The End of Conservative Morality
Back in 1980, there was a major change in American attitudes and the expression of these attitudes, but I never quite got a handle on understanding just what that change was. All I knew was that out here in Southern California, within days of the election of Ronald Reagan, all the local television women had their on-camera wardrobes altered radically. They went from wearing casual sun dresses and beach wear to business attire.
So here we are 24 years later and I finally find someone who does have a handle on what changed so quickly.
Michael Tomasky, writing in the American Prospect, has put the change I noticed into a simple-to-understand package that makes sense when I think about it. You might think about it as well.
Liberals and conservatives, as George Lakoff and others have observed, operate according to distinct moral systems. Lakoff's research has tended to emphasize the moral universes of individual liberals and conservatives; liberals believe in questioning authority, conservatives believe in respecting authority, that sort of thing.
But the differences in the two moral systems also play out on the social or civic plane, and not just on the individual level. The differences come down to this: Liberals believe in public morality and in adherence to democratic process, while conservatives value personal morality and positive, efficiently achieved results.
It's clearer every week that conservative morality is a contradiction in terms, and that the American people are coming around to that view. For example: How many conversations have you had with a fellow liberal, discussing the latest administration effrontery, that concluded with one of you asking the other some version of, "How can it possibly be that this isn't considered a scandal?!"
Indeed, liberals have watched this administration in a state of perpetual disbelief about the number of stories that should have blown up into scandals but never did. From Harken Energy to Thomas White and Enron to the Tom Scully-Richard Foster-Medicare story to the more general rancid politicization of every agency of government, the potential scandals have been nonstop.
Liberals, who care about public integrity and process, can't comprehend that these things haven't become full-fledged scandals. The big historical reason they haven't is that we live in an age in which conservative morality is dominant. Public morality and adherence to democratic process just aren't as important.
Tomasky goes on to cite examples that support his case, but let's look at what he's presented so far. To boil it down a bit further, liberals believe in a large amount of personal freedom while restraining society as a whole while conservatives believe in freeing up the society to enforce restrictions on individual behavior - as long as the individual in question is not a member of the ruling elite.
Let's just take religious proslytizing as a for instance. Back in the late '60s-early '70s, believers would approach you with their message, and if you weren't interested they would go talk to someone who was. Today, it's almost like you will be placed on the Official Enemies List if you don't stand and listen to The Word of a Conservative God.
This is a very simplistic example I admit, but time is short and I can't come up with a better one.
But it does apply to a lot of what is going on in Iraq. "We must make the Iraqis more like us," says one commenter. "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity," says Ann Coulter. You will do what we have decided is good for you - and we will feel justified in doing so.
Our society is going to change yours - und choo vill like it!
The society, as defined by its leaders, is free to act while the individual is free to be acted upon.
So what happens when these leaders are wrong?
The neocons in general -- strong men who knew exactly what the United States needed to do in the world and who didn't have time for all this sissified diplo-speak with the United Nations and the French, all fit into this process.
They would eliminate al-Qaeda. They'd corral Saddam Hussein and bring democracy to Iraq. And they'd do it all as a function of their personal morality, their intense will. If they bent a few rules, well, they were on the side of good versus evil, and they were making one of history's grandest omelettes. Eggs would be broken. That's the way it is. Adherence to process was treated with contempt, never regarded as anything other than a roadblock to be circumvented. "Since 9-11, we've changed the rules on how we deal with terrorism," a Pentagon consultant told Hersh, "and created conditions where the ends justify the means." Read Hersh's piece in this context.
And now, at Abu Ghraib, that "end" stands revealed as America's greatest disgrace before the rest of the world in decades -- to say nothing of the fact that al-Qaeda has been far more, not far less, active since 9-11, and that Iraq in general is in tatters. Their personal morality, to the extent they possessed it in the first place, is irrelevant. What has happened at Abu Ghraib specifically and in Iraq generally are, in fact, direct expressions of conservative morality unchecked. The results are calamitous.
Calamitous, indeed! The peasants are tired of supplying people to be used in your experiments, Dr. Frankenstein.
Proper management of anything requires that the inevitable feedback be examined to ensure that the correct course was chosen and the desired results are being obtained. Just as a helmsman must trust his compass and use it so that the ship will reach the desired port across a feature-less ocean, so must the skipper of the Ship of State. Said skipper must check his compass - the feedback from the media and the public - and take heed of the information contained within. The only feedback our skipper and his PNAC Petroleum Pirate Posse crew cared to look at was the feedback indicating that we liberals were howling mad over their actions. Sticking pins in us and making us outraged was more important than doing what was right for the nation and the world.
We used to care about those things.
