conservatives Tag - PaganSquare - Join the conversation! Tue, 23 May 2017 02:20:15 -0700 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb The Spiritual Truths underlying Liberalism and Conservatism, Part III: The crisis of nihilism, the triumph of Power, and a NeoPagan promise This is the conclusion of a three part essay on conservatism, liberalism, and their relationship to NeoPagan spirituality. Part I described what liberalism and conservatism have been historically and philosophically and argued there is considerable truth in both views. Part II explored their relationship to Christian and Pagan spirituality and how Pagan insights enabled us better to understand their competitive but ultimately symbiotic relationship.  Now, Part III examines why neither, but especially conservatism, resembles what they have been historically and why those Pagan insights are so critically important to everyone today.

           The argument is more complex than the preceding two, but I hope you will bear with me. I am happy to elaborate points that seem undeveloped in the discussion to follow. Exceptions exist to much of what I am arguing, my larger argument is that the exceptions are minor themes today.

A valid conservative criticism of liberalism

One of the oldest conservative arguments against liberalism was that it lacked the moral weight to replace Christianity as the foundation for a stable society. Liberalism was too much a product of rational thought when liberal reason in the final analysis could not derive ethical principles from statements of fact. Something more was needed, a something supplied by Christianity. As liberalism gradually secularized society it was undercutting its own moral foundations. The results would be disastrous.

I believe there is considerable truth in this conservative critique, but it manifested in ways no genuine conservative imagined possible. We are living with the consequences today.

Conservatism’s Achilles heel

If liberalism lacked moral weight, conservatism had a connected weakness.  Conservatism arose within Great Britain, the most liberal European society of its time. Edmund Burke did not challenge the values of this society, he challenged liberalism’s understanding of why these values were important and how to extend them elsewhere. He saw them as culturally rooted and supported in tradition and religion rather than as universal principles applicable everywhere.  Unlike so much of Europe, the British crown made no claims to absolute authority, and Burke was a steady critic of centralizing efforts by the King and his ministers. He even  defending the American rebellion arguing they were fighting for the rights of Englishmen. 

Just as liberalism depended on its Christian roots, conservatism depended on English cultural and religious roots. Conservatism privileged the status quo, but it was a status quo deeply enmeshed in English religious and political institutions. Further, by the standards of the time those political institutions were liberal. Burke even argued France could improve its society by building on its own institutions that could increase French freedom along similar lines. He did not simply support the monarchy against reform. 

Should conservatism reject broad liberal values but continue to privilege the status quo it would cease being conservative.  Once they truly rejected liberalism, conservatives undermined their own position as deeply as liberalism had undermined its own foundations.

This was because, minus liberal values of any sort, conservatism becomes simply a defense of those who benefit from the status quo. But because change is eternal, it takes more and more power to preserve those who are benefiting against changes that might undermine them. As more and more power is needed to preserve the status quo, conservatism becomes the worship of power.

The rise of nihilism

We can understand what happened by introducing another term: nihilism.  Nihilism is modernity’s darkest shadow, hidden for years by the bright light the Enlightenment seemed to shed on all it examined. But today the light is dissipating and the shadow is growing.

Nihilism is the belief there are no ultimate values, that the world and life itself is without intrinsic meaning or value. It entered into the modern world as an unintended byproduct of modernity’s greatest achievement in acquiring knowledge: science.

As I argued in Part II, liberalism’s ethical roots are Christian, particularly that variant that emphasized everyone is equal in God’s eyes. And Christianity is based on interpreting the Bible. But as scientific knowledge advanced many Biblical statements were found to be literally false. Faced with this unexpected development, many Christians reinterpreted scripture to make passages once thought literally true to be allegorical or metaphorical.  But Darwin and evolutionary theory was a step too far.  If Darwin was right there was no Garden of Eden, no Adam and Eve, no Fall. Reinterpretations could still be done, but at this point they would undermine Christianity’s claim to religious exclusivity and therefore the commonly accepted interpretation of Jesus’s death.

To make matters worse, science inherited the Western Christian view that the world is without intrinsic value. If people arose from a world without value, they were without value as well. Ultimately life was pointless. Liberalism made modern science possible, and modern science cut liberalism’s original ethical foundation off at its roots, ultimately undermining conservatism as well.

This intellectual and moral earthquake took a while to percolate through society, starting initially with Europe’s philosophical elite. Friederich Nietzsche first grasped the implications of what was happening. In a time when the general mood in Europe was optimistic Nietzsche predicted catastrophe and war as the meaning that held society together dissolved.  Soon afterwards WWI broke out. Nietzsche’s view became widely known and often accepted.

Nietzsche’s observations complimented the traditional conservative view that liberalism could not sustain itself, but Nietzsche did not hold out the promise that if we returned to religion all would be better. As Nietzsche put it, God was dead.

This crisis hit Europe first because the war had discredited both liberalism and Christianity in the eyes of many. Illiberal mass movements arose on the right and left. Initially the US was lightly touched by this turmoil, but the same forces were at work. It would take longer for them to manifest, but manifest they would. Today the Christian moral capital that gave substance to both liberalism and conservatism in the US is largely exhausted.

Responding to Nihilism

Nihilism generally leads to two responses.  One is to lose confidence in our own values beyond their personal utility.  If something works for you but I disapprove, I have no objective grounds to say you are wrong and I am right.  It’s all a matter of taste because ultimately nothing matters. This attitude can lead to passivity and weakness, especially for liberals who believe all people are fundamentally equal. No outside stance exists anymore to criticize what it wrong.

Alternatively in a world without meaning we can seek to create meaning through the strength of our will. This is a kind of heroic response. Weaker people can then join with the strong elite to create a new world. It also elevates will above reason, and so is ultimately irrational.  Will trumps reason since reason is powerless to find value in life. Living life requires a powerful will able to dominate whatever opposes it.

