Friday, August 31, 2012

Preferences

"College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life." - Paul Ryan

The above line, culled from Paul Ryan's stirring acceptance speech of Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention, is both powerful and sobering. Yes, yes, it's imagistic rather than analytical. Yes, yes, it uses the involuntarily idled college grad as a synecdoche for the millions of Americans (many without degrees of any sort) who are having trouble making it in the Obamunist economy. Yes, yes, it contains my favorite word ("should," and we'll get deeper into that in a wee bit). But politicians are given to speaking in images and metaphors, synecdoches and "shoulds," and anyway, it would be difficult to phrase Ryan's message nearly as well without them.

The core question on which the future of this country will turn is whether Americans' preferences have been irrecoverably altered.

***

Look at me, and tell me what you see.

What's that? What are you supposed to see? I refuse to "suppose" for you. But I'll tell you this much: what you'll say you see will be at least as evaluative as objective. That is: it will be driven at least as much by your life-preferences as by the evidence of your senses.

Some will see an accomplished engineer, who loves his work and applies his whole powers to it at all times.
Some will see a Twenty-First Century Ahab, an obsessive, driven individual who can't seem to relax, no matter how hard he tries.
Some will see a man determined lifelong to capitalize on his gifts and his opportunities, and who strove ceaselessly to do just that.
Some will see a man lucky to have been born American, white, and highly intelligent, into surroundings that encouraged his acquisition of knowledge and skill.
Some will see a badly flawed figure struggling to become better through faith and study, who humbly submits his reflections to the eyes of others for whatever value might repose in them.
Some will see a monster of arrogance, who thinks so much of himself that he prattles endlessly about his opinions on every subject under the Sun to innumerable faceless others via the World Wide Web.

None of those assessments is more correct than any other. All contain a germ of fact...and a gallon of evaluation.

Values make all the difference. What we value is what we act to acquire, preserve, and defend. When we look at others, we measure them principally according to our values, for other sorts of measurement are always less germane to what matters to us.

My image in your eyes will depend mostly on how my decisions, actions, and achievements would have served what you value. Try it on yourself: What do you suppose others see when they look at you?

***

One's values aren't necessarily static. No doubt there are some who go the whole of their lives never, ever experiencing a change to their values or the order in which they rank and serve them. My guess, however, is that they're fewer in number than those who demote old values and discover new ones as they age, and as they move from one environment to another.

Our values are capable of being shaped by outside influences. In Twenty-First Century America, those influences are likely to be persons: specifically, persons whose thought and insight one respects greatly, or whom one admires and seeks to emulate, or whose good opinion of oneself is ardently desired.

Many terms, some of pejorative character, can be applied to one's susceptibility to such influences. Ultimately, what matters are the influences themselves, and the directions in which they bend us.

The political dimension is what matters most to me today.

***

Many young Americans have been "taught," mainly by ceaseless repetition from entertainers and "educators," that a comfortable life could be completely workfree and carefree, if only "greed" and/or "war" could somehow be extinguished. More, they've been "taught" that bettering oneself materially is somehow shameful -- in effect, that any effort put toward personal profit is "greedy" and thus morally unacceptable. The indoctrination that results in such a mindset is usually complete by the time a youngster leaves college.

The mindset isn't invulnerable. Among those who have acquired it, conversions back toward good sense are numerous. The conversion is powerfully assisted by the pointlessness of a life without work. We are designed not merely to work but to want to work at something, which is why drug abuse and other self-destructive vices are rampant among persons with "too much time on their hands." But not everyone so afflicted is eventually saved -- and many of those who defend the mindset successfully become political activists, resolved to perpetuate their creed by any and every means.

When Paul Ryan speaks of the involuntarily idled college grad and his fading Obama posters, he's speaking of a subset of our young adults: those who have converted away from the Left's gospel of material comfort at others' expense. Whether that subset is currently the majority is unknowable. Not even the election on November 6 will render an unmistakable verdict. Regardless of how political matters fall out, the complementary subset will go right on propagandizing: against capitalism, against personal wealth, against productive effort, and thus against freedom generally.

