left conservatism revisited

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar matoko_chan
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    says:

    Who then is free? The wise man who can govern himself.
    Your own safety is at stake when your neighbors house is in flames.
    One wanders to the left, another to the right. Both are equally in error, but are seduced by different delusions.
    –Horace, Odes (23 BCE)Report

  2. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Oops – this wasn’t supposed to be published yet. Hiding it now till this afternoon…Report

  3. Avatar Will
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    says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, E.D.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    I saw much to sympathize with in here… except I reached a different conclusion to hit “left conservativism”.

    I asked myself what I had the right to prevent other people from doing.

    I came up with a fairly short list (though not a blank one).

    I figured that if I didn’t have the right to prevent you from doing any given thing, neither did you. And from there, to neither does The State.Report

  5. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Good points, Jaybird, and I pretty much agree with you. The trick is determining what the State can and cannot do, when it should or should not intervene, etc. This is where the value judgments begin being made, and where we run into trouble.Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    There are some fairly bright lines, though.

    Do you have the right to…

    Drink Raw Milk?
    Ask a friend for $2 for the beer he just took out of your fridge?
    Say that a friend can smoke in your home?
    Teach your children Young Earth Creationism?
    Enjoy a bowl right before a Quantum Leap marathon?Report

  7. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Yes, yes, yes (though they better not), yes (though I better not) and yes (though i don’t anymore).Report

  8. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    Oddly enough, I think all of those are jailable except for the only one that arguably does harm to someone else… teaching kids YEC.

    (Hrm, my first example might be poorly phrased as well. I think you can always drink Raw Milk, you just can’t legally sell it…)

    In any case, charging people for beer is something you need a license for. You can’t let people smoke in a bar (even if it’s your bar) in most states as well. Telling children something that is not true is, arguably, harm. And weed… well…

    I begin to ramble. Back on track:

    Is there any point at which society can say “sorry, your individual act is bad enough that we will not countenance it!” to something that might appear simple enough to belong in that list of (loaded) questions?

    Is your answer to that question significantly different from, say, gay marriage? If “society” can say “this is harmful to us and we shall not countenance it”, why can’t it say such a thing about gay marriage?

    From a distance, it looks like nothing more than issues of whose oxen are being gored.Report

  9. Avatar Katherine
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    says:

    Drink Raw Milk?

    Looking at it from the other side – do you have the right to knowingly endanger a person’s health through what you sell them?

    I’ve worked in a lab doing microbial food and water protection, so I have a different point of view on this. If something is unsafe, people shouldn’t be allowed to sell it. Raw milk is not a product that is safe for people’s health.

    The government here had to at one point impose on a very unwilling group of citizens that they build an expensive water treatment plant (a substantial part of the cost was paid for by the provincial government). Many of them were strongly against any sort of water chlorination; methods of cleaning water without chlorination tend to be more expensive. The fecal coliform counts (that’s an indicator of the level of bacterial pathogens) of their water supply were off the charts. Do they have the right to endanger the rest of the community? No.

    For smoking in your home, it depends on a few things. If you are sharing the house with someone else who says he can’t – or if you have children in the house – the answer is no. If it’s a business where other people are, the answer is clearly no. Again, freedom does not mean the right to endanger others.

    To the other questions – yes, you have a right.Report

  10. Avatar Cascadian
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    says:

    “Looking at it from the other side – do you have the right to knowingly endanger a person’s health through what you sell them?” Skateboards, well really anything, to teen boys?Report

  11. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    How about if I call my bar “Smokey’s”? Or “Smoke Em’s”? Or “I Ain’t Your Mom”? Or “You’re A Grownup”?

    If we can say that people will be harmed by being allowed to smoke in a bar and thus ban it, why could we not ban gay marriage due to psychic distress felt by others who disapprove? Surely the argument that “it doesn’t affect you what other people do in buildings you don’t own and aren’t inclined to enter” doesn’t apply.Report

  12. Avatar Katherine
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    says:

    Not comparable. A person can endanger themselves by using something in a dangerous way; that doesn’t necessarily make the thing itself inherently dangerous. If you’re going to sell food, it shouldn’t be contaminated with pathogens.Report

  13. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    If I own a cow, do you have the right to prevent me from drinking its milk?

