By David Webb, MD
In his commentary of September 10, Jeff Erding gives a fair description of pragmatism, which however he erroneously conflates with conservatism, and then proceeds to give his own highly distorted view of liberalism. Better to stick to accepted dictionary definitions of terms and to let proponents of various ideologies speak for themselves rather than to put words in their mouths. From the Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries and Roget’s thesaurus: Conservative — cautious, adherent to tradition, deferential to authority, favoring stability, opposed to change. (Note to liberals: conservative is not synonymous with and does not necessarily connote uncaring, bigoted, racist, fascist, or antiscientific.) Liberal — generous, open-minded, tolerant, respectful of individual rights and freedoms, rational, progressive, open to change. (Note to conservatives: liberal is not synonymous with impractical, unpragmatic, lawless, anarchist, communist, or antireligious.) According to conservative authors and scholars, such as David Brooks, William F. Buckley, Roger Scruton, and George Will, conservatism is an ideology that arose during the Age of Enlightenment. In France, England, and her colonies, Enlightenment thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and many of the founding fathers of our nation, rejected the divine right of kings, proclaimed the essential worth of all human beings, posited that free individuals could come together to establish order by making a social contract, i.e., that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. Conservatives (called Tories in England and the colonies) fundamentally disagreed with such liberal ideas. They argued that individuals could not just come together to govern themselves, but rather that the institutions of family, schools, communities, nations, and religion, which they deemed their “sacred space,” were necessary to constrain human nature and to establish order, and that individual freedoms justly derive from established order. For liberals, the cardinal virtue was critical thinking, for conservatives, obedience. As Scruton put it, “The [chicken or egg] question of which comes first, liberty or order, was to divide liberals from conservatives for the next 200 years.” At best, the two have agreed to disagree with a measure of civility; at worst, disagreement has led to wars. A shame, because most conservatives and liberals probably desire the same ends — peace and prosperity, the basic necessities of life for ourselves, the prospect of better lives for our children — and differ only in their perception of the best means of achieving those ends. What does the historical perspective of conservatism and liberalism have to do with today’s ultra-materialistic, “greed-is-good,” Trumpian neoconservatism, or for that matter with austere, “market economy,” Clintonian neoliberalism? Not so much in my opinion. To lie and cheat whenever it suits one’s selfish purposes, to commit adultery, to sexually assault women and brag about it, unrepentantly and unapologetically are not lessons I was taught in my conservative Republican home or Sunday school. Draconian enforcement of laws which benefit one’s self and flagrant disregard of laws which do not is not the rule of law that I was taught in civics class, but rather a perversion of the law. In violation of international and U.S. law, to impede refugees fleeing persecution from seeking asylum, to deceive the parents regarding their rights, to rip away their children, and to detain them separately in concentration camps is a flagrant assault on the “sacred space” of family, community, and nations. Yes, it is a good thing that the two principal belligerents blinked and that we walked away from the brink of nuclear conflagration with North Korea. But what about Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, and Iran? Yes, it is a good thing that unemployment is down. How much better it would be if all those employed were earning living wages and that the present uptick in the economy did not come at the expense of a greatly increased national debt with which we’ll saddle our children or the severe environmental degradation that threatens their very survival. One can only hope that come November, enough conservatives and liberals will have realized that the Emperor wears no clothes, will vote his lackeys out of office, and will then hold the newly elected persons’ feet to the fire to govern properly.