Thursday, November 28, 2002

Not a Conservative at 20

Michael Blowhard wondered about why people don’t become conservative. The old saying is that “If you weren’t a liberal at 20, you didn’t have a heart. If you aren’t a conservative by 35, you don’t have a brain.” What are the details about the early half? Why is conservatism repellant to so many? I've argued in earlier posts that it is envy that makes people turn to the left; Michael has suggested perhaps it has to do with aesthetics. Now I think that the answer is "both, inextricably, at once."

Liberty and Moral Authority. Here is a simple error: that since people should have liberty to do as they like, to find ways of life that suit them and make them happy, therefore, there is no such thing as a moral authority, a person who, as a transmitter of established tradition, is wise and discriminating about ways of life. The idea that someone knows better offends the notion that oppression is wrong, that no one is the boss of anyone else. To subject one’s will to another is degrading to the modern sense of autonomy. A liberal is born whenever someone makes this error. For it is an error, given that the wrongness of oppressing and depriving people of liberty is fully consistent with the appropriateness of willingly submitting oneself to the traditional wisdom of those who are better. Some people are better than others. The rest of us should follow their lead, at least to some degree. (We should of course discover our own individual inclinations and preferences, as well, and prudently develop an idea of the right way of life by using both sources of guidance.) But let’s cut the chase.

Arrogance and Blue Blazers. Michael thinks aesthetics has a big role. (There were many posts on this on many blogs about a month ago.) The adolescent who has not been shown how to find fulfillment in any particular way of life looks upon the conservative role models; blue-blazer, khaki-slacks, and arrogance are all that he sees. They listen to violin music. What’s that? Oh, yes, “Classical.” They have nothing immediately gratifying in their aesthetic, either in their dress, their music, or their art. All is understated, because the conservative values aesthetic pleasures that require subtle attention. This requires uncommon ability on the part of the perceiver; it is a cultivated, acquired taste. It is better to be someone who can take these pleasures. The character, experience, and life, of such a one are finer than those of the hoi polloi. The conservative knows this and acknowledges it in body language, and sometimes, arrogantly, by directly stating his superiority. The adolescent finds nothing aesthetically gratifying in the conservative way but, noticing its arrogance and wealth, concludes that it is a sham.

The adolescent without direction suddenly gets direction: to prove the conservative to be effete, pretentious, and, even vacuous in his tastes. The young liberal will show that profoundly rich experiences are there to be had precisely by those who are not so controlled and discriminating. Sloth enters in; no one wants to work hard at achieving excellence of character. Of course, simple hedonism is not usually the goal; that would be patently absurd as a method of aesthetic one-upsmanship. So, the anti-establishment aesthetic is cast sometimes as a spiritual mysticism (usually Asian kinds, since those involve profound aesthetic experiences and ‘not making distinctions’), but usually as an avante garde, rule-breaking aesthetic elitism to rival that of the conservative establishment. From Duchamp to the Butthole Surfers, from the performance artist who had himself nailed to a VW to John Cage’s 4’33”, and from Naked Lunch to Black Flag, the jig is up. These are unquestioningly held to be several orders of magnitude greater in aesthetic profundity than traditional, conservative culture. This is the jaded cognition of the world-savvy, the one who has “seen through the charade” to the underlying reality, the one who is bored with the game and will toy with its rules, twisting them, distorting them, breaking them, in order to express his victory over his aesthetic rival, the conservative. In other words, the liberal makes his victory over the rival he envies precisely by desecrating the rules of the game. Victory is easy and swift. This is the meaning of “cool”. The new liberal does not sweat the distinctions between fine and uncouth; he is cool to them. He has a pleasure far beyond their league.

He scoffs, as well, at the middle-class, conservative masses located below the blue-blazered elite; they are the duped and mindless drones that make up the elite snobs’ army. In addition to the aesthetic and moral pretensions of the conservative elite, the liberal has also seen through the economic system designed to support these. He therefore feels himself in touch with the laborers and the disenfranchised poor, whom he views as closer to nature than the middle- and upper-class establishment. “At 20 to have a heart” because obviously the poor have miseries put upon them as a result of the scandalous pretensions of a blue-blazer aesthetic and the insidious age-old lie that the wealth required to finance this aesthetic ought by “rights” to left amongst those who are of nobility and worth. He is also a multiculturalist because he knows that distinctions of better and worse ways of life are mere tools of oppression, and that only one culture is lower than any other: the Western, conservative, elitist culture that denies this. He would therefore add economic egalitarianism to his agenda, alongside the aesthetic of the cool. All distinctions are to be exposed for the frauds they are, be they distinctions in character, culture or economic desert. And all this arises from a simple event in adolescence: humiliation and envy in the presence of the upturned nose and the blue blazer, the inability to face one’s own inadequacy in taste and moral character. By late adolescence the youngster was not made liable to take pleasure in truly fine activities, and he now realizes that the door to these is quickly closing. He rages against this fate and discovers a commonly followed escape route: revolution, progressivism, leftism: the only ideology according to which failure may be easily avoided and victory is at hand: the only ideology according to which personal fulfillment, and even membership in a bonafide elite group, can be had merely by getting hip, by simply having the guts and savvy to see through the game - personal adjustments which may be had in a matter of a particularly wild evening or, at worst, a month and a half of finding out how to “turn on and tune out”.

Adolescence finished, the liberal takes his place amongst those “working for change”: a nebulous goal which, as a utopianism, means little more than a prideful and narcissistic “not this culture, for I can find no personal fulfillment in it, and I am worthy of great fulfillment, of partaking of what is fine.” Therefore, the dispute over whether liberalism is motivated by envy or aesthetics is therefore settled by answering "both, inextricably, at once".

UPDATE: The connection John Jay Ray makes between authoritarianism and leftism can be detected here (N.B., I'm using "liberal" and "leftist" synonymously in this post, though I usually just use "leftist"). The liberal must have the government enforce economic equality and cultural non-judgmentalism (including multiculturalism) because this is the only way to make the situation seem to count as a victory for him over the conservatives. As long as there is a free market for wealth, morals, and aesthetics, the conservative will be shown to be the victor. The liberal therefore tends toward authoritarianism (and narcissism, as well). Ironically, what got the young liberal started on this unhealthy spiral was a libertarian suspicion of authority and respect for autonomy. This is why people don't often associate liberalism with authoritarianism. The confusion lies in the fact that early on it is moral, aesthetic, or cultural authority that the young liberal does not respect. He later develops a great appreciation for state authority. The two are consistent, in that the liberal's state is to enforce equality and the cessation of all distinctions, be they economic or moral. (N.B., This is why I don't like to use "liberal" but prefer "leftist". I've used "liberal" here because it is the term used in the old saying, "If you weren't a liberal...)

UPDATE: John has more on this (his area of expertise), and, in addition to correcting me in places, he gives us the locus classicus of the "old saying" I've been on about.