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I've said before, back in April and in August, that one of the things that makes political arguments so villainous is that the two sides think that any reasonable person who looked at the facts would come to the same conclusion that they have. Therefore the other side can't possibly mean what they say, there must be some evil motive behind their opposition. So to address this, as an ex-conservative who's now a liberal, I wrote the following two essays, and promised one more:
The promised 3rd one was going to be about the first principle of lifestyle liberalism, which follows. I had to break this into two pieces because honestly, there isn't a single principle that binds together economic or classical liberals with the lifestyle or counterculture liberals. They're bound together by a handful of charismatic writers and leaders, and by a mutual loathing of conservatives ... which is why, in times when the conservatives don't have a charismatic or powerful leader for both kinds of liberals to hate, the liberal coalition has a hard time agreeing on what to do. But I digress.

To oversimplify what I've already written before, the first principle of conservativism is that there is one obviously best way to live, one prescribed by social and religious pressure, and that when you deviate from that path in any way you're (at the very least) less productive than you otherwise might be, and so you're hurting yourself, letting down those who are depending on you, setting a bad example for others, and by inspiring charity being an economic drain on your loved ones and your whole country. Therefore it is appropriate to stop you.

In a rare moment of candor, in an essay I wish I could forward you a copy of entitled "In Defense of Hypocrisy," conservative morality czar (and problem gambler) William Bennett made the following case, and I am indebted to him for clarifying my thinking on this. The following wording is my own, though, because I'm going to be even blunter than he was. What he and I agree on, more or less, is that for the purposes of this discussion, there are three kinds of people:
  1. There are a lot of people for whom the straight and narrow is comfortable and comforting. It is no trouble for them to stay on the straight and narrow. At the end of their life, they may express some wistful feeling that they wish they'd taken more risks and broken more social rules, but they really know better, because they enjoy the rewards that staying on the straight and narrow gave them and left for their children. For now, let's call them the "naturally compliant," if only because it's more polite than what I usually call them ("mundanes").

  2. There are a few people who simply can not live on the straight and narrow, either because they are badly broken, or because they are biologically wired for urges that are outside the straight and narrow, or because they are a member of some minority group that the other people on the straight and narrow won't accept in their midst. For now, let's call them "deviants," not specifically for the pejorative sense of the word but because their unpopularity comes from the fact that they deviate from a popular and successful way of life.

  3. There quite a few people who can live on the straight and narrow, but who find it uncomfortable and depressing. Given a choice, they'd leave the straight and narrow, and live some alternative path. For now, let's call them "potential deviants."
In "In Defense of Hypocrisy," William Bennett laid out the argument that it is for the protection of the potential deviants that we must suppress all deviation from the straight and narrow. If the people in group 3 (the potential deviants) are allowed to see the people in group 2 (the deviants) surviving and thriving, then they too will deviate, and thereby impoverish themselves, impoverish their loved ones, and impoverish the nation.

Ah, but suppress them how? Even Bennett admits that it is impossible for even the most draconian police state to prevent, in his example, all homosexual conduct. And decades of "war on drugs" haven't put a dent in the $6,000,000,000.00 a year cocaine trade, let alone any other drugs. Back in the 14th century, the Pope declared a literal war on the nation of Languedoc over their informal policy of tolerating protestant heretics and Jews, raised an army that murdered whole cities and annexed the territory to the supposedly more pious nation of France. The result was not the prevention of protestantism or heresy, but a steady rise from there on of anti-clericalism in France, the victor. There is no way to suppress all of group 2, and even Bennett admits this. So what does he advocate?

What conservatives advocate to keep as many people as possible on the straight and narrow is that from time to time, members of group 2 be singled out for public draconian humiliation at the very least, lengthy and mind-breaking jail sentences at best, and if such campaigns mean that from time to time that the police must look the other way while an angry mob attacks or even kills a deviant or two, that's an acceptable price to pay.

A lifestyle liberal, then, is simply someone who disagrees, on one or more of the following grounds:
  • It's unfair. Anti-deviance campaigns can't possibly affect all deviants in the same way, so they ensconce in law and public policy a kind of "scapegoat principle" where an unfortunate few must be murdered or otherwise destroyed for the benefit of the greater number. That's human sacrifice.

  • It's unnecessary. Even if it was once true that the only best way to make an economic contribution to society was to work hard all the time and spend no money or time on pleasure, that may not be true in a world that needs more creative workers and not so many grunt workers. And even if it is still true, there is more than one kind of contribution that individuals can make to society. The great artists and musicians and inventors of history haven't always been economic producers, but their creations once harnessed by the naturally compliant have unmistakably improved quality of life for all of us.

  • It's corrosive. Anti-deviance campaigns sanction selective prosecution, create situations where the wealthy are most tempted to use their wealth to bribe or otherwise suborn the law, put public officials into the position of being vulnerable to blackmail by criminals over their own deviant conduct, and encourage mob violence. All of these things, when tolerated in the long run, are corrosive to civil society and the rule of law. When civil society and the rule of law collapse into either anarchy or machine politics or totalitarianism, then even the naturally compliant aren't very productive any more.
So to a lifestyle liberal, it seems obvious that a social conservative is someone who advocates human sacrifice, waste of creative human potential, and descent into anarchy by way of mafia rule or totalitarianism.


Sep. 9th, 2004 10:06 pm (UTC)
for varying values of "survive and thrive"
There's some natural confusion here about what I meant by "survive and thrive." By that, I didn't mean that all or most deviants can live as economically successful a life as those on the straight and narrow do. What I meant was that if they are seen to live without crushing oppression, then that absence of crushing oppression will be taken by people in group 3 as permission to join group 2 in their deviation from the straight and narrow.