***

It's well established that a compact interest group with a short agenda can be politically effective out of all proportion to its size. When such a group is without moral constraints, its effectiveness is greatly increased.

The American Left, which in recent decades has been dominated by the younger age cohorts, has absorbed along with its anti-capitalist / anti-freedom gospel a message of moral licensure: that anything done in service to the Cause is acceptable, no matter how vile it would be if put toward some other end. The Noam Chomskys, Saul Alinskys, Ezra Kleins, and Rachel Maddows of the Left have made that message more explicit than most of us in the Right are aware. The effects of course, are quite visible: blatantly evil tactics are put to the service of the Left's agenda innumerable times per day, while decent persons wonder how anyone could bring himself to say and do such things. But beyond the visible effects lie the invisible yet crucial differences in values that undergird both conservatives' observance of moral constraints and leftists' determination to shove them aside.

Among the great majority of persons on the Left, the sense of acceptance by others one admires, whether for their political outlook or for any other reason, is the paramount value. In Eric Hoffer's words, it constitutes "a compact and unified church," outside which there can be no salvation, only the weeping and gnashing of teeth at being cast out as unworthy. Avoiding exclusion for dissent is such a person's highest priority. If you've ever wondered why the mouthpieces of the Left are so quick to condemn savagely anyone who dares to diverge from their creed on even one issue (cf. Joseph Lieberman), you have it now: expulsion and ostracism are the Left's principal defense against political heresy and apostasy.

Indeed, Leftist society strongly resembles an enormous high-school girls' clique, to whose members being one of the "in crowd" matters more than just about anything else. It's a fundamentally stunted, juvenile mentality, yet it can persist lifelong.

***

You haven't wasted your precious reading time. There's a prescription coming out of this.

The emotional antidote for exclusion is, of course, inclusion. The Left doesn't want you any more? We in the Right will gladly take you, if you'll just agree to give your qualified assent to a handful of important principles. We're not nearly as doctrinaire as your former fellows. Agree to the sanctity of human life, the importance of strong protections for private property, and the imperative of keeping governments firmly confined to their delegated powers, and you're one of us. There, wasn't that simple and painless? Yes, by implication you're expected to work for what you want rather than to expect to receive it as a gift from the State, but then, that's in the nature of things, isn't it? Ask Margaret Thatcher.

But there's a proviso: the former leftist became a leftist, in great part, because that was the circle of which he wanted to be part. It wasn't about being accepted by just anyone; he admired the key figures over there and wanted to be near them specifically.

To be attractive to the former leftist, we in the Right must be admirable ourselves -- by his lights.

That's not easy. It requires that:

  1. Our personal conduct...
  2. ...serve his public priorities...
  3. ...without undermining our political principles and stances.

Which is why I've come, ever so slowly, to the conclusion that the Mitt Romney / Paul Ryan ticket might just be the very best candidates for president and vice-president the GOP could put forward at this time.

***

The nation is fairly evenly divided today among committed Republicans, committed Democrats, and the independent "middle." The folks in the "middle" might not truly stand "between" liberal and conservative positions in any objective sense; they're might just be unconvinced that partisan alignment would serve their priorities. If we in the Right want their votes, then we must understand how they make their political choices.

My focus in this essay has been on those who are freshly "in the middle" because they've abandoned (or have been abandoned by) the Left. If we want them to join with us, we must present an admirable appearance.

"Admirable" in this context doesn't mean law-abiding or church-going, at least not necessarily. It means holding visibly to social priorities the leftist emigre still retains which are not inherently vile or dismissible:

  • An appropriate degree of charity toward the genuinely less fortunate.
  • Willingness to help those who appear to deserve help, whether personally or in a business setting.
  • An avoidance of ostentatious, "potlach"-like flaunting of personal wealth.
  • Tolerance (NB: not approval) for the tolerable deviances of others.

