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Traditional Conservatives vs Today’s Conservatives

SUMMARY: I make a sharp distinction between true conservatism and today’s most popular conservatism.  I then draw the conclusion that, while true conservatism is both necessary and good, today’s most popular conservatism is a radical and dangerous departure from it.

(About a 6 minute read) 

A curious thing about human politics is that it seems everywhere on earth to be roughly divided between “liberals and conservatives”.   That is, between people who are more or less inclined to experiment with new things, and people who are more or less disinclined to do so.

In recent years, there have been a number of scientific studies to see if there is some kind of biological or psychological basis for the division of human politics into those two camps.  A number of hypotheses have been proposed — such that conservatives lack empathy compared to liberals, or that conservatives are more likely to see the world as a hostile place compared to liberals — but so far as I know, none of those hypotheses has been backed up by a solid weight of studies except for one of them.

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The Future of Freedom in America

(About a 9 minute read)

“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” — Warren Buffett

One of the top five or six core issues running through-out all of human history has been the eternal war between elites and non-elites.  That is, those who have the greater wealth, power, and control of resources and those who have the lesser wealth, power, and control of resources in any given society or economy.

In my opinion, anyone who is unfamiliar with the conflict is politically, socially, and economically ignorant.  The primary or most significant conflicts in history have not been between competing systems such as capitalism and communism. Such conflicts are more clearly understood as battles between competing elites and between elites and non-elites.

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Alex Jones and the “Paradox of Tolerance”

(About a 7 minute read)

I think it can be said of Alex Jones that he is the poster-child for the “American disease” of tolerating the intolerable.  Perhaps out of all major democracies, America’s democracy is the most susceptible to the disease.  That’s because we tend to be extremists when it comes to protecting freedom of speech.

To be sure, America does limit free speech somewhat, but the limits are absolutely minimal.  You cannot advocate physical violence against someone and/or their property, nor can you “yell fire in a crowded theater” for the mere sport of it, since that might lead to physical injuries.

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Think the Left is the Real Enemy of Free Speech? Think again!

(About a 1 minute read)

I don’t usually post on politics, and certainly not day-to-day politics. When I do post on politics, I prefer the grand timeless themes — such as the conflict between elites and non-elites — that can help us to see deeply into what’s behind the daily stuff.

And mostly I don’t post because there are a million other sites that do a much better job of that than I ever could.

Yet, today I came across some things that need saying because they are about free speech in America, and free speech is the very foundation of all other freedoms and liberties. If a government can take away your right to speak your mind, it can take away every other right you have as well.

Now, the radical extremists on the left who have in recent years sought to limit free speech on campuses are admittedly dangerous fools.

But they strike me as decidedly a minority of leftists. Mostly they are young and foolish university and college students and junior faculty. Of course, that’s bad enough and the rest of the left must zealously oppose them.

But is the left in general the enemy of free speech? I challenge anyone who thinks so to provide the polling that shows it.

On the other hand, a recent poll conducted by the reputable Ipsos house of right wing views has tellingly revealed that a full 43% of all Republicans would support the President dictatorially shutting down news outlets in America that offended him.

That compares with only 12% of Democrats who would do the same.

Think about that folks. Forty-three percent of Republicans!

Food for thought for anyone who has not already chosen to be willfully stupid about the real enemies of freedom in this country.

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The American Class System and the Political Correctness of the Regressive Left

By political correctness, I do not mean the term as it has come to be employed on the right—that is, the expectation of adherence to the norms of basic decency, like refraining from derogatory epithets. I mean its older, intramural denotation: the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas.  — William Deresiewicz

A few days ago, The American Scholar published a revealing article by William Deresiewicz on the political correctness of the regressive left.  The article, which is beautifully written, entwines several themes, and one of those themes is that advocates of political correctness on the college and university campuses in the United States are almost exclusively drawn from two social classes: The privileged upper and upper-middle classes.

