Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Death (and Resurrection) of the Modern Conservative

There's a phrase I hear every now and then, that 'the modern conservative is a dying breed'. You might think that my answer to this would be 'good riddance', but it's not. My answer would be closer to 'of course they are'. By definition really, a conservative is an endangered species, a product created with built-in planned obsolescence. On the other hand, the conservative has a phoenix-like quality of rebirth. The conservative merely is reborn, well, differently.

Inevitably, throughout history, whenever the concept of progress, or a specific example of it, has entered the public consciousness, public opinion splits into two. Probably by nature those who instinctively support progress are called 'progressives' and those who instinctively fear it are called 'conservatives'. Arguments ensue in the public arena, with the conservatives fighting progress tooth and nail and the progressives frustrated by their successes.

But here's the thing - while conservatives are usually successful enough at slowing down progress, they are dismal failures at stopping it completely. Without exception, progress wins. Progress carries the day - across the grand scheme of things, I mean. Setbacks can keep the tide in check for even a full generation or more - which is frustrating as hell - but they never actually manage the trick of turning the tide. It just never happens.

So what happens, then, is that once progress happens, the conservative recognises a battle lost and moves on to adopt a new batlle - or rather, as the progressive agenda marks one victory by launching a new step forward, conservatives cut their losses and move on to resist the further progress.

Last generation's conservative is this generation's bigot. Conservatives fought tooth and nail as progressives worked diligently to create a fairer world for women, and a fairer world for religious minorities, and then a fairer word for ethnic minorities, and now a fairer world for gay people and one for recent immigrants. Every generation has had its conservatives, and opinions about the equality of women or of black people that were considered mainstream conservatism in their era would now be considered unacceptable even by most conservatives.

So they lost. These fossils, the 'conservatives' of previous generations, lost their battles. Their imprint on society has been nil, except to slow down the pace of progress. Modern conservatives will try to establish themselves as inheritors of a historical conservative movement - as the curators of history, of tradition, etc. - but when directly asked the extent to which they consider themselves the continuation of sexists, anti-semites, racists and other scum of the past, they will deny it. They will accuse you of distorting their intent in order to vilify them. But quite obviously they are the inheritors of that legacy.

And I'm not trying to imply that modern conservatives are sexist, anti-semitic or racist. I genuinely believe that many or perhaps most in the mainstream are not. I know that these prejudices still exist and are still openly flaunted somewhere out there in the body politic, so one might say 'why not call today's nutbars the inheritors of that historic legacy?' Well I do, but only to a limited extent, because these people are no longer in the mainstream - because progressives have successfully redrawn the map - and so they don't really matter much in the grand scheme of things. Today's conservatives, fighting against for example equality for LGBT people, are the inheritors of that sad legacy of previous generations because they insist on denying the very basic, and easily comprehensible, fact that right is right, slowing down progress to the benefit of nobody at all.

This is why Ann Coulter (who unlike much of the conservative mainstream very clearly is sexist, anti-semitic and racist) could address a group of gay people, taunting, 'marriage is not a civil right; you're not black'. Coulter presents it in stark terms, but the majority conservative opinion does appear to be that extending equality to black people is a good idea but extending equality to gay people is not.

So, due to their successes, marriage equality is still a work-in-progress in the USA and in much of the world. The thing that's frustrating is this: the conservatives will lose. There is absolutely no question about it. The countries of the world and states of the American untion that have legalised marriage equality will never repeal those laws. The list of jurisdictions where marriage is a recognised right will only grow; it will never shrink. Sooner or later marriage rights for gay people - and basic social acceptance for gay people and LGBT people as a whole - will be universal and will be an uncontroversially accepted fact of life. Homophobes will remain, but they'll be on the sidelines, universally condemned as bigots.

And there will still be conservatives, yet these will have accepted equality of sexuality and will get upset at anyone who draws a connection between them and the conservatives of 2011, the ones who spouted nonsense like the following: "Anyone listening to this show that believes homosexuality is a normal lifestyle has been brainwashed. It's very dangerous if we start accepting lower and lower forms of behavior as the normal." (This was said by Sean Hannity, in 1989 - which is a long time ago, but the man is still very much a prominent conservative name today.) Future conservatives will accuse future progressives of hate-mongering for lumping them in with the Hannitys and the Coulters of today. But they will be the same breed. And they will be fighting tooth-and-nail against whatever form of progress is in the headlines then. And they will lose, again. Sooner or later. This is how society works.

So is the modern conservative a dying breed? On the one hand, yes. And in fact, thank God yes. But on the other hand, like Dracula, they just keep coming back again and again and again...

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