The new conservatism

Having spoken to a few conservative recently, trying to suss out what they actually like about Trump (who is transparently an awful president and just as awful a person), I think I’ve stumbled upon the blazing obvious:

Conservatism is dead.

I mean, it’s obviously not dead. But it’s dead. Or perhaps the old glossy shell is being removed so we can all get a glimpse of the fetid interior.

Either way.

It used to be possible (whether that was right or not; I certainly believed myself to be in this camp) to be a principled, economically-oriented conservative.

I think conservatism (or, again, maybe not at its core, but certainly as it was served up) was about economic systems. Capitalism vs Communism. First vs second world. The guiding us-vs-them (never forget conservatism is always in the first instance tribal; there’s always an us; there’s always a them) was the global conflict against communism. Or, because the USSR was the 900kg gorilla of communism and the USA the 900kg gorilla of capitalism, USA vs USSR. (Also wonderfully ripe for classical Marxist analysis, but that’s a whole other thing.)

Since then, western conservatism (notable in North America and perhaps Great Britain) has undergone a remarkable realignment. The us-vs-them axis has been completely realigned, and Russia is now no longer the bogeyman of 20 years ago. If anything, contemporary conservatives are extremely sympathetic to Russia.

It’s quite hard to understand why this might be. I bet many of the old guard in both Canadian and American conservative circles find this absolutely mindboggling. How can you view Russia, our historic enemy, favourably?

But because conservatism is no longer primarily intellectually aligned with economic theory, it starts to make sense.

What, then, might the current alignment be?

I think contemporary conservatives, perhaps not rightist intellectuals, but certainly the at ground level, are primarily aligned along cultural lines.

You can’t underestimate the effect that narratives like clash-of-cultures have had, especially since the September 11 attacks. Clash-of-cultures (or clash-of-civilizations) is one of those foundational “great books” of contemporary conservative thought. The fact that it’s astoundingly popular doesn’t actually make it true; it just makes it a widely-endorsed myth.

There’s lots to say about clash-of-cultures, not much of it good. What it does have is that sort of “sounds about right to me” gut-check quality that conservative love. It might not be true, but it sure is truthy.

Conservatives have further boiled this myth down into a handy heuristic (and you can see American fingers in this pie; they’re not the only colourist racists in the world but boy howdy do they do it best): White good, brown bad.

In the original clash of cultures, the Protestant/Catholic West isn’t quite the same, culturally, as the Orthodox East (eastern Europe and Russia). But once you collapse “the West vs the Rest” into “the white vs the brown”, Russia starts to look a whole lot more Western. Add to that their persecution of minorities in general (ethnic, sexual, etc) and they start to feel very much of a kind with conservatives.

I think that explains a lot of what’s in the wind in recent conservative discourse. This (seemingly) sudden movement against any kind of diversity, (or as rightists would put it,” degeneracy”) has to be understood through a clash-of-cultures mythic lens. Diversity is weakness. We can’t provide a united cultural front if we’re multicultural, multiethnic, nonbinary, sexually fluid, and so forth.

I see late stage conservatism as an ouroboros of myth. There’s no there there. It’s resistant to facts, while claiming only to believe in facts (not feelings, natch). It’s completely fabricated, but it feels true. It’s stunningly postmodern while desperately trying to inherit the “Enlightenment”. It’s a construction begging the folks living inside to ignore all the bad wiring.

At least you can say that honest postmodern folk (who I do not count myself among) will freely admit that that stuff is constructed (while attempting to unmoor these constructions from their precursors, which is, in my opinion, not a great idea).

So I guess… conservatism is dead, long live conservatism?

Colonial past, colonial present

It’s hard to understand the present condition of the Middle East without understanding its past. And by its past, I mean its colonial past.

You can’t really understand, for instance, the current state of Israel without looking at its where it came from.

Plainly, Israel is a colonial state. It’s probably the most obviously colonial state in existence. Its genesis is complicated, a result of a bunch of ideologies and influences. But it was formed by colonial powers (thanks Britain!), and it continues to be one of the few expansionist colonial states.

If you’ve ever struggled to understand the affinity of America with Israel, sure, it’s interesting and nuanced and complex, but it’s also a case of like attracts like. America (and Canada, we by no means get to wash our hands of this) is a strongly colonial power, though in serious denial.

In particular US Christianity has an affinity for Israel that seems to line up with their extremely idiosyncratic doctrinal positions, like premillennialism (though by no means a new idea) and dispensationalism.

If you’re a bit more pessimistic (or, as a pessimist would say, realistic), you might say that a powerful, hegemonic patron state that just happens to be a colonial power living in the lands of a fairly historically dispossessed native people having a close relationship with a client state that just so happens to be a colonial power living in the lands of a fairly recently dispossessed native people, justified for religious folk with a set of doctrines that just so happen to align along that axis… that’s all a teensy bit too coincidental to be an accident.

That’s not to say that there’s some conspiracy to produce this result; probably not. But when things line up so nicely it’s probably not just some historical accident. We have this (blissfully ignorant) tendency to assume our doctrines and ideologies influence our politics and foreign policy, as if there’s no feedback there.