Those two classes are predominantly comprised of affluent, politically liberal or neoliberal White and Asian professionals.  They overwhelmingly attend elite private colleges and universities  — the hotbeds of political correctness — and at those institutions, they constitute by far and wide the vast majority of the student body and faculty.

If Deresiewicz is correct, the implications are interesting.  Today’s elite students will almost certainly go on to become tomorrow’s elite professionals.  I wonder if we’re going to see safe spaces in the corporations, trigger warnings on business memos, and endless cat and mouse games of “Gottcha for being Politically Incorrect!” played out in business offices.  Of course, those would be the minor changes.  The major changes would be made in politics and law.

Deresiewicz’s article is a long one, but an excellent read.

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Why are Some Religious Groups Sexually Oppressive?

Planning to have sex on your wedding night?  Not if you’re a member of The Word of Faith Fellowship, a protestant, non-denominational church headed by Pastor Jane Whaley, and located in Spindale, North Carolina.

According to a recent news report, members of the church, even on their wedding night, are permitted no more than a “godly peck on the cheek” before they are required to roll over and go to sleep.  And don’t expect the next night to be any better:  Whaley and the other pastors of the church can take months, even a year, to grant a couple permission to have sex.

When permission is at last granted, it’s still no party: “Love-making is limited to 30 minutes, no foreplay is allowed, the lights must be turned off and only the missionary position is sanctioned.”

Well, at least you get to have kids, right?  Sure you do — just as soon as the church leadership grants you permission.

And that’s just some of the draconian rules.  The Word of Faith Fellowship has others too, and the punishments for disobeying any of them are reported by former members to be severe and include harsh beatings.

Reading about The Word of Faith Fellowship in the news, my mind made the jump from that particular church to religions in general, and I began to wonder why they are so often sexually oppressive?

Of course, that question is far too general.  For one thing, religions are not always sexually oppressive.  Shinto, Taoism, most of the species of Paganism that I’ve come across, traditional Chinese folk religions, and many others are to my admittedly limited knowledge not sexually oppressive.  Even Confucianism, which I believe to oppress women, does not oppress sex itself.

Then again, even in those religions with a reputation of being sexually oppressive, there are widely varying degrees of it depending on the branch, sect, denomination, or the congregation one looks at.  So making generalizations is a bit hazardous.  Perhaps the best we can say is that some religious groups are in various ways, and to various extents, oppressive.

That is enough, however, to prompt the question of “Why?”

At first, I thought that was a fairly easy question.  After all, doesn’t the leadership benefit from sexual oppression by using it to further and consolidate their control over people?  But how exactly does that work?

In one way, it’s easy enough to see how it works.  All you need do is watch Pat Robinson (1) rile people up about “the threat to Christianity, Western Civilization, and Godliness” posed by some one or another sexual issue — abortion, transgendered people using the “wrong” public restroom, etc — and then (2) solicit monetary donations from his now frightened and angry audience.

The more I think about that, however, the more I suspect there might be something deeper afoot.   What Robinson and so many other religious leaders do does indeed work, but why?

Put differently, what is it about human sexuality that makes it easy for so many of us to believe it can, in some ways, pose a genuine threat to “Christianity, Western Civilization, and Godliness”?   To my ear, saying there is something about our sexuality that can make it a threat to those things is like saying there’s something about popcorn that can make it a threat to those things.  I don’t get frightened and angry.  I smile and shake my head.

But apparently to a certain kind of person it does make sense to say that human sexuality can threaten those things.   He or she is not only quite willing to get out their checkbook or credit card and sacrifice a portion of their wealth to oppose what they imagine to be the evils of our sexuality, but they are also willing to seek out and follow — often enough blindly follow — any leader who sees things as they do.

It’s all too easy and misleading to dismiss such people as “stupid”.  I have known many such people in my life, and enough of them are smart to give the lie to that dismissal.  So what is it about them that makes it plausible to them that our sexuality can topple worlds?

