Drop Dead Conservatism Part Two

Terrance Heath

Read part one.

There’s a literary reference that comes to mind when I consider “Drop Dead” conservatism. (My English Lit. degree occasionally comes in handy.) It’s a Shakespearean reference, actually, to a character from one of his lesser known plays. Timon of Athens made an impression on me in high school, when we read it in my senior English class. The title character was a man so embittered with humanity that in the he basically crawls into a hole in the ground and pulls the earth, writes his own epitaph, and dies. 

That’s the kind of anger and nihilism — “total and absolute destructiveness, esp. toward the world at large and including oneself” — that “Drop Dead” conservatism brings to mind. But there’s a historical reference — involving another opening in the earth — that’s necessary to complete the picture of “Drop Dead” conservatism.

The first European to look into the depths of the great gorge was the conquistador Garcia Lopez de Cardenas in 1540. He was horrified by the sight and quickly retreated from the South Rim. More than three centuries passed before Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers led the second major expedition to the rim. Like Garcia Lopez, he recorded an “awe that was almost painful to behold.” Ives’s expedition included a well-known German artist, but his sketch of the Canyon was wildly distorted, almost hysterical.

Neither the conquistadors nor the Army engineers, in other words, could make sense of what they saw; they were simply overwhelmed by unexpected revelation. In a fundamental sense, they were blind because they lacked the concepts necessary to organize a coherent vision of an utterly new landscape.

Accurate portrayal of the Canyon only arrived a generation later when the Colorado River became the obsession of the one-armed Civil War hero John Wesley Powell and his celebrated teams of geologists and artists. They were like Victorian astronauts reconnoitering another planet. It took years of brilliant fieldwork to construct a conceptual framework for taking in the canyon. With “deep time” added as the critical dimension, it was finally possible for raw perception to be transformed into consistent vision.

Those two phenomena — a failure of vision and an anger that is not merely destructive but also self-destructive — define the core of “Drop Dead” conservatism. Conservatives of this stripe, like de Cardenas and Lt. Ives, lack the vision to make sense of abyss that looms before us. Their reaction to it is as “wildly distorted” and “almost hysterical” as the sketches from Lt. Ives’ expedition. But the “awe that was almost painful to behold,” in “Drop Dead” conservatives, becomes an anger that is impossible to constrain. Like Timon, “Drop Dead” conservatives contemplate the abyss respond by flinging themselves into it (by “letting the market fail” and letting the Big Three “drop dead”) and taking the rest of the country with them. 

Theirs is the anger of fundamentalists whose world view has come crashing down, taking their identity — or a significant pat of it — along for the ride. It is born out of two more traits of fundamentalism — an inability or unwillingness to re-imagine a world or an identity that synthesizes the new reality in front of them. And us. It’s easier to rage against a reality that refuses to conform to what their beliefs — their fundamentalism — tells them must be, and against those whose insufficient faith allows them to adjust to what is.

There had to have been some desperation in the McCain/Clinton phone call from the previous post, and the trip from anger to desperation is a short one. If McCain was desperate, he was also angry, and it came through during the presidential debates, in his interaction with his opponent. It was the red meat flung to the base in campaign rallies, unleashing a tide of anger that had been building up as the parallel story-lines of the election and the Main Street bailout of Wall Street played out — featuring stories of excess on latter and desperation on the former.

Beyond Wall Street a tide of anger is growing as people see layoffs, swelling unemployment, home foreclosures, students struggling for college loans, retirement savings evaporating on one side and on the other sums too large to calculate seemingly being spent to bail out billionaires. Reports of larcenous CEOs walking away from shipwrecks of their own making with untold millions are setting poorly on many an upset stomach.

One of the most dangerous people in the world may be a disappointed fundamentalist — one who has discovered that on some basic level his beliefs simply don’t work, because people don’t, can’t, and won’t behave the way he expects them too, or needs them so. Fundamentalism, by its very nature is not grounded in reality because it depends upon the purity of belief, intent, and action on the part of all players. In the course of human events, that is almost always a recipe for failure.