A third response was once common in the Marxist left, but is not important today. Laws of social development were at work, and people could either cooperate or oppose them. But the laws would ultimately trump any efforts at denying them. Therefore it was best to act in harmony with those laws and eliminate all who opposed them. 

Nihilism guts liberalism

Not only had liberalism’s moral foundations been weakened or dissolved, the prospect of a peaceful liberal Europe had wrecked itself on the rocks of WWI, followed by the rise of fascism and Communism, and then WWII. The US was in better shape, but the stage had been set for its own crisis, to hit in the 70s.  The “stagflation” of the Carter years coming on the heels of the Vietnam debacle deprived egalitarian and managerial American liberals in particular of confidence in their policies as well as confidence in their moral grounding. A symbolic turning point was George H. W. Bush’s presidential debate with Michael Dukakis. When Bush accused him of being a liberal, Dukakis sought to dodge the criticism rather than responding affirmatively and proudly.

George Lakoff has written perceptively that politics is more about values than about the details of policy.  Once values are established, policy proposals can be evaluated. But today managerial and egalitarian liberals talk almost entirely in terms of policy. Moral language is avoided because in all too many cases liberals have no confidence in their moral principles, not the kind of confidence that says “No” and means it.  Was there torture and unnecessary war that killed thousands and maimed countless more?  This was too bad, but we should “move on.”  Were there criminal bankers who ruined the lives of millions?  Prosecuting them would be destabilizing. When policy is not backed up by strong principles it is open to compromising itself to death when confronting the unprincipled. 

At first classical liberalism and its best known variant, libertarianism, seemed in better shape intellectually and morally, even if most Americans disagreed with their concrete policy proposals. They had a strong political position in frequent alliance with American conservatism, as was particularly clear during the Goldwater campaign, and to some extent later with Ronald Reagan.

But that was about to change drastically.

Classical liberals had their own encounter with nihilism, largely through the growing influence of Ayn Rand. Rand ‘s novels were probably the major vector through which Nietzschean nihilism entered America at a popular level. Hers was an illiberal individualism with contempt for most people for not having the traits of her heroes and heroines.  While Rand sometimes wrote in terms of individual rights, her position was basically the strong do what they want, and the weak should step aside or be crushed. In the years after her death Rand became the major voice by which secular classical liberals first encountered praise for capitalism and opposition to ‘socialism.’

Today those calling themselves ‘libertarians’ are more likely to have read Rand’s novels than the more demanding works of the other leading classical liberal thinkers of recent times: F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman. Their increasingly asocial thinking reflects this fact. For example, Hayek and Friedman both supported a guaranteed annual income whereas the asocial classical liberals of today argue no one is owed anything by anyone else, and any assistance to the weak perpetuates “moochers” and the weak.

This asocial attitude has intriguing connections with contemporary American ‘conservatism.’

What happened to conservatism?

Neither Barry Goldwater nor Ronald Reagan would be popular in today’s ‘conservative’ movement. Reagan is a kind of Jesus figure honored but rarely examined.  Goldwater does not even get that treatment. As I will explain below, once it rejected liberalism American conservatism declined rapidly into a simple celebration of the power of the strong over the less strong.  It has become an individualistic American variant of the right wing authoritarianism that arose in Europe after WWI.

To my mind the major root of this degeneration lie in the alliance many American conservatives made with the very different political elite of the old South. 

Deal with the devil

After the American Revolutionary generation died, the South’s new leaders increasingly rejected our Founders’ liberal ideology because it undermined slavery. Unlike their fathers, these men, most of them, did not regard slavery as an evil and so liberalism had to be wrong.  The Declaration of Independence had to be rejected. Their ablest thinkers were drawn to illiberal thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, and at a more popular level Southern religion diverged from the Christianity of the north as it rejected the Enlightenment in favor of claims of Biblical justifications of slavery.

Industrialization and urbanization’s liberalizing influence remained weak in the South and did not effectively challenge its pre-industrial values. Dixie remained deeply agricultural and wedded to very hierarchical conceptions of how people should relate. The South’s authoritarian and hierarchical intellectual and religious traditions survived the Civil War and dominate it today as America’s first and most genuine “counter-culture.”

 Whereas Northern conservatives saw their politics in terms of the legitimacy of the American Revolution and their understanding of the constitution and its values, the dominant Southern political and religious elites were loyal to the Confederacy and its theocratic, hierarchical and authoritarian values. But for a long time the South’s religious and political impact was mostly regional because Southern voters supported Democrats since Lincoln had been a Republican. And in the north the Republicans were the conservative party.

In the 1970s the Republican Party adopted the “Southern Strategy” to actively court Southern Democrats who were frustrated within a Democratic Party dominated by northern liberals pushing for Civil Rights. Initially Republicans believed they could control the influence of their new recruits.  But Southern NeoConfederates had different ideas. 

As NeoConfederate Southerners became increasingly involved in Republican politics American conservatism’s connection with the American Revolutionary tradition weakened. Increasingly they became identified with NeoConfederate priorities.  Today the core of Republican power is the old South augmented by Midwestern states where Southern versions of Christianity have become strong.

Conservative nihilism

The conservative sensitivity to our being embedded in a society long preceding our birth and lasting long after our deaths, a society towards which even the most successful have profound responsibilities, has been replaced by paeans to egoism. We see today the strange fact of an atheistic philosopher like Ayn Rand being admired by people claiming to be Christian. How can this be?

Two factors are particular important. First, today’s ‘conservatives’ are not interested in preserving American society, they are seeking its radical transformation along NeoConfederate lines.  Far from being conservative, in an American context they are revolutionary. As Pat Buchanan continually puts it, they are at war with us, and in war nothing is more important than the power to prevail.

