November 5th, 2005


We may be wrong, but there sure are a lot of us

One of the ways that conservatives like to "prove" their points is by pointing to polls that show them to be in the majority. When a rational person sees a poll saying only 15% of Americans believe in evolution he shakes his head sadly at how many ignorant people there are out there. When a conservative sees the same poll he thinks "Look how right I am!"

Of course majority opinion doesn't actually determine reality, if it did then Ted Bundy would have been a nice, normal, guy and people in California would have to worry about falling off the side of the earth. 82% of Americans may believe Jesus was the son of god, but 100 years ago around that many would have believed that there were magical brownies living on farms. Meanwhile there are billions of Muslims who believe that Jesus was just a prophet, and not even as good at that as Muhammed was. Don't they count? Why are their crazy unfounded beliefs less relevant than yours?

Perhaps even more relevant is the fact that consensus on moral issues shifts radically over time, and almost always towards the left. 150 years ago most people (or at least a very significant minority) believed that it was okay to keep black people in bondage with few to no rights, and that women shouldn't be able to vote or engage in numerous important public activities. Now those people are seen as ignorant and tragically wrong. Today a significant minority believes that gay people shouldn't be allowed to serve in the military or have families, and that women should be forced to have babies against their will if they get pregnant. Guess who's going to look like a bunch of dumb rubes in a century or so?

The fact of the matter is that conservatism as a concept will always have popular support and will always be very deeply flawed. Conservatism is at its heart the desire to keep things as they are or to turn them back to the way they were. Usually this corresponds to a particular "Golden Age" point of view within the lifetime of many conservatives. Few want to bring us back to the 18th century, and those that do are decried by the majority of conservatives. Evolutionarily conservatism makes sense. Living beings fear change because change often threatens survival. If you're living happily in a valley with plenty of food, few predators, and a decent supply of mates why would you want to find out what's over the next mountain? It could be bears. Lots and lots of bears. Those whose genes send them looking for adventure often perish in the mouths of those bears. Those whose genes have them stay where they are in the comfort zone can flourish for many generations. Sure if something happens to disrupt our lives we'll look for change, like if a water supply dries up or the economy tanks, but for the most part people are pretty content with things as they are.

This contentment ignores a fundamental reality, however, which is that in modern society change is not something to be feared like it was back in the valley of the bears. For one thing we can see ahead of us much more clearly than we could in the past. Change can be channeled down productive alleys rather than amounting to wandering in the woods. For another our circumstances are constantly changing around us whether we like it or not. We use a lot of oil right now. It supports our lifestyles reasonably well and is low in cost. However, no matter how much we'd like to pretend we can do this forever, we clearly can't. There's a limited supply of oil, a limited supply of oil production, and a demand that's growing exponentially. Conservatives want to play make believe that this isn't so, and that if we only drill in Alaska and conquer Iraq we can keep using oil forever. We can't Logic dictates that we look for alternative sources of energy. Logic has dictated this for years. We continue not to. We continue to act like the cavemen in the valley, unaware that a flood or fire is coming, only we can actually see the flood and fire and write books about it and make good estimations of when it will hit.

Conservatives take this tactic with most problems. Kids are having sex, so we'll try to turn back the clock to when they weren't so much instead of moving forward and trying to deal with the situation as it is. America is losing ground to other countries in terms of world power so we'll wage multiple wars of aggression rather than adapting to our new place in the world and trying to make the most out of it. The world moves forward and the solutions of the past are usually wrong for the future. This idea is anathema to conservative thinking.

The fact remains that wishing something was so doesn't make it so. Just because you can get a lot of people to believe something doesn't make it true. Just because an old book says something doesn't make it true. Just because you can pay people a lot of money to say something doesn't make it true. Complaining that the "liberal media" won't pay attention to your "ideas" only works when those ideas have merit and/or evidence to back them up.

I understand why people are attracted to the past, and to a point of view that denies change even as it happens, but ignoring reality simply doesn't work. We can argue and debate about policy issues like appropriate sentences for criminals and amounts of taxation, but both sides must first accept the world not as it was, not even as it is, but as it will be.
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