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Conservatism Is Politics For Kindergartners
Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to worry our little heads over politics? Wouldn't it be lovely if we could just turn over control of all those vexing issues, including our health, welfare and very survival, to some nice men in Washington who would take care of all it for us, occasionally interrupting our somnambulance with this week's latest thing - Communists! Terrorists! Lindsay Lohan! - to distract our attention?
Unfortunately, for far too many of us, this is actually precisely what is desired. And don't think Karl Rove doesn't know it.
Politically speaking, we are a radically lazy society. Thinking, let's admit it, is hard work. Many people don't realize that, but then, many people haven't really had the experience. For some folks it's the cognitive equivalent of traveling abroad to a foreign land - done occasionally for a change of pace, if at all. Rigorously exploring and thoughtfully understanding our world is not easy. "Politics ain't beanbag", as the man once said, though he meant it rather differently. Far less demanding to defer to simple stereotypes, canned passion plays and quasi-religious political morality tales than to actually do our homework, apply the logic, and generate original thinking. And hey, if you do take the easy way out, you'll still have plenty of time to catch the game on TV!
Moreover, there are lots of friendly people in Washington who would very much appreciate the opportunity to do your thinking for you. They are called conservatives - though I think regressive is a far more accurate term - and they have been getting lots of practice in recent years. They'll be glad to make your political decisions for you, and even provide you a fully developed, off-the-shelf, ready-to-use reality, any time you like. All you have to do is not think, and not learn. Or, if you really must have the sensory input, simply confine yourself to the infotainment of Fox News or Star magazine. (Though that whole reading thing is to be especially discouraged. Posh Spice is the operative model here. Lots of glamour, lots of money, lots of celebrity, lots of bling. Little substance. She apparently once told an interviewer that she had never read a book - any book - in her entire life. Now that's something, isn't it? You gotta love that. You go, Girl! There may be a Presidential Medal of Freedom waiting for you if you keep on pioneering the way toward Karl Rove's dream citizenry. And why not? Paul Bremer got one, and all he did was destroy a historic civilization of 25 million people.)
We in the progressive community know that not everybody in America thinks the way we do. But we would probably be well served also by a recognition that some people in this country don't want to think at all. It is possible that some of these Borg could be knee-jerk progressives instead of knee-jerk regressives were they somehow to be re-assimilated into the reality-based community, but the odds are not high. So much of progressive thinking requires careful reflection, extended analytical probing, and a collection of just plain data - factual information - about what is going on in the world. So much of regressive 'thinking' fits nicely, and completely, on a bumper sticker.
"Support our troops!", to wit, and quite literally a bumper sticker seen all over the place (though noticeably less ubiquitous than it was in 2003). Literally a bumper sticker, that is, but not so literal in its meaning, especially since the most obvious way to support our troops - right here, right now - would be to pull them out of harm's way, where they sit today for no conscionable purpose whatsoever. Otherwise, short of that, really supporting our troops today would mean screaming and hollering at the top of our lungs to make sure that they get adequate training, armor, and rest before being deployed. While we're at it, we might even ask that they be paid at the same rate as the nearly equivalent numbers of mercenaries fighting alongside them, to the tune of three or four times the soldiers' salary. And if we really, really wanted to support the troops, we'd call for a draft, so that we'd have a massively enlarged military, and each soldier would have far less of a share of the burden to carry. Hmmm - that may be a bit more than our friends with the bumper stickers had in mind. Perhaps that's why they've been seen lately ducking out to the garage in the wee hours of the night to scrape the things off their Hummers.
The fact that the regressive mantra "support the troops" in reality means none of these things is a perfect example of the difference between bumper sticker politics and something much more nuanced and analytical. And real. At the end of the day, the truth is that what this little slogan really means has little to do with the troops at all. What it really means for regressives who employ it is: "I let the president do my thinking for me, and I'd feel a whole lot more comfortable about how utterly lame that is if you would too, so I wouldn't have to be reminded by your nonconformity of how I'm embarrassing myself by abdicating my role in this democracy thing we're always huffing and puffing about, especially the particularly imbecilic creature now occupying the Oval Office to whom I've turned over my brain". That's what "support the troops" really means.
But then it gets worse from there, because it isn't really "the president" to whom our friendly regressive is entrusting his brain, but actually certain kinds of presidents only. Don't think for a minute that Bill Clinton would have gotten this kind of carte blanche from this same crowd. Indeed, we know that he wouldn't have. Because he didn't. His interventions in the Balkans, infinitely more justifiable than the invasion of Iraq, produced only scorn and hostility from many of the same folk who now question the patriotism of anyone who finds the judgement of the current president even remotely dubious. So much for the idea that politics stops at the water's edge, eh? How very mid-twentieth century that notion was. Sorta like the war on poverty, the progressive income tax, the Geneva Protocols, or other equally quaint historical artifacts.
Truly, the entirety of the Iraq debacle - not just the more recent quagmire - can be understood in terms of this kindergarten politics motif. You need a boatload of operative assumptions banging away on all eight cylinders at once to buy, wholesale, into this line of garbage. You need to believe that the story of 9/11 as it's been presented to us is real. You need to believe that America has never acted in the Middle East for purposes of profiting its overclass and at the expense of the welfare and the very lives of the people there who are inconveniently living on top of "our" oil and "our" strategic perches. You need to understand that "they" - Arabs, Muslims, brown people, ragheads, whatever - are all the same, and that the US attacking secular, Shiite-majority, Iraq in response to a crime supposedly perpetrated by rabid, Sunni, Islamofascists who happened to hate the Iraqi regime about as much as they hate us makes perfect sense.