I think a possible answer to our question might be found in Moral Foundations Theory.  The theory was first proposed by the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph, and its gist is that we humans are born equipped with at least six psychological foundations for making moral judgments.  These foundations can be to some extent thought of as spontaneous moral feelings, or quick moral intuitions.

For instance, how would it make you feel to witness a friend being cheated at cards by an out-of-town professional gambler? Moral Foundations Theory would suggest that the fact witnessing someone being cheated might cause a negative reaction in you is the product of an inherent psychological module.  Furthermore, the fact that you might be even more outraged because the person being cheated was your friend is also the product of an inherent psychological module, a second one.  All together, there are six modules, and they are the foundations of our moral judgments, or moralities.

Of the six foundations, one is of particular importance here.  That’s the foundation referred to as “sanctity” or “purity”.   It comes into play when you judge something, such as a food, idea, or action, to be disgusting or abhorrent, perhaps because it is impure or degraded in your eyes.

Now I would suggest that our natural tendency to sometimes make moral judgments based on whether we perceive something to lack sanctity or purity can under certain conditions predispose us to seeing human sexuality as a grave moral threat.  Those conditions are met if we have been taught to view sex as shameful, impure, degrading, and so forth.  And if and when we see human sexuality as a grave moral threat, then it can become plausible to us that human sexuality — or at least the wrong kind of human sexuality — can lead to the downfall of “Christianity, Western Civilization, and Godliness”.

Put differently, it is not simply that someone is taught “the wrong kind of sexuality can destroy religion, etc.”  There’s more to it than that.  Everyone of us has heard that message through-out our lives, but most of us find it quite implausible.  Ridiculous even.  Only with some of us does it fall on fertile ground.  And I think the reason for that is that those of us who find the message plausible are more sensitive to the sanctity or purity foundation of moral judgments than the rest of us.

Indeed, when Haidt studied whether political progressives and conservatives had differing sensitivities to his six foundations of morality he found precisely that: Conservatives are more sensitive to the sanctity or purity foundation than are progressives.

So, why are some religious groups so sexually oppressive?  Well, as I noted before, not all religious groups are.  I would like now to suggest that the sexually oppressive ones are likely to have significantly more people who are especially sensitive to the sanctity or purity foundation of our moral judgments than are the less oppressive groups.

Yet, I do not wish to give the impression that I think I’ve hit upon the only reason some religious groups are sexually oppressive.  I think there’s more to it than what I’ve written about here.  What’s your opinion?  Why is it that some religious groups are sexually oppressive?  Your thoughts, please.

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The Regressive Left and the Suppression of Free Speech

Are there proper limits to free speech?  If so, what should they be?  In Western history, the first, and perhaps still the most popular, attempt to establish liberal limits to free speech was made by John Stuart Mill in his book, On Liberty, which was published in 1859.

Mill brings up the British corn merchants in making his case for liberal limits to free speech.  In the mid-1800s, the corn merchants were hated and feared by the poor.  Radicals stirred up the poor by accusing the merchants of hording grain in order to drive the price of it up and force the masses to choose between paying inflated prices and starvation.  Conservatives feared the radicals would succeed in politically mobilizing the poor, and wanted to protect the social order by silencing the radicals, using the powers of the government to do so.

In turn, Mill argued that the government did not have unlimited rights to silence people, but could do so only if they were in violation of “one very simple principle,” which is now usually called the harm principle, and which states, “…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

But what did Mill mean by “harm”?  That question is the subject of debate, but I think Mill intended to narrowly limit what constitutes harm in these circumstances to actions that harm or violate another person’s rights, or threaten to do so.

For instance, a corn merchant could be harmed by someone publishing information that resulted in the boycott of his business with a resulting loss of profits.  But this sort of harm does not appear to be what Mill had in mind  because it does not violate the rights of the corn merchant.  In other words, the merchant has no right to force people to patronize his business in order to guarantee his profits.

