages in moral reasoning. And for many fundamentalists they never get out of the most immature phase which says that “right” and “wrong” are defined merely on rewards and punishments. If you are punished for something then it is wrong. Certainly Jehovah or Allah are pretty much this sort of deity.

The fundamentalist view is: God said, I believe it, that settles it. God said it was wrong. He will send us to hell if we disobey so we obey to avoid eternal damnation.

I have to confess I did get a chuckle during the discussion between Sullivan and Brooks when the floor was opened to questions from the audience. During the discussion both Brooks and Sullivan said they supported gay marriage.

Sullivan was arguing that a faith driven agenda was determining the politics of conservatives. Brooks was denying it. So during the questions a woman gets up to say she is astounded that both Sullivan and Brooks support gay marriage. But she offers nothing more than her shock and dismay. Sullivan replies that he can’t really say anything since she has offered no reason whatsoever for her position. After all this is a complex question of politics, human rights, law, federalism, etc.

Her reply was that there was nothing in the Bible approving gay marriage. That’s it! Nothing more. It was precisely the sort of reasoning which Sullivan was arguing has turned the modern conservative movement into an authoritarian movement. Brooks was denying it but it was his misfortune to have a woman stand up and exhibit for the world the see precisely the kind of reasoning that Sullivan was discussing.

In similar vein I see that conservative author John Dean has also written a book Conservatives Without Conscience which is play on the title of Barry Goldwater’s work The Conscience of a Conservative. I have yet to read Dean’s books only learning of it today but the review I read said these new Bushian conservatives “want to legislate morality and have objections to interfering in private lives. Their dogmas aren’t conservative; they are authoritarian.” It sounds as if he agrees with Sullivan.

If there is one thing the Left should thank Bush for it is that he has ruptured the American conservative movement while uniting the Left. Bush is so bad that some of the most prominent conservatives in America are urging votes for the Democrats. This is what fundamentalist has done to the Republicans. And what it is doing to them it will do to America if given half the chance.