Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Is "Compassionate Conservatism" dead?

Yes, I'm back.  After a wonderfully relaxing and incredibly fun day in San Francisco, I have reluctantly returned home and I'm back to the grind of thinking of stuff to talk about, which is admittedly not much of a grind at all.  Whenever I spend some time in SF, I'm always struck by what a different world it is over there compared to pretty much everywhere else in the state, especially the central valley.  Obviously, the dominant political ideology there is liberal Democratic and I don't know how much that affects the attitudes of the average person on the street there, because of course there are always a lot of tourists and people who only come to the city to work, but when you compare the way people on the street in SF generally treat each other with the way people in other cities around the state behave, there is a stark contrast.  Now, I'm not saying everyone in SF is neighborly and cheerful, but I've walked around everywhere from SOMA to the Tenderloin to the Castro to up and down Haight St. and I've never felt like if I looked at someone the wrong way I was going to be forced into a confrontation.  I've never been yelled at by someone on the street looking to start a confrontation.  I've never had a driver scream at me for taking a little too long to decide which way to turn because I was kind of lost.  I've never felt like my safety was in jeopardy or that I was ever in an area where I "didn't belong".  In general, I feel accepted in San Francisco and I feel like, no matter how I look or act or what I do (within reason, of course), I will fit in there somewhere.  This is a rare thing, even for someone as mostly mainstream as myself.  It's weird to leave the ultra-conservative central valley, where I often feel like a sore thumb, and go someplace where I am a downright stuffed shirt compared to everyone else.

I had this thought going through my mind on the drive home last night.  I was thinking about how I almost feel invisible - in a good way - when I walk down the street in SF.  When I say invisible "in a good way" I don't mean that I feel ignored, rather I feel unrestricted and free from scrutiny.  I feel like I, along with everyone else I see, am allowed to exist in my own little world within a world, do my own thing, march to the beat of my own drummer and nobody will bother me or lecture me about what I'm doing or try to make me conform to their ideology.  At the same time, I see Giant's logos everywhere - this is a city that is united in pride for their World Series champions.  When I duck in someplace  to grab a bite to eat, I hear people making small talk about the Giants.  There is a unity even among such an eclectic population.  In fact, there's a tremendous amount of unity.  When disasters, like the Loma Prieta earthquake that devastated the bay area in 1989, strike, the people come together and rebuild and come out of it stronger than ever.  That's a special thing, that pride and compassion that brings a population as diverse as that of they bay area together.  Everyone from billionaires to homeless people live there and coexist.  There are hippies and suit-and-tie guys, artists and businessmen, surfers and gamer nerds and they all have a vested interest in their city.

So, I'm thinking about all this, about how a city that is definitely very liberal and very Democratic in it's ideology and community standards is also prosperous, bustling and filled with a vast and colorful mix of people and personality.  How a city where people are allowed to succeed or fail based purely on their own motivation and determination also has a real sense of community, in spite of it's massive size.  How a community that includes people from all races, religions, lifestyles, income levels and political affiliations is able to function and keep the wheels turning and be the most progressive city in the biggest state economy in the country.  There is a "live and let live" attitude there and, despite how certain talking heads try to portray the environment there, it's very much a city where people are expected to work for what they have.  However, there is compassion behind it.  It's not a heartless "sink or swim" attitude, it's a pragmatic "you can't get through life expecting everyone else to do for you" one.  If I had to compare it to any pigeonholed ideological tag, I might be inclined to call it compassionate conservatism... or perhaps moderate liberalism?  It's not a socialist dystopia there, it's a collective of people who are all trying to do the best they can who just happen to still be human beings enough to not constantly step all over each other in the process.  It's not that they're trying to force some pro-gay, secular agenda on everyone, it's that the people there have more important things to worry about in their lives than what gay people or non-Christians are doing every minute of the day.  People have rent and bills to pay, they have jobs to do and careers to focus on.  You can't live comfortably in a city like San Francisco unless you work hard and make a good living.  There's no time for worrying about controlling other people's lives there, it's enough work just to control your own.  This is often misrepresented as some sinister agenda to indoctrinate people into a secular, progressive, liberal way of life, but the reality is that it's just a bunch of people who are too busy living their own lives to bother themselves with telling other people how to live theirs and the results are fairly inspiring.

I'm thinking about all of this and then I'm remembering the last two Republican debates and I started wondering, is "compassionate conservatism" dead?  Maybe that's a dumb question, because it certainly could be argued that compassionate conservatism died when we went to war in Iraq or when the priorities of the Republican party shifted from looking out for the people to looking out for the "job creators".  Personally, I think whatever life compassionate conservatism had left in it was snuffed out when the Tea Party rose from the ashes of the failed Republican presidential campaign in 2008.  To me, this was the moment when any and all remaining compassion in the conservative movement was cut from the emotional budget to make way for huge increases to anger and personal sense of entitlement spending.

