The Conservative Critics’ Contradiction

Conservatives are “stuck in the past,” we’re told, but we’re also told that we are constantly getting more “radical.” Somehow, we’re “frozen in time…too old fashioned and…boring” while we’re also getting “crazier and meaner.”

You do realize that those claims are mutually exclusive, right? You can’t be some tired old fuddy duddy impotently pining for the good old days and at the same time be a dangerously psychotic revolutionary.

So which one is it?

NPR, ISIS, and Recognizing Identities

For over a year now, when I hear NPR reporting on terrorism in the Middle East, it’s always with reference to “the so-called Islamic State,” or “the self-proclaimed Islamic State.”  NPR always uses those two, and only those two, modifiers.  Is there some NPR style guide that dictates this?

The rationale is obvious: they don’t want to legitimize the group’s theocratic claims.  Fair enough.

But is the constant use of the qualifiers necessary?  Apparently NPR is afraid that calling them merely the Islamic State–even once–will result in people thinking, “Golly, I guess those guys are the official political leaders of all the world’s Muslims or something.”  And isn’t that really an insult to the intelligence of their listeners?

Approaching this from another angle, though, reveals some cognitive dissonance.  After all, who is NPR to imply that the identity ISIS prefers is not to be honored?  Are they saying that we are not obligated to celebrate someone’s sincerely held belief about their own nature?  Obviously, there has been an uncritical acceptance of some “self-proclaimed” labels and an ideological distancing from some others.  Why the inconsistency?  What’s the rationale for qualifying some labels and honoring others?

But again, the real reason here is obvious.  For mainstream American liberal media, all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Fahrenheit 451 is a Conservative Classic

9781451673319_p0_v7_s456x700And I don’t mean “conservative” here just in the sense that Bradbury is arguing for preserving an established way of life, though his most famous work certainly does that.

No, despite its perennial status as a staple in the counterculture, Fahrenheit 451 defends the ideas of the right far more than the those of the left.

It’s always fun to track the many items in our modern world that Bradbury basically predicted here: earphone radios, massive flat screen televisions, reality TV, etc.  Far more prescient, though, are the modern issues of the Puritanical, tyrannical left that he saw ascending to dangerous heights.

Consider these passages from Beatty’s exposition in the first third of the book.  I’ve labeled them with contemporary problems that Bradbury described perfectly.

Censorship comes from aggrieved special interests who don’t want to be challenged.  This narrowing of acceptable ideas helps dumb down the culture and focuses it on lurid media that stimulates the body and pacifies the mind. 

“All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag.”

A sprawling government bureaucracy can infantilize society through a shallow, technical education system and a coarse, hedonistic media culture.

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, what do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.”

“If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.  Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it.  So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment.”

Leo Tolstoy on Naive Liberals

Today I read chapter 10 in Part V of War and Peace.  Our hero, Pierre, having recently become enlightened, has set out to reform his estates accordingly.  He enacts some progressive ideas and then tours the area to see the results:


The southern spring, the comfortable rapid traveling in a Vienna carriage, and the solitude of the road, all had a gladdening effect on Pierre. The estates he had not before visited were each more picturesque than the other; the serfs everywhere seemed thriving and touchingly grateful for the benefits conferred on them. Everywhere were receptions, which though they embarrassed Pierre awakened a joyful feeling in the depth of his heart. In one place the peasants presented him with bread and salt and an icon of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, asking permission, as a mark of their gratitude for the benefits he had conferred on them, to build a new chantry to the church at their own expense in honor of Peter and Paul, his patron saints. In another place the women with infants in arms met him to thank him for releasing them from hard work. On a third estate the priest, bearing a cross, came to meet him surrounded by children whom, by the count’s generosity, he was instructing in reading, writing, and religion. On all his estates Pierre saw with his own eyes brick buildings erected or in course of erection, all on one plan, for hospitals, schools, and almshouses, which were soon to be opened. Everywhere he saw the stewards’ accounts, according to which the serfs’ manorial labor had been diminished, and heard the touching thanks of deputations of serfs in their full-skirted blue coats.

What Pierre did not know was that the place where they presented him with bread and salt and wished to build a chantry in honor of Peter and Paul was a market village where a fair was held on St. Peter’s day, and that the richest peasants (who formed the deputation) had begun the chantry long before, but that nine tenths of the peasants in that villages were in a state of the greatest poverty. He did not know that since the nursing mothers were no longer sent to work on his land, they did still harder work on their own land. He did not know that the priest who met him with the cross oppressed the peasants by his exactions, and that the pupils’ parents wept at having to let him take their children and secured their release by heavy payments. He did not know that the brick buildings, built to plan, were being built by serfs whose manorial labor was thus increased, though lessened on paper. He did not know that where the steward had shown him in the accounts that the serfs’ payments had been diminished by a third, their obligatory manorial work had been increased by a half. And so Pierre was delighted with his visit to his estates and quite recovered the philanthropic mood in which he had left Petersburg, and wrote enthusiastic letters to his “brother-instructor” as he called the Grand Master.

