Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Abolitionist = Conservative?

Ruth Ann Dailey had a “Why I am a conservative” column yesterday, much like The Office had a flashback episode last week (maybe it is something in the air). The difference between the two is watching flashbacks of Office vignettes is satisfying, while reading Ruth Ann twisting history to suit her own particular cognitive dissonance is not.

She started and finished with descriptions of meeting groups of people who don’t understand her, which we can safely ignore. The meat of her column starts by suggesting that most people don’t think about their political beliefs; those beliefs are shaped by family, either by adopting the views of parents of rebelling against them. She suggests they are “more emotional than rational, more motivated by identity than ideals”. I have to say I agree with her on this point, my own experience bears it out. It applies, in my opinion, equally to liberals and conservatives. She also thinks the effect of the cultural landscape we grow up in shapes our views. She compares people who grew up in the Great Depression and World War II to baby boomers, and not favorably. And she tells us we share ideals – “freedom, justice, equality, opportunity, compassion, self-determination and more”, but how we see current issues depends on how we rank these ideas internally.

I am in agreement, mostly, with her up to this point. At this point she suggests our most important value is to fight tyranny, whether within “Slavery, segregation or big brother government” or without “Nazi national socialism, Soviet communism or Islamic terrorism”. This is, of course, the quintessential American myth. To me however, the timing and manner in which we ended slavery ought to be a national embarrassment (a third of white Americans were willing to kill to continue owning slaves) and the fact that segregation went on for a hundred years after the Civil War kind of indicates how strong our commitment to equal rights really was/is.

I could devote a whole post to dealing with her whole fighting tyranny thing, but I want to go on, because Ruth Ann gets a bit more outrageous. At this point she slams Ellen Goodman, who suggested the people of the sixties were “change agents for civil rights, women’s rights, gay right”. Ruth Ann gives the sixties generation credit for gay rights, but suggests that civil rights and women’s rights movements dated back much further. Ruth Ann further places herself in these past movements (though she wasn’t alive) by suggesting that “for many decades a majority, though by no means all, of those striving for abolition, desegregation and women's suffrage were the evangelical Christians whom today's "progressives" by and large despise” She further links today’s evangelical religious conservatives to the evangelicals of those past times (whom she calls social radicals) and calls them her people.

Now, it is impossible to say what Ruth Ann’s “evangelical Christian social radicals” would advocate today, the cultural divide is too weird. But I want to look at an institution that is over 150 years old, that has a sort of evangelical Christian history as well as a social radical one. It is also my alma mater, Oberlin College.

Oberlin was founded in 1833, by Presbyterian ministers. It started and maintained a strong missionary tradition. It also was the first institution of higher learning to admit African Americans and women, and a “hotbed” of abolitionist activity, including being a stop on the Underground Railroad. Now, I have to say the religious activities at Oberlin have largely faded, but the social radical aspect has not. It continues to have an extremely progressive slant (in 1970 it was one of the first schools to have co-ed dorms, for example).

But I understand where Ruth Ann is coming from, she gives us clues when she says “Beginning in the 1960s, the drive to secure basic constitutional rights morphed into an ever-expanding agenda of extra-constitutional "rights" -- efforts to enforce equality of outcomes at the expense of true liberty.” In her view, the women’s movement ended when women got the vote in 1920. African Americans achieved all they needed when segregation was ended in the sixties.

Now, again I understand what Ruth Ann is saying, even if it is silly in the extreme to say the “Great Society” was about achieving equality of outcomes. In fact, that is the direction from which I would defend the “Great Society”. It was hardly about creating a (theoretical) communist society where everyone has the same income/resources, regardless of effort or ability. Instead, the Great Society was about giving the poor access to dignified (and modern) housing, lots of training and education assistance, and specific sorts of income assistance to help them until they got the better paying jobs (such as food stamps). It was the first attempt, at least at that scale, to help a minority group change their fortunes, and like many such first attempts, it was largely a failure, both in popular culture and in reality. Again I certainly don’t think the Great Society was about equality of the finish line, to me it was clearly about trying to achieve an equality of the starting line. But even though discrimination had essentially been outlawed, racism both overt and more subtle continued and continues today. It does not help that drugs of various sorts have swept through African American communities, along with accompanying crime.

So to step back a second and make some links here, Ruth Ann wants to own the anti-slavery, civil rights and women’s suffrage movements by virtue of the fact that she is an evangelical herself, and wants to claim kinship with past evangelicals her were in these movements. Were it me, I would not be proud of the fact it took nearly a hundred years to end slavery in the US, another hundred for segregation to end, and a hundred and thirty years from the start of the nation for women to get the vote. Then Ruth Ann wants t tell us that the social radicals of more than a hundred years ago, who did care so much about their fellow humans of a different color that they were willing to give their lives for them, that those Christian evangelical social radicals would now tell African Americans that they are asking for too much government assistance. In other words, yesterday’s John Brown is today’s Glenn Beck (actually, considering the two men, maybe that one isn’t so silly).

Surely the word “conservative” itself tells us something about what those who call themselves that believe. Presumably conservatives want to conserve the status quo, because they see change as dangerous and unpredictable (and not benefiting the conservatives). Again, it is silly to make comparisons across time, but wouldn’t the conservatives of 1859 have been the people advocating compromise between the slave-holding South and the North?

Ruth Ann Dailey’s political views seem a perfect topic for a cognitive dissonance post.

1 comment:

Jason said...

Sometimes people confuse the equation

republican = conservative

which is not always and has not always been the case. In Lincoln's time the republicans were definitely not conservative in the classic sense of "maintain the status quo" since they were a new party.

And there is always the libertarian wing of the republican party...not conservative in the classic sense considering they would eliminate entire govt functions that have existed for years and provide significant advantage to those currently in power.