Tuesday, June 21, 2011

How To Tell Liberal From Conservative Books

I’m working on a Commentarama reading list, which will be published Thursday evening. Before I do that, however, it might be wise to define “liberal” and “conservative,” as these concepts are rather nebulous and easily confused. Indeed, as we saw when National Review and Big Hollywood started listing “conservative” films, most people have no idea what constitutes a liberal or conservative film, and they instead confuse things they like for "conservative" and things they dislike for "liberal."

For starters, let me recommend that you go back and read my article on What Constitutes A Conservative Film. That article lays out the difference between mere conservative elements and actual conservative stories, and how to spot both. In particular, you need to look at the context of how issues are presented and how conflicts are resolved.

Secondly, let me ask: should we judge a book by its content or the author’s intent? Take 1984. Orwell was a committed socialist and even a fan of Soviet communism (until the truth about Stalin’s murderous ways came out, at which point he disavowed the Soviets, but not communism.) Yet, 1984 is the seminal anti-totalitarian text. How can this be? Because Orwell meant 1984 as an attack on Nazism, which he considered a right-wing philosophy and which he didn’t see as being at all like communism. So should we call this a leftist book because Orwell meant to attack what he perceived to be a “conservative” philosophy, or should we call it a conservative book because it attacks leftist oppressive government? I believe we should treat books for what they actually are, not what they are intended.

So how do we separate liberal from conservative books? Well, let’s start with the problem: confusion.

Liberalism and conservatism are often confused for a variety of reasons. For one thing, these ideologies are not always honest about what they believe because they know it will not play to the mainstream. (Liberals in particular use rhetoric that does not match their actions.) This blurs the line. Moreover, sometimes liberals/conservatives take ideological positions on particular issues that they would normally oppose so as to maintain political alliances or because of historical accidents. Also, some people who claim to be liberals/ conservatives really aren’t, and they advocate things that are antithetical to the underlying principles of the ideology. Populists and kooks fall into this category as they shift back and forth between pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Yet these groups are “loud” enough that liberalism/conservatism often gets associated with their views.

More importantly, however, both liberals and conservatives largely see the same problems and injustices within society and thus lay claim to the same issues. This generates further blurring and thereby confusion. However, the two ideologies almost always differ in the solutions they propose. And that is where we must look.

To understand this point, one must realize that both modern liberalism and modern conservatism claim roots in classical liberalism -- although the liberal claim is dishonest. Classical liberalism advocated the rights of the individual against the state. It believed in things like freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion or non-religion, freedom of property, freedom of person, and freedom from conformity. However, those freedoms were not unfettered, as classical liberalism also assumed that personal responsibility was required to exercise those rights and government intervention was allowed when personal responsibility failed. Modern conservatism grew from these roots and largely continues to follow these principles today -- a balancing of individual rights against personal responsibility.

By comparison, modern liberalism adopted the rhetoric of individual rights, but actually disdains those rights. Instead, it advocates collective rights and imposition of a solution by those in authority. This is because modern liberalism really traces its roots back to progressivism, which sought to use government power to fix the ills of society. Moreover, liberalism has disdain for the concept of individual responsibility. Instead, it balances competing group interests.

What this means is that when you get a topic like civil rights, it is propaganda to say that one side cares more than the other about the issue. Indeed, both sides have adopted this as a cause. But they see the issue differently and they advocate very different solutions. For example, the conservative solution is to require equality under the law combined with moral persuasion to get people to see all individuals in a color-blind way. The liberal solution is to use the power of government to force group equality. Moreover, both define equality differently, with conservatives believing in equality of opportunity and liberals believing in equality of result. Other issues are similarly divided.

Thus, when trying to separate books into liberal or conservative, the relevant question is not what issues they address, the relevant question is what solutions they propose?

Now let me add two caveats. First, on conservatism: it is important to realize that being religious and being conservative are not the same thing. Religion deals with the relationship between ourselves and God, politics deals with the relationship between man and the state. Thus, being politically conservative and being religious address two different aspects of the human condition. There can be significant overlap, particularly as many people let their religious views inform their sense of personal responsibility, but it is very possible to be conservative without being religious. The corollary is true as well, as it is equally easy to be religious without being politically conservative. What this means in terms of labeling books is that just because a book has a religious theme does not make it conservative. . . it makes it religious. Whether or not the book is also politically conservative will depend on how the religious themes are applied to the relationship between man and the state.

Secondly, on liberalism: there is another aspect of liberalism that must be considered. Liberalism has a destructive core that asserts itself periodically. That’s why socialist movements turned to violence in the 1900s, 1930s, and 1960s. And that’s why the counter-culture found a home within liberalism and why counter-culture values, i.e. the tearing down of existing societal institutions and norms, continue to hold so much sway within liberalism today. Thus, books that promote counter-culture values, even where the underlying issue may be of concern to both conservatives or liberals, must be considered liberal.

A good example of this would be All Quiet On The Western Front, which predates the official counter-culture movement, but shares its elements. Neither left nor right is “pro war.” Both have found reasons to start wars and both have shown a willingness to resist wars. Thus, it would be wrong to say the anti-war All Quiet is a liberal book just because liberals have been more anti-war lately than conservatives (in the 1930s, this was reversed.) What makes All Quiet a liberal book, rather than a conservative book, is its disdain for the traditional institutions of society. This book is not merely anti-war, but it is anti-officer, anti-church, anti-family, and anti-hero, by which I mean it disdains the individual values society normally considers noble, i.e. self-sacrifice, courage, honesty, faith, etc. That puts the book firmly into the counter-culture wing of liberalism and makes it a liberal book.

And let me be clear on this counter-culture point. Merely advocating change does not make one an advocate of counter-culture values. Counter-culture values are at odds with society and human nature as a whole and they seek to destroy existing institutions rather than reform them -- it is the difference between eliminating racism within police ranks (i.e. reform) and eliminating the police force (i.e. counter-culture values). Counter-culture values tend to be extremely radical.

That’s how I would divide books ideologically. If they propose a government or collectivist solution or they advocate group rights, or if they advocate counter-culture values associated with breaking traditional society, then they are liberal. But if they advocate freedom for the individual vis-à-vis the state coupled with individual responsibility, but without pushing those freedoms to the point of being counter-culture beliefs, then they are conservative.


Tune in Thursday for the list. . .

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