You must forget that an urgent invasion to make us safe from weapons of mass destruction made no sense given the Cold War experience of forty years of deterrence, let alone the near-completion of the weapons inspections that were demonstrating that no such weapons even existed. You must not laugh out loud at the prospect of bringing democracy to the Middle East as a motivation for the war, given the very same administration's complete inaction in the face of genocide in Darfur. You must never question why Iraq should be attacked in response to a terrorist episode perpetrated (even according to the official story) almost entirely by Saudis, and no Iraqis. You have to believe that there are people sitting in bunkers somewhere right this moment, trying to determine where best to hit America in order to inflict maximum damage, and deciding that it's a lot easier to deploy suicide missions in a locked down, massively fortified war zone than, or in addition to, on the streets of Burbank or Baltimore, and therefore that it is a good thing we are fighting them over there, so we don't have to fight them over here.
Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?
In kindergarten, the world is a lot easier to understand if you keep two important ideas in mind. The first is that there are only two kinds of people - good ones and evil ones - you know, just like they teach you in Sunday school, or Lord of the Rings. And, second, your side is always the good people side. Likewise, Mr. Bush and his war are a lot easier to understand if you've never quite graduated from kindergarten, emotionally or analytically. Saddam, you see, was an evil, evil man, and we are the good people who had to heroically vanquish him in order to save his innocent would-be victims. Given this construction, it was obviously crucial in the run-up to the war not to dwell too much on the past history of American relations with Saddam, back when he was, er, a good, evil man.
And, four-and-a-half years down the merry pike, it is equally important to avoid the inconvenient fact that a million Iraqi civilians are now dead, and four million more have become refugees. Especially since that totals out to one-fifth of the country's population, or the equivalent of 60 million Americans. That's equal to the entire populations of Minnesota, Louisiana, Alabama, Colorado, Kentucky, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Connecticut, Mississippi, Kansas, Arkansas, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming. Personally, I wouldn't entirely miss a few of those states (you know who you are, Mississippi, Utah, 'Bama...), but I don't wish any ill on the folks living there. I only wish that they wished the same for the nice people of the Anbar, Najaf, Baghdad, Diyala, Karbala and the other Iraqi provinces.
These inconvenient facts, of course, represent massive cognitive overload for those Americans enrolled in Political Science .001, Civics For Kindergartners. Fortunately, the walking misnomer that goes by the name of the American news media was gracious enough to interject neither complexity nor reality into the comic strip morality play fabricated for our benefit by the good, good men in Washington (Thanks, Dick! Thanks, Karl!). None of us, therefore, had to think too hard if we didn't want to, about the difficult questions lurking only just barely below the war's mythological epic tale, a patina now rapidly melting away like a working girl's eye make-up in a downpour. Many of us continue to this day to resist such painful exercising of the synapses. And one heckuva lot more of us would still be in that latter category now, had the administration's Romper Room expectations for the war's prosecution not gone so badly awry.
In kindergarten teacher knows best, and questioning - even of things you see right before your very eyes - will only earn you a timeout for insolence. If teacher says that massive tax cuts for the rich will trickle down to the rest of us, and will even do so without busting the budget, then it must be so. If teacher says turning over Social Security to Wall Street will make us all better off, then your job is to agree. If teacher says we need not worry about our planet burning up despite the gargantuan pile of accumulated evidence to the contrary, she must be right. If teacher promises to fix that entire city in Louisiana that drowned, then of course she will. And if none of these things appear to your eyes to be true, two, three and four years later, then surely what's needed is for you to visit the nice eye doctor with the funny dials and charts on the wall. For teacher is never wrong. But it is certainly always wrong to even wonder if that might be the case.
This is precisely the sort of mentality about politics that has gotten us into the trouble we're in today. And this kindergarten approach to public affairs is precisely what the American Founders sought to supplant with their blueprint for Enlightenment-style rational, mature, self-determining administration of government. Their dream was that we could graduate from kindergarten to first grade, or maybe even tenth grade, and employ the wisdom that is inherent in most of us and is necessary to sustain self-governance, rather than continuing to rely upon the daddy figures of various kings and sundry deities.
The hopes and aspirations of the Founders, and the risk inherent to their experiment in governance, have been largely vindicated over the centuries since. But sometimes, especially when we're particularly frightened of the loud noises and the bright flashes that go bump in the middle of the night, too many of us still revert back to kindergartner mode.
It must be relaxing not to have to think very hard about difficult and complex issues, but to rely upon bumper sticker politics instead.
It must be comforting to know that the world can be reliably divided into good and evil, and that your side is always good.
It must be reassuring to uncritically delegate decision-making and even value-setting to somebody who talks tough and strides through the world with an impermeable air of confidence.
Yes, relaxation, comfort, and reassurance are all wonderful things, but then so is naptime.
Unless Americans want to (continue to) live in a country ruled by a government of, for and by kindergartners, some of us need to reconsider how we practice our politics.
Giving up graham crackers and milk won't be easy, of course. But then neither is endless war, devastated cities, a destroyed environment or fiscal hemorrhaging.
And, anyway, it's the price we all have to pay for graduating to first grade.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.