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!