Friday, September 28, 2012

#113 On being a conservative

Dear all,
In the midst of election season shrillness and polarity, I long for genuine conversation--so here's my contribution.  And in the midst of much that is not right, I am thankful for more things than I can count (like the beautiful string of fall days we've been having).

On being a conservative
Liberals value fairness, protection of the weak, and liberty.  Conservatives go for all three of those values, if defined differently, but add loyalty, authority and sanctity—none of which resonate with liberals, to say the least.  Thus, we can’t understand each other because our positions have roots in such different soil.  This is a thesis that has been gathering attention in recent months.

Although I define politically as a liberal and am surrounded by liberal values, in many ways I am conservative to the bone.  And since I care deeply about values and bridge building, my mind moves immediately to teasing out those “conservative” values, challenging liberals to get more comfortable in the language of the “other” and maybe even rethink some of our own values in the process.

Liberals tend to associate the first one on the list, loyalty, with knee-jerk patriotism and unthinking support of flawed institutions. Yet perhaps loyalty offers a needed antidote to the extreme individualism that runs rampant in our society.  Loyalty to people means that we won’t abandon those who are ours, even in adversity, even if greener pastures beckon.  Loyalty to things that have served us well and continue to work helps buffer us from the onslaughts of the profit-seeking advertising machine, out to convince us that we need the newest gadget or style.  Loyalty to values gives our lives meaning even when things are hard, and when cutting corners might seem expedient.  Loyalty to place, to community, keeps us working for the common good even though the immediate individual benefit may be unclear.

If we can embrace loyalty as a positive virtue, we’ll be in a stronger position to talk about nationalism.  It’s helpful to me to remember the second half of Union Army General Carl Shurz’ famous quote, “My country right or wrong:  If right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right."  Perhaps then we can also probe for the potential of greater loyalty—to our larger communities, to our ecosystems, to our species.

Liberals seem to have a love-hate relationship with authority.  On the one hand, we want the government, as the ultimate authority of the land, to step up and make things right.  On the other hand, we are deeply unwilling to subject ourselves to authority, ready to defend to the death our right to think and act independently.  Yet I believe there’s value in acknowledging and submitting to authority.  Take the authority, for example, of natural law:  hurricanes tend to hit the east coast, earthquakes happen along fault-lines, some regions have higher rainfall than others, good soil is needed to grow food, impermeable surfaces don’t absorb water, bacteria mutate, living organisms die, trees absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, it takes energy to transform matter.

We have to live with that authority whether we like it or not.  Then there is the authority of common law, passed down through the centuries, which I wouldn’t want to throw out.  There are also some common understandings in the great religious traditions—love others, do good, don’t kill, steal, or lie—that have the weight of authority about them.  If we liberals could talk about subjecting ourselves to authority, and what makes us willing to follow, interesting conversations might open up.

The concept of sanctity makes many of us nervous, since it’s often a cover for narrow and hate-filled moralistic prohibitions.  Yet abandoning it as a value can leave us on a slippery moral slope where anything goes.  There’s something to be said for a consistent attitude on the sanctity of human life—from the child-to-be to the black-lung miner to the death-row prisoner to the enemy soldier.  What if lost life on any of those fronts could be equally grieved?  Then there are the poisons we take into our bodies and our lives—the poisons of greed and hatred, of carcinogenic products and industries, of sexual exploitation and porn, of alcohol and drug abuse.  Maybe we could talk together about the sanctity of human life and what degrades our experience of it, as individuals and as a community.

A fourth value, conservation, seems appropriate to consider as well.  The word conservative easily connotes a focus on the past, fear-based opposition to change, a desire to return to the 50’s and an America that seems safe and familiar.  On the other hand, conserving—not wasting or throwing away that which has value—seems wholly positive.  We could talk about what we want to conserve and what we don’t want to waste—and be challenged across the political spectrum.  A traditional conservative political position values those who invest and create wealth.  We could talk about what we invest in, and what creates wealth.  Conservatives (like me) value living within our means and not going into debt.  We could talk about the burdens of debt we don’t want to pass on to our children and grandchildren, including personal and national debt, and the ecological debt that comes from consuming and polluting faster than the biosphere can replenish.

I say, let’s talk about values—not only the easy ones of fairness, protection of the weak, and liberty, but the harder ones of loyalty, authority and sanctity.  Let’s consider the up and down sides of both liberal and conservative points of view.  My guess is that, if we take the process seriously, we’ll grow in humility, flexibility and insight.

DARING TO THINK-- A new economy is possible!

Who owns the sky?
A judge in Texas has recently ruled that the atmosphere—air—is a public trust. The “public trust” doctrine, a legal principle derived from English Common Law, and most commonly applied to water, requires the public trustee, usually the state, to act to maintain and enhance the trust’s resources for the benefit of future generations.  On behalf of the youth of America, Our Children’s Trust, Kids Versus Global Warming and others have begun filing suits around the country—in 13 states so far—arguing that the atmosphere is a public trust.  The Texas court has produced the most favorable ruling thus far, and one Houston law firm advised its clients that the decision may represent a “shot heard ‘round the world” as Atmospheric Trust Litigation (ATL) emerges as a promising, legally binding, global approach to address climate change.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently.

The sustained investment that China is putting into early childhood education.

The unanimous vote of the Board of Trustees of a California Community Colleges District, with an annual budget of $140 million, to move its assets into community banks and credit unions.

How Occupiers, Tea Partiers, landowners, and environmentalists are challenging construction of the Keystone XL pipeline’s Gulf Coast segment—together, in the heart of Oklahoma and Texas oil country.

The young mayor of a tiny heavily-immigrant borough outside of Philadelphia, who responded to the shootings at a Wisconsin Sikh temple by helping his Sikh neighbors organize a vigil for peace and religious tolerance, and inviting everyone he could think of to join in.

More resources:
Muscle Building for Peace and Justice; a Non-Violent Workout Routine for the 21st Century--an integration of much of my experience and thinking over the years:, a website that I've contributed to often (check the archives), a home for all the parenting
writing I've done over the past 20 years. START: a way to study and work together with
others to create a better world.

For earlier columns, go to


Blogger Esther Greenleaf Murer said...

Pamela, I really appreciate your ongoing struggle to place yourself "in the extreme middle," as Pogo put it. To find a way out of polarization by trying to ask common-ground questions.

Maybe chop up into paragraphs in the future? This one seems to have 2 topics running into each other.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Esther Greenleaf Murer said...

Pamela, I really appreciate your ongoing struggle to place yourself "in the extreme middle," as Pogo put it. To find a way out of polarization by trying to ask common-ground questions.

Maybe chop up into paragraphs in the future? This one seems to have 2 topics running into each other.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Esther Greenleaf Murer said...

sorry for double post, lot I don't understand about google blogs.

4:51 PM  

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