Second, at its roots NeoConfederate thinking is a doctrine of power and subordination, and as such is intriguingly harmonious with asocial nihilism, at least for the powerful.  The critical difference is its claims to religious backing, but the deity of Southern Christianity is not a god of love or forgiveness, let alone one who sees all as equally valued in its eyes, it is a God of Power and wrath and punishment, commanding subordination.  Secular nihilism and the Christianity that arose to defend slavery came together in the veneration of power and domination.

Conservatism today is not conservative at all, despite keeping some of its former rhetoric. It has become a right wing movement devoted to power and domination.  Some so-called ‘Christians’ even call their theology “dominion theology.”  Conservatism has lost all trace of its Burkean sensitivity to what makes a stable society possible.

Today’s “movement conservatives” attack virtually every traditional American political institution, seeking to bring them under their own control.  The most clearly cut example is the Republican effort to rig the electoral college  so as to guarantee a Republican win with a significant minority of the vote. I predict it will be attempted again shortly before the 2016 elections, when there is not time for other states to take remedial actions to keep the process fair.

To this ‘conservatives’ add attempts in the name of a virtually nonexistent ‘voter fraud’ to effectively disenfranchise enormous numbers of Democratic voters. They are even admitting it.   In the American context it is hard to imagine a less conservative effort. 

What do we call this?  It is a kind of revolutionary reaction, an attempt to recreate the old societies of subordination and domination that liberalism found a way out of hundreds of years ago.

Conservatism today shares much with the pre-liberal past of aristocratic and monarchical societies, but without the moral restraint that occasionally moderated the actions of aristocrats and kings. Hierarchy is natural and those on top are better than those on the bottom who in some way deserve their fate.  As an Athenian force told the Melians before slaughtering them: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Those on top should take maximum advantage of that position, financially, politically, and militarily. For the religious, a God of Domination gives them its blessings.

A Pagan summing up

If this analysis is accurate, neither conservatism nor liberalism will recover an ability to check and limit Power until they have been strengthened with new ethical foundations. In their present weakness American society and institutions, explicitly founded as they are on principles both liberals and conservatives supported, is hamstrung, its government increasingly unable to serve the American people and becoming instead the help mate and enforcer of the powerful. The third pole of Power dominates both liberalism and conservatism.

The NeoPagan insights that closed my discussion of Part II are the clearest contemporary expressions of the values that need to underlie renewed liberal and conservative political and ethical traditions.We are a particularly clear representative of the values that would enable a sustainable, free, and prosperous post-agricultural society rooted in democracy, science, and the market to last into the next century.  The challenge of our time, insofar as we act as citizens of the larger world, is to help that possibility become a reality.


Read more]]> (Gus diZerega) Culture Blogs Wed, 11 Sep 2013 20:10:55 -0700
The Spiritual Truths underlying Liberalism and Conservatism, Part II: What Paganism adds         Part I of this essay was needed so we can know what liberalism and conservatism have meant historically and begin to grasp how they are changing. In addition, to understand their relations with one another and with the world I added a third pole, Power, and claimed we can understand neither liberalism nor conservatism without it.  We can now delve more deeply, and begin to appreciate how Paganism can deepen our understanding and appreciation of both liberalism and conservatism.

Despite its now being almost always defended in purely secular terms liberalism is more in keeping with Jesus’s teaching that all are equal in God’s eyes  than is any other modern ideology. John Locke derived human rights from his Christian belief that we were God’s creations and in His eyes equal. Consider Matthew 25:34-40.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?

38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

The important difference between this teaching and liberalism is that liberalism stops at not aggressing against one another, but does not proclaim a duty to help them. But I think the similarity is more important: all are fundamentally equal in a moral sense.

By contrast, conservatism laid greater emphasis on how individuals differed in the social order rather than in how they were abstractly equal. Society had always been hierarchical, and it likely always would be. Efforts to abolish hierarchy ended in new hierarchies often more brutal than those they replaced. That social hierarchies had so long remained so was an argument why we should live with them rather than try and end them.

But traditional conservatism drew different conclusions from this fact than the currently fashionable infatuation with Ayn Rand’s image of an talented and able elite supporting the world. History taught conservatives elites were inevitable, but it also taught this inevitability did not mean elites were particularly wise, able, or deserving. A person’s place in the social hierarchy did not simply reflect his or her personal abilities, although they certainly mattered.  It also reflected where they had been born, who their family was, and the opportunities that came their way on account of their “station.”  

It followed that those blessed with a privileged place in society had a responsibility to preserve the society that had privileged them. Doing so meant helping those less privileged so as to make their position as bearable as possible. Wealth and status conferred responsibilities to act responsibly and with an eye to interests greater than simply one’s private desires. Society as a whole gained when all who comprised it flourished according to their station. Ideals of justice for individuals were subordinated to what was good for maintaining the social order, but having high status should require considerable responsibility for acting beyond narrow self-interest.

In a way, liberalism and conservatism divided the Christian ethical tradition in half.  Liberals argued for equal intrinsic value for all, but with no strong obligation to help others so long as one conducted oneself justly.  Conservatism saw everyone as immersed with a multi-generational web of humanity, each benefiting from his or her ancestors and having obligations to pass on their familial and social inheritance in at least as good a condition to those who came later.  Because our social positions reflected more than our own personal qualities, those most blessed were wise to assist those less blessed.

One emphasized equality of moral worth, the other the centrality of preserving good relationships across divisions of class and wealth.

Pagan perspectives

Both liberalism and conservatism have rough equivalents in the history of Pagan thought.  I have described how Aristotle was the first democratic theorist. In addition, in his The Peloponnesian War Thucydides’ depiction of Pericles’ funeral oration  was in many ways a affirmation of liberal values.  Conservative thinking has also been well represented in Pagan times, as in the works of Cato the Elder and Cicero.  

That said, Pagan societies of the past were so different from our own as to make cross-cultural comparisons very difficult and easily misleading. Instead I want to focus on modern Pagans and modern liberalism and conservatism. From a conservative perspective it is modern society that needs preservation, and modern men and women whose rights are important from a liberal one.

