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Why radical conservatism results in evil



The Wall Street Journal over the weekend celebrated a conservative writer named Jordan Peterson, who has a new self-help book out. The author of the op-ed piece, Yoram Hazony, praises Peterson’s “elevated arguments” that have led to a “revival of conservative thought.” (Hazony, by the way, is a young, Jewish-Israeli scholar who, while at Princeton, edited “The Princeton Tory,” the school’s controversial conservative student publication.)

Hazony quotes many lines from Peterson’s book, but for me, this is the giveaway:

“It is reasonable to do what other people have always done, unless we have a very good reason not to.” This means “rediscover[ing] the values of our culture—veiled from us by our ignorance, hidden in the dusty treasure-trove of the past—rescue them, and integrate them into our own lives.”

And what is the chief “value” we Americans need to “rediscover”? The Bible [which] is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization.”

 There you have it, the driving hypothesis behind Trump-style conservatism: (1) People should follow and respect the beliefs and traditions of their forefathers, even if they don’t understand them, and (2) The Bibleis the ultimate source of our understanding of good and evil.”

 So much dumb stuff here: where to begin? First of all, “what other people have always done” has not been particularly ennobling or wonderful and in fact has perpetuated human suffering and death on a worldwide scale throughout history. Most societies, including our own, “have always” had human slaves. They have usually not allowed women or non-landowning males to vote. They have permitted child labor in workplaces unregulated by humane rules of decency and health, and have forced adults to work for wages scarcely sufficient to survive. They have discriminated violently against gay people and for long periods of time murdered them. Modern industrial societies, including our own, have dumped their waste products into rivers, polluting the land and killing massive numbers of living creatures. Another “value of our culture” has been the wholesale elevation of Christianity over all other religious practices, which has resulted in untold millions being killed in wars of religion (the Inquisition and the Crusades are but two examples from history). Indeed, I could go on and on listing “cultural values” that have resulted in death, suffering and disenfranchisement based on “conservative” values.

It is, therefore, easy to demolish the argument that we should “do what other people have always done.” This is why my generation, starting in the 1960s, decided to do things differently. We looked around us and saw an America mired in racism, homophobia, misogyny, economic inequality, xenophobia, ruination of the environment, regimented thinking and an unhealthy obsession with materiality; and we came to the same conclusion as Robert F. Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

 The modern conservative movement, as typified by Peterson, hates it when people ask “Why not?” They see this as a threat to the status quo, under which they—almost always white males like Peterson and Hazony—hold all the power and wealth. They don’t want to share them with people they see as their moral and intellectual inferiors; and they are prepared to fight to hold onto that power and wealth. This is exactly what we see happening today in the Republican Party, a politico-religious cult devoted to white nationalism, fear of “the other,” and the untrammeled excesses of Darwinian capitalism.

Every cult needs its foundational document, and in the Republican Party—as Peterson notes—they have found theirs: The Bible, a book as seriously compromised by factual inaccuracy and anachronisms as any that ever existed. The Bible of the far right religious wing in America recommends killing homosexuals. It also instructs the faithful to kill men and women who have adulterous affairs. Moses was instructed “by God” to kill a man who picked up sticks on the Sabbath, thus violating the “no work” admonition. Women who were not virgins on their wedding night were murdered, worshippers of “other gods” than the angry Hebrew god were murdered, practitioners of “witchcraft” were murdered, “rebellion against parents” was punished by death (meaning that a four-year old child who hits her parent in a fit of anger must be stoned to death); and there were plenty of other everyday “crimes” for which the Bible mandates death. The Bible, then, allows slavery, polygamy, and the absolute denial of any rights—civil or legal—to children and women.

That’s quite a “treasure trove of the past” for us to “rediscover,” isn’t it?

At least the Wall Street Journal, through Hazony’s paeon to Peterson, has painted a black-and-white picture of the conservative movement that we all can see. Peterson doesn’t try to whitewash his reactionary views, or present them as anything more or less than what they are: a repudiation of modernity and progress. He demands a return to the status quo of—oh, let’s say the year 1450, when everyone knew their place in society, when there was no way to escape your place, when if you did try to escape your place you were arrested, tortured and usually killed. (Odd that Peterson, such a religious Jew, doesn’t recall that the Old Days he pines for weren’t a very nice time for Jews to be alive.)

