Fantasyland, by Kurt Andersen

Ever read a book that makes you feel both better and worse about the times you live in?

That’s what Fantasyland did for me.

Better, because Andersen shows how the current fad for conspiracy theories and disregard for facts (on the conservative side of politics, this time) is just the latest iteration of a series of such fads, going all the way back to the first Northern European settlers of the Americas.

For example: the first colonists in Virginia were lured by rumors of gold that had been completely made up by speculators. They starved and died while hunting for gold and silver, until by chance they started cultivating America’s first addictive drug export, tobacco.

But I also feel worse, in that it makes me think there’s no real escape from the fanaticism and illusions that lie in the heart of the American experiment. They’ve allowed the burning of witches, the enslavement of entire nations, and the genocide of those who were here first. And now they’re pushing even my own family to condone the caging of immigrant children, the silencing of women, and the persecution of Muslims.

It’s disheartening, to say the least.

I take hope in the other side of the cycle that Andersen exposes. When reason pushes back against mysticism, and we re-fight the battles of the Enlightenment. We banned snake-oil and established the FDA. We drove quacks underground and wrote licensing laws. We won the Civil War. We passed Civil Rights legislation.

Granted, Andersen himself doesn’t seem to think there’s light at the end of our present tunnel. At the end of the book, he falls into what I think is a trap: believing the United States to be completely unique, and the current era to be uniquely terrible.

I think the first is countered with any glance at the news from the rest of the world. From Brexit to the rise of the populist right in Poland and Hungary, to Venezuala’s deluded leadership and China’s reality-scrubbed media, there’s plenty of other countries with their own fantasylands. While we in the U.S. often tell ourselves we’re not like anyone else, it turns out we are.

And I think his own book is a firm counter to the second trap. Every era thinks itself both the pinnacle of human achievement and the lowest depth to which humanity can fall. But pushing back against unreason — by refusing to give them a platform, by taking their threat seriously but not their claims, by not falling for the trap of treating every belief as equally valid — has worked in the past. It can work now.

Conservative Arguments

Among the many feelings I have about American politics recently, a recurring one is disappointment.

I’m disappointed that so many who call themselves conservatives have thrown their principles away for a tribal loyalty. Disappointed because when the people on the other side of the issue abandon their own logic, there’s no debate you can have with them anymore.

You can’t find common ground, if the other side doesn’t have any ground to stand on.

So I’ve been thinking about what a principled conservative would have to say about the issues of our day: health care, abortion, etc. What arguments would they make, if they chose ideals over loyalty?

The Roots of Conservatism

Modern European conservatism arose as a reaction to the French Revolution. Edmund Burke led the charge in England, writing multiple essays against the both the goals and the methods of the Revolutionaries.

Arguing against the intellectual inheritors of the French Revolution – everything from the Independence movements of the Americas (North, South, and Central) to the Bolsheviks in Russia – is how the conservative movement defined itself over the next two hundred years.

At the center of their stance was a belief that people cannot be improved through government action. It was deliberately set against the utopias of socialism and communism, which held (among many other things) that you could get an inherently peaceful and conflict-free society if you but organized it differently.

You can see echoes of this in the Western science fiction writing of the mid–20th Century, which often portrayed dystopias as societies that regulated the thoughts and beliefs of their members “for the greater good”, whether through government fiat (1984, Farenheit 451) or chemistry (Brave New World).

Coupled with this was a conviction that the People did not have a right to revolution. Government had a responsibility to use its power in the pursuit of justice, but if a government was unjust, its citizens had no right to take up arms and overthrow it. They did not have to suffer in silence, but they did have to suffer.

American Conservatives found this second principle more problematic, since their own government was formed via revolution. The compromise they came up with was two-fold:

  1. People do not have the right to overthrow a democratically elected government
  2. Workers do not have the right to overthrow their employers

Thus American conservatives had no problem putting down rebellions in the former colonies (Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, etc). As corporations and business leaders grew more powerful, conservatives naturally sided with them against unions.

