September 5, 2008

EXTREMISM IS SAFE: How Is Radical Extremism Reassuring?

The word “conservatism” has been stolen from us. By “Conservatives.”

Large numbers of people who seemingly have fairly moderate beliefs will support demagogues and power-seekers whose beliefs are far more extreme than their own.

Perversely, “conservatives” choose to be represented by persons whose agendas and policies are extreme, imprudent, reckless and dangerous. They are often people whose beliefs differ radically from their own, and whom they may frequently… just not believe.

We crudely call “conservative” those beliefs, ideologies and politics that tend to be self-interested. We are tricked into associating the gooey, burdensome term “conservative” with risk aversion, reflection, deliberation, prudence, and precaution.

The beliefs, and policies, of self-identified “conservatives” in the United States today are anything but prudent, cautious, precautionary or risk-averse. They are emphatically not “conservative” in this sense. They are dangerous. They are extremist. Especially the millenarian, apocalyptic and raptuary ones, and the radical free-market crusaders. We think you might be interested in a quote of Samir Amin posted here as an Irreproachable Quote. Here’s another:

“People who harbor strong convictions without evidence belong at the margins of our societies, not in our halls of power.”

Sam Harris: The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. W.W. Norton, New York: 2004. pp. 225

But these are the people who portray “liberal” policies as reckless, ill considered and precipitate. Dangerous. Threatening. Self-jeopardizing. The advantage in this definition reversal is more than tactical. It amounts to the blurring, debilitation, emasculation, and eventual erasure of words like “conservative” and “extreme” –and “liberal.” And “dangerous.” Could we take back these words, please?

Yet somehow we continue to be confused and deluded.

Popular “conservatism” is resoundingly selfish. It is the preservation of political power and material opportunism for the advantaged. It conserves only the existing privilege and security of the powerful and the rich. And it’s mission is not really conservation, but aggressive acquisitiveness of power and money.

This is the ideology of the rugged individual, red in tooth, resolutely and stoically accepting –even somehow honoring, in the name of all that is Natural about Theft by the Fittest– the sacrifice of those who simply fail at fending for themselves. It accepts no shared common cause in the occasional predatory obliteration of a fellow. This rugged individual is probably a bit of a Marlboroish chap, his jet parked not far from his gentleman’s ranch.

Yet these are the individuals whose politics are most closely concerned with racial, ethnic, religious and linguistic homogeneity- with the identity politics of inclusion and exclusion.

It is especially easy to identify –and identify with– these communities of identity when they are extreme, odd, glaring, ridiculous, perverse, stupid or generally obviously indefensible. The more embarrassingly and self-evidently wrong they are, the more easily their members are able to spot each-other by their stripe. By example I offer religious extremist groups, violent so-called right-to-lifers, opposers of fundamental rights to those who differ from them, economic extremists, and those who are obviously anti-democratic in their bullying perversion of the public dialogue.

Many animals display a behavior that may be understood as a social behavior. (Not, we hope, by any superficial resemblance to our human folly.) They herd. Large numbers of them will move centripetally toward the center of the social group, especially when there is some threat from without. This expresses an evolutionarily adaptive behavior. It is “conservative” inasmuch as it is self-preserving- it confers relative reproductive advantage on these individuals. They are less likely, for the moment, to be mangled and eaten. This is, precisely – social.

Let us impose a bit of egregious linguistic anthropomorphism. Suppose that social animals feel some “comfort” when they are at the center of the herd, and that conversely when they are not, they may feel “insecure,” or “threatened,” or “angry,” or how about “wronged,” or “aggrieved.” They might oppose Antelope Affirmative Action, say. They might feel a kind of Antelope gemeinscheift, say.

By the way, I intend this analogy to be without judgment. I don’t mean to derogate the ungulates by comparing them to people or asses. There is so more to the gracious and dignified social behaviors of these animals than the vicious deception, deliberate lying and craven betrayal of the cowardly human. (Please note, by the way, the predictable frequency with which the conservative will suddenly and savagely eat their own. This noble –though involuntary– sacrifice, I think, reinforces our argument. Steaming flesh left at the edge of a herd is a proven distraction.)

Herds are homogeneous, uniform, undifferentiated, indistinguishable, anonymous. It is hard to pluck out an individual from a mass (though a useful endeavor on the part of a predator). There is no individual, no true identity, until one is cut out from the herd. Excised neatly, with a lunging, paralyzing crush of the neck.

There is a Center of a herd. It is a dominant zone or site of commonality of belief, of shared ideology, a community of sentiment, of identity, a herd of beliefs, ideologies and representations. It has an enormous gravitational pull. The Center is continually contested, shifted, redefined and colonized in its relentless conventionality, as the fearful crowd upon and evict the fearful. The Center is a place of fear, continual insecurity and shifting redefinition.

Does it feel secure to be in the center of the herd? Are we constantly listening, feeling, judging where the edge of the herd is, and adjusting our beliefs to its discomforts?

Do we centripetally push ourselves away from the edge, the identifiable, the vulnerability of the visibly independent individual, the committed, the daring, the risk-taking?

Are the edges of the herd defined by extremism- by “conservative” and “radical” beliefs and ideologies that are farther from perceived norms than one’s own? Does it seem, at some pre-cortical level, that those “conservative” extremists are more likely to be shredded by predators than we are? Do we embrace them and anoint them because they are a danger to themselves? The “conservatives,” not the risk-takers, are like us, yet they are not like us; they are extremists.

Is it desirable, or natural, or self-preserving –conservative– to impress lower moral expectations on those around us– to identify and mark them as a bit closer to (deserved) social-darwinian annihilation at the edge of the herd? To judge the different –the Other– with contempt because they are doomed– for to judge them is to doom them instead of ourselves.

Does human social behavior –the politics of power and identity– look like a swirling, rotating vortex, like a threatened herd or flock or school, like a galactic whorl? Methinks it so. Is there a black hole of infinitely compressed homogeneity and conventionality at the Center of the human herd?

Could it be that this is where the (ontological) power of identity comes from? From a real and true evolutionarily-conferred calculus of survival advantage in elbowing one’s way to blustering, knee-jerk conformity? Erasing one’s self: Disappearing as an individual, de-individuating through bluster and posture? Do we need a term for de-individuating? Could it be “voting?”

Let’s refer to the periodic convulsion of our electoral choosing of sacrificial heroes – “representatives” – as a “Whorl.” We could we call elections “Whorling.” You could call a candidate a “fucking Whorl.”

I suspect that whatever their thoughts, claims or intentions, many more voters than we might expect cast their votes, in the final fear-frozen moment of choosing an organism, an individual, a hero, a sacrificial carcass to “represent” them, for the candidate who is most evidently sure to win. And this may be the True Center that we are somehow always “moving to.”

“I voted for the winner.” The winner represents me. The winner owes me. The winner must stand between me and the lions. Don’t vote for the loser. The loser is already a sacrificial hero. He has already been eaten by the lions.

Be sure to “whorl” for the carcass of your choice this November, and thank you.

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editor @ 9:43 pm

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