Liberals didn't care so much about personal morality, and while they cared about positive results, they were less likely to bend rules to achieve them. (It's worth remembering, too, that as far as public service in this country was concerned, liberals wrote most of the rules.) In the 1960s and ’70s, when we lived in an era of liberal morality, those two qualities were more important, and the kinds of scandals we had then - Watergate, most obviously, but smaller-fry dustups like the Bert Lance affair - reflected the privileged position of those concerns.
Beginning in the 1980s, conservatives successfully discredited liberal morality and substituted their own. Now, personal morality was pre-eminent -- Ronald Reagan as the stand-up man's man, contrasted with Bill Clinton, or at least with the image of Clinton that the right successfully peddled, as a licentious and corner-cutting and self-indulgent baby boomer. That Clinton was nearly brought down in the web of a personal-morality scandal was a reflection not only of his own weaknesses of the flesh but also of the fact that this was the sort of thing conservatives cared most about and sought most fiercely to expose. To them, Clinton’s personal failings disqualified him from capable public service, and they got the mainstream media to agree with them (though, fortunately, not the majority of the country).
I point out something: the Republicans decided that Bill Clinton's personal failings disqualified him. Not the voters. The self-appointed Guardians would decide for us what was to be done - and who it would be done to.
Do we not pride ourselves in America that we are individuals who make our own decisions? Is this not one of the main reasons people from all over the world want to come to America and have a life? Why do we fall for this sort of "I know better, so I will decide for you" crap?
It's because we are greedy and lazy. As long as we get ours, we don't give a damn about anything else. "I'm too busy watching American Idol, so let Wolfowitz deal with Iraq."
We like to think we are moral and upstanding citizens, but we aren't checking our feedback, our compasses, any more than Owwer Leedur is - and he's a fine example of a moral and upstanding man - he told us so!
The packaging of George W. Bush in 1999 and 2000 was nothing less than a conservative morality play. He was a "good man"; he'd gotten himself off the sauce and found Jesus; he didn't, as far as anyone knew, play around on his wife.
Meanwhile, as governor of Texas, he'd squelched an investigation into a funeral-home chain run by a friend; he'd stacked the board of the University of Texas Investment Management Company, a huge deal that no major national media ever took a close, sustained look at; he kept starting failing businesses, losing money, and somehow getting richer and richer. But none of these issues, all having directly to do with public morality, mattered. He was a good, strong man who "got results" for Texas and would do the same for America.
Bush used such language often early in his administration to describe his appointees: They were good people, and the rest of us should trust them. His famous remark that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin "looked into each other's souls" provided another case in point: The policies Putin was pursuing -- his public morality, from undemocratic (the Russia media) to disastrous (Chechnya) -- weren't important. What was important was that Putin, too, was a good, strong man who has certainly, after a fashion, gotten "results."
What's this got to do with Iraq? Everything.
Rumsfeld was another one who was sold to us as a good, strong man. He reveled in the image, and the press, especially after September 11, went right along ("You're America's stud!" Tim Russert once gushed to him).
Our daily read of the news confirms that these 'experts', these people who 'know what's best', qualified personnel who 'know how to get things done' don't know much of anything, because they chose to deliberately ignore their feedback, their compasses. The majority of the world told us not to go to war against Iraq for the reasons we presented. We didn't listen. Colin Powell told Owwer Leedur that if he broke Iraq he'd own it, and he didn't listen. The Iraqi people complained about no water or electricity in the early days of the Occupation and the flegling CPA didn't listen.
It's time to take off the eyeshades, pull out the ear plugs, and get ready to pull out the cork. We need to remember the old admonition we were all told as kids concerning crossing dangerous ground - Stop. Look. Listen. THEN proceed.
This is the basis for individual action as citizens and as individual in our daily lives. We need to turn off our televisions and turn on our brains again. We need to see what we've done to ourselves, to our communities, to our nation, and to our world through our inattention, avarice, and sloth. We need to catch the Frankenstein's monster and put it back in the lab before anything else gets destroyed.
We've got to get ourselves back to the garden.
I'm not prepared to say that the American people are going to wake up tomorrow and say collectively, "Golly, we need to go back to an era of liberal morality." Liberal morality had its shortcomings, too, and liberal and Democratic politicians have to learn how to be comfortable again talking about issues in moral terms.
But it is clear that conservative moral arguments -- chiefly about Iraq, but on other fronts as well -- are losing their hold on people. It's a shame it took this much mayhem, and a set of photographs, for this to happen. But it is happening, and it couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of people. The Bushies may be accomplishing what liberals never could -- bringing the era of conservative morality to a close.
Maybe then we in America can get back to being all we can be - as free individuals - and not be the captives of a bunch of evil manipulators. We can again be the example the rest of the world used to admire. We would be walking our talk, and that alone is something to respect.