Regardless of when it was, exactly, that conservatives stopped caring about anyone but themselves, it is pretty obvious that the age of compassion in the conservative party has passed on.

When Brian Williams' mere mention of the fact that Rick Perry lead the nation in death row executions as governor of Texas draws the largest audience applause of the entire first Republican debate, it's obvious that compassion is dead.  Now, I'm pro-death penalty.  I believe that there needs to be a capital punishment that fits capital crimes, I believe that some people are simply beyond rehabilitation and have no redeeming value to society when they make the decision to become murderers or sexual predators and commit themselves to a life of victimizing innocent people.  I believe that these people, who represent a cancer to civilized society, would be better off being removed from it entirely than kept in a cage at taxpayer expense.  However, I don't "cheer" for executions.  I don't revel in the taking of life, even when it is justified.  I don't rate a leader positively based on his quickness to pass that ultimate judgment on people and I certainly would never applaud someone who's state was either so lawless or who's justice system was so draconian that it leads the nation in having to put criminals to death.

Having the lowest crime rate in the nation, that's something worthy of applause.  Killing the most people doesn't mean you're the toughest on crime, it just means you have failed the most people, that you have created the most desperate criminals, that you have produced the most morally broken lawbreakers, that your only recourse is execution.  It's like people applauding a pet store that had the most dogs put to sleep because they couldn't train them to behave properly.

But, that's the new face of conservatism...

In the second debate, when Ron Paul was asked the hypothetical question if a young man who was in good health and didn't want to spend the $200-300 per month on health insurance suddenly became terminally ill, should the government simply allow him to die and the crowd shouted "YEAH!" and applauded, that was another example of how compassion has completely left the conservative movement.

Now, I understand on a fundamental level the thinking behind Paul's moral dilemma.  See, he didn't actually say that the government should let that man die, but he was trying to make the point that if someone makes the choice not to plan ahead for unforeseen setbacks that it should be on them if something bad happens.  That it's not the government's place to "reward" poor planning and irresponsibility by constantly providing a safety net for people who make bad decisions.  Now, I get that and I don't disagree with that on principle.  Looking at my contrasting example of the community in San Francisco, certainly the people driving $80,000 BMW's don't feel personally liable or responsible for the homeless guys digging in trash cans that they drive past because both individuals made choices - one chose to work hard, get an education and achieve personal success and the other chose perhaps to do drugs, live irresponsibly and make poor decisions.  And, while the homeless man may look upon the man in the BMW with contemptuous envy, he knows that man isn't obligated to do a damn thing to help him better his situation.  Likewise, perhaps the man in the BMW looks at the homeless guy and thinks "poor guy" and stops to give him a little money for food.  Or, maybe that man turns away and drives on, choosing to ignore him instead.  It's all about personal choices, you can choose to work hard or choose not to, you can choose to do for others or choose not to, you can choose to be a generous and giving person or you can choose not to.  So, I get it when Ron Paul says that it shouldn't be the obligation of the government to provide safety nets for people who choose not to provide one for themselves.

However, there is a whole hell of a lot of difference between not rewarding irresponsibility, not providing for people who refuse to provide for themselves, not supporting the dependency mentality and cheering for the death of your fellow Americans like Romans in the Colosseum.  Should the young man who chooses not to protect himself against an unexpected illness or injury simply expect the government to come to his rescue instead?  I would say no - no one should "expect" anybody to come to their rescue.  The idea that anyone is "owed" something is selfish and inherently flawed.  If you spend your whole life waiting for someone else to do for you, you will likely find yourself digging for trash on a corner while someone who did for themselves drives by in an $80,000 BMW.  However, the notion of cheering and applauding letting someone die is disgusting and shameful.

Remember during the health care debate, when the Tea Party protesters mocked, heckled, jeered and patronizingly threw change at a crippled man?  They were attacking him and calling him a parasite because he was disabled and terminally ill and depended on the government to provide him with affordable health care because he was unable to work and couldn't afford the outrageous costs of private health care.  The Tea Party would say "let him die!"  In fact, they would shout it, they would chant it, like "Drill baby drill!"  Hell, give one of those Tea Party imbeciles a gun and they probably would have shot him dead on the spot, like putting a sick dog out of it's misery.

That's the new face of conservatism.

