Wall VIA – Opening: Conservatism that in Not a Wall

I have spent a large amount of time on blogs dealing with walls with a short foxtrot into space and openings. On the sacred plane, there are guardians for openings. Openings connect the past and the future, connect history to revelation. Coming to an opening is the opposite of living in the moment, for it sees the moment simply as a transition between the past and the future. This does not mean the self is not present. For unless it is fully present, the self will miss the opening.

My last blog probed into those who sever their concerns from their historical roots. As I depicted it, such a posture “is always irreverent, seeming to idolize that which is not rooted in traditional trust and an emphasis on reliability, such as folk music. Rock is anti-institutional. Hence its association with the antithesis to the rule of law and convention. The responsibilities of ordinary life were considered distracting annoyances. In combining passion and energy rather than sensitivity and delicacy, ideas became exciting and sexy. And both conviction and convincing became the two sides of its rhetorical thrust as the lightness of being and attention to detailed exposition were both ignored.”

In this blog, I want to explore a very opposite posture, or, at the very least, one which at least attends to the past and history even if revelation is bracketed. Gerry Cohen is an outstanding philosopher at Oxford, but also a brilliant stand-up comedian. He was such a superb mimic of Isaiah Berlin that when we were together at Oxford for a week with other academics who were once students of Isaiah’s and Isaiah walked in late after Gerry had been imitating him commenting on an issue, we told Isaiah that his presence was not needed because we already had an impressive doppelgänger. Isaiah laughed and stayed.

In Gerry Cohen’s essay, “Rescuing Conservatism: A Defense of Existing Value,” that he delivered at the Centre for Ethics at the Munk Centre at U of T just over ten years ago (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQA_PghU0H4 – it is included in the collection, Reasons and Recognition: Essays on the Philosophy of T.M. Scanlon edited by R. Jay Wallace, Rahul Kumar and Samuel Freeman), he wrote that,

“The conservative attitude that I seek to describe, and begin to defend, in this paper is a bias in favour of retaining what is of value, even in the face of replacing it by something of greater value. I consider two ways of valuing something other than solely on account of the amount or type of value that resides in it. In one way, a person values something as the particular valuable thing that it is, and not merely for the value that resides in it. In another way, a person values something because of the special relation of the thing to that person. There is a third idea in conservatism that I more briefly consider: namely, the idea that some things must be accepted as given, that not everything can, or should, be shaped to our aims and requirements.”

Gerry was not always a conservative. When I first knew him, he was a preeminent Marxist thinker. Though his Conservatism has come to the fore, it is not inconsistent with an anti-capitalist stance, if capitalism is characterized as maximizing utilitarianism, the willingness to sacrifice the present for what is considered a more valuable future.

Conservatism for Gerry is primarily about valuing how things are, what we have now in favour of something held to be better or of greater value in the present. Conservatism seeks to preserve this particularity. As Gerry insists, “This orientation encompasses causes dear to the left, such as the conservation of nature, species, architecture, and folk traditions.” But it also respects “enthusiasms of the right such as the preservation of national character and ways of life.”

Conservatives of this ilk resist change and challenge the desire to sacrifice what we have for what is held out to be a higher value. They value “what they are” and do not favour giving preference to what might provide more value over what we already have. Gerry is not in favour of the principle of conservation of value, which is a principle derived from the law of the conservation of energy, but the conservation of what we value, of that which has either intrinsic value, value to us personally (personal value) or simply the value that prioritizes retention unless overwhelming arguments are offered for its sacrifice. And instrumentalism of any kind does not count as an overwhelming argument. Nor do natural laws.

Let me illustrate this form of conservatism. Ignoring the controversy over the cover of the magazine illustrating Jennifer Percy’s story, “The Life of an American Boy at 17” in the March issue of Esquire, Ryan Morgan is portrayed as a depiction of “what it’s like to grow up white, middle class, and male in the era of social media, school shootings, toxic masculinity, #MeToo, and a divided country.” Morgan grew up in the middle-class town of West Bend, Wisconsin, a blue-collar overwhelmingly white town (2% are African-American) of just over thirty thousand outside Milwaukee with a strong German heritage in a county where Donald Trump won 67 percent of the vote. His parents are conservative. In West Bend, a moderate Republican is a liberal.

He is for:
• The death penalty
• Putting tariffs and limits on the import of foreign goods
• The woman in a marriage quitting her job if a couple have a baby though he professes to support marriage equality
• Football, the most exciting part of his life.
He is against:
• Welfare, except if you are working
• Needle exchanges
• The distribution of condoms in high school to prevent pregnancy
• The legalization of abortion.
He is proud of his behaviour:
• He is decisive whereas his girlfriend of four years, Kaitlyn, is tentative and waves other drivers on even when it is her turn at a four-way stop
• He likes playing video games
• He does not drink or do drugs
• He does not party
• He does not use Facebook or Twitter
• He does not hang out with the “white guys who all hang out with their trucks and guns and say, ‘Heil Trump’ and all that,” yet he supports Trump even though, “Everyone hates me…I couldn’t debate anyone without being shut down and called names. Like, what did I do wrong?”
• He does not think that Trump is racist or sexist, although the president “tries to piss people off a little too much.”
• He is an apologist for Josh Hader, a pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, though Hader when he was 17 and 18 in his tweets used the n-word repeatedly and made an allusion to “white power” and revealed himself as both a homophobe and a misogynist
• He is a conservative moderate in a school where most young people are liberal
• He, like his fellow teenagers, worry about getting a job and making money
• He is sceptical about attending college, though academically he does well, because attending college might change him and make him more liberal
• Ryan’s father, Owen, a taxidermist, has taught Ryan that taxidermy is not about showing off the biggest thing you’ve killed; it’s about preserving memories.

