Imagine what non-racist conservatism would look like... or rather, how it could come to be

by: Paul Rosenberg

Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 15:00


I was mighty pleased to see Joe Conason's column at Salon today,
"Why do conservatives pretend "racism is dead"?", puncing back at James Taranto's attempt to expunge racial bigotry from conservatism's past.  I was even more pleased when, toward the end, he referenced my own take down of Taranto, and concluded his piece saying, "Rosenberg's entire post is well worth reading for a brisk, fact-filled refutation of Taranto."

That post "Newt Gingrich Is A Bigot--and the face of conservatism & the GOP", was motivated by the jarring juxtaposition of Taranto denialism with Newtie's acting out.  But it's probably even more jarring to consider the entirety of the racist rightwing attack on Obama over the past couple of years and the sudden anti-Islamic eruption of the past couple of weeks.

You see, the racist attack on Obama not only involved denialism, but projection:  It was, Glenn Beck assured us, Obama who was the racist--a theme that Beck has taken so seriously that he's organizing his very own white conservatives' march on Washington this weekend to mug Martin Luther King's memory and steal his dream.  It's a very carefully crafted argument that's been worked on for decades, though in Beck's incarnation it's rather slipshod.  Still, projecting conservatives' racism onto blacks and liberals is a central aspect of this sort of racist crusade.

In contrast, the anti-Muslim furor raised over the Park51 Cultural Center has none of that careful craftmanship behind it.  It's raw, unfiltered racial bigotry, complete with threats and even acts of violence.  It totally gives the game away.

Still, this does raise the question of what it would like if there were a conservatism free from racism.  In one sense, theoretically at least, it's quite possible.  Different researchers have repeatedly found that political conservatism correlates with racist attitudes or with attitudes--such as Social Dominance Orienation and Rightwing Authoritarianism--that in turn correlate with a broad range of group prejudice: racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, etc.  But even as these correlations show that actually existing conservatism is inextricably bound up with prejudicial attitudes, they also indicate that there is an identifiable set of beliefs separate from prejudicial attitudes that at least in theory could constitute a non-racist, non-sexist, totally non-bigoted form of conservatism.

So what would it take to bring such a form of conservatism into being?  To be honest, I'm extremely doubtful that it could be done, but I'm willing to give it a shot.  And to do so, I want to go back to two of the terms I've already referred to: denialism and projection.

Paul Rosenberg :: Imagine what non-racist conservatism would look like... or rather, how it could come to be
Denialism is a commonplace feature of conservatism, particularly with respect to attitudes towards outgroups.  "We're not prejudice, they're just inferior, unfortunately. But if they were like us..."  That's the subtext here.  Projection is a bit more extreme: "We're not prejudice, they are!"

The relationship between the two goes back to basics--the roles of denial and projection as ego-defense mechanisms, which Wikipedia describes thus:

In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, defence mechanisms or defense mechanisms (see ce/se) are unconscious[1] psychological strategies brought into play by various entities to cope with reality and to maintain self-image. Healthy persons normally use different defences throughout life. An ego defence mechanism becomes pathological only when its persistent use leads to maladaptive behavior such that the physical and/or mental health of the individual is adversely affected. The purpose of the Ego Defence Mechanisms is to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety, social sanctions or to provide a refuge from a situation with which one cannot currently cope

According to one influential theory they can be categorized into four different levels.  Level one is called "Pathological" and it includes the most primative mechanisms:

The mechanisms on this level, when predominating, almost always are severely pathological. These four defences, in conjunction, permit one to effectively rearrange external experiences to eliminate the need to cope with reality. The pathological users of these mechanisms frequently appear irrational or insane to others. These are the "psychotic" defences, common in overt psychosis. However, they are found in dreams and throughout childhood as well.

These include Denial:

Denial: Refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety-provoking stimulus by stating it doesn't exist; resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality.

However, logically as well as psychologically, elements of denial are present in virtually all defense mechanisms.

Another Level One mechanism is Delusional Projection:

Delusional Projection: Grossly frank delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature.

Level 2 mechanisms are characterized as "Immature":

These mechanisms are often present in adults and more commonly present in adolescents. These mechanisms lessen distress and anxiety provoked by threatening people or by uncomfortable reality. People who excessively use such defences are seen as socially undesirable in that they are immature, difficult to deal with and seriously out of touch with reality. These are the so-called "immature" defences and overuse almost always leads to serious problems in a person's ability to cope effectively. These defences are often seen in severe depression and personality disorders. In adolescence, the occurrence of all of these defences is normal.

At Level 2, a less sever form of projection has been identified:

Projection: Projection is a primitive form of paranoia. Projection also reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them; attributing one's own unacknowledged unacceptable/unwanted thoughts and emotions to another; includes severe prejudice, severe jealousy, hyper vigilance to external danger, and "injustice collecting". It is shifting one's unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses within oneself onto someone else, such that those same thoughts, feelings, beliefs and motivations are perceived as being possessed by the other

Level 3 is characterized as "Neurotic":

These mechanisms are considered neurotic, but fairly common in adults. Such defences have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems in relationships, work and in enjoying life when used as one's primary style of coping with the world.

