Is Lying To Yourself Dangerous? A Thought Experiment To Try And Define Conservatism.

I was watching Hillary Clinton get all upset about President Bush using his power to commute the sentence of Scooter Libby and immediately thought back to her husband’s last day in office.

I wanted to throw up at such rank hypocrisy at first, but then I quickly recovered so I could ask a slightly deeper question about populism.

It looks like that what keeps any populist movement going is the ability to lie to itself. The reason for this is that our essential unity as a people – even if we say we are mankind united as a whole – is built on a lie. By “lie” I mean simply “not the whole truth;” to define man via biological classification even involves creating a sphere of generality where we admit that there are things we don’t know. How do we know another is actually a human? We assume it in order to give appropriate respect to them.

Citizenship and populist political movements are derivative of this logic. The beginning of citizenship is an assumed obedience to the laws; a rebelling against, or worse yet, a questioning of the laws challenges that origin. To be a citizen in a truly free society is to live in an anarchy and be no citizen at all; we are free through law, however that might work (or not work). Populist political movements also assume common cause can deal with all situations – never mind that different people subscribe to the same idea for vastly different reasons.

The essential point is that unity is always something that can be broken apart by the will of one and only one. So in order for any unity to exist for a length of time, it needs a way of keeping the most dangerous enemy – the fundamental truth I’ve put in the sentence above – at bay.

To that end, we need to distinguish between dangerous and not-so-dangerous lies. It would seem dangerous lies are ones that are too bold, too challenging of reality. Hillary Clinton’s remark probably is an example of this: there are a million things she is criticizing the President about already, and that’s fine. But this remark is over the top given the questions about her that linger, and her own reputation. It is not clear how respectful she might be of the rule of law as President, esp. as she campaigns for the Presidency with a tone of assertiveness more than respect for convention.

Not-so-dangerous lies don’t increase our cynicism. Rather, they appeal to our sense of value. Hence, a liberal can pretend there is common ground between organized labor that have citizenship and those in favor of amnesty for illegal aliens, since what unites the two is the much larger goal of trying to give everyone in America a fair shot.

Of course, many of you can see where I’m going with this argument. Formally speaking, traditionalist positions will be what this argument defends more often than not. This is a formal definition of conservatism I am advancing, where traditions and incremental change go hand-in-hand because we are respectful of the big questions, and knowing that our unity as citizens and maybe even as humans is a delicate thing.

Populist movements that raise too big questions too soon – that insist on perfect justice or a return to the origins (revolution) – are probably not going to meet the criteria advanced. What is needed in a future post, then, is an accounting of how conservatism does not adequately meet needs. But that is something difficult to advance, given that the greatest needs in America, which called for radicalism – the abolition of slavery and the advance of civil rights – appealed not to just any “origin,” but the actual founding of the Republic, and were far more traditional in scope than what is considered Progressive today.

This is purely a thought-experiment. Nothing above is my actual view, and I can think of several ways of refuting this. If you find the argument useful, or provocative of thought, good for you.

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  1. Hillary Clinton is a disingenuous, manipulative piece of work. Wikipedia lists 147 criminals pardoned by Bill Clinton just before he left office, many of whom would make this Libby incident look mundane. What are her oh-so-sanctimonious thoughts about that? (as you have pointed out). I think if she makes too much of this Libby pardon, it will be to her own detriment as surely the public will see the huge, staring irony!

  2. Interesting. I would tend to say that conservatism is anti-reactionary. It does move and change over time, but it is (or should be) a slow and thought out change. I like Russell Kirk’s thoughts on conservatism. Which reminds me I still have a number of links to put in my sidebar…

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