The whole of human society and the rule of law is based on the understanding the not all people can be relied upon to behave honorably, and thus we have laws and regulations prohibiting and punishing some dishonorable behavior, because it has negative consequences for the rest of us.

In other words, it is because there are villains that we have laws — to make clear which acts are villainous, so that they might be stopped before too much damage is done. Prevention is as important, perhaps even more important, than punishment. It will never be perfect, and almost certainly anyone who wants to will find a way around even the tightest regulations, but it may have stopped the current crisis or significantly decreased the damage.

It doesn’t matter to the fundamentalist that his beliefs don’t take human nature into account. His anger isn’t directed at himself, his beliefs, or the individuals and institutions from whom he learned and inherited them — because that would be a threat to his very identity.

That anger is diverted down one destructive course or another. During the campaign, the anger of the faithful was diverted away from the party, politicians and policies directly responsible for their economic plight, and down dangerous but well-worn paths that have in the past and may yet again bear political fruit for conservatism, but that lead nowhere worth going. But that is something I hope to get to in another post.

It may also be directed down a course that has yielded results and riches for the authors of apocalyptic novels (and the makers of similarly themed movies and computer games), entertainment for the bedrock of the Republican base, in which the true believers are whisked away at the moment calamity strikes, and the entertainment factor (for the true believers turning the pages) is supplied by the sufferings of the nonbelievers in installment after installment. And they will continue suffer until they repent, and come to believe. Meanwhile plagues abound, the skies rain blood, and the true believers pass the popcorn to one another. 

It has been and will continue to be a subject of debate just how much economic damage would have occurred if, say, Bear Stearns had been allowed to fail, or whether Detroit will take the economy down with it, if it does “drop dead.” In either case, some degree of economic pain is inevitable, and the brunt of it would come to bear, as usual, on those with the least resources. 

But that economic pain is something that “Drop Dead” conservatives tend to shrug off. Maybe because suffering is “good for the soul. Maybe because the elect are already shielded from the worst of it by their wealth, which — in the eyes of conservative market fundamentalism — is a sign of the virtue that makes them worth bailing out; worth saving. Those believes who have the virtue but haven’t yet gotten their riches can rest assured “the Lord will take care” of them until they do.

Or maybe they’re dismayed and frustrated at the sight of otherwise rock-ribbed, conservative businessmen rushing to nationalize the financial sector.

If it collapsed, many more money market funds would be in danger of being frozen. Americans have deposited over $3.5 trillion in money market funds, and if that money could not be withdrawn, we would be looking at a depositor panic such as that of 1933, when thousands were pounding on bank doors to retrieve their lost life savings. As it is, many are so frightened of losing their money that they are putting it into the safety of government notes paying interest of around two-tenths of a percent.

It was either act or stand aside and let things rip. Paulson, and especially Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke, who is a close student of the subject, know what happened in 1933 when everyone was frozen in place as first Wall Street and then every other street crashed and burned. Faced with only two choices, these Republican businessmen elected to nationalize AIG just as the same men had done a few days before with the government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the huge home mortgage finance corporations.

The financial carnage that would have ensued if Wall Street giant after Wall Street giant was allowed to crash is about the only thing that would have trickled down after 30 years of conservative economic hegemony; that is besides the current pain so many Americans experience now, as a consequence of conservative market fundamentalism (and the acquiescence of Democrats who should have known better). Yet, the best answer some Republicans could come up with was “let it crash,” even if that meant even more economic pain for every day Americans.

Looking down the same road and seeing the same likely outcome that spurred Paulson and Bernanke to action, “Drop Dead” conservatism’s only answer is “Let ‘er rip!”

Or put another way, “Drop Dead” conservatism gazes into the abyss and, unable to understand it — let alone navigate the country through, around, or across it — simply yells “Cannonball!”

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