Saturday, January 23, 2010

Indicators of a Modern American Conservative

Two friends of mine (Dafydd ab Hugh and Brad Linaweaver) have hashed out a list of what they feel are fourteen key indicators of a current-day American conservative. Here they are:

1. Optimism about the future and the courage to face its challenges

2. The complete rejection of utopianism or human-achievable perfection -- this one was suggested by Brad; I hadn't thought of it, but Brad is right!

3. Adventurousness, dreaming big, achieving the "impossible"

4. Individualism, in contrast to collectivism

5. Capitalism, in particular, small-business entrepeneurship

6. Strong tendency towards preserving American traditions, whether good or bad

7. Patriotism

8. Religiosity

9. A strong belief that personhood begins at conception, thus that abortion is nearly always morally bad

10. A strong tendency to reject evolution by natural selection as denying God and the spiritual nature of Man

11. Belief in the legislating of virtue

12. Deep respect for and appreciation of the American military

13. Respect for the democratic decisions of the people -- extreme distaste for oligarchy (especially kritarchy)

14. Distrust of foreigners, especially immigrants

Read the whole thing in Dafydd'd blog, Big Lizards, here.

I wrote a tedious and overlong comment in response which I have decided to post here as well. (Why should only Dafydd's reader suffer?) Here it is:

My rule-of-thumb notion of a "conservative" is a person exactly like me when I am surrounded by libertarians. Contrariwise, a "libertarian" is me when I am surrounded by conservatives. As a Frank Meyer-style fusionist I think that the silly schism between libertarians and American conservatives can and should be patched over, and whenever I am surrounded by members of one group I feel the need to serve as an ambassador for the other. Since you and (especially) Brad tend to identify more with libertarians than conservatives I will be using myself as a model of conservative perfection for purposes of this discussion and as I visit each point I will either admit, humbly, that it describes me perfectly or complain that you have larded your list with not-necessarily-conservative vices to justify your rejection of the label "conservative". Feel free to bear that in mind.

Trait 1 -- Optimism: This one is odd but mostly true. More on it later.

Trait 2 -- Antiutopianism: Perhaps the reason that Brad needed to point this out to you is because you didn't derive your list, as you state, from first principles. This is the first principle of modern American conservatism.

Trait 3 -- Adventurousness: This is related to traits 1 and 4. Individualist optimism tends to manifest itself as adventurousness.

Trait 4 -- Individualism: Given its roots in classical liberalism this is a key attribute of most variants of American conservatism.

Trait 5 -- Entrepreneurial Capitalism: Quite right. It is merely adventurousness expressed in its economic variant.

Trait 6 -- American Traditionalism: I'm something of a traditionalist and I must quibble here a bit. I don't think any traditionalist would agree that we seek to preserve "bad" traditions. We merely give the traditional modes of thought and behavior the benefit of a the doubt until the evidence become persuasive.

Trait 7 -- Patriotism: Certainly a virtue associated with American conservatives (and occasionally a vice as well.)

Trait 8 -- Religiosity: Religiosity is closely related to populism and populists are ideological nomads. It is true that they are currently camped in conservative territory -- so for the moment you are right -- but they are fickle and may move on at any moment.

Trait 9 -- Personhood of the Unborn: There are pro-choice conservatives but this seems fair since there is a strong correlation with other markers for conservatism. This is a difficult issue for fusionist compromise. I suppose I might support a woman's right to kill her baby provided that she understood that that is precisely what she is doing, and that all arguments to the contrary are rubbish.

Trait 10 -- Creationism: Um, really? You mean to tell me that something like the majority of the conservatives that you guys know are creationists? Weird.

Trait 11 -- Legislating Virtue: This libertarian talking point is a truism that is not particularly true. If you look at the seven deadly sins (Catholic version) -- sloth, lust, anger, greed, pride, envy and gluttony -- you will find liberals and conservatives have split the list fairly evenly for their proscriptive legislative agendas.

Trait 12 -- Respect for the Military: Currently true but, as I am sure you know, historically problematical as a marker for conservatism.

Trait 13: Respect for Democracy: I must admit I had to hit Wikipedia for "kritarchy." I was initially inclined to mostly agree here but on further reflection I have decided you are mistaken. With a few obscure exceptions such as those very few people who know what the word republican means (most of whom, coincidentally, tend to vote "Republican") all political organizations will extol "the will of the people" when they are winning and tend to be OK with judicial activism when it is on their side. "Conservatives" do it, which is disappointing since they should know better, but no more often than the other side.

Trait 14 -- Nationalist Xenophobia: Yes, there is rather more of it in conservative circles than I would like. It is an understandable, but nonetheless unfortunate reaction to militant internationalism, multiculturalism and affirmative action on the other side. It irks me because the anger is misdirected and wasted -- charging the cape and ignoring the matador.

Getting back to the concept of conservative optimism, it is quite real and, in a round-about way, a consequence of conservative antiutopianism. Modern liberalism is officially more optimistic than conservatism -- after all they believe in the perfectibility of human institutions and the conservatives don't -- but that belief sets liberals up for a lifetime of disappointment. Conservatives, on the other hand, expect to have to muddle through in a not-altogether-satisfactory environment. Experience makes liberals cynical as they fall short of their hopes, while conservatives are mostly pleased to find how much can be done in an imperfect and non-perfectible world. This cheerful but conflicted optimism is a key indicator of a conservative mindset and is almost-always present, even in officially-dour paleo-cons such as John Derbyshire of NR.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010



This review is, technically, not part of my "Cheap Critic" series since I actually coughed up the big bucks to see Avatar in 3D during its first run and it has not yet quite hit the local second-run cinema as I type. That all being said, it would fit rather nicely in the series since Avatar is at heart a remake of a 1970s-era movie that was never made for obvious technical reasons. More on that later, but first a public service request...