Is there any reason our politics wouldn’t influence our doctrines, though? I can’t think of any. There’s plenty of doctrines to choose from, all with convincing (ish) hermeneutics and frameworks draped about them. Why not choose the one that allows you the most simpatico bedfellows?

None of this even gets into our North American history of racism, both individual and systemic (and, for Christians, doctrinal; the point above stands, when you remember that entire denominations were created around preserving the institution of slavery). I think you could probably view Israel as existing at some weird intersection of colonialism and xenophobia, since present-day Israelis tend to be white seen as white (ish), where Arabs are not. But setting that aside for now…

It’s easy to say, based on all this, Israel Bad. But that cat’s out of the bag. Israel is. I’m not really dealing with value judgement here, as much as (as best I can see them) facts. Israel is a fact. A fact produced by a certain history which can’t just magically be undone. And it’s important to recognize that the Arab states would like nothing more than to undo Israel. None of this justifies Israeli or Arab aggression. It helps to explain it, but it doesn’t justify it.

It would be easier to sympathize if Israel weren’t an expansionist colonial power. If they weren’t trying to reclaim the “holy land” by disenfranchising and displacing Arabs.

As always, we live in the colonial present. We like to deny it, but in Canada, well within my parents’ lifetimes (however blissfully ignorant of this they choose to remain) the residential school system was still in operation. If we can’t acknowledge that, if we can’t at the very least acknowledge our colonial past, how can we expect to escape the colonial present?

Axioms, heuristics

I remember very clearly sitting in the basement of a Toronto house, eating Indian food and meeting members of the Indian community as part of a Christian missionary-style thing. Maybe “remember clearly” is an overstatement; I actually just remember very good pakora and someone talking about how tolerance and diversity are self-defeating.

All this in the basement of a house in a multicultural city (or at least a city with multicultural pretenses). It was one of those moments, in retrospect, I can’t help boggling at our privilege. Sitting there, a mission field in our laps, whining about the very thing that enabled it.

It’s stunning, really. (And I have more on that for later.)

But that aside, the talk about tolerance centered around how tolerance can’t tolerate intolerance, thus tolerance is self-defeating, thus… something?

It’s just… silly.

Tolerance isn’t an axiom. You can’t disprove it. It doesn’t fail its own test; it’s not a test. It’s a heuristic.

We all do this all the time. We have guidelines or instincts or heuristics that guide our lives. Here’s one of mine: if someone is stridently and unapologetically anti-vaccination (among other antis), I’m immediately suspicious of anything else they say.

But if we turn this into an axiom it’s plainly ridiculous. Antivaxxers can obviously be right about stuff. They don’t, for instance, tend to take long walks off short piers, my wishes to the contrary.

Tolerance is a heuristic, too. I obviously don’t believe that all perspectives are morally equivalent, but I do have to act as if they were (in public) in order to get along in a world where my truth claims are expressed by a vanishingly small percentage of the population.

But only to a point.

If your perspective on freedom of religion is that we should legislate one variety of religion, we’ve reached that point. I’m under no obligation to tolerate your 1600s Church of England crap.

If your perspective on the ethnic makeup of western nations is 100% European, I’m under no obligation to give your belief any sort of legitimacy.

That’s the point at which the heuristic no longer applies. When you start making your perspective the perspective. Because in order to function in the world, in order to have a government and public sphere that works for everyone (not just for your tribe).

We just can’t be funny anymore

I’ve seen this rash of (mostly old, mostly male, mostly white) comedians implying they can’t be funny anymore thanks to this era of intense political correctness.

It’s bullshit.

They’re lazy. They don’t want to adapt to changing times and changing tastes. They want to lean on their old (unfunny!) crutches. They don’t want to have to evolve because they’ve not had to evolve.

And so the barest scrutiny feels like oppression.

It’s bullshit.

There are lots of folks out there making comedy who don’t grind a boot heel into the necks of the marginalized.

And there are still lots of folks making comedy who do.

Because this isn’t a problem. It’s not a thing that exists. Cancel culture is made up. It’s another symptom of this of whiny, insecure, fragile ego that flips the (reasonable) suggestion that maybe we should treat others with a modicum of dignity into a persecution complex. (And trust me, I know all about persecution complexes: I was raised Evangelical.)

This is just the typical “I’m not oppressing you, you’re oppressing ME” response you get anytime you try to hold power to a higher standard.

And as I’ve said before… It’s bullshit.

Folks who are supposedly “cancelled” have thriving or rebounding careers (Louis CK anyone?). You can find bonkers offensive stuff being produced today by Netflix (at the very top of the recommendation queue: Chappelle). And people looooooove it.

See, that’s because “cancel culture” is bullshit.

Your failure to find a market for your comedy isn’t society oppressing you.

Maybe you’ve had some bad luck. Maybe you’re not so funny. Maybe you’re lazy and stagnant and assuming you can just ride to the top with the same old same old.

I dunno. But I can tell you one thing. Your inability to adapt to a free market (a market that is by definition free to change under your feet) isn’t a good sign. You don’t get to tell people what they should and should not find funny.

Times change. What was funny yesterday isn’t funny today. This has always been the case. It will always be the case.

You don’t get to be the exception.