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On History And The Disregard Thereof

Reader comment on item: Fascism's Legacy: Liberalism

Submitted by A.Z. Foreman (Egypt), Aug 3, 2012 at 15:23

"conservatism calls for limited government, individualism, democratic debate, and capitalism. Its appeal is liberty and leaving citizens alone. Goldberg's triumph is to establish the kinship between communism, fascism, and liberalism. All derive from the same tradition that goes back to the Jacobins of the French Revolution."

One might wonder whether it makes sense to eject modern conservatism from that trifecta of "Communism, Fascism and Liberalism", seeing as conservatism too, with its vaunted "appeal to liberty" and such is just as much the ideological heir of those French revolutionaries who dared challenge a despotic government (and subsequently became far worse than they beheld.) Or was the "liberty" in the (admittedly vacuous) "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" just a fluke?

It likewise seems that you are conflating conservatism and (an idealization of) libertarianism in this review here. Conservatism takes many guises, a fact which goes without saying as you know. The notion of "leaving citizens alone" is hardly a bedrock principle for many American articulations of conservatism, including that of the GOP. "Leaving citizens alone" is simply not a serious characteristic of any of the morally narrow and essentially anti-pluralistic ideologies which form the backbone of what, in American discourse, is labled "Social Conservatism."

Social Conservatives may say that they want small government. But it would seem that really they only want to make it just small enough to fit into e.g. gay people's bedrooms. It was not conservatism that got anti-sodomy laws overturned, or integrated public schools in America. In fact, -especially in the case of the latter- I would argue that it was not any kind of conservatism as you would conceive of it. A powerful central government did federalize the national guard, and did forcibly impose a national ideology on the white parents whose kids attended Little Rock High School. Strom Thurmond was in point of fact standing up for a kind of liberty when he railed about how no form of bayonet or gun could compel white americans to tolerate the mixing of black and white children in pools and schools against their will. Yet how many sane people see American school integration as a historical violation of parents' Right to be Racist? This is because it was a kind of liberty that is today seen as reprehensible. Yes. If we're going to play mix-and-match with political lables here, then why not "reprehensible freedom"? Was not the civil rights movement a struggle against a "reprehensible freedom" enjoyed by whites?

The fact that, for all intents and purposes, reprehensible liberties can and do exist suggests that the entire discussion is being framed in a somewhat specious, and probably unproductive, manner. When discussing liberty and the question of who is for it and who is against it, one must also ask the questions: "whose liberty, at whose expense if any, and why? All ideologies value certain types of liberty over certain others.

Also, it's worth asking why such a term as "reprehensible liberty" sounds so grotesque/scary today to Americans. Perhaps because we Americans don't like calling something a "freedom" or a "liberty" if we don't like it, or if its existence depends upon someone else being denied their liberty. Nor do we like to think that denying people liberty is a good thing. Which is why anti-sodomy laws could only be popularly sustained in the south by framing homosexual intercourse as never having been a real liberty at all in the first place. But this is a mere matter of framing and definition, of course. Yet it seems that framing and definition are the tactic you're taking. In the above respect, for example, our notion of "Liberty/Freedom" as unambiguously positive stands in contrast to Arabic حرية, which can be either negative or positive depending on context e.g. الحرية الجنسية is disparaging, whereas "Sexual Freedom" is not. (In a similar way, Hebrew הסברה is neutral-to-positive yet English "Propaganda" is very much not) My point in this rigamarole, along with its detour into the semitic and the semantic, is that this and other of the very terms you use, no less than the connotations they are larded with, are -like most instances of the term "fascism" in modern English- do not merely signify objective, trans-cultural, trans-historical, concrete criteria. The claim that a given individual or entity is "for Liberty" by itself may make for sensible political rhetoric in today's America, but even cursory examination will reveal such an idea to be a meaninglessly self-contradictory concept. Claiming to be "in favor of liberty" today is even more vacuous than claiming to be "in favor of good things."

Moving on.

The fact of the matter is that, in the modern US at least, neither social conservatism nor even the more cuddly and libertarian version you seem to be parading here are in fact motivated by a great esteem of individualism, individual liberty or open debate. In fact in much conservative rhetoric, things we could call individualism (though never by that name) are denounced as a liberal decadence (e.g. when it comes to sex, patriotism etc.)

Social and other types of conservatism are both in fact motivated, at the popular level, by alternating valorizations of "The Good Old Days" on the one hand, and of the status quo on the other. When a given liberty is being bestowed which challenges the latter, and makes the former seem all the more appealing, then American conservatives as a group most certainly do not embrace the establishment of that new liberty. Conservatives today are not especially known for their support of gay marriage, for example.

A further thought:

How many modern GOP politicians today would ever invoke the 15th Amendment -and Black Suffrage- as a proud moment in their party's history? (For it was Republicans who stood with Blacks and against Democrats in that case.) Compare that with the pride modern democrats may often voice over Truman's support of Civil Rights.

Of course the very nature of the Republican and Democratic parties has changed hugely in the country's history. Still, this difference in the way the two parties' modern members often relate to rougly similar moments in their parties' respective histories is, I think, quite telling.

I put it to you that at this point the very definitions of "conservative" and "liberal" you're operating with lose all relevance and analytic purchase. This is, of course, assuming that either of these terms ever had any such value or coherence to begin with.

-AZF

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