Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Trump, the blank slate, tattoos and more

Donald Trump was asked by a reporter to define conservatism. The most he could offer was "I think it’s a person that doesn’t want to take risks..a person that wants to conserve."

But nor could the readers at Breitbart do much better. Most commonly they defined conservatism by offering up some version of classical liberalism: individual liberty, constrained federal government, free enterprise.

I left a comment of my own:
Conservatism is not really about not wanting to take risks. It is wanting to conserve the things that are undermined by a liberal ideology. Liberalism begins with the idea that there is nothing of meaning or value existing as part of reality outside the individual. Therefore, what matters is the individual self-defining or self-determining his own meaning and value (the meaning is in the act of choosing, the "agency", rather than in what is actually chosen). Morality in this view is accepting the right of others to do the same thing (hence the moral focus on tolerance, non-discrimination, etc.) For liberals, things that are predetermined, and can't be self-determined, limit human freedom and should be made not to matter. This includes what liberals call "gender" (the social expression of our biological sex) and race/ethny.

Conservatives seek to connect man to the things of meaning and value that transcend him (the goodness of which exist objectively independent of his will). These include aspects of character and virtue; manhood and womanhood; family (including the fulfilment of offices such as fatherhood/motherhood/husband/wife); nature (man's connection to); nation (love of and loyalty toward); a moral code; a church tradition; art and culture that inspires men toward the higher things; and a continuity between generations past, present and future.

I thought afterwards that there was another angle to all this. If you don't believe that there is anything there, only what you put there, then this explains the longstanding liberal tendency to begin with the blank slate individual.

In other words, liberals like to assume as a model that we begin with nothing and then we make of ourselves something according to our own free will and choices. It is a model which works at two levels. At the individual level it is the model of the self-made man. It is assumed that we make something of ourselves at a public level through our careers, or perhaps through sporting or artistic achievements.

This helps to explain why liberals are so morally focused on the idea of equal opportunity in terms of careers, sports and the arts, even at the extreme level of wanting women to be able to advance in the career of a combat soldier. A conservative would be more focused on the transgressive nature of such a step, of its disruption to a healthy relationship between the masculine and feminine, of it not being a fulfilment of womanhood. But these things are simply not "there" for a liberal mind, they are false social constructs without value; what the liberal mind perceives is the chance for a woman to make herself according to her choices, it is this freedom that brings meaning.

(Remember, too, that if you think of people as essentially "choice makers" then the fact of being a woman is hardly relevant - the category itself won't seem that significant in human life, except as a potential factor in having an unequal chance to be self-made. A liberal won't think in terms of "man" and "woman" the way that conservatives do.)

It should be said that this focus on being self-made does potentially give a kind of dynamism to liberal individuals. They won't be content until they have made it professionally in some respect. Conservatives get a sense of meaning from other things, and this can potentially make us less socially ambitious and therefore leave us in a weaker position to influence society. It's something within the conservative mind we might have to acknowledge and overcome.

Even certain aspects of popular culture, such as tattoos, might be linked to liberal assumptions about the human person. If there is nothing meaningful given to us, but only what we ourselves make of ourselves, then perhaps the human body in its natural state isn't meaningful, but is merely a blank canvas, upon which we then make meaning, perhaps by drawing or writing things that express something about our lives or aspirations or personalities. Hence tattoos. It's different, though, if you think that our bodies already, in their given state, have a depth of meaning and express something deeply significant about who we are - if this is your starting point then tattoos can potentially be visually distracting - the surface meaning of the tattoo can distract from the more profound meaning of the body in its natural state.

The idea of things being a blank slate and being given meaning when the human will acts upon them also works at the level of society and the environment. It's noticeable, for instance, that political leaders are judged in a liberal society not for being good stewards or custodians of a certain valued tradition, but for having made changes - preferably changes along liberal lines ("reforms") but if not that, then any kind of changes. Perhaps part of the explanation for this is that liberals see the idea of people acting upon society and the environment as a good in itself - as being a meaning-making virtue.

Again, this does give liberal societies a certain kind of dynamism, even if it sometimes produces ugliness and excess. It makes for motion. The overall logic of liberal societies is ultimately a self-destructive one, but we should acknowledge and seek to match in our own way the dynamic aspect.


  1. I have found Jonathan Haidt's work really helpful in explaining that conservatism is a substantive moral stance not an attitude towards change. According to Haidt's research, conservative morality is uniquely based around loyalty (to family, ethnicity, church, for example), respect for authority (in the same), and purity. That sounds about right to me.

    Conservatives got their name because they were trying to conserve these things, which the left were trying to get rid of. Now that they are largely gone, we are trying to restore them. Perhaps in our present situation restorationist is a better term.

    1. I agree that restorationist is a more accurate term to use now, though it's not very catchy.

    2. Mark, I coined my own short definition several years ago:
      Life is participation in a permanent and immutable natural order of being that can not be altered or denied. Modern liberalism attempts to deny and to defy that order, while traditionalist conservatism accepts it and embraces it's necessary constraints.

    3. I don't think conservative is a useful term these days. It's become meaningless. People think of neocons as conservatives when in fact they're not remotely conservative. People think of mainstream conservatives as conservatives when they're actually not conservative.