If, like me, you are a conservative or right-leaning libertarian, to enhance your enjoyment of the film and for the sake of other members of the audience, please remember to turn off your liberal bullshit detectors before you enter the theater. For SF films I usually set mine to the "Star Wars" setting -- its lowest level where it only goes off for the most egregious drivel -- but even at that level it went off three times during Avatar. After the second time I set it to vibrate but it still activated so violently near the end of the film that several California natives fled the theater believing an earthquake was in progress.

For a lifelong science fiction fan of a certain age, watching Avatar is like a party where your best friends from college show up, all looking happy and well off, and you spend a couple of hours reminiscing about what used to be cool back in the day. Every now and then the doorbell rings and instead of another old friend you find a door-to-door evangelist handing out pamphlets about Gaea but you quickly shoo them off with "Not now, I'm having a party," and you get back into the groove.

You see, with the admitted, very notable exception of the film technology used to make it, there is nothing whatsoever new about Avatar. All the elements that make it up -- its plot, its themes, its visual style, its virtues and its vices -- can be traced to the popular science fiction and fantasy milieu of the mid-1970s. It is the product of sensibilities formed in the '70s finally given an outlet to express itself in film. Since I too am a product of those times, Avatar reminds me strongly of a lot of my favorite stuff -- things I have wanted to see on the screen for almost half a century; how could I not think it is swell?

Here are a few example of the kind of stuff I mean: To start with there is the visual imagery in the film. If you read what Cameron and his conceptual artists say about how it was developed you will hear about flying creatures modeled after sea life and floating mountains inspired by the Chinese Huang Shan mountains but that is just after-the-fact smoke-blowing; the truth of the matter is that they cribbed it all from progressive-rock album artist Roger Dean. Here's a link to an article about Dean's influence on Avatar -- "Did Prog Rock's Greatest Artist Inspire Avatar? All Signs Point To Yes" -- click on all the images and see what you think.

One of many Dean images that io9 finds similar to Avatar.

As for the plot, themes, etc. you can easily construct the screenplay for Avatar by cutting bits out of several novels from the '60s and '70s and scotch taping them together. You start with Harry Harrison's short novel, Deathworld, published in 1960, for the broad outlines of the plot. I'd outline the commonalities for you but that would constitute major spoilers, both for the book and the movie -- they are that close. Then, for the themes and some details of Na'vi civilization you throw in Ursula K LeGuin's short novel, "The Word for World is Forest", 1976 (based on her Hugo-winning Novella published in "Again, Dangerous Visions" in 1972), then to get the right tension between things technological and maqical add a dash of Andre Norton -- say, "Judgement on Janus" which she wrote in 1964 -- and borrow a dollop of Ann McCaffrey's Dragonflight -- 1968, from her Hugo-winning 1966 novelette, Weyr Search -- for the dragon-riding bits, and finally, for some of the military technology -- but none of the philosophy -- throw in just a pinch of Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel, Starship Troopers.

With the possible exception of Roger Dean I don't blame Cameron for not crediting his influences. It suffices to say that all of these sources had a huge effect on speculative fiction during that period and that Cameron is a product of the times. One hears Avatar criticized as derivative, and not without some justification, but it is derived from material from other media from forty years ago. If finally getting around to making the sort of film that has waited a generation for technology to catch up is to be derivative then I can't see what is wrong with it.

There are a few minor nits to pick aside from Cameron's very successful capturing of the pre-new-age, mildly cretinous liberal vibe of the '70s. Avatar obviously wants to be "hard" Science Fiction but, with Cameron's penchant for action rather than exposition, it lacks the Mr Wizard moments necessary to wrap a gloss of technobabble around its more magical elements. Cameron had the material (see the explanation of "unobtanium" in the Avatar wiki, for instance) but he just refused to use it. You could vastly improve the film's hard SF creds by having one of the "scientists" who our hero pals around with spend sixty seconds on the properties and importance of Unobtanium.

And, of couse, it would be nice if the script didn't suck in all the ordinary ways; none of the characters has any motivation for his or her actions -- the bad guys do bad things because they are bad and, conversely, our hero is heroic because he is our hero -- and they all appear to be as dumb as a pile of rocks -- their synapses apparently being dedicated to staying in character with none left over for anything like problem solving.

But, as I said, these are all nits. Films like Avatar require the willing suspension of disbelief for their enjoyment and Avatar only occasionally makes that difficult. It is great fun, especially if you are old enough to remember the 1970s. I recommend it highly but don't forget to turn off that bullshit detector so your ears don't whistle like a tea kettle and disturb other members of the audience.

A bit of random reading for making your own cut-and-paste script for Avatar:

Harrison’s Deathworld and Cameron’s Avatar from the Crotchety Old Fan

Full text of Deathworld by Harry Harrison - Project Gutenberg

Cover from Paperback Judgement on Janus by Andre Norton

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K LeGuin -- Wikipedia

The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey -- Wikipedia