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Tuesday, September 04, 2007


I didn't want to write this, but I've seen too many articles in which the points I'm about to make apply in the last weeks, days, and hours, that I cannot avoid writing about it. Then maybe I can shut the hell up like I'd like to.

In the last few weeks, the fundamental flaw in modern American conservative philosophy has made itself plain to me.

It really hit me when I was thinking about the limitations of Libertarianism. Now, there are issues on which I actually agree with the Libertarians, more so, actually, than I do with the Neocons, so their basic assumptions were easier to examine. I understood and sympathized with their point of view in certain areas, therefore, it was relatively simple to apply that viewpoint to other subjects to see how they turned out.

And that's what revealed the flaw.

The fundamental problem with conservative thought is its reliance on simplistic economic notions, such as, "The Wisdom of the Marketplace," and "Greed is good." This is an attitude that leads them to social Darwinism (despite a pronounced distaste in well-known conservatives for biological Darwinism) and other notions that stress competition above all other qualities. They live in a fantasy world in which the race is always to the swift and the laurels to the just. Those of us who live in the real world know just how wrong those ideas can be.

What further struck me about this line of thought was that it encouraged an unending attack on the idea of community. To the conservative mindset, we are never a community, but merely an assemblage of individuals, all out to best the others, striving for survival in a lonely, existential struggle. This is not only a cynical and bleak worldview, but it fails to take into account a very basic aspect of human nature.

That is that we are a herd animal.

One of the most primal instincts in humans is the instinct to belong. We create tribes with social structures and rudimentary governments whenever we form groups and always have. We are, by our very nature, social and cooperative, not solitary and competitive.

Now, the people who rail against government misunderstand what government is, especially government in a representative democracy. They see it as being an oppressive force that exists somehow outside of society. It is a demon and must be fought so that the marketplace can properly be preserved. The truth, of course, is that government exists, in modern democracies, to work the will of The People. We are the government, and when we war against it, we war against ourselves. This is the point of elections and participation. Ronald Reagan was wrong. Government isn't the problem. People who think that government's the problem are the problem because government is the most outward expression of our community.

We can see this attack on the idea of community in several issues and events of recent years. The first, of course, was in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. When Mr Bush made his speech and asked us to go shopping instead of asking us to sacrifice and to fight on the home front, he was refuting the idea of America as a community. And when, other than in those shocked and hollow days following the attacks, was America more of a community? Never in my lifetime, and never since World War II. We came together as the tribe America and that solidarity was wasted by indifference to its power and grandeur and importance.

The response to the devastation of the Gulf Coast region by Hurricane Katrina only two years ago last week also demonstrated a profound indifference to the concept of community. The slow response, the preferential treatment given insiders like Trent Lott, and the disdain practiced and witnessed (by Barbara Bush, most famously) toward the refugees (which is what they were if we want to use plain English) all show an inability to recognize that a part of our community, our tribe, was endangered. Compare the response to Katrina with the response to the earthquake and fire in San Francisco in 1906. San Francisco was rebuilt and hosting a Wold's Fair in 10 years. Can we hold out the same sort of hope for New Orleans?

According to Paul Krugman in his column, "Katrina All the Time" that appeared in The New York Times on Friday, August 31, 2007,

"Less than half the federal money set aside for rebuilding, as opposed to emergency relief, has actually been spent, in part because the Bush administration refused to waive the requirement that local governments put up matching funds for recovery projects — an impossible burden for communities whose tax bases have literally been washed away."

Is this how we treat our fellow citizens, fellow members of our community?

Mr Krugman goes on, in that column, to refer to the crisis we are suffering in the area of health insurance. The basic problem that we face in regards to health care is that we approach this most fundamental of communal concerns as a commodity. It is not. Although, to the shallow person, it may seem that another's illness is his own problem and not the concern of the community, one must only look slightly below the surface in order to see the fallacy of that outlook. Illnesses untreated are illnesses that are allowed, nay, encouraged to spread. Illnesses reduce productivity and efficiency of the society as a whole, and using emergency rooms (as Mr Bush so famously offers) as ersatz clinics reduces their efficiency in dealing with the desperately injured that they are designed to care for.

Of course, Mr Bush, the alleged Christian, needs to learn a lesson from Jesus: "What you do to the least of them, you do to me."

Jesus, of course, understood the concept of community, and the early church that rose after his death existed as a collection of communes, that is, social organizations that survived through cooperation and mutual concern. There is nothing in the four Gospels, that I am aware of, that advocates ignoring the sick, attacking the poor, or forsaking the downtrodden. There is quite a bit, on the other hand, about opening one's heart in compassion and treating others as we would have them treat us.

A previous Krugman column, one entitled, "A Socialist Plot," (NYT 8/27/07) compared providing universal health care with providing public education, and public education is another area in which people show a shortsighted disregard for community. Quite often one will hear someone fulminate over having to pay property taxes that support schools to which they have no children to go. This is blinkered and miserly. We should, all of us, be happily supporting our schools. If looked at communally, it is easy to see that every member of a community benefits from good schools, regardless of whether they have children to go there or not. Well educated children will end up contributing far more back into a society than they ever took out. Also, students who are well educated and who have a variety of extra-curricular activities will be less likely to become involved in drinking, drugs, sex, and crimes, all activities that people who foam at the mouth over their property taxes also tend to complain about.

Of course, I am in favor of nationalizing elementary and secondary education and rolling back the property taxes now collected for their support in favor of another tax scheme, possibly a national sales tax (and, yes, I know that's regressive, but a regressive tax might actually work to give the poor and middle class bigger voices in education). Public education funded and administered on a local level has resulted in poor schools that function with widely divergent criteria, curricula, texts, and approaches. Education is, for the nation as a community, too important to pursue in such a patchwork, haphazard, and unequal fashion. By not approaching education as a national concern, we undermine ourselves intellectually and competitively and renounce our obligations to ourselves as a community.

But enough. I could go on for many paragraphs, many more than I have already erected, without changing a single mind on this. It is too easy for us to see ourselves as eternally separate and isolated. It is far too easy to look at our neighbor as being "the other" or the guy down the street or the person in another city. We can stand apart in a series of toggled positions and identifications: liberal, conservative, religious, irreligious, pro-this, anti-that. And it will all get us nowhere.

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