In point of fact, decent conservatives display all these qualities. We have a public-relations problem -- hopefully temporary -- by virtue of the Mainstream Media's hostility. The sole available remedy is for conservatives' personal dealings to be made somewhat more visible.

This does not demand that we set appropriate humility aside. There's no need to talk up one's own qualities. However, we can certainly allow the admirable characters of our spokesmen and leading figures more light. Nor should we be shy about the achievements of private eleemosynary institutions; remember that these compare so favorably with governmental programs that the Left in Europe has been pressing to have all charitable activity funneled through and controlled by the State! (They really do hate competition, you know.)

Marshall Fritz made the point some years ago that for a politics to achieve widespread support, it must be good for people, including people of whose conduct some of us might disapprove. Conservative politics meets that standard, but to convince the leftist emigre, he must see it in action -- the private action of individual conservatives, made visible through whatever conduits we can penetrate.

Mitt Romney: Set aside his record as governor of Massachusetts. Has a kinder, more generous, more decent man ever emerged in national politics? Would you be reluctant to trust him personally with the care of anything of yours?

Paul Ryan: Enough with the math-whiz promotion for a moment. Can you imagine him acting against his expressed principles? Can you see him ever supporting a government program his principles would condemn, because he, his loved ones, or his constituents could profit it by it at the expense of others?

These are two of the most admirable public figures in America today. They're the sort of men whose political stances, as much as they matter to us, will be far less potent than their personal qualities in attracting others, especially leftist outcasts, to the conservative fold. We need more of their sort, and we need to push them as hard and as far as we can; their characters are our best outreach tools.

***

Yes, political postures matter -- when we get to the point of actually governing. But before we reach that point, it will behoove us to think seriously about the promotion, not of political postures -- those matter mainly to the already-aligned -- but of personal quality. It will get us farther faster than any other sort of outreach.

No, this isn't a recantation of my statements about "love." It's about being admirable, and promoting the most admirable among us to the front of our ranks. Admiration, after all, is the stage after respect.

Food for thought.

1 comment:

Matt said...

"When Paul Ryan speaks of the involuntarily idled college grad and his fading Obama posters, he's speaking of a subset of our young adults: those who have converted away from the Left's gospel of material comfort at others' expense. Whether that subset is currently the majority is unknowable."

Actually, while I'm sure it's still in the most literal sense a subset, it's a much broader one than that. Even while still young and thoroughly afflicted by the memes of the left, both in my surroundings and companions, and in my own mind, it was already more than clear that continuing to reside with one's parents for more than a matter of months past high school graduation was most emphatically not something one could or should ever be proud of.

Even among those profoundly ignorant of the true meaning of "independent", it remains not even so much a term of praise as a minimum criterion for mentally classifying the relevant person as fully a human being.

Thus, I think the message's intrinsic attractiveness is greater than you imagine. What percentage can be convinced to drop their partisan blinders long enough to listen to it, however, remains a true unknown.

If anyone can sell it, though, it's probably these two.

I am less concerned about Mitt Romney's record in Massachusetts than some are, simply because I know that, as president, his actual power over domestic policy is quite limited. Indeed, for all we blame Barack Obama for the failures of the last four years, most of the genuine blame falls (as it typically does) with the Democrat-controlled Congress. Knowing he'd get out and cheerlead for all their craziest ideas, they pushed a bunch of them through. Then he signed them and took the "credit".

Outside of foreign policy, the president's power is mostly power to push a message, rather than power to directly get things done. So I ask mostly what messages they're going to push.

Are Romney and Ryan both good men? Yes. Of that I've never had any doubt, even when I considered Romney the worst of the available choices to head the ticket. And now that they've done all they're going to think they need to in order to convince Republicans to trust them, we can see what sort of message they push before the general public.

So far, I'm more impressed than I expected to be.