Returning to the world

From my perspective both liberalism and conservatism grasp something true about human life. But of the two, conservatism provides a broader foundation for understanding society. Conservative principles can be used to understand and explain any society, which is both its strength and its weakness.  Liberalism is more explicitly rooted in theory and abstract principles, Burke’s “metaphysical distinctions.” Many societies exist, and have long existed, that deny the validity of these principles. Liberals argue they are mistaken. But liberalism came to this conclusion from within a Western Christian worldview. As a consequence, liberalism separates us from the world.

For Locke the world is something God gave to us for our use, but the only part that is rightfully personally ours is what we use so long as “as much and as good” remains for others. The rest of the world is equally open to the use of others, and derives what value it has from that use.  

Further, we are each of us unique individuals separate from all others. Unlike Hobbes’ view of human nature as short sighted and anti-social, for Locke people are social. But like Hobbes, each is separate from all others. We are social atoms coming together to create the molecules and compounds we call society. It is symbolically fitting that Locke was a contemporary and friend of Sir Isaac Newton.  

 Secular liberals today have accepted this instrumental view of our world, and of our distance from it.  Thinking they have freed themselves from religion, they often simply substitute a secularized version of transcendental monotheism that divorces people from the social and natural world and denies its having any intrinsic value, and does so as completely as any Calvinist.

This separation of people from the world is why attempts to ground an ethical regard for nature on a liberal foundation has been so unimpressive, even to many who sympathize with their motivation. The liberal notion of rights does not apply very easily to animals existing in relationships requiring predation.  Nor does the utilitarian alternative of ‘animal liberation’ do any better. Tom Regan  and Peter Singer,advocates of animal rights and animal liberation respectively, both foundered when discussing predation.  From their perspective it was wrong, but nature requires it. That humans exist, including Tom Regan and Peter Singer, is the result of millions of years of predation. Without predation the world would consist of little beyond blue green algae.

With respect to liberal rights and preserving nature for its own sake, as the old Maine saying goes, “You can’t get there from here.”

Burkean conservatism returns us to the world, or, because it shares transcendental monotheism’s views about our unique status, at least to the social world. This opens conservatism to appreciating the importance of nature more deeply than can liberalism. A conservative argument would rest on prudence and on preserving values for future generations (whereas the liberal economist asks “what has the future ever done for me?”)  But it also lays the foundation for something deeper.

Burke’s arguments about the nature of society are ecological. There is no great step from seeing society as a great ecology of human relationships to seeing it as itself immersed within and dependent upon an even greater ecology of relationships of the other-than-human. Preserving the world then becomes as important as preserving society. To pick two examples , conservative reasoning would be very concerned about global warming and the over fishing of the oceans.  That today it is not is a fascinating question that Part III will discuss.

Crucially, this pro-conservation conservative perspective is compatible with a Pagan view that conceives the spiritual as immanent, as existing within and through the world.  

By contrast, the liberal view of the world as our tool to be used as we wish is harder to harmonize with a Pagan perspective. New Deal liberals long argued an undammed river’s water is “wasted” when it runs out to sea rather than being diverted for irrigating deserts.  Classical liberals sometimes argue the job could be better done by private enterprise, but agree the job should be done.  Liberals can and do learn from science that the reality is far more complex than this mid-20th century view comprehended, but the final standard is still what is most useful for us.   

The matter of rights

But liberalism has given us the transformative doctrine of human rights, which has been a powerful concept for improving human well being for billions.  Buttressed by Christians who took seriously the passage I cited from Matthew, liberals abolished slavery in the name of individual rights. The transformative impact of our Declaration so changed American thinking that a majority of states abolished slavery well before the Civil War.  Much that is best in our history reflects the influence of acting as if individual rights mattered while much that is worst in our history reflects when those motivated by fear or lust for power set human rights aside.

Can an immanent Pagan perspective find a place for individual rights? Pagan slave societies never did. Can we?

I believe we can.

Reversing the Relations: Respect and Rights

A simple reversal allows us to salvage the crucial idea of individual rights after giving up transcendental views of who we are.  The animal rights debates set the stage.   Tom Regan and others try and derive an ethical relation to the rest of the world, or at least to part of it, from building on the idea of human rights.  I suggest reversing this, and deriving human rights from a deeper appreciation of the ethical value of the world within which we live.

If we examine hunting and gathering Pagan cultures, which took seriously the insight their world was in some important sense alive, as well as those which while agricultural, preserved much of that sensibility, as with many Native Americans, we find a universal or near universal emphasis upon relating to the non-human world with respect.

        No culture perfectly exemplifies its highest values. Certainly ours does not. But so long as a people respected those values, they serve as important correctives when greed or fear or ambition tempt us towards different paths. If we are wise these ethics help keep us from being carried away by these temptations, temptations which always serve that third pole: Power.  The Pagan Naxi people of Southwest China have preserved their forests for primarily spiritual reasons even though they have been logged most everywhere else. If we are not wise these ethics serve as goads pushing future generations to correct the errors of their ancestors.  Our Declaration of Independence undermined slavery. Its words served as a constant reminder of work left unaccomplished, which was why the antebellum South repudiated it.  

I suggest basic liberal rights, such as freedom of speech and the right to own property are the form respect takes among equals who are strangers.  As such, liberal rights make it possible for people who know little or nothing about one another to cooperate, building networks of trust and so creating a world of unimaginable complexity and richness.  Liberalism helps us over come the worst abuses arising from always preferring the more concrete to the less concrete, our family to others, our tribe to other tribes, our people to people in general.  

Viewing rights as the form respect takes with regard to strangers who are our equals also sheds light on a problem with arguments made by some liberals, libertarians in particular, that liberal rights apply easily to all human relations.  They do not translate well into intimate relations because they are impersonal.  They work best when relating with others whom we do not know, or have no interest in becoming involved with beyond simple exchanges. A comparison of prostitution and a loving relationship makes this point clear.

