Crumb Trail
     an impermanent travelogue
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Sunday, September 07, 2003

There's a particularly repellent article by Goeffrey Nunberg in TAP claiming that There's no more impressive example of using language to alter substance than the right's success in turning liberal into a disparaging word. He fails to note that the left has done the same to the word conservative and did it earlier. This is especially significant to American liberals who dissent from extreme leftist positions since they are called conservatives, an epithet, and so excluded from what should be a grounding philosophical reference point. Those liberals that have been drummed out of the left are called centrists or conservatives by leftists in the press as a label of dishonor and rejection. This kind of bitter factionalism is nothing new, nothing unique to the US and nothing to be proud of.

The article also fails to note that in much of the world the term liberal means something quite different than it does in the US. Those most aware of this are those who have frequent contact with and interest in Europe, often leftists. There is also some confusion with the term libertarian. There are several reasons why the progressive label might be preferred to liberal. Progressive is a term more nearly in the same continuum as conservative, more clearly describes the difference in temperaments.

That Nunberg doesn't understand this is an indication of his confusion about what both progressivism and conservatism mean. Trying to claim such values as generous social impulses, fairness, strength, pride and common purpose for progressives, and implying that conservatives oppose these values, is silly. The difference between them is in the governance methods favored to implement these values and the rate of change that societies can sustain without stumbling and falling on their faces.

A wise progressive that understands the conservative temperament will make better progress. Rather than demonizing and alienating conservatives the wise progressive appeals to conservative principles and urges faster change. The wise progressive engages the legitimate concerns of conservatives about haste, error and instability and makes credible arguments about how these risks can be dealt with or avoided. Effective use of these tactics by progressive politicians can change the terms of public debate and compel conservative opponents to alter their stances.

The socially divisive, nihilistic tactics of the old and extreme left are increasingly seen as being ineffective relics of the steam age. It is not only that they're old fashioned, they are based on confused and inaccurate views of human behavior and social organization. Conservatives can't be purged from humanity, new ones are born every day. A social system based on marginalizing such people is contrary to the core principles of fairness and generosity. It is wrong in principle and fails in practice.

So, what does this have to do with the Crumb Trail themes of ecology, environment and evolution? Policies affecting these themes are made by the same people as all other social policies and are affected by politics. We could substitute the ideas of environmentalism and developmentalism for those used in the above discussion and retain much of the significance. Most aspects of ecology, environment and evolution are not optional since they are grounded in physical reality, the science of natural systems, but that doesn't prevent the practice of that science from being politicized.

Nunberg's confused advocacy for a divisive approach to politics is confused when applied to any natural system, and human society is a natural system. His old fashioned, insensitive, brute force methods of system domination can be more clearly seen as nihilism and destructiveness when we express them in terms once applied to other natural systems - the struggle with nature, taming nature, conquering nature. It is not a struggle. It is closer to being a dance, something done in coordination with an other to the rhythms of reality. Nature cannot be tamed and still be vital, able to persist and thrive independently. Dancing with a tamed nature would be like dancing with an inflatable doll, hardly satisfying or edifying. Nature cannot be conquered. We are part of nature, there is no we external to that which would be conquered. This is fortunate since it is also eliminates the prospect of dancing with an inflatable doll.

In our politics as in our environmentalism "We must choose how we want to live in the world and what kind of people we want to be but not all choices will result in good outcomes because physical reality constrains the range of aesthetic and ethical choices we might make." Recognizing the character of natural systems and seeking to effect alterations consistent with the requirements of those systems is more likely to be successful than fighting those systems to effect alterations that conflict with reality constraints. Until we evolve a lemony fresh homo futuris we will just have to accept political constraints like any other natural constraint and accept those conservatives as being human too, as deserving of consideration as any other.

posted by back40 | 9/07/2003 01:38:00 PM


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