On the other hand, a merchant could be harmed by someone denouncing him to an angry mob gathered in front of his house for hording grain in order to drive the price up.  If someone did that, it could incite the mob to violate the merchant’s property rights (e.g. by burning his house down), or even to violate his right to life.  Consequently, the speech of the person denouncing the merchant could in this case be legitimately suppressed.

As I said, what Mill meant by “harm” is debatable, but I think it can at least be argued that he wished to narrowly limit what constitutes harm.  Whatever the precise meaning of it, Mill’s harm principle became for generations the traditional liberal ideal for imposing limits on speech.

In the 1980s, Mill’s harm principle came under attack from the American philosopher, Joel Feinberg.  Feinberg asked, “whether there are any human experiences that are harmless in themselves yet so unpleasant that we can rightly demand legal protection from them even at the cost of other persons’ liberties.”  That is, do we have a right to be protected, not merely from harm, but from offense, as well?  His answer to the question was to argue that at least some forms of harmless but profoundly offensive conduct can properly be criminalized, and he urged that Mill’s harm principle be replaced with his offense principle.

Feinberg’s offense principle provided the initial philosophical justification for the infamous attacks on free speech by the Regressive Left that are in the news today.  The Regressive Left — as distinct from the Progressive Left, which still strongly supports free speech — has now built on Feinberg’s work to go further than him.  For instance, Jeremy Waldron, an Oxford professor, suggests these days that speech that merely attacks the dignity of others should be banned.  “We have gone from the principle that only speech that incites crime can be banned to the principle that speech that incites gross offence can be banned to the principle that speech that provokes discomfort can be banned.”

What most strikes me about the theorists of the Regressive Left is that they do not seem to notice — or perhaps they notice, but do not fully grasp — that they are putting themselves at grave risk of having the tables turned on them.  As Nick Cohen writes:

Few contemporary theorists grasp that people oppose censorship not because they respect the words of the speaker but because they fear the power of the censor. It is astonishing that professed liberals, of all people, could have torn up the old limits, when they couldn’t answer the obvious next question: who decides what is offensive?

If it is the representatives of a democracy, you have the tyranny of the majority to discriminate against “offensive” homosexuals, for instance. If it is a dictatorship, you have the whims of the ruling tyrant or party—which will inevitably find challenges to its rule and ideology offensive. If it is public or private institutions, they will decide that whistleblowers must be fired for damaging the bureaucracy, regardless of whether they told the truth in the public interest. If it is the military, they will suppress pictures of torture for fear of providing aid to the enemy. If it is the intelligence services they will say that leaks about illegal surveillance must be stopped because they might harm national security, just as pornography might harm women. Why should they have to prove it, when liberals have assured them that there is no need to demonstrate actual damage?

Yet, they are not only putting themselves at risk of having the tables turned on them, but everyone else as well.  A society that embraces the notion rights can be abridged simply because their exercise causes someone, somewhere profound offense, much less mere discomfort, is a society ripe for dictatorship.  Were such a notion to prevail here in America, our notably thin-skinned president would have legal standing to shut down any criticism of himself whatsoever.

I think perhaps the best thing that can be said about Feinberg’s position is that, to see the truth of his notion that offenses can be profound, one only has to recall some instance when one suffered grievous hurt from a mere slight.  “Only sticks and stones” can harm us is a lie: The emotional fallout from words alone can at times outlast the pain of a broken arm.  That’s to say, his position is well grounded in human psychology.  Yet, to recognize that fact is not necessarily to endorse his views that certain behavior should be criminalized simply because it causes profound offense.

Whether we like it or not, all societies require of their citizens some sacrifices in order to preserve the society itself.  It seems to me that liberal democracies, especially, require their citizens to accept that they will at times be disgusted, repulsed, shocked, shamed, or embarrassed by the opinions and behaviors of their fellow citizens and yet, they will be unable to suppress those opinions and behaviors, least their society descend into tyranny.   For the real choice here is not between being offended and not being offended, but rather between freedom and oppression.