20th-Century American Conservatism

From those two principles, everything about 20th Century American conservatism flowed.

Anti-communist, because communists wanted to build better people via overthrowing business power and regulating personal beliefs.

Pro-nuclear-family, because socialists, anarchists, and others wanted to break the nuclear family as a social experiment (again in the pursuit of better people).

Anti-regulation, because government has no more business trying to make better corporations than it does better people.

Consequences

Unfortunately, the emphasis on the preservation of the “traditional” family (itself a product of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and elsewhere) and the prerogatives of business put conservatives arguing on the side of injustice for many decades: against the liberation of women, against the emancipation of African-Americans from Jim Crow laws, against the call for corporations to become responsible citizens.

And they stand against similar liberation movements today. They pass laws regulating who can use which bathroom, or restricting a woman’s access to a safe abortion, or surpressing votes that might go to their opponents.

And they keep losing these fights. Fights they should lose. Fights they need to lose.

But instead of re-examining the choices that led them to take on these losing fights, American convervatives have instead double-down on them. Anyone on their side on these fights is an ally, and anyone not on their side is an enemy.

This tribal – not conservative – way of thinking it’s what’s led the Republican Party to choose a twice-divorced sexual predator as its standard bearer for a “moral” society.

They’ve forgotten their roots. You can’t make better people, remember?

A New Conservatism

If American conservatives did let go of their tribal ways and thought through these issues from their own principles, where would we be?

Gay marriage would be legal. Homosexual families means more nuclear families, which conservatives believe are the best way to raise children. Adoption by same-sex couples would be not only legal, it’d be encouraged.

Laws restricting abortion would be lifted. First, because banning it is wielding government power in an attempt to make people “better”, which is anathema to a conservative. Second, because women without access to safe abortions get unsafe ones, which can damage their chances of having children later, which means fewer families, which is bad for a conservative.

Gun ownership by private citizens would be highly regulated. The private ownership of anything more than a hunting rifle can only be meant for either a) murder, or b) overthrowing the lawfully elected government. Neither of those are things a conservative could endorse. For sporting enthusiasts, gun ranges might be legal, but licensed and monitored like any dangerous public service.

Maternity and paternity leave would be paid for by the government, and mandatory. Parents should be encouraged to have children, and to bond with them. That leads to stronger families, which conservatives want.

Health care would be universal and free. Making businesses pick up the tab is an unfair burden on them, and suppresses the ability of all businesses – large and small – to hire. Providing free pre- and post-natal care for mothers encourages having children, as does paying for a child’s health care. And covering health care for working men and women means a) they’re healthier, and so can work more, and b) reduces the financial strain on families in case of accidents, which will help them stay together.

Future Arguments

Even in a world where American conservatives embraced these positions, there’d still be a lot for us to argue about.

We’d argue over the proper way to regulate business, if at all.

We’d argue over military spending.

We’d argue over foreign policy (which I haven’t touched on here).

In short, we’d have a lot to talk about. Without tribal loyalities, we could actually debate these things, secure in the knowledge that we disagreed on principle, not on facts.

On the Google Anti-Diversity Memo

It’s horseshit.

From its title (“Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”) to its claims that its author is the only human capable of rational thought without bias, to its assertion that modern feminist critique only exists because Communism failed, it’s filled with faulty logic and flawed arguments that wouldn’t have held water in any of the philosophy classes I took as a freshman.

It’s clearly a document meant to inflame, to incite, and most definitely not to encourage the kind of discussion the author claims over and over again to want to facilitate.

