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Morning Feature – Good and Evil, Part II: Conservatism as a Cult of Discrimination

November 30, 2012

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – Good and Evil, Part II: Conservatism as a Cult of Discrimination

If conservatives believe progressivism is “a cult of indiscriminateness” and believe we are “as wrong as wrong can be,” it logically follows that conservatism is a cult of discrimination. (More)

Good and Evil, Part II: Conservatism as a Cult of Discrimination

This week Morning Feature unpacks Evan Sayet’s 2007 Heritage Foundation speech Regurgitating the Apple: How Modern Liberals “Think”. Yesterday we explored Sayet’s central thesis: that by refusing to discriminate progressives invariably choose Evil over Good. Today we see what Sayet’s speech reveals about conservative moral reasoning. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with how progressive moral reasoning focuses includes systemic factors and questions of practical efficacy that conservatives prefer to ignore.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall….

Descriptions of opponents or those disliked often reveal more about the speaker than about the person or group being described. In part that is psychological projection, our tendency to perceive others as having the same or complementary motives, emotions, and intentions as our own. In part it’s expectation and confirmation bias: parsing experience for what we expect to find and will confirm our beliefs.

And in part it’s simply the logic of negation. If we believe They are wrong or bad because X, Y, and Z, that often implies we believe the opposites of X, Y, and Z are right or good. That inference is especially strong if the speaker claims – as Sayet did about progressivism – that the opponent’s position is “as wrong as wrong can be; it’s 180 degrees from right; it is diametrically opposed to that which is good, right, and successful.”

Indeed that sentence tipped Sayet’s hand. As a description of how progressives think, his speech is wildly inaccurate. I don’t know any progressives who “side[d] with Saddam Hussein” before and during the Iraq War. Many progressives did not believe Iraq was involved in 9/11 or was producing weapons of mass destruction – the causes for war given by the Bush administration – and the evidence ultimately proved us correct. Most of us concluded that the U.S. had no legal justification for a war of aggression against Iraq, but that does imply we believed Hussein was Good or that America is Evil … unless you view the foreign policy, domestic politics, human society, and life itself as Manichean struggles of Good and Evil, wherein every Good person or group has a moral duty to seek out, confront, and overcome Evil persons or groups.

Sayet did not address the Heritage Foundation to offer a window through which to view progressivism. His speech a mirror in which his audience could view and bask together in conservatism.

A Cult of Discrimination

If Sayet calls progressivism “a cult of indiscriminateness” and says we are “as wrong as wrong can be,” we can reasonably infer that Sayet’s conservatism is a cult of discrimination. His Manichean outlook, the examples he offers, and the ways he discusses those examples confirm that inference.

Consider Sayet’s criticism of Michael Moore’s Farenheit 911:

The ques­tion that we were debating at the time was, “Should we go to war against the Iraqi government, against Saddam Hussein?” So he used all the tricks and manipulations and lies that he could to show that America isn’t that good, that America isn’t worth fighting for, that Saddam Hussein isn’t that evil and not worth fighting against, for the purpose of undermining our efforts to go to war.

In that frame, if America is Good and Saddam Hussein is Evil, then America has the legal right and indeed the moral duty to invade Iraq and remove the Hussein regime. Questions of international law, legitimate justifications for aggression, or whether the U.S. military was the best instrument to achieve that goal, fall by the wayside. We are Good. They are Evil. We must confront and defeat them. Period.

Now consider his discussion of teenage sexuality:

You and I recognize why communities that pro­mote teenage abstinence do better than those that promote teenage promiscuity in their music, in their movies, in the schools. But to the Modern Liberal who cannot make that judgment – must not make that judgment – that would be discriminating. They have no explanation. Therefore, the only explana­tion for success has to be that somehow success has cheated. Success, simply by its existence, is proof positive to the Modern Liberal of some kind of chi­canery and likely bigotry. Failure, simply by its existence – no other evidence needed, just the fact that it has failed – is enough proof to them that fail­ure has been victimized.

Yet data from the Centers for Disease Control show that states with abstinence-only sex education have higher teenage pregnancy rates than states that teach teens about birth control. Advocating for birth control education does not mean progressives want to “promote teenage promiscuity.” It means we want to reduce teen pregnancies, sexually-transmitted diseases, and other related risks.

