Sunday, April 5, 2009

One of the Problems with Conservatism

I have to say that, much as I try to avoid snark, this James Poulos post really makes me inclined to let some loose. Intead I'm gonna try to give some well reasoned and civil reactions.

Behind all of the academic sounding language there lurks the most fundamental, and wrong, conservative belief: Our culture is in a state of decay.

Smart conservatives like Poulos seem to me forced to revert to increasingly opaque arguments to make this point. This may be because there's so much to say against it.

If you think abortion is a great moral crime, I'll admit that there may be some reason to hold contempory society in low regard. But there's one consideration that conservatives seem to systematically ignore: Might it be that private behavior was not in any real sense more virtuous, but people just didn't talk about it? After living in conservative China for two years, I'm increasingly inclined to think this is correct. Given the past strong taboos surrounding talking about anything sexual, and the fact that clearly all kinds of nastiness was out in the open in the past, wouldn't this be the more parsimonious explanation?

It is probably true that teenagers are more sexually active than in the past, but again I want to suggest that there is a far simpler explanation than the standard conservative cultureal decay theories: More effective birth control has drastically reduced the cost of having sex.

It seems like Poulos wants to have a neat picture that views political correctness as not only inneffective, but also causing the kind of social decay that conservatives bemoan. But shouldn't one at least consider that social norms have simply responded to technological and economic changes, and that, on balance, these have been positive?

As an aside, I think this relates to Jonathan Haidt's ideas about morality. What we're seeing are sensibilities that are becoming more liberal, and less deferential to the sources of authority to try to regulate sexual behaviour, like religion. The thing is, society as a whole really does seem to have become more humane in ways that, I'm pretty sure, almost all smart and thoughtful conservatives like Poulos accept.

I suspect that Haidt is right and that conservatives just have different sensibilities that tends to make them regard sexual promiscuity as more than just imprudent or aesthetically unpleasing, but morally wrong. If you feel that way, you're going to be inclined to agree with Poulos that there is something valuable being eroded in today's society. But even if you accept that presupisition, this seems a bit silly:

"Yet the regulation of the sexual mores of the young, with or without condoms, continues to lose steam and confidence justified by any standard other than official gentleness — with all the efficiency value, as a constant in the risk-calculation factor of resource-allocation projections, that mass gentleness has for officialdom. But our public obsession with security and health parallels our ‘private’ tastes for risk and self-poisoning, and our loving, de-eroticized pieties concerning Respect for All grow apace with our beastly appetite for erotic impieties."

I think you could also read this through a Haidtist lense, as saying that liberal sensibilities neglect certain kinds of private sexual morality. But my basic reaction is still mostly, 'huh?'. There are just so many dubious and unsupported assertions about society here. Have we really become privately more attracted to risk and "self-poisining"? I mean, what's the reason to even suspect this other than being horrified watching E?

Even if we have ,what exactly does encouraging children not to call each other ‘retard’ or ‘faggot’ have to do with it? It certainly seems farfetched that there’s some kind of negative correlation between positive social norms and negative private ones. Rather, it seems more likely that people are more humane, in a liberal sense, both in public and in private, but perhaps more immoral by conservative standards. This may just be because sexual norms have changed along with many things in our society. If you have conservative sensibilities, you find some of these changes to be for the worse.

I guess what I’m getting at is that Poulos is saying nothing substantive here other than “Public and private norms have become more liberal. I’m a conservative, so I disapprove of liberal sexual norms.” I suspect he’s saying that private sexual behavior is somehow destructive beyond the conservative sexual purity sense, but then I’d want to know in what way and what that has to do with ideas about public morality.

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