    I say thee nay. I reserve the right to go on at length and begin sentences with “you people” towards the end of the rant devoted to those who wish to use the force of law to prevent me from drinking the milk from my own dang cow.Report

  14. Avatar Katherine
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    says:

    Jaybird – it’s not about the damage to the person, it’s about the health damage to those surrounding them. You don’t have the right to give cancer to other people in the bar cancer who may be there for reasons other than smoking.Report

  15. Avatar Cascadian
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    says:

    Are there really no safe uses for raw milk? Cheese?

    Jaybird: I’m not sure you’d have a problem with a bar in a private club, as long as you didn’t have emplyees.Report

  16. Avatar Katherine
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    says:

    Certainly you can drink milk from your own. You can’t sell it to other people. You have the right to act as you please with regard to your own health, but not with regard to others’; that’s the basic principle I’m working from.

    As a comparison, you and a friend can drink water from a stream running by your place. You can’t simply bottle water straight from the stream and sell it to other people as “clear fresh stream water”, because there’s a good chance it will make them sick. It might make you sick too, but that’s your own decision. There’s a distinction.Report

  17. Avatar Joel
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    says:

    This is some tangent we have here, but there’s a solomonic approach to this raw milk problem: simply require that the hazards of consuming said milk be labeled and freely communicated.Report

  18. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    Why does “employees” make a difference? If they don’t want to work in a smoky bar, they can go apply at “we only serve pasteurized milky’s” down the street. They can put a sign in the window that says “People who drink at ‘I Ain’t Your Mom’ are going to hell for eternity” too!Report

  19. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    I apologize for the tangent, I’ll drop it.

    I do think that exploring the issues behind “you need to not do that… not only for your own good but for the good of everybody” and whether they’re “liberal” or “conservative” or what would make for an interesting post someday.

    In the meantime, I’ll apologize for the threadjack.Report

  20. Avatar Russell Arben Fox
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    says:

    E.D., I’m gratified–indeed, almost embarrassed with delight–to read your serious and thoughtful appreciation of my old “left conservatism” post. So few people, I think, have been able to fully grasp what I was gesturing at in that (too long, I know) essay from a few years back; probably that’s predictable, because it’s a difficult point to articulate in the first place. But you seem to have grabbed onto it quite well. So, my thanks, both for what you’ve written here and for your excellent comments at Front Porch Republic.

    I have to run now, but I’ll try to check back, and perhaps add some thought to your responses to commenters here tomorrow.Report

  21. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto
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    says:

    The one statement I find most objectionable in the post (and I have to admit there’s not very many) is Fox’s assertion of the following:
    …Traditions and communities cannot exercise the same authority they once did in a world in which individual subjectivity has conditioned our very understanding of the self (at least in the West–but increasingly, most everywhere else as well). Technology, social fluidity, democracy: all genies let out of the bottle. This could be cause for a jihad-like revolt against modernity, or a St. Benedict-like retreat from it (both of which are themselves interestingly compromised responses, but leave that aside for now). Or, it could be cause for calling forth a Marxist response, one carried out on behalf of Burkean communities and traditions.

    Specifically, I think rather we’re approaching an era of social fluidity, democracy and technology (particularly in communication) where such things have a net positive to what would be described as “community” and “tradition” vis-a-vis mass communication/media, marketing and manufacturing techniques which made these things so ephemeral and weak in the last 50 or so years.

    Centralized, top-down capitalism to me always seems to be more of a factor in undermining traditional interconnections between people, rather than permissive mores about types of moral behavior. (Whether sexual, religious or some other form) Consumerism writ large tends to I think atomize people and make them generic units of consumption rather than individuals, and there’s a pervasive top-down mentality to culture that’s produced in the same way.

    On the other hand, there’s some evidence that online communication and the way social groups form might actually help reinforce traditional diaspora communities. (There’s a few studies of this sort and online ethnic identification for example, in more political theory literature) I think it’s helpful in fact to think of the dichotomy more in terms of power structures. Are things flowing unidirectionally top to bottom? Or are they more something that’s created bottom-up?

    I think part of the assumption of conservatism writ large is the uneasiness of the former type of power structure, and a preference for a more bottom-up or I suppose a horizontal approach to power over a vertical one. In that respect I think the US Constitution is a conservative document, and in some respects can even explain some of the comfort with someone like Obama, whose campaign was based on more of a horizontal or bottom-up approach, versus say the movement conservatives who seem to have a very strong approach to orthodoxy and rigid hierarchies.