Prostitution is an example of the liberal right to voluntary exchange. Both parties believe they will be better off because of it, and often they are correct.  So long as neither party is victimized, I have no ethical problem with prostitution.

           But prostitution is not the same as a loving relationship.  In the latter case I limit myself in ways not considered necessary within more purely contractual relations.  I do not have to of course, but my not doing so usually leads to ending an intimate relationship. While prostitution and loving relationships are exceptionally clear examples, there are many others where we accept necessary limitations  on our liberal rights in order to preserve valued relationships. There are even cases where I might violate another’s liberal rights because they are a person for whom I care deeply, as when I take a drunken friend’s keys, his property, to prevent his driving home.

To maintain relations of love and friendship, let alone raising children, I will not rely solely on respecting liberal rights and sometimes might even ignore them.

Liberal rights are crucially important, but they apply to only a portion of human relations. As the form respect takes among equal strangers, they limit the abuses of tribalism and nationalism, and make trust and cooperation among strangers easier. They exist within what I suggest we think of as a larger moral ecology of appropriate relationships, all ultimately rooted in the value of respect.

The symbiotic relation of liberalism and conservatism

Earlier I mentioned conservatism had a fatal weakness that liberalism could heal. When reform is called for  conservatism’s insights do not give any guidance on what to do. Conservatism is biased towards maintaining the status quo, but society, like an ecosystem, is constantly changing.  When a subordinate class objects to their subordination, conservatism too easily tilts towards suppressing them to preserve that status quo because those who are in positions of power will weigh their advantages of the moment more heavily than another group’s disadvantages.  Empathy towards those unlike us is always a challenge, and without empathy the rich and powerful always feel superior.

Past a certain point maintaining the status requires  more and more power imposed on the world to preserve what is superficially the status quo. But because increasing amounts of power are needed to accomplish this, at a deeper level the status quo is still changed. Power concentrates ever more completely into tyranny in the name of preserving order.

Liberalism teaches that when reforms become possible they should seek as best they can to move a social order towards greater practical respect for rights, and never away from it.  This is an important corrective to the temptation to give ever more control over to Power when it promises to restore “stability.” In a sense, wise liberalism in a conservative context is a genuinely conservative principle.

From another perspective, the conservative ecological approach is needed to know when it is wise to make changes, and liberalism is needed to know what general direction those changes need to go.  Conservatism originated in relatively liberal England, and used reason and evidence rather than simple appeals to faith or unexamined tradition to make its case. Burke thought the French should build greater liberty based on their traditional institutions, not suppress liberty in the name of the monarchy. The changes he felt were necessary would have gone in a liberal direction, but not nearly as far and as fast as what was attempted, and eventually failed.

          Liberalism sets the direction, conservatism determines the speed.  There is no simple privileging of one perspective over the other and no way to tell how fast to go without considering the details of each case.

Or so it seems to me.

A Pagan Summing Up

Pagan spiritual insights root conservative social insights in the all embracing world that sustains us and root liberal rights in the primordial insight that in a world filled with life and meaning our dealings with all our relations should be governed by respect.  Pagan insights free conservatism from an amoral preference for the status quo and readiness to use power in its preservation, a readiness that transforms that status quo in very unconservative directions.   Pagan insights free liberalism from its basic inability to appreciate and value the non human world, and solidly grounds liberal rights in the larger ethical world within which we live.  It does so in a way giving full appreciation to the important human relations that are not able to be maintained through purely liberal rights.  Perhaps these tasks can be accomplished by other means, but Pagan spirituality is an exceptionally clear way to do so.

It cannot come too quickly because, as Part III will show, in America both conservatism and liberalism are in advanced stages of decay, and in both cases the third pole, Power, is successfully turning their rhetoric against themselves, depriving words of meaning, and threatening to create a hideous world of tyranny and oppression.


Read more]]> (Gus diZerega) Culture Blogs Tue, 03 Sep 2013 09:53:24 -0700
The Spiritual Truths underlying Liberalism and Conservatism, Part I. As my readers know, this column frequently has a political orientation.  Some people object a religious site should not have political content.  But historically spirituality has never been purely private except when viewed from a secular perspective that relegates it to the purely subjective, like preferring chocolate ice cream over vanilla. Interestingly, this secular outlook imports powerful monotheistic assumptions under the surface.

However to say that religion has unavoidable political implications is not to make the next jump and say that religion leads to One Right Way politically. This totalitarian conclusion has roots in religions dominating societies and also claiming there is only One Right Way. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are tragic examples. By contrast, religions emphasizing sacred immanence, that divinity is within the world wherever else it might be, generally recognize many valid spiritual paths, and more easily live at peace with a diverse political landscape. 

I want to explore how these Pagan observations shed new light on the great ideological conflicts rending America today: conflicts usually described as liberalism vs. conservatism. I will argue both liberalism and conservatism have important spiritual insights and both are transformed in a good way when viewed from a Pagan perspective rather than from their original Christian origins, or attempts to ground them in secularized reasoning rooted in transcendental monotheism.

But to understand this we need to get clear just what liberalism and conservatism are.

Historically Liberalism came first

Modern liberalism and conservatism arose when traditional aristocratic and monarchical societies were first becoming what we now call “modern.” Perhaps ironically, conservatism is the newer perspective, being developed in response to liberalism’s challenge to traditional society, and so forcing its defenders to think rationally in its defense.

Both liberalism and conservatism have since been espoused by brilliant thinkers and resulted in hundreds of books, but two men and two books stand at their respective origins. Liberalism became an ideology that would change the world through the writings of John Locke, particularly his Two Treatises of Government  which appeared in 1689. As a self-aware way of thinking about politics and society conservatism began about 100 years later in the work of Edmund Burke, especially his 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France  Both are rightly regarded as foundational works, identifying the key elements of their respective positions.