      All the traditional terms have become meaningless. Our present economic/political system is characterised by an alliance between Big Business and Big Government. It's neither capitalism not socialism. It's corporatism, or perhaps fascism would be a more accurate description. And all present-day mainstream political parties support that system. Whether they claim to be of the Left or the Right, whether they claim to be liberal or conservative, their core beliefs are identical.

      On social issues liberals, conservatives and neocons are all "progressives" - they are all united on such issues.

      Those of us who dissent from these mainstream views do need to find a new term to describe ourselves.

    4. I thought the Identitarians did alright in choosing their name.

  2. Pensees by Joe Sobran is a great essay on the liberal-conservative divide.


  3. It took me a long time to find your comment. I thought you might have got some good conversation going amongst the yanks but that was not the case at all. The level of debate and discussion on these public forums is simply too uncoordinated and angst ridden to allow for a good signal to noise ratio.

    1. I was curious to see if it would get a response but it was mostly ignored. To be fair, though, it's not the easiest kind of comment to digest if you're just there to scroll through opinions.

  4. The comment count at Breitbart is up to 2,709, including Facebook. That's not a discussion. It's not even a conversation. It's a free-for-all mob, shouting all at once. What is that; more than a hundred comments an hour for 24 hours? Jimmy commented here that "it took me a long time to find your comment". I didn't find it.
    Besides; unless you're not posting there during the middle of your night, us yanks are asleep. I know that you know this, but if it's 9am in Sydney, it's 5pm the day before on our east coast. Your noon puts us at 8pm. If it's 4pm in Sydney, it's midnight here. We share only a few daylight hours.
    Those 2,709 unmoderated comments are posting through a word-bot grinder. No seriously interested person is going to wade through a thousand comments to find something thoughtful to respond to, and then have to wait and wade back in for a response on yet another day. I don't see how that kind of unmoderated, unlimited attempt at a discussion can work. I'll be posting this while you're fast asleep, and will have moved on to a hundred other things during this day. I'll have to remind myself to check back at Oz, just to find out if I'm even in the discussion.

  5. On the substance; Trump's mind-numbing answer was revealling and disheartening, but not unexpected. It's as if he has never actually given the subject a thought, and doesn't really care. He doesn't know, because he doesn't have to.
    I don't think that anyone honestly thinks of Trump as aligned with any definition of conservative. He's an accomplished, unabashed capitalist who neither smokes or drinks. Other than that?
    He's pure populist. His appeal, at least to nearly everyone that I hear talk about him; is a term that I apply to him, and why I may actually vote for him; his dogged, in-everyone's-face, threat of creative destruction.
    He doesn't know or care what a conservative is, or who is conservative. He wants to break the bad deal that we have with our dysfunctional government, and then fashion his idea of a "new deal" . America is long dead. Trump can't bring it back to life. Trump sees his "America" in the same way that most modern citizens of the United States now see this country (no longer a nation); but as an econmic entity, that must be better run like a business. State-craft, immigration, national defense, industry, etc., are all components of the econonmic engine that he believes is degraded and sputtering badly. He thinks that that engine alone was what made the former American nation great.
    Trump has no interest in social or cultural issues. They used to define an Amerian nation that he seems strangly unfamiilar with. He seems not to feel, and certainly never expresses, any connection to any of the elements embraced by the traditionalist conservative. Trump is all business.
    It's build one wall, tear down another wall, and throw out the bums who won't sign a deal with him.
    But, he can't just walk into Capital and tell them all "You're fired". But, I really don't believe that he can possibly screw up this country more than anyone else who is running. If he accomplishes only one or two of the tasks that he boasts that he will, it will be worth it.

  6. "Trump sees his "America" in the same way that most modern citizens of the United States now see this country (no longer a nation); but as an economic entity, that must be better run like a business."

    Perhaps so, but he doesn't appear to be a paid employee of vast global economic interests. He's given the media pukes on both sides a good thrashing and he also appeals to a thoroughly maligned section of the American public - the working class white man. Building a wall with Mexico is a real conservatist position too. No upcoming conservatism can reestablish its roots in a society swollen with 4ft tall descendants of the aztecs who will vote selfishly and care little for America.

    Donald's populist nationalism could break the stranglehold of the corrupt left/right paradigm and pave the way for something new that doesn't devolve into a bunch of plutocrats prioritizing GDP and efficiency at the expense of everything else. And it's not just America that needs this break with the status quo, but most of the west. In New Zealand I don't particularly like the reality of going to a house auction and having to compete against a chinese billioniare (who isnt even in the country and couldn't care less about it) who treats the local housing stock as nothing more than a financial instrument for "wealth creation". But that's the way things are and the current government has no real problem with this state of affairs because it doesn't actually represent the people, it represents elite interests and a soulless economic rationalism. Donald plans to restrict foreign ownership of real-estate (so I read). I would probably vote for him on that point alone, along with his opposition to out-sourcing jobs.

  7. Well said Jimmy. My hope is that authentic conservatism can re-emerge out of what I also hope for; a creative destruction of "the corrupt left/right paradigm" during a two-term Trump presidency. As I say, we have little left to lose.