Politics, Polity and Progress Reexamined

Liberalism and conservatism are such ancient parts of us that we have lost a sense of what they really represent in the human condition. They are so embedded in our minds that we forget who they are: They are the enduring and valuable voices within our own personalities.

We all came equipped with an inner conservative; this is our inner advocate for conservation – of our most cherished values, relationships, the elements of stability without which life descends into chaos.

And we all were each issued an inner liberal; this is our interior advocate for liberation – from all restraints, our parents, traditions, from all of those annoying boundaries. In childhood, the inner liberal voice is often dangerous, leading little Alice to touch the hot stove and adult Steve to touch little Alice.

Life’s follies consist of the periods when we silence one of our inner voices, lose the dialogue and with it, our balance. Whatever your personal situation-of-the moment, a simple glance at the world outside is a picture of a culture that has lost its balance.

We all came equipped with an inner philosopher, although we rarely allow that sage to wake up and look around. In the deep background, we all form a world view that emerges from our life choices, a working philosophy of life, more often than not, an unexamined one. So I am asking you to wake your inner philosopher for a moment with a question. What do liberalism and conservatism really represent at their most general and universal?

Liberalism is our innate tendency to challenge boundaries, social, political and economic, while conservatism is our equally innate tendency to defend the very same boundaries.

History is the perspective supplied by an understanding of how things were before we were born.

For example, the Republican President, Abe Lincoln was a conservative who abhorred the violation of human dignity inherent in the long standing, traditional institution called slavery (well tolerated in the time of Jesus). But Lincoln also valued the American union as a bastion of ordered liberty and was deeply reluctant to ignite a brutal war that could easily result in its dissolution, not to mention the deaths of millions. Lincoln internalized a dialogue between the liberal voice, the conservative voice and, in his case, the divine voice.

The Democratic President Harry Truman was a liberal who was thrust into national leadership in the midst of a war that threatened the foundations of Western civilization. He integrated backs and whites in the military, supported the foundation of Israel as a refuge state against the opposition of some Republican isolationists and anti-Semites from his own party. Truman pushed hard for social welfare programs. He helped end World War II by preempting an invasion of Japan that would have killed millions Japanese and Americans, by authorizing atomic bomb attacks on two Japanese cites. As a liberal he opposed communism because he saw it for what it was – a profound threat to liberal values.

In the present day, Truman is considered a conservative and Lincoln a liberal.

Now let’s take a snapshot of the attitudes that prevailed in academia as recently as 2000. Conservatives were still backed into a corner as the last-ditch defenders of privilege and intolerance, relegated to the backwater supporters of royalty and its modern equivalent, the uber-wealthy. And liberals still occupied their unchallenged position as the vanguard of progressive social evolution, seen as leading a reluctant humanity to the ultimate equalization of the stations of all people – at least in the social and economic realms (but not necessarily in the political elites, because, after all, the masses sometimes have to be led to enlightenment).

Enter Dr. Jonathan Haidt, professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia. At the annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, he asked for a show of hands.

[The article about this ran today in the New York Times Science section, cited below.]

“Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal.”

Then, “Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a ‘tribal-moral community’ united by ‘sacred values’ that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

“’If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community,’ he said. ‘They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.’ It’s easy for social scientists to observe this process in other communities, like the fundamentalist Christians who embrace ‘intelligent design’ while rejecting Darwinism. But academics can be selective, too, as [Democratic Senator] Daniel Patrick Moynihan found in 1965 when he warned about the rise of unmarried parenthood and welfare dependency among blacks — violating the taboo against criticizing victims of racism.

“’Moynihan was shunned by many of his colleagues at Harvard as racist,’ Dr. Haidt said. ‘Open-minded inquiry into the problems of the black family was shut down for decades, precisely the decades in which it was most urgently needed. Only in the last few years have liberal sociologists begun to acknowledge that Moynihan was right all along.”’

“Can social scientists open up to outsiders’ ideas? Dr. Haidt was optimistic enough to title his speech ‘The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology,’ urging his colleagues to focus on shared science rather than shared moral values. To overcome taboos, he advised them to subscribe to National Review and to read Thomas Sowell’s ‘A Conflict of Visions.’”


Dr. Haist’s proposal is a good start, but we should to heed a caution here. Hitler’s architect and Reich minister was Albert Speer. He was, by all accounts a cultivated man, not a thug…at least until he fell under Hitler’s spell. As a war criminal writing from Spandau prison, Speer described how the Nazi regime exploited the amoral enthusiasms of the technicians and scientists. “Basically, I exploited the phenomenon of the technician’s often blind devotion to his task. Because of what seems to be the moral neutrality of technology, these people were without scruples about their activities.” (Albert Speer. (Inside The Third Reich, Simon & Schuster 1970).

The Nazis demonstrated that even physicians could be persuaded to devise ways to more effectively kill people, especially when they were freed of the moral constraints that got in the way of useful experiments that required live subjects. Speer might have added that the scientists and technicians who proved most useful to the Reich were blind to the reality of evil.

So the caution is a simple one. Science, as such, does not contain moral values. When scientists are divorced from morality – or rendered morally incompetent – science itself can be appropriated for evil purposes. Dr. Haidt might have pressed a related point; it would have been a harder sell, perhaps, but more apt: Neither a closed bubble of liberals nor one of conservatives holds all of the moral wisdom necessary to resolve the most difficult and important moral challenges we face.

Is there a larger moral scheme? Is there an overarching perspective that tempers and enlarges both liberalism and conservatism? Yes. I’ve introduced that topic in an article, Creativity and Survival, and I am developing its political and policy implications in a forthcoming study to be released in March. The Creativity and Survival article can be downloaded as a PDF file at this LINK:

Here’s an executive summary of the core idea:

Long term human survival will depend on our ability to nurture and protect major centers of constructive creative activity everywhere feasible. This will require the conservation of the life-affirming moral order, because creative innovation, when it is untethered from all morality, can and will be misappropriated by the next generation of tyrants. It will also require the conservation of the institutions that protect and foster general conditions of freedom. All creative enterprises require this, whether they are artistic or technological. Creativity is an equal-opportunity disrupter of things as they are. It produces inequalities. The partisans of left and right each have a blind spot where creative activities are concerned: The paleo-left, in it’s infatuation with artistic creativity, tends to marginalize or ignore the technological innovation side while the paleo-right is almost a mirror image. But life-affirming creativity resists compartmentalization, and the liberties that sustain it are indivisible. As it happens, the American experiment was and is the single most important exemplar and model of a creative civilization that has emerged to date.

Stay Tuned.


To read Creativity and Survival on-line, use the HTM link:

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