Reward Good (including success), Punish Evil (including failure)

That progressive goal makes no sense if you view teenage sexuality through the lens of Good and Evil, and believe Evil must be punished. In that conservative framing, pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases are natural and appropriate penalties for extramarital sex, just as minimal or no access to health care is one of the natural and appropriate penalties for economic ‘failure:’

When you have a conversation with a Modern Liberal about health care, there’s no doubt that their goal is as good as mine was: curing air pollu­tion or curing everybody’s health problems. But if you don’t have the grown-up sense to be able to discuss how, what’s the reality, what’s the truth, you can’t have a conversation where you make the world a better place. It’s all fantasy at that point. Again, you’re dealing with a five-year-old, so of course she wants to make the world a better place. Very, very few of us don’t.

It’s a matter of having given up the ability to dis­criminate: (a) they can’t bring it about because it’s a childish conversation; and (b) when you have to make the decisions about who gets certain things – for example, health care, welfare, or illegal aliens – certain decisions have to be made about who quali­fies for it, and when you’re just going through indis­criminately giving all these benefits, then you’re actually going to be assisting that which is most failed because they’re the ones who are going to be most in need.

Note how Sayet applies the same frame to terrorism, teenage sex, and poverty. All require “discrimination” of Good and Evil, as a “moral imperative.”

Note also that, in Sayet’s framing, Good and Evil are attributes of people or groups. America is Good, therefore our invading another country is Right. Saddam Hussein is Evil, therefore Iraqi sovereignty and international law are Wrong (or at least irrelevant to U.S. policy). Teenagers who abstain from sex, like billionaires and big corporations – Sayet specifically mentions Walmart – are Good and should be rewarded. Teens who have sex, like the working poor, are Evil and should be punished (or at least not protected from the natural and appropriate punishments of biology and the market).

To argue otherwise – even if that argument is grounded in empirical data showing better outcomes for other policies – is to believe in a “five-year-old’s utopia … a mindless indiscriminateness.”

This is conservatism where every political or social question is assessed in terms of Good and Evil and, oh so conveniently, Good people and groups bear a stunning resemblance to the speaker. It says, simply, government should reward people who believe and look and behave like me … and punish people who believe or look or behave differently.

That is … a cult of discrimination.


Happy Friday!

  • NCrissieB

    Note: In evaluating Sayet’s speech, beware of belief bias, the tendency to assume the logic must be flawed because you believe (or know) the conclusion is wrong. Sayet’s logic is very strong … as an expression of the Manichean struggle of Good and Evil.

    Tomorrow we’ll see how progressive moral thinking moves beyond judgments of individual/group Good or Evil … to systems that make Good outcomes more likely and/or Evil outcomes less likely.

    Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • winterbanyan

    This takes me back to the rather medieval view of churches that believe a successful man must be good because God provides success, and one who is ill or poor must be evil because it is clearly God’s punishment.

    Which brings me back to the Bible. The Jewish priests believed that those who were sick (even those born with disabilities) were suffering God’s judgment for their sins. What these sins might have been didn’t matter, it was clearly God’s punishment. If you were ill or disabled, and thus a sinner, you were also barred from the Temple. No ritual bath could cleanse you.

    Thus they were outraged when Jesus cured the ill and disabled with the words, “Your sins are forgiven.” Only God could forgive sins. Yet Jesus cured those suffering God’s punishment, then sent them to take a ritual bath and go to the Temple they could no longer be barred from entering.

    Jesus clearly was a flaming liberal who didn’t buy into the Manichean view of the universe. He and Sayet could have had some interesting discussions about Good and Evil.

    For my part, I’m going to stick with my stupid belief that Good and Evil are far more difficult concepts than the simplistic ones Sayet offers.

    • NCrissieB

      A lot of modern conservatism is the Just World Fallacy bolstered by confirmation bias. That is, begin with the presumption that the billionaire deserves his billions, then look for attitudes and behaviors in his biography that justify his rewards. Alternatively, begin with the presumption that the Walmart checkout clerk deserves to be poor, then look for attitudes and behaviors in her biography – or just make up sweeping generalizations about how Those People think and act – that justify her suffering.