The Core of Liberalism

A classic statement of liberal principles is the opening of America’s Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and agreed to by the revolution’s leaders,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Every idea here is present in Locke’s Second Treatise. The dominant ideology of the American revolution was Lockean liberalism.

Liberalism’s fundamental principle is that all people are equal, not in talents but in rights, or moral standing.  Given that inequality is the inevitable result of free men and women acting for themselves, liberals have always grappled with how real world inequalities relate to the more basic moral equality that exists between all people. 

Locke and Jefferson wrote before urbanization, industrialization, mass democracy, and modern science had transformed the world.  Their descendents coped with the challenges arising from these changes in different ways.  Today the liberalism of our founding era has fragmented into three broad approaches which I term ‘classical’, ‘managerial’, and ‘egalitarian’.  Classical liberals such as libertarians support a ‘free market’ and oppose ‘the state.’ Managerial liberals, exemplified by Roosevelt’s New Deal, believe in strong bureaucratic regulations of markets and administering of social programs to protect people from misfortune. Egalitarian liberals also support regulation  and social programs but distrust bureaucracies and want greater over sight by voters and greater equality in resources among citizens. They were strongest when allied with managerial liberals in the Progressive Era, and have given us primaries, the initiative and recall, and more recently, efforts at campaign finance reform.

ALL support private property, but define what it should include in different ways. ALL support the ideal of the rule of law applying equally to everyone, but disagree as to what should fall under its oversight. ALL support a market economy although some regard it as more in need of regulation than do others.

NONE support abolishing private property. NONE believe power alone should determine what is lawful. NONE want to create a centrally planned economy. Over 200 years American liberals have divided on how to interpret their basic principles, but those principles and a commitment towards individuals as society’s fundamental moral unit remain true for them all.

Conservatism explained

Conservatism arose in reaction to the failure of liberal ideas during the French Revolution. Edmund Burke lived during the time of the American Revolution and supported the colonists against the English crown. But he did so for reasons that were not liberal. Two quotations from Burke, one long, one short, capture this distinction. 

Speaking in Parliament, Burke said:

leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions . . . Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it. . . . Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it.... Do not burthen them with taxes. . . . But if [you] poison the very source of government by urging subtle deductions, and consequences odious to those you govern, from the unlimited and illimitable nature of supreme sovereignty, you will teach them . . .  to call that sovereignty itself in question.... If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled . . . [they] will cast your sovereignty in your face.

He also argued: “...the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen.... They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles. The people are Protestants... a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it....”

When war broke out, Burke’s sympathies were with the colonists, not the crown.

Here we see the differences between liberal and conservative reasoning.  Locke and the tradition he founded emphasize equal rights by virtue of being a person.  While little remembered today, Locke argued women’s right were equal to those of men, and that children had innate rights no parent could violate.  These were extraordinary views for the time and would make him an early feminist. Each person owned their labor and whatever they produced from what was unowned became their private property. People were basically social, but when disputes arose we tended to weigh our own views more heavily than those with whom we differed. Locke called these problems “inconveniences,” and governments were created to solve them. Legitimate governments arose when people came together and delegated them limited powers in order to protect the rights of all. This action was called the “social contract.” The ratification of our constitution is a real world example of applying Lockean reasoning.

Conservatism avoided talk of abstract rights and theoretical models, placing each of us within a historical and cultural context that defined the rights we already had.  Freedom was good, but secure freedom always existed within a cultural matrix that supported it against the efforts of those who would subvert it.  In other words, we are always social beings of our time and place. We shape our culture, but we are also shaped by it.  We can never stand outside it and create a new world. We can improve it through piece meal changes or alternatively run the risk of disaster either by opposing all change or by seeking to create a better world by imposing untried institutions, ideas, and methods.  In other words, rather than defending inalienable rights Burke argued the colonists were Englishmen fighting for the time honored rights of Englishmen, rights which the government was attacking.

To use contemporary terms, Burke’s conservatism is a ecological outlook.  Society and government are what they are largely without anyone planning them, They are too complex ever to fully understand. Customs that do no obvious harm should therefore be maintained because they possibly do a great deal of good we do not grasp.  Even customs that are harmful should be changed carefully and gradually because perhaps the harm they do is preferable to an even greater harm that would arise if they were simply abolished.

(Think of the harmful consequences for ecosystems of eliminating predators as an analogous example. Deer do not like predators, but if they voted to eliminate predators they would rapidly outgrow their sustenance leaving a degraded environment, starvation and disease, and ultimately fewer and weaker deer.)

The American Revolution built on established English customs and institutions, and applied liberal principles to defend and reform them.  By contrast the French Revolution sought to abolish France’s aristocratic and monarchical institutions and establish freedom, equality, and fraternity on the basis of abstract reason, a doctrine of universal rights, and institutions alien to French experience. The past was to be swept away. Burke predicted it would end in disaster. His predictions came true with the Terror, and the years of dictatorship and war that followed.

A more inclusive picture

To my mind conservatism and liberalism are not so much opposites as different approaches to politics and society, and illuminate different dimensions of them. That Burke supported the liberal American Revolution, and that both he and the revolutionaries saw the British government as the aggressor suggests a more interesting relationship between liberalism and conservatism than simple opposition. A third concept sheds light on what this relationship is.

Both liberalism and conservatism share a deep distrust of arbitrary power, or of extending power over others against their consent.  It was the British crown’s claims to expanded power that led to both the Declaration of Independence and Burke’s defense of the rights of Englishmen. Even the most traditional conservative is opposed, as Burke was, to the centralizing efforts of political power to bring more and more of life under central control, creating a kind of social monoculture.  Similarly, liberals have split over how power is defined and evaluated, but all are characterized by a hostility to arbitrary power in whatever way they define it.