“How easy it is, how little effort it needs, to do so much good,” thought Pierre, “and how little attention we pay to it!”

He was pleased at the gratitude he received, but felt abashed at receiving it. This gratitude reminded him of how much more he might do for these simple, kindly people.

Heh.  And thus we see that human nature will conspire to constipate civic charity.  I also like Tolstoy’s clear message that one of the monkey wrenches in Pierre’s plan is the corruption of bureaucratic middle managers, who exist to perpetuate their own comfort.  It was ever thus, and thus always shall be.

Yet again, the Law of Unintended Consequences in action.  Truly, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

One Lesson From South Carolina

This week I’ve read a lot from both sides of the political spectrum about the shooting in South Carolina, and one lesson has become clear: never trust any commentary or report that reduces anything to a single cause, a single effect, or a single meaning.

Life is more complicated than that.  Anyone who says otherwise is just trying to sell you on easy ideology.  If we’re ever serious about some issue, we have to approach it from all the messy angles, even the ones that challenge our worldviews.

Racism in the Constitution?

The most recent issue of Square Two featured this article, which included this line: “And don’t forget that the US constitution pronounced slaves to be 3/5ths of a human being.”

I wrote them this message:

Re: “the US constitution pronounced slaves to be 3/5ths of a human being.”  This is just false.
Article I, Section 2 is about counting the population to determine how many representatives we get in government, which is why we have the census every ten years. That count was to enumerate “free persons” and “three-fifths of all other persons,” meaning slaves. Free blacks were counted as a whole, which you fail to mention, and which counters the racist assertion implied in your piece.
That language isn’t meant to demean someone’s worth as a human being, but merely to reduce the total count. The strength of a state’s presence in government, in the House of Representatives, is determined by this count. This is why my state of Nevada has gained a third and then a fourth new representative thanks to the last two census counts.
Northern states didn’t want slaves counted at all—that would keep the South from gaining more of a voice at the federal level; Southern states wanted them counted as a whole. The point of the three-fifths compromise was to reduce the South’s power.
Ironically, for those who see this part of the Constitution as racist, this rule did what it was supposed to do: it contributed to the eventual end of slavery.

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An Open Letter To Liberals About Understanding Conservatives

Dear Liberals:

Yesterday I heard someone make some sweeping, derogatory generalizations about conservatives.  These comments received a positive reception from others nearby.  The speaker derided conservatives for “never wanting to innovate or change.”

Basically, the comments were the same stereotypes that conservatives are bludgeoned with every day.

As an educator and a conservative myself, this saddened me. I was reminded of the research that shows that conservatives understand liberal ideas far better than liberals understand conservative ideas.  It’s a natural situation these days that people would find themselves ignorant of political beliefs that disagree with what’s most popular, but I still think it’s a shame and I’d like to help correct it.

I don’t want to discuss our differences in terms of hot-button issues.  Ultimately, our opposing stances on both controversial and mundane topics stem not from some arbitrary decision to take alternate sides, but from the foundational values that animate our respective worldviews.

Policy positions aren’t important.  Permanent principles are.

For a primer on conservative principles, one could do worse than this list by Russell Kirk.  He explains a great set of principles that should be eye opening to anyone.

As a brief introduction, though, just think about the term conservative.  Our highest value is right there: conservation.  “To conserve” means “to save, to protect, or to keep.”  So what are conservatives trying to conserve?

Whatever has been best in the civilizations of history.  Whatever has been proven effective by experience.  Whatever, finally, serves to ennoble and empower life.

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Mothers, Mormons, and Defending the Family

On this Mothers’ Day, I’m reminded of a kerfuffle after the last General Women’s Meeting of the LDS Church, where the leader of our faith’s women around the world urged us to “defend the family.”  This was greeted by some ongoing snarking from the faithless fringe online, who sarcastically queried what exactly is attacking the family in the first place.

Lo and behold, in the last week, a couple of news outlets have caught wind of some teachings by intellectual leaders on the Left which include such gems as these:

“One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.”

         –“Abolish the Family? Or Just Hobble Parents So They Don’t Give Kids ‘Unfair’ Advantages?

“I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.”