      If you note that the billionaire dropped out of college, just as did the checkout clerk, the conservative will respond that the billionaire “showed initiative” and went back to graduate – or got an equivalent education in some other way – while the checkout clerk obviously “laid back on the hammock” of welfare, food stamps, etc.

      To argue that both made similar mistakes – but the billionaire already had the resources to recover from them, while the checkout clerk could not – is proof that you’re “a child of voting age” having been deluded by “the moral imperative of indiscriminateness.”

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

    • Gardener

      But, but, but who would Jesus bomb?

      • NCrissieB

        Anne Lamott has the answer:

        You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.

        Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • Jim W

    Charles Postel has an analysis of the Republican position in his article “The end of white affirmative action.”

    Former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said in a Wednesday conference call to donors that President Barack Obama won re-election because he promised “big gifts” to voters, “especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.” Romney singled out healthcare reform as a “huge” gift to these voting blocs and the working poor.

    He uses examples like Levittown and the GI Bill to discuss “big gifts” of the past and how they were targeted to the group that has become the Republican base.

    • NCrissieB

      Sayet’s response would be that Postel has fallen into the progressive fantasy of “a moral imperative of indiscriminateness.” Yes, of course Romney and the GOP discriminate because that’s the moral thing to do (in Sayet’s view). The argument usually runs something like this:

      “Let’s say you’re on a sidewalk and you see two people,” a conservative says to you. “One is a white kid helping an old lady across the street. The other is a black kid robbing an old lady at gunpoint. Are you telling me there’s no difference between them?”

      “Of course there’s a difference,” you reply. “One is being a good neighbor. The other is committing a crime.”

      “And that’s discrimination!” the conservative declares, in that any-fool-can-see-I-just-won-the-argument tone of voice.

      Note the rhetorical-not-so-sleight-of-hand, both giving the races of the two young men and implying there is no difference between discrimination based on behavior and discrimination based on race.

      So yes, from the conservative worldview, it’s not only fine if government discriminates in favor of Good – wealth, white, heterosexual, Christian, male – but in fact that’s a moral imperative.

      Indeed, ensuring that “just anyone” can see a doctor, without considering whether he/she “deserves” access to health care, is morally deficient … because it fails the moral duty to discriminate.

      That’s only hypocrisy to progressives. To conservatives, we’re the hypocrites, because we say “health care as a moral issue” but we don’t discriminate in offering health care. Yes, really.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • addisnana

    Looking back at the Iraq war justification summed up as ‘the world would be a better place without the evil Saddam Hussein,’ I asked a few conservative friends this:

    “There are lots of leaders around the world about whom one could reasonably make the same argument. They are evil and the world and their people might be better off without them. Who appointed America the judge, jury and executioner of good and evil in the world? Is that really a path you want to go down? ”

    I think that many of the conservative arguments sound just fine until you tug on the implications for a country or a world governed by their moral reasoning.

    • winterbanyan

      Excellent reply. You make a great point here. Unfortunately, I think folks like Sayet truly believe they are indeed “the judge, jury and executioner.” 🙁

    • Gardener

      Probably ties into American Exceptionalism, which has been accepted as a fact for so long, it’s hard for the average Jolene to ponder a Canadian say, who thinks her country is THE BEST and has been blessed by the Almighty…….

      I always figured that Junior Stumbletongue was looking for an excuse from Day 1 of his ill-gotten presidency to open a can of whup-ass on Saddam. Show Poppy how it ought to have been done!

    • NCrissieB

      That is an excellent reply, addisnana. As for who appointed the U.S. to the role of GloboCop … God did! How can we know? Well, who’s the most powerful nation in the world? If God controls the world, then obviously God wanted us to run it! (Convenient, eh?) Others might argue that History appointed us, again by the same reasoning.

      As one conservative put it to me: “If you saw a man beating up a baby and you have the power to stop it, it would be evil for you to walk by.”

      He used that argument to defend … the Vietnam war. Yes, really. :roll:

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::