Let me be clear:

  • The gender pay gap is real. Its size varies across countries and industries, but it exists.
  • Studies of group decision-making show that those with a variation in viewpoints — particularly along gender lines — do better than those that lack such diversity.
  • Bias against women is long-standing in the technological fields, and should be combatted by any means necessary.
  • Feminism goes back a hell of a lot further than communism.
  • Claims of universal values for Left and Right ignore the historical context in which those labels arose, and how fluid the beliefs of the groups assigned those labels have been over time.
  • Affirmative-action programs are not “illegal discrimination”
  • Political correctness is the name commentators on the Right have given to an age-old phenomenon: politeness. Certain beliefs or expressions are always considered beyond the pale. Those expressions change over time. The recent trend in Western society has been to push insults of race or gender beyond the pale. This is not a new thing, it is not a new form of authoritarianism, it is not a symptom of a Fascist Left. It’s civilization. Rude people have always faced censure, and rightly so.
  • Finally, insisting that others are biased, while you are “biased” towards intellect and reason, is absurd. It’s a classic male power move. It denies your opponents any semblance of reason or thought. It’s dehumanizing. And it’s horseshit.

Going Home

Thank the gods 2016 is over.

I think it’s been a rough year for many people. My rough 2016 actually stretches all the way back to fall 2015, when my wife and I upped stakes and moved back to the mid-south to take care of her mother.

The stress of that time — her mother’s health, the terrible condition of the house we bought, the shock of discovering that all traces of the friendly South we’d once known were gone — almost undid us. We felt abandoned, hated by our neighbors and resented by her family.

Things improved when we were able to tread water enough to reconnect with our friends, plug back into the community of accepting nerds and geeks we’d missed.

But the presidential campaign, culminating in the election of a liar, a swindler, and a bigot, convinced us that nothing could make up for the fact that we don’t belong here. And never will.

So we’re moving back to California.

Back to a state that takes life seriously, and so passed the most restrictive gun control laws in the country.

A state that takes liberty seriously enough to want to offer it to refugees from a horrible civil war.

A state that knows the pursuit of happiness means respecting the many diverse ways that its citizens go about it.

I can’t wait to be back home.

No Crisis

I refuse to believe that Trump’s election is a moment of ‘crisis’ for liberalism.

We’ve always been under siege. We’ve always been fighting uphill.

We were fighting uphill when we were abolitionists. We were fighting uphill when we worked to win the right to vote for the women of this country.

We were even fighting uphill when we wanted to stand with Britain in World War II. Not many people know this, but many in this country wanted to stay out, to let the Nazis and the Soviets divide up Europe between them, and let Japan have Asia. It took liberals like FDR to stand up and say, “That’s not the world we want to live in.”

Every time, we have been in the right. It has just taken a while for the rest of the country to see it.

I am reminded of MLK’s phrase, “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” I remember the victories of the recent past, when we expanded the right to marry to same-sex couples. When we finally decriminalized a drug less harmful than alcohol. When we made health insurance affordable for 20 million more Americans.

This is not a crisis for liberalism. It isn’t the last gasp of conservatism, either, a desperate attempt by the powerful to stave off change.

They are always fighting us. And we are always winning.

This time will be no different.

Leave Amazon

Amazon’s recent treatment of books from the Hatchett book group is inexcusable. For me it’s the last straw; Amazon has been bullying publishers for years now, and each time they push against the publishers, they’re hurting the writers supported by those publishers.

As of today, I’m switching over all book-related links on this site to point to Barnes and Noble.

I’m also boycotting Amazon from this point forward: no more book orders, no Kindle, no ebook purchases. I’ll be buying everything I need from either my local indie – Mysterious Galaxy – or Barnes and Noble.

I encourage you to do the same.

Same-Sex Marriage is not a religious issue

Same-sex marriage is not a religious issue. It’s a legal one.

When you get married, you give your partner certain rights, and the two of you can act as one person. You can buy a house together and be treated as if you both owned it. If you have children together, you both get parental rights.

You get these rights because the government says you have them. No religious leader can simply point to two people and give them the ability to make medical choices for each other. The two people have to be adults, they have to decide to get married, and the person that marries them has to have been given that power by the government.

For the government to say that two people of the same sex can’t get married is like saying they can’t buy a car together. It’s an arbitrary refusal, a failure to fulfill one of the core functions of government: to enforce contracts.