         –“Inequality warriors vs. the family and the individual

Yes, the hostility towards the family is real.  Yes, it needs to be vocally and actively defended in the public sphere.  Yes, we Latter-day Saints have a direct imperative to be at the forefront of this.

And all of those clichéd feel-good bromides about motherhood that we hear in church about mothers being the “guardians of the hearth,” or their teachings to children having “far reaching affects on politics, history, and society,” or that Satan fears mothers because “those who rock the cradle can rock his earthly empire?”

Those are all true.  Experience shows it.  Faith proves it.  Just watching world events unfold offers abundant testimony that we need strong mothers, strong fathers, and strong homes more than ever.

[On an unrelated note, both of the articles linked above compare the leftist remarks in question to one of my favorite science fiction stories–highly recommended to all who want to better understand the sour spirit of these times.]

Muslims, Mormons, and Freedom of Speech

Muslims reverence and honor Muhammad as God’s most special prophet.  As a Mormon, I understand that.  While I and other Latter-day Saints share their dedication to following a prophet, there is absolutely no amount of obscene libel or slander that could ever justify violence in the defense of that reverence.

I believe in God, and I also believe in the marketplace of ideas.  I believe that to truly serve the first, we must preserve the second.

To put it another way: if there were some cabal of fundamentalist Mormons who started assassinating anyone involved in the Book of Mormon Broadway musical, I would immediately, publicly, and totally take the side of the play.  There would be no hesitation, no caveats, no excuses about how the killers were “provoked,” no aggrieved pleas for any “respect” that would equal censorship.

The old saying of Voltaire’s, the one about not agreeing with what one says, but defending to the death their right to say it, may be apocryphal, but it is nonetheless a cornerstone value of Western civilization.  Anyone outside of that civilization must know that, as one of our primary values, that must be respected, and if our value comes into direct conflict with anyone else’s value, we will fight to defend it.

And those of us who are inside of this civilization must actually be willing to do that.

Otherwise, we will lose that freedom which has served us so well for so long.

How I Became A Conservative

My journey through college was the opposite of the typical one: I entered as a liberal and left as a conservative.

I started in the fall of 1996, which is when I saw Spike Lee’s movie Get on the Bus on opening night, as well as when I arrived two hours early to a rally so I could be in the front of the audience to see Hillary Clinton campaign for her husband’s reelection.

A lot of big things brought about my evolution: becoming a father, reading more widely and deeply than ever before, getting in the habit of going to church regularly, starting to work with young people as a teacher in training and thereby seeing the world without the one-dimensional rose-colored glasses provided by the youth-oriented media culture that had made me a young liberal in the first place.

But one small incident stands out as maybe more formative than anything else.

In class one day, a discussion went off topic and got into something political.  I wasn’t part of the debate: on one side was a group of several frat guys and on the other was one straight arrow.

The frat guys would usually come into class bragging about their beer-fueled hedonistic adventures, in a cloud of high-fives and braying laughter.  The other guy was a bit of a preppie stiff, I thought, so I tended to sit by the frat boys and hang on their stories.

From random comments here and there, it was clear that the frat boys were on board with all the liberal dogma of the times.  The other guy didn’t get into it much, but he clearly felt differently.

I only remember them having a direct, full exchange of ideas that one time.  Actually, it wasn’t much of an exchange: the frat pack parroted out some blithe liberal cliche or another, directed towards the square who dressed nicely and worked harder, and he responded politely but firmly with ideas and evidence to the contrary.  The frat gang tried to rebut him and save face, but the debate was over almost as soon as it began.  They were soon reduced to smirking, rolling their eyes, and shaking their heads: such was the strength of their argument.

The teacher who had allowed and watched this bit of conversation–I think we’d all seen it coming for a while–thinned out the tension by smiling and saying to the conservative kid, “Wow, you really know your facts.”  His quiet but casual reply: “I have to.”

I saw the truth of what he meant.  There it was, right in front of me: liberal gangs tended to jump on shallow bandwagons and berate those who didn’t conform.  It was the conservative minority who were the real rebels, and who really had the weight of reason on their side.

Nearly two decades of study and experience have borne that observation out.

I never got to know that guy well, and I’ve long since forgotten his name, but he’s one of my heroes: he stood up against bullies and countered their ignorance with brilliance.  I can only hope to someday inspire anyone like he enlightened me.

The LDS Vote Dissenters And The Intolerance Of The American Left

At this weekend’s global General Conference, the annual sustaining vote for our church’s overall leaders had an unusual wrinkle.  Tens of thousand of Mormons there in person–any many more watching online–said yes.  But about seven people stood up to say nay.