Note a number of things about Ryan’s Conservatism. He is wary of mass psychology. He does not surrender to the norm of political correctness. Nor does he defend what he believes by insisting that a universal law underpins it. He has been educated to believe in preserving memories, but they are memories only in a limited sense; they are self-referential. A preserved item is intended to stimulate the emotions and excitement once felt at a particular place and time in the past.

The article did not probe Ryan’s views of Black Americans or of migrants from Mexico. However, from the overall tone of the interview, there is no indication that Ryan felt any animus towards Blacks or towards migrants. However, if he identified the latter’s entry into America or preferences given to African or native Mexicans with a threat to his way of life, he would be inclined to adopt more restrictive entry policies and to try to eliminate any preferential treatment based on a past record of abuses.

Because of his attitude to abortion, to gun rights, to capital punishment, all rooted in what he might consider threats to his predisposition to value what exists more than what could be, he is a moderate supporter of Donald Trump. One way to wean him away from that support is to try to establish in his mind why Donald Trump’s radicalism and disruptive tendencies are both opportunistic and a long-term threat to his way of life. Donald Trump is no defender of personal values, but a person who betrays personal values such as courage, such as loyalty, such as civility. Given Ryan’s self-referential view of memory, it will be of little utility to appeal to his identification with underdogs, whether they be migrants or minorities who suffer discrimination.

Democrats will have to choose between adopting a moderate agenda that could wean away conservatives (and independents) from Donald Trump or direct their appeal to the frustrated working class who feel betrayed by globalism. Or they could target some other group that gave their support to Trump. DT managed to cobble together a contradictory message that appealed to a swath of voters, each group made to feel that DT was the better alternative, even receiving possible reinforcement from the working class in places like Ohio. The propensity to support Trump by those of a conservative predisposition will be more likely reinforced if Democrats choose as their candidate a person advocating radical changes.

Tomorrow and the following day, I will continue this essay by discussing two almost entirely opposite cases, first a case study of Conservatism based on altruism. I will follow this with an examination in much greater detail of the claim that Conservatism allegedly defending the notion of self-interested individualism actually takes undermines conservatism in the most disruptive way to our inherited values. But let me first end with words from one of my readers as both a conclusion to this essay as well as an introduction to the next in which I will explore the predisposition to value what exists more than what could be and see how it can be complementary to rather than at odds with progressivism.

Tomorrow, I will continue this essay by discussing two almost entirely opposite cases, first a case study of Conservatism based on altruism rather than self-interest versus a claimed Conservatism in the name of defending the notion of self-interested individualism in the most disruptive way to our inherited values. But let me first end with words from one of my readers as both a conclusion to this essay as well as an introduction to the next in which I will explore the predisposition to value what exists more than what could be and see how it can be complementary to rather than at odds with progressivism.

My reader objected either to Darwinism or to depicting Darwinism as reifying the notion of self-interested individualism as the moving force of action and history. “The notion of ‘human nature first and foremost self-interested’…ignores the essential element of human connectivity and collaboration or at least cooperation.”

“The image of the isolated self-interested Self is an interesting illusion, a response to disintegration anxiety and usually a marker of a compulsively attachment avoidant individual. The psychology of the individual interfaces with social psychology just as the proteome interfaces between the genome and the environment. The evolutionary success of humans depends on successful cooperation for goal achievement, especially when self-interest gets in the way. ‘Survival’ does not exclude self-sacrifice, which evolutionary forces sometimes demand, e.g. sacrifice of a parent for a child or between partners.”

In my reader’s argument that, “Darwinism does not/cannot preclude altruism,” he suggests that “a basic understanding of biology (i.e. mine) [that is, his] suggests the genome is a multi-way avenue not codified and barebones reductionist…the genome produces the proteome; the proteome is exquisitely sensitive to the internal corporeal biochemical environment and vice versa. The internal corporeal environment is exquisitely sensitive to the extracorporeal environment.”

This argument, while complementary to my own, roots ethical imperatives in nature. I want to argue that the “predisposition to value what exists more than what could be” is not “natural” but a predisposition of some. Further, that predisposition must remain in tension with desire, the passion to overcome the limitations of what is to produce something greater. Opting for one or the other side of this dialectic ends up on a path of disruption and destruction.

Ryan Morgan needs to be weaned off his attachment to Donald Trump by showing that a) Donald Trump is a dangerous threat to Conservatism and b) Conservatism is strengthened if it lives in tension with progressivism and serves to limit its utilitarian excesses.


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