We need to add a third pole to understand conservatism and liberalism’s relations to one another.  That pole is Power as domination,.  Power seeks to subordinate any and all principles, liberal or conservative, to its service.  This is why both traditions always warn us to be suspicious of those who seek to trim away any of these principles in order to enlarge their power.

Liberals talk of rights as limitations on Power, conservatives talk of tradition and prudence as limitations on power. Against these principles Power arrays will. Will is used to over come all limitations. The stronger the will the freer it is of any constraints.

Power continually threatens to turn both traditions into excuses for maintaining domination by some over others.  Historically conservatives and liberals have been sensitive to how power distorts the other perspective while too often being blind to its distortions and undermining of their own tradition. But I think it important to realize that both traditions distrust arbitrary power and institutions that acquire too much power vis-à-vis other institutions, and that both criticize the other often in terms of its using or threatening to use excessive power to get its way.

The American context

In the United States conservatives face a strange situation. While conservatives believe established institutions must be respected, and changed slowly if at all, America’s established institutions are fundamentally liberal and have been for over 200 years. Liberal institutions such as science and the market are unequalled in continually transforming their respective areas of influence, and liberal democracy is unequalled at providing a context where people can propose and accept or reject new political proposals. In addition, when knowledge and the economy are always changing, government is under continual pressure to respond to these changes. A conservative Burkean outlook seeks to preserve a very un-Burkean society.

Even so, for over 200 years conservative thought generally sought to preserve what they regarded as basic American constitutional traditions.  In doing so it frequently allied itself with classical liberalism, the liberal perspective that was least concerned with confronting the transformations in work, power, and organization brought about by the rise of industry and large corporations and most concerned about the bad impact of government expanding to regulate them. Both conservatism and classical liberalism shared a deep distrust of government whereas other liberal perspectives believed democratic procedures and civil liberties were sufficient to keep government under control.  A classic statement of the reasoning behind this alliance is Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative

My next installment discusses how spirituality and religion, especially Pagan spirituality, relate to these two basic themes of modern American thought. My final installment will discuss the crisis in each that is rendering them defenseless against their common enemy of unbridled power, again with attention to how Pagan spirituality can be important here beyond our numbers.


Read more]]> (Gus diZerega) Culture Blogs Wed, 28 Aug 2013 08:05:27 -0700
Pagans, Politics, and Values  How might our Paganism influence our politics? A post I wrote before the election, was recently rebuked because I supposedly had no respect for nearly half the American people. Supposedly my views were alien to the Wiccan rede. I disagree as will be obvious, but my basic issue is not with the author, who I assume was sincere, but with a style of thought and the confusions it breeds.  While this post begins with a political question to answer it I will take a journey through some theology and some philosophy.

How big a tent?

Two points argue for an immense political tent among Pagans and I agree with them both. First anyone can be a Pagan who claims to be one because there is no set of authorities to say you or I are or are not Pagans. That lack of authorities is a good thing in my view.

Second, historically Pagans have included those who cut the hearts from sacrificial victims as offerings to their deities as well as those who lived lives of principled peace. Some Pagans have been cannibals and others vegetarians. That’s a roomy set of practices. It is easy to be comfortable somewhere within those bounds.

Another set of arguments shrinks the tent.  I also  support them.

A little theology

Like Christianity and Islam, “Pagan” refers to a semi-coherent set of qualities. Its meaning is neither exact nor without semi-exceptions. Given that both Christianity and Islam often define themselves as being against Paganism, their own chosen contrasts between us and them gives us a start.

Pagans are not monotheists. I have argued monotheism itself is an incoherent notion,  but whether it is or not, Pagans recognize the existence of multiple spiritual powers that are regarded as worthy of worship/devotion/respect or some mixture thereof. A small minority of Pagans, such as the Epicureans,  believed the Gods were unconcerned in every way with humanity, but still referred to them in the plural.  Otherwise most all believed we wisely entered into appropriate relationships with these powers.

We can safely say that Pagans, whatever else we might be and however else we may differ, acknowledge the reality of multiple spiritual powers and the wisdom of cultivating good relationships with them.

A second characteristic of Pagan spirituality grows from this.  All Pagans of which I have any knowledge believed that some of these powers, wherever else they might be, were in the world and not simply transcendent to it. The world is not fallen nor is it simply a backdrop for the human drama. Nature to some degree always reflected or embodied these powers. Some monotheists such as Orthodox Christians and Quakers, claim a similar insight, believing God is in the world as well as transcendent to it.

A logical extension of this belief, one also applying to Quakers and the Orthodox, is that the world is more than a storehouse of resources for human use. It has value on its own. In an important sense it is sacred.

If a person does not accept the reality of spiritual powers with whom one can enter into some beneficial relationship, and that at least some those powers exist within the world, if they want to present themselves as Pagans the burden is on them to demonstrate they merit the term. Until they do so there is no good reason for anyone to give their views much weight as Pagans.

A little philosophy

Having a incoherent set of beliefs does not entitle anyone to having those beliefs respected if they impinge on others. This is not a religious principle; it is embedded within the nature of human life. It is however in complete harmony with the Wiccan rede: An it harm none, do as ye will.

More generally, we can believe whatever we want so long as we keep it to ourselves.  But as soon as we claim something we believe applies to others as well, we necessarily make one of two claims. 

The first is that I am so certain I am right no one can legitimately demand I justify my beliefs beyond the fact that  it is I who has them. We normally regard such people as insane or at least mentally unwell. Unless they are small children.

Alternatively, insofar as I expect others to accept my beliefs I am called to be able to give reasons for them, reasons able to respond rationally to criticism. Otherwise they are not reasons, they are simply assertions, and we are back to our first category.