    I think there’s definitely more to be explored on how the “conservative-liberal” dichotomy simply doesn’t seem to encapsulate more and more of the debate, and it’s great to see so many efforts to grapple with it.Report

  22. Avatar matoko_chan
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    says:

    /sigh
    “Jaybird – it’s not about the damage to the person, it’s about the health damage to those surrounding them. You don’t have the right to give cancer to other people in the bar cancer who may be there for reasons other than smoking.”
    Dude, lissen to Homer.
    Your own safety is at stake when your neighbors house is in flames.Report

  23. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Russell – thanks, it’s been an extremely helpful post (posts, rather) in trying to discover my own approach to all of this, which is so often contradictory and seemingly at odds. Suffice to say, I’m grateful that it was a long post. It needs to be…Report

  24. Avatar Caltha palustris
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    says:

    E.D. Kain,

    Just from reading your essays, I’d say you take a position of liberalism (it’s really not a dirty word) from the vantage point that advocates: equality, progress and empiricism…I could be wrong…but I think your wife is right.Report

  25. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Probably, Caltha – and no, I’ve never thought of it as a “dirty word.” I suppose the hacks on right and left just take the goodness of both from the rest of us and make it cheap and meaningless. I think a conservative, cautious liberalism is what we need. Progress and tradition in a sort of civilizational tango…Report

  26. Avatar Michael Drew
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    says:

    It sounds like you in the end admit that you may not be a conservative, which begs the question of just how you views could be briefly summarized.. Nevertheless, I think this is very clarifying essay. Every contributor to this site should write a counterpart to it, and each contributor should have an “About” page of, ahem, *his* own (rather than simply being directed to all the contributions when one clicks on a contributors name above to the left) on which his essay appears, in order to buttress your claim on your overall “About” page that your site represents all parts of the political spectrum. Otherwise, you should retrench from that claim, which might be advisable in any case, as it is actually a tremendous claim to make. My perspective.Report

  27. Avatar Kyle Cupp
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    says:

    Progress and tradition in a sort of civilizational tango…

    Wonderful image!Report

  28. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Michael – we decided at the outset to avoid personal bios. Think of our writing as our bio – a sort of living bio – and if you doubt that we come from all across the political spectrum, that’s fine. We’re not terribly concerned with that. Fact is we have everything from atheists to evangelicals to (nearly) ordained Anglican priests to Canadians on this blog. Our political views vary but our belief in discourse is pretty universal.

    Kyle – thanks! I liked that line to, in the way that sometimes good lines surprise their authors… I may have to use it again in a post…Report

  29. Avatar William Brafford
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    says:

    Michael, I don’t read “various points along the political spectrum” as a claim to cover every possible political position. It just means that we don’t all come from the same place. But keep in mind that the roster isn’t fixed for all time, and we have a new guest-posting policy as well.Report

  30. Avatar Russell Arben Fox
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    says:

    E.D., as promised, a response to your much-appreciated comments can be found here. I also respond to Nob Akimoto’s comment above…Report

  31. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    Russell, submit that as a guest post!Report

  32. Avatar Russell Arben Fox
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    says:

    Jaybird,

    How would I do that?Report

  33. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Russell – we do guest posts here. If you’re ever interested shoot me an email, which you can find at our contact page. Cheers!Report

  34. Avatar Michael Drew
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    says:

    William, that’s a good point. I did read it differently, but now that you mention it, my reading was wrong. Basically, I’m just saying that I perceive this as a predominantly conservative-friendly site (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), albeit one that seems primarily interested in expanding and reclaiming the meaning of the term (which is something I applaud). But nowhere is it acknowledged to be such. I’ve been leaving comments suggesting this for a while, but no one seems to want to take me up to shoot down or own up to it. I don’t have time to go through all the posts to interpolate peoples’ views. I know part of the point is to try to explore ideas apart from labels, but I don’t think it makes much sense to try to pretend that most people don’t have some basic idea of where they are coming from politically. Yet that seems to be what this site is trying to do. Most political websites with the exception of falsely “balanced” mainstream media sites cop to their viewpoint clearly, if not always totally explicitly. Ordinary Gentleman seems possibly to be laboring under the sincere belief that it is somehow politically neutral, even while not quite making even that claim explicit. I think a brief self-description from each major (not “Guest”) contributor would go a long way toward a better understanding of the site’s de facto, if not explicitly stated, general tendencies for readers and contributors alike. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a political viewpoint, in fact I think it’s basically disingenuous to deny that if you pay attention to politics at all, then you have one even if it’s jumbled. Given that, it seems like being open about it is the best approach.Report