Is this what we want to return to? No. Peterson himself provides a way out: “It is reasonable to do what other people have always done,” he argues, unless we have a very good reason not to.” I would suggest that we, the American people, do indeed have “a very good reason” not to follow the misguided ways of the past: to save our souls, to advance the course of American freedom and democracy, to save our country from its most wicked impulses, to continue to be the light of the world, to raise a new generation steeped in the real values of compassion, respect and decency. A good step in that direction, by the way, will be to impeach or otherwise get rid of Trump, thereby ridding the body politic of the cancer currently destroying it.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Review” Section Online
    (June 14, 2018):

    “Holding On to the Good Things”


    Book review by Richard Aldous
    [a professor of British history at Bard College, is the author of “Reagan and Thatcher,” “The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli” and, most recently, “Schlesinger.”]

    “With the rise of populist movements in the U.S. and Europe, a kind of internecine warfare has broken out among writers and thinkers of a conservative cast of mind. Some are maddened that conservative principles are being overtaken by what they view as a reactionary right, and they are disturbed that former allies are embracing apparently unsavory positions and political figures. Others, though, are delighted that certain right-of-center ideas and assumptions, belittled and dismissed for so long, are entering the mainstream debate. In ‘Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition,’ Roger Scruton tries to trace the genealogy of a sound and estimable conservatism and, implicitly, to gauge its prospects at the current moment. His tone is not dour, but HIS MESSAGE may be less than heartening to anyone with right-of-center sympathies: that THE CONSERVATIVE TRADITION IS DYING.

    “Mr. Scruton has a reputation as a somewhat feisty character — one of Britain’s most distinguished political philosophers but also something of an intellectual brawler, never shying away from a fight. In ‘Conservatism,’ however, he is at his most emollient, and the book is all the better for it. Indeed, it is the shafts of melancholy and doubt that help make it one of the most eloquent and even moving evocations of the conservative tradition in Western politics, philosophy and culture I have ever read.

    . . .

    “On one level this slim volume is the ideal primer for those who are new to conservative ideas — a kind of ‘conservatism: the greatest hits.’ . . .”

  2. Bob Henry says:

    A news report that most likely has escaped peoples’ attention . . .

    From The Wall Street Journal Online
    (June 4, 2018):

    “Afghan Clerics Label Suicide Attacks a Sin. Then, a Bomber Strikes Their Meeting;
    Top clerics and religious scholars also declare country’s 17-year war illegal under Islamic law”


    By Craig Nelson, Habib Kahn Totakhil and Ehsanulla Amiri
    Staff Reporters

    A suspected Islamic State suicide bomber struck a meeting of Afghanistan’s top clerics and religious scholars in the capital on Monday, killing 14 people shortly after the large gathering declared such suicide attacks a sin and the country’s 17-year war illegal under Islamic law.

    The Afghan branch of Islamic State said through its Amaq news agency that it carried out the attack, which occurred as the meeting of the Afghan Ulema Council was adjourning and attendees were departing the assembly grounds. The Taliban, Afghanistan’s largest insurgency, denied any involvement in the bombing.

    Islamic State’s affiliate here, which has claimed responsibility for a spate of attacks in Kabul in recent months, is under intense military pressure from U.S. Special Forces and from stepped-up U.S. airstrikes in eastern Nangarhar province, its Afghan stronghold.

    A senior Afghan security official said 17 people were also injured in the bombing at one of the exits from the meeting grounds, near Kabul Polytechnic University in western Kabul.

    Sayed Ehsan Tahiri, spokesman for the government’s High Peace Council, said the meeting was attended by some 3,000 religious figures from across the Central Asian nation. He said he escaped the blast by a matter of seconds. “God has given me another life,” he said.

    Shortly before the attack, the convocation had issued an Islamic ruling, or fatwa, declaring suicide attacks forbidden.

    “Suicide attacks, explosions for killing people, division, insurgency, different types of corruption, robbery, kidnapping and any type of violence are counted as big sins in Islam and are against the order of the Almighty Allah,” they said.

    Suicide bombings are a relatively recent phenomenon in Afghanistan, having been rejected as a form of combat during the uprising against the occupation of Soviet forces in the 1980s and the takeover by Taliban forces in the mid-1990s.

    Rather, they became a feature of the Afghan war in the mid-2000s, as the tactics used by Islamist militants against U.S. forces in Iraq rebounded here.

    The clerical gathering also denounced the 17-year war in Afghanistan as illegal under Islamic law, calling it nothing but “shedding the blood of Muslims,” and urged the Taliban to take up the Kabul government’s offer of unconditional peace talks.

    In perhaps the most public peace overture since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to remove the Taliban from power, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in late February offered political recognition to the Taliban in exchange for a stop to the fighting.

    The Taliban hasn’t replied formally to the bid. It has said it will only negotiate with the U.S. since, it says, America is the main engine of the war and the Kabul government is illegitimate.

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