Of course most of the time we do not have to defend our beliefs this way. We live in societies where we share much in common, and so do not need to defend those views.  In America I do not have to defend the view that to shake hands in many contexts is being “polite.” But when we want others to adopt new views or do something different from what they have done, or allow us to impinge on them in a new way, we need to be able to explain to them why and equally legitimate for them to question our reasoning and challenge our logic. We then need to respond to their arguments in as logical and factual a way as we can, or we are aggressors. 

This obligation flows from living with and communicating with equals.

Back to politics

Pagans who treat the earth as a storehouse of resources for our use and nothing more remind me of Christians who practice their beliefs on Sundays and ignore them whenever inconvenient the rest of the week. Their practice as Pagans during rituals might be personally satisfying but their understanding of their practice is flawed. 

The earth is a direct expression of the sacred in some sense and the sacred is not simply stuff for our use. This is not a matter of personal opinion. It flows from what Pagan religion is, from its most basic insights. If you reject this you might still be a Pagan, but you are one with incoherent beliefs unless you can make a powerful case otherwise.

If a Pagan believes a pro-corporate policy towards our “natural resources” is the best for us, he or she cannot rationally argue that this is simply one view among many in the big Pagan tent and that I am being intolerant to attack such a view. It certainly has no obvious connection to the Wiccan rede because harm is caused both to other humans and to other beings in general. To justify their claims they need to change what key terms have long meant or put them in a larger context, and to do that they need to give reasons rather than assertions.

They have to argue with reasons flowing from the basic tenets of Paganism I have outlined above that their view is justified.  Or they have to argue that I am in error in describing the basic tenets of Paganism. Or they leave the world of people learning from one another through reason and dialogue. I can think of no other alternative.

If my argument is justified no rational Pagan can support the environmental policies of the Republican Party and should they support that party they are called upon to make a careful and reasoned argument why, an argument acknowledging the failure of their preferred party on a basic issue of Pagan spirituality. I do not say this cannot be done, I say this has not been done. And in all honesty I doubt that it can. What I just wrote does not mean the Democrats have a vastly better approach, they do not, only that theirs is better in terms of Pagan values.

And with this comment I turn to the ‘sins’ I was accused of committing.

A note on conservatism

Like Paganism, conservatism has a meaning that is not simply a matter of personal preference. Like Paganism, its meaning is not airtight, but neither is it arbitrary.  Historically conservatism grew out of and served as a counter-weight to liberalism.  Liberalism argued in different ways that individuals were the fundamental ethical unit in society and so should be equal morally and under the law. From this insight grew all the many ways in which liberals have sought to increase actual equality because in practice concrete inequalities tend to undermine abstract legal and moral equality, as any honest American with a brain knows.

Conservatism provided a counter insight.  All individuals are who they are because of their immersion in culture and history.  We are not completely separate and will never be.  Cultural traditions that have survived the test of time often embody more wisdom that any single individual has, even when those reasons are unknown.  For example, we inherit our language, live and think within it, and at most might change it on the edges, as when Robert Heinlein gave us the word “grok” or Joseph Heller the term “Catch-22.” Therefore conservatives say we should be cautious about making changes in social life because important linkages we do not see might be destroyed, linkages more important than the reforms we seek.  It is an argument having much in common with treating ecosystems with care and respect.

I believe liberalism and conservatism are both compatible with Pagan spirituality.  They are not opposites. They have different perspectives on a complex reality. That is why Barry Goldwater could legitimately be called both a conservative and a (classical) liberal. In practice most of us grant some truth to conservatism and liberalism, and seek a balance between them.

What I call right wing nihilism currently dominates the Republican Party. It calls itself conservative but is not. Such people attack the value of basic social institutions such as public education, Social Security, and science. They  treat other institutions simply as means to win power at whatever cost to other people or to these institution themselves, as with the filibuster and now the electoral college.   They admire war and force whenever given the opportunity, so long as they have the upper hand, which is why when they complain about deficits they want to increase a military budget already dwarfing that of the rest of the world. They are neither liberal nor conservative and our habit of thinking in dichotomies strengthens them, which is why they encourage it. Meanwhile they hide behind terms like morality, religion, patriotism, free markets, and yes, conservatism, while seeking to destroy their substance and establish a society based on power and domination alone in their place.

Many Americans are fooled by their use of these terms. I do not disrespect those Americans when I point out they are wrong. To confuse correcting destructive errors with disrespect is to read and listen badly.

I do disrespect right wing nihilism and deny the moral and intellectual integrity of those espousing it until they prove capable of entering into rational discussion, which they almost universally reject in favor of sound bites, bald assertions, and attacks on others.  Right wing nihilism is parasitic on liberalism and conservatism and all forms of legitimate spirituality and religion, including ours.


Read more]]> (Gus diZerega) Culture Blogs Fri, 15 Mar 2013 10:18:47 -0700
The case for a 100% Democratic vote I have put a more complete argument for why I think Pagans should vote 100% democratic up on my personal blog.  Here at Witches and Pagans I compress it only to the issue of women and the feminine.  In reality that should be enough.  My basic point is not that the Democrats are awesomely good. In almost every case they are not.  It is that their opponents are awesomely bad, in every case.

                         The War on Women and the Feminine

  Pagan spirituality in almost all its forms praises feminine values, usually in through a Goddess.  The Republican Party has demonstrated over and over again that even during times of high unemployment, attacking anything that empowers women takes precedence over all other issues with the possible exception of increasing the wealth of the 1%.  Most of my readers will know of the recent comments by Todd Akin that women when raped cannot get pregnant along with Richard Mourdock’s ‘insight’ that when they do get pregnant from rape, it’s God’s gift. (Theological coherence is not a right wing trait.)

The Republican and right wing attack on a woman’s right to choose whether to be a mother when she finds herself pregnant is of long standing.  But this past year it has broadened enormously and ominously to assault anything that empowers women except as obedient servants to right wing values.

Read more]]> (Gus diZerega) Culture Blogs Fri, 26 Oct 2012 22:46:29 -0700