  35. Avatar Scott H. Payne
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    says:

    Oh Michael, that takes all the mystery and intrigue out of the project. We just don’t give it up on the first date around here 😉Report

  36. As I’ve mentioned here before, I think we are starting to see people move away from people-oriented political labels towards issue-oriented political labels. That way you can be a Lefty on immigration and conservative on abortion….or whatever.

    As a self-styled progressive conservative in the Teddy Roosevelt/Disraeli model I like that most of the debate on labels seems to be happening in conservative circles. I think that exploring intellectual pedigrees is very important. Liberals tend to love the ‘big tent’ idea of a wide diversity of people but I remain convinced that coalition is fragile because they don’t address the very real disagreements between, for example, gay marriage proponents and black communities. Or between environmentalists (Greenpeace) and conservationists (union members who hunt). They don’t want to rock the boat by exploring the nuances of political ideology because that would expose their weaknesses.

    I remain very proud that the broadly-dfined ‘Right’ seems more willing to air our ideological differences and search for compromise than what I perceive on the Left.Report

  37. Avatar Cascadian
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    says:

    “Oh Michael, that takes all the mystery and intrigue out of the project. We just don’t give it up on the first date around here ”

    That was funny.

    I like that the writers and most of the commentators here are ideologically heterodox. It’s a strength. It would be hard to place an accurate political label on anyone here.Report

  38. Avatar Mark Thompson
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    says:

    Cascadian:

    Thank you – that’s quite the compliment!Report

  39. Avatar Michael Drew
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    says:

    Scott: C’mon, you know you want it! (It being accuracy in labeling and an forthright acknowledgement of baseline assumptions and reasonable biases.)Report

  40. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Michael –

    For me, personally, blogging is a way to struggle through just what it is I believe in, and why, and how that plays out. It’s evolutionary, not static. That’s why I have so many posts that are basically me wrestling with my own conflicted views. Maybe when I get more sure of myself, or my ideas take on a more solid and less fluid shape, then I can do what you’re asking. Until then, I’m just going to have to keep on keeping on…Report

  41. Avatar Scott H. Payne
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    says:

    And it bears mentioning that E.D. is a nihilist.Report

  42. Avatar Michael Drew
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    says:

    E.D. — I am not saying it has to be any of those things (static, brief, etc.). A post like this is exactly what I’m talking about — so you’re my exemplar. If everyone here just had a similar rumination to this one that more or less represented their current thinking in an easily located spot, that’s really all I’m suggesting.

    Hope everyone’s weekends are a gorgeous as mine is here in the Upper Midwest. Thanks for engaging me on this. Cheers.Report

  43. Avatar Cascadian
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    says:

    Gentlemen, losing the postings bar on the side makes keeping up with any conversation more than one page old very difficult.Report

  44. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Michael – cool, thanks…I also hope more of the OG’s here can write up biopic-ish political evolution posts. I’m as curious as you are to many of my fellow blogger’s background etc.

    Cascadian – it’s temporary. We were having issues. I’m trying to isolate the reasons behind them. Should be back up and running tomorrow.Report

  45. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Also – to our regular commenters (and everyone else) please sign up for a free avatar to distinguish yourself visually at the gravatar website. Thanks!Report

  46. Avatar Scott H. Payne
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    says:

    In all honesty, I give pretty resounding clues about where I stand politically in pretty much every post that I write. The most recent that links to this post is no different. One of my formative political experiences was participating in a poli-sci class in college where the professor was intentionally vague about where he stood politically because, at the end of the day, it really didn’t matter. What mattered were the ideas and what everyone thought about them, the discussion and where everyone went with it.Report

  47. Avatar Michael Drew
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    says:

    Cool, I’ll go check me out some gravatars!Report

  48. My friend, I could have written this piece. If it thinks ,talks , walks , and looks like a duck- its a duck
    You are a balanced thinker, you are a progressive
    go to one of those websites where you choose your position on topics. It then tells you without bias how you fall politically
    I already know the answer and so does your wifeReport

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