This was a planned protest vote by a group called “Any Opposed?”.  According to their web site, they seem to have wanted an audience with the Apostles so they could air their grievances.  They might have been surprised when the conducting officer, President Uchtdorf, referred them to their stake presidents.

Perhaps they didn’t realize that the church has grown far too large for the old policies of the 70’s to be practical anymore.  (Hopefully they then learned from Elder Cook’s talk on the subject.)  Perhaps they didn’t know that this is the procedure outlined in the Church’s official Handbook of Instructions:

If a member in good standing gives a dissenting vote when someone is presented to be sustained, the presiding officer or another assigned priesthood officer confers with the dissenting member in private after the meeting. (emphasis added)

If they’d really read the handbook, they’d know why dissenting votes are asked for in the first place.  From the same paragraph cited above:

The officer determines whether the dissenting vote was based on knowledge that the person who was presented is guilty of conduct that should disqualify him or her from serving in the position. (emphasis added)

The point of a dissenting vote is to reveal that a nominee for a calling has been cheating on a spouse, or beating children, or getting drunk every night, etc.

But, again according to their own web site, the dissenting voters weren’t accusing leaders of such immoral behavior.  They were protesting the fact that the Church holds opinions contrary to their own about (surprise!) gay marriage and the role of women in the Church.

So their dissenting vote had nothing to do with unworthiness, much less an attempt to find answers or engage in dialogue.  It was an attempt to blacklist people who disagree with their political views.  They wanted to publicly punish and suppress those who are different from them.

This, of course, has become the modus operandi of the American Left these days.  (See here for some recent examples, though there are many, many more.)  The mindset of too many liberals today has become one of automatic righteous indignation towards those who dare to dissent from their party line, with a reflexive response to censor them.

Actually, in the eyes of those who gave the dissenting votes, our general Church leaders really are immoral and thus unworthy to hold office.  Our leaders have committed the ultimate sin, after all: they don’t confess loyalty to the creeds of liberalism.

Such is the “tolerance” of the American Left.

We Have To Stop This Troubling Trend In The News

I read a lot of news from both sides of the aisle, and I’ve noticed a huge trend across the spectrum that panders to the worst in us all.  It debases everyone and it needs to stop.

Below are two examples, both about Indiana’s controversial religious liberty legislation, one from the left and one from the right.

Consider this current headline from left-leaning ‘The right’s ‘freedom’ meltdown: Why GOP still doesn’t get what liberty actually means.”

And then here’s a current headline from right-leaning “How does this Ed Shultz RFRA must-see meltdown say it ALL?”

Apparently, everybody’s having meltdowns these days.  At least in the eyes of those who disagree with them.

Browse the rest of those sites, or any of the countless others like them, and you’ll see plenty of titles with the same hook: Hey look!  These people with different opinions than us are a bunch of rage-filled idiots, too blinded by their own ignorance to realize how stupid they are!

I’m a conservative, so I don’t think all ideas are equal.  I do think many people are wrong.  I strongly believe that we need to vigorously debate issues.

But I do not believe in demonizing opposition.  No, this is worse than demonizing: this is dehumanizing.

The proliferation of these titles for articles shows how catchy they are with readers, and that makes me very sad.  We should be able to argue without wallowing in the mire of juvenile, ad hominem attacks.

I avoid much of the mainstream left media for the same reason that I don’t listen to right-wing talk radio: it’s all just a narcissistic echo chamber where predictable parrots preach to their respective choirs, everybody patting themselves on the back for being the smart ones.  Very rarely do we see any news anymore with any real analysis or reflection, much less mature introspection.

I keep up with the news because that’s part of how I reach out into the world, but most of the time the news just wants to hold up a flattering mirror to ourselves, paired with a gross caricature of the dangerous “other” next to it.

Such tripe is a travesty, and should be beneath us all.

Please join me in not patronizing any news source that indulges in such tactics.  Thank you.

“My Grandfather Had a Life”

This essay will turn eight years old next week.  In the age of constant bombardment by media content, we’re lucky to remember anything specific from last week, but I think about this one essay all the time.  It is that important.

My title comes from this quote: “My grandfather was born in 1888 and he didn’t have a lifestyle. He didn’t need one: he had a life.”

Among the many other great parts:

I suspect that my grandfather’s life was real in a sense that my father’s life hasn’t quite been, and my life is not at all.
The crucial difference is my grandfather’s lack of self-consciousness, and that self-consciousness is a hallmark of the perpetual, infantilised adolescents we have all become, monsters of introspection hovering twitchily on the edge of self-obsession, occasionally aware that the life that exists only to be examined is barely manageable; barely, indeed, a life.

Note that the article ends with some very sane–and therefore radical–truths about adulthood.

Required reading.