And finally, level 4 mechanisms are considered "Mature":

These are commonly found among emotionally healthy adults and are considered mature, even though many have their origins in an immature stage of development. They have been adapted through the years in order to optimize success in life and relationships. The use of these defences enhances pleasure and feelings of control. These defences help us integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts, while still remaining effective. Those who use these mechanisms are usually considered virtuous.

They include three clearly quite healthy mechanisms, amongst others:

Altruism: Constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction.

Anticipation: Realistic planning for future discomfort.

Humour: Overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about) that gives pleasure to others. Humor, which explores the absurdity inherent in any event, enables someone to "call a spade a spade", while "wit" is a form of displacement (see above under Level 3). Wit refers to the serious or distressing in a humorous way, rather than disarming it; the thoughts remain distressing, but they are "skirted round" by witticism.

What this analytical structure suggests is that conservatism could eventually rid itself of the distressing psychic baggage it carries by becoming increasingly capable of facing up to it, and abandoning more primative defense mechanisms for more sophisticated ones, eventually relying on ones that are mostly harmless or even beneficial.

But, of course, to do that conservatism would have to admit that it has a problem.

And, as Chief Wiggims would say, "What are the chances of that?"


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Imagine (0.00 / 0)
It would be nice if American conservatives lost their bigoted ideals, but that is extraordinarily unlikely to happen in a movement as dominated by religion as it is.  For just one example:

http://www.informaworld.com/sm...


Oh, Sure (0.00 / 0)
Hence the Chief Wiggims quote.

But the improbability of an idealized form of conservatism is so incredibly remote that I'm not really sure I've ever seen any sort of serious thought given to what it would take.  This is admittedly only the briefest indication of what it might entail, But I think it's helpful to think about, if only because it helps bring into focus a better sense of just how far off that improbability is.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Non Bigoted Conservatism? Contradiction in terms (4.00 / 1)
It's always been the same thing. Poor conservatives being held down and oppressed by ruthless minorities backed by the federal government:
"the civil rights bill is as much of an actual force bill as the measures proposed by Summner and Stevens in Reconstruction days in their avowed desire to 'put black heels on white necks.'"
-- GA Sen. Richard Russell 1957.

If whites were feeling that put-upon in 1957 how much more so now when an actual NEGRO is President? OMG!! (Can you imagine Russell's head exploding if he could have looked into the future and seen that scene in Chicago on election night?)

Without feelings of persecution, where would they be?

I don't believe there could be a modern conservative movement without racial resentment.  


Conservatism can only make sense (0.00 / 0)
if it stops trying to define itself as being the opposite of liberalism, and starts to define itself as what it believes to be a necessary brake on the excesses of a liberalism that it essentially supports, even if not in all of its variations and implementations. I.e. as the conservative wing of liberalism, as opposed to anti-liberalism. But so long as it continues to insist that progress can or should be stopped and that this isn't and always has been a liberal country at its core (if not always in practice), with the serious differences of opinion being about HOW liberal it should be, not WHETHER it should be liberal, then it's never going to be an ideology worth taking seriously on its own merits (or lack thereof).

Put in terms of the founders (actual and ideological), Hamilton was a conservative liberal, Jefferson a libertarian liberal, and Paine a progressive liberal.

But they were ALL liberals. The conservatives were called Tories and Loyalists.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton


Funny (0.00 / 0)
There is a lot of truth in this, but at the same time, it could be said of liberalism as well:

Conservatism can only make sense   (0.00 / 0)
if it stops trying to define itself as being the opposite of liberalism, and starts to define itself as what it believes to be a necessary brake on the excesses of a liberalism that it essentially supports, even if not in all of its variations and implementations. I.e. as the conservative wing of liberalism, as opposed to anti-liberalism.

It seems to me that part of the political situation we are in now is that unity forged by opposition to Bush has fractured as those most closely allied with the party and the Obama admin are insisting that we focus on the potential for "Speaker Boehner" and not the fact that the Democrats in power are not doing what they promised.  It also seems like we've had a parade of people on the left (like Lakoff or Rosenberg) arguing that we too often don't argue our values and instead accept conservative frames for debate.

Tribalism plays an important role on both sides.  But not the same role.  

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


[ Parent ]
Our Tribe (4.00 / 3)
is one that anyone can join.  It's written into our values.

Theirs? Not so much.  

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
That's the difference between (0.00 / 0)
progressives and neoliberals - progressives believe it, neoliberals pay lip service to it.

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

[ Parent ]
Well, in theory at least (0.00 / 0)
Not sure we want a Rove or Breitbart in our midst.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

[ Parent ]
Anyone Can Be Redeemed (0.00 / 0)
But they have to want it.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Or accept the free market as their savior... (0.00 / 0)


"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

[ Parent ]
Tribalism based on very different values on goals (0.00 / 0)
Us, on equality, sustainable prosperity and genuine liberty. Them, on dominance, parasitic exploitation and freedom for them to be irresponsible.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

[ Parent ]
Quickie spell check (4.00 / 1)
Chief Wiggum, who has infinitely more self-awareness and insight than most conservatives.

What really kills me is how our mainstream media, like the good corporate stenographers that they are, parrot conservative projection memes as a standard part of their  reporting. This leads to nothing more than an endless stream of false equivalencies about conservatives and liberals they (the media) like to refer to as "balanced" journalism.*

*They use the word "balanced" these days because the idea of "truthful" journalism seems to have gotten flushed down the toilet some time ago.


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