It's ironic though, how little regard conservatives have for the lives of adults, considering the borderline insane value they place on the lives of unborn fetuses.

In Mississippi right now, they're trying to pass legislation that says life begins at conception.  This is, of course, intended to help outlaw abortion in the state.  The same state that is #1 in the nation for adults living in poverty.  In a state where more adults are barely surviving than any other state in the union, the Republican leadership wants to pass absurd legislation steeped in religious ideology in order to force poor families to have even more children they can't afford to take care of.  There is no more perfect example of the hypocrisy of conservatism than Mississippi - where children are the most sacred and precious thing on Earth - until they're born - and then they can live or die for all anyone cares.  The state that ranks 34th in High School graduates and 1st in adult poverty rates isn't a state that cares about human beings.  You can't make the argument that you are a Christian community when you fight to make sure every conceived pregnancy is carried to term and then completely abandon the baby, it's mother and their family after the birth.  You can't call yourselves Christians when you have no compassion for those who live in poverty among you, to the point that you are the worst state in the country for adult poverty.  Also, when more adults are in poverty than any other state, that means more children are living in poverty too.  You can't claim to be a Christian and value the life of a child and then allow more children to go to bed hungry every night in your state than any other state in the country.

It's hypocrisy.  It's "Sunday Christianity".

You know what a "Sunday Christian" is, right?  It's someone who lives like any old regular sinner Monday through Saturday, but come Sunday morning, they're right there in church, wearing their Sunday best, singing hymns and praising the Lord right along with everyone else, but when service lets out they go right back to their usual ways again.  That's the attitude of much of the so-called "Christians" in the conservative party.  In between their "Cafeteria Christianity" - where they pick and choose which parts of the bible to take literally and adhere to and which parts are "just symbolic" and "don't really mean what they're saying here." to their "Sunday Christianity" - where they are only "Christians" when other people are looking or when it benefits their personal agenda - it's getting pretty hard to distinguish the fake Christians from the real ones in the Republican party anymore.  Fortunately, when they all cheer and hoot for killing people and letting the sick die in the street, it makes the distinction a little easier to spot.

But, that's the new face of conservatism.

It's not about "One nation, under God" anymore.  It's about "Every man is an island".  It's about exalting selfishness and xenophobia over unity and cooperation.  It's about building fences, not mending them.  It's about drawing lines to divide people who aren't "like us".

All those values that conservatives claim to support, the hearkening back to the "good old days" of American prosperity?  The attitude that drove us back then would never be tolerated by modern conservatives.  They yearn for a return to an era that they would ironically be disgusted by.

Melting pot?  No way, Jose, build that fence!

Strong working class?  Think again, union thugs!

Taxing the rich and big business to provide for the common good?  What is this, Russia??

Ensuring our schools produce the smartest, most competitive students in the world?  If you can't afford to send your kid to a good private school, that's your problem.  Maybe you shouldn't have had kids... I mean, unless you got pregnant on accident, in which case you better have that kid or you're a murdering scumbag!  Just don't ask for any help raising it, educating it or providing it with any opportunity, this ain't France!

Modern conservatives love to talk about Ronald Reagan.  He's a hero to the modern conservative movement.  However, if Reagan were running for president today, he would have been laughed out of the primaries.  Reagan raised taxes, he granted amnesty to illegal immigrants, he oversaw massive government growth and spending and, worst of all, he was pro-labor!  John Hinkley was the first Tea Partier, I guarantee it.  These same candidates who can't get enough of digging up Reagan's corpse and dancing around with it like Weekend at Bernie's don't even realize how hypocritical they are when they simultaneously praise the policies of Reagan while denouncing all the things that comprised the bulk of those very same policies.  Things like a higher upper-class tax rate, easier paths to citizenship, robust government spending and siding with labor over management.  Being a modern conservative and being pro-Reagan is like being a Sunday Christian - it's just putting on an act and going through the motions to impress other people and not meaning a word of what you're saying.

But... that's the face of modern conservatism.

The same people who allowed themselves to be frightened during the health care debate by completely manufactured lies about "death panels" have become death panels.   The same people who said "Don't let the government make my decisions for me!" have become the people who demand that the government make their decisions for everyone else.  The same people who want to take "their country" back are ideologically opposed to every fundamental policy decision that made "their country" so great in the first place.  The same people who wrap themselves in the constitution like a blanket want to hack and slash and chop it up into an unrecognizable abomination in order to mandate their twisted, narrow-cast ideology.  You want your country back?  Start by looking for your brains, first.

Is compassionate conservatism dead?  Yes.  It was taken off of life support in 2008, by a crowd of cheering Tea Partiers.

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