Let me give you a graphic example. How do you define a gay man? Is a gay man ...
  • ... a man who's only attracted to men, regardless of who he's had sex with?
  • ... a man who's ever had a sex act with a man?
  • ... a man who's had more male sex partners than female?
  • ... a man who intends to only have sex with men?
Make it more complicated if you like ... can a virgin be homosexual or heterosexual? Is sexual identity defined by desire, intent, occasional behavior, usual behavior, or exclusive behavior? As many as 1/4 of all men have had at least one sexual encounter with another man. As few as 1/4 of one percent have only had sex with men. Big difference!

Now imagine someone who's had sex with women, who's capable of having sex with women if he tries hard enough, but who finds women sexually uninteresting and who finds himself uncomfortably attracted to some men. If that guy lives in a culture where getting caught engaging in gay sex is a social or literal death penalty, that guy is very likely to marry a woman, have kids, live a life of self-denial with only very few and furtive and regretted outlets for his natural feelings, sublimate that energy into his work, and thereby make a lot of money without spending a lot of money and have plenty to invest.

If that guy lives in a culture where you can get caught engaging in sex acts with other men with no penalty, then forget that noise, he's probably going to be a gay man, and make the best life for himself that he can as a gay man. To a social conservative, that life is obviously oriented towards his pleasure and not towards having kids and then making a better life for them, so to a social conservative it is painfully plainly obvious that he will end up poorer and less able to support his community and his family than if he'd married a woman and done his unpleasant duty to society, no matter how miserable it made him (and probably her).

Take a similar example I mentioned during the run-up to the vote on Missouri Amendment 2. Imagine a bisexual man who's fallen in love with another man. In a society where that's anathema, unless he's a very strong man (or a sociopath) he's going to pass on trying to build a permanent relationship, and instead wait until he falls in love with a woman and marry her, and thereby get along better with the people around him, be more promotable, and so on. In a society where he will be legally tolerated as a gay or bisexual man, he's going to marry the first person he falls in love with, even if it's a man, and thereby make a nuisance of himself to his neighbors who aren't accepting of that. In the language of my article, a bisexual man who'd be just as happy falling in love with a woman as with a man is not a deviant but a potential deviant, one who could in theory be bullied or threatened into staying within society's preferred straight and narrow path.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 10th, 2004 11:23 am (UTC)
Re: for varying values of "survive and thrive"
There's a perfect story to illustrate your point from the early history of LSD research. I forget if I found it in Albert Hoffman's LSD: My Problem Child or elsewhere. It's a long story, let me see if I can make it short.

Early researchers noticed that people who were on LSD easily shared their thoughts, feelings, and so forth with other people who were on LSD. So a university psychology department came up with the idea of seeing if low-dose LSD could be used to accelerate the psychotherapy process, but helping the patient trust and open up to the therapist more quickly. (Something similar was being tried with MDMA at the time it was banned, too. But I digress.) The plan called for two-man teams, a volunteer wanting psychotherapy and a psychotherapist, to take relatively tiny (modern rave level) dosages of LSD together, and spend 12 hours together, much of that time in intensive psychotherapy, then repeat it one week later and one week after that for a total of three sessions.

Their first subject was a guy who was obviously deeply depressed: insomnia, psychosomatic digestive disorders, anger management problems, impotence. After the first session, he literally vanished, scared the university half to death. It took them months to track him down. He was living two states over on a tiny little truck farm ... and happy as a pig in congress. That first LSD trip helped him confront just how much he hated his life, and so he decided to ditch it and build a life he'd hate much less.

All of the things he'd complained about before therapy had been cured, and he was deeply grateful to the researchers. However, he had left behind a wife and two kids who instantly plunged from upper middle class to poverty. What's more, his previous job had been as an engineer for a defense contractor during war time; his abandonment of his old job may have made the nation less safe.

So a very disturbed researcher presented this case study to the first ever academic conference on the possible therapeutic use of LSD and asked a very insightful question: "Did we cure that man or destroy him?"

A lifestyle liberal is someone who says that it's neither fair to that man to force him to sacrifice his life and health and happiness for his family and his country, nor necessary in a world where happy truck farmers may actually be contributing more to society than weapons manufacturers do, nor worth the devastation of society produced by the outlawing of LSD and other drugs.

A conservative is someone who says that that man volunteered for that life when he took that job and married that woman and sired those kids, and he owes it to them and to his country to be as productive as he can, no matter what it costs him inside, and that it is very much society's job to structure itself in such a way as to punish any other choice.
Sep. 10th, 2004 05:22 pm (UTC)
Re: for varying values of "survive and thrive"
I disagree with your premise:

"conservative is someone who says that that man volunteered for that life when he took that job and married that woman and sired those kids, and he owes it to them and to his country to be as productive as he can, no matter what it costs him inside, and that it is very much society's job to structure itself in such a way as to punish any other choice."

It just doesn't wash!
Sep. 12th, 2004 05:40 am (UTC)
Re: for varying values of "survive and thrive"
What would you call someone who said that the man owes it to the world (or at least his family) to organize a reasonable transition, but not staying in his niche forever?
Sep. 20th, 2004 12:52 am (UTC)
Re: for varying values of "survive and thrive"
An improbable optimist, because once he created the life that was killing him, I can not imagine an exit from that life that doesn't screw over his wife and kids, and it still doesn't resolve any of the issues raised about whether or not he owes his country and community anything.