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Cowboys and Liberals

Judith Warner is a bestselling author and a blogger at the NYT who produces (I have learned today) a blog called "Domestic Disturbances." Her writing was panned by Prof. Kenneth Anderson, who called it condescending. I have only read the one piece of it she wrote, so I won't say he's wrong as a general thing: but I thought this was a piece that showed a great deal of the right spirit. Let me explain.

She writes about attending a McCain-Palin rally in Virginia. She confesses that she intended to go as a joke, and to mock the attendees -- but she ends up being taken by the kindness of the strangers, their hopes for Gov. Palin, and the evident joy of their lives. It scares the hell out of her.

No, it wasn’t funny, my morning with the hockey and the soccer moms, the homeschooling moms and the book club moms, the joyful moms who brought their children to see history in the making and spun them on the lawn, dancing, when music played. It was sobering. It was serious. It was an education....

For those of us who can’t tap into those yearnings, it seems the Palin faithful are blind – to the contradictions between her stated positions and the truth of the policies she espouses, to the contradictions between her ideology and their interests. But Jonathan Haidt, an associate professor of moral psychology at the University of Virginia, argues in an essay this month, “What Makes People Vote Republican?”, that it’s liberals, in fact, who are dangerously blind.

Haidt has conducted research in which liberals and conservatives were asked to project themselves into the minds of their opponents and answer questions about their moral reasoning. Conservatives, he said, prove quite adept at thinking like liberals, but liberals are consistently incapable of understanding the conservative point of view.
Now that's a start. Let's explore it a bit.

The place to start is the Haidt essay. He begins by noting the famous study that treats conservatism as a sort-of mental condition: "conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death."

He then adds:
Diagnosis is a pleasure... But with pleasure comes seduction, and with righteous pleasure comes seduction wearing a halo. Our diagnosis explains away Republican successes while convincing us and our fellow liberals that we hold the moral high ground. Our diagnosis tells us that we have nothing to learn from other ideologies, and it blinds us to what I think is one of the main reasons that so many Americans voted Republican over the last 30 years: they honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats. To see what Democrats have been missing, it helps to take off the halo, step back for a moment, and think about what morality really is.
I would go farther than that, and suggest that the model is self-evidently false. What percentage of entrepreneurs are conservatives in some sense of the word? What percentage of small business entrepreneurs -- that is, those who risk not just something, but everything? Voting habits indicate it's a clean majority -- yet these people are supposed to be 'especially fearful of uncertainty'? What percentage of military officers -- or soldiers of any rank in the the combat arms of the military -- are conservatives? Voting habits, again, indicate a strong majority: and these are the people supposedly afraid of death?

What has happened here is that the halo blinds from the beginning. It blinds people into accepting results plainly at variance with reality, because it answers their preconceptions. It also allows them to discard the fact that these economic questions do have a conservative answer: even Dr. Haidt's explanation, which I will praise on more important grounds in a moment, simply takes as read that conservatives who are poorer are voting moral rather than economic interests. In fact, they have a different concept of where their interests lie.

There is something deeply worthy in the Haidt piece -- what is far more important than the wrongness of the concept that conservatism is a mental state to be diagnosed, rather than a philosophy to be explored and considered. It lies here:

My first few weeks in Bhubaneswar were therefore filled with feelings of shock and confusion. I dined with men whose wives silently served us and then retreated to the kitchen. My hosts gave me a servant of my own and told me to stop thanking him when he served me. I watched people bathe in and cook with visibly polluted water that was held to be sacred. In short, I was immersed in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society, and I was committed to understanding it on its own terms, not on mine. It only took a few weeks for my shock to disappear, not because I was a natural anthropologist but because the normal human capacity for empathy kicked in. I liked these people who were hosting me, helping me, and teaching me. And once I liked them (remember that first principle of moral psychology) it was easy to take their perspective and to consider with an open mind the virtues they thought they were enacting.
"The normal human capacity for empathy" is just what we have so long been missing in this discussion. The implicit advocation that you should try to like the people you are observing, that it would open new avenues for understanding them, is long overdue. Dr. Haidt is to be praised for this insight, but also for being the kind of man who could have it.

Judith Warner has read his piece, and is trying to do what he advocates. She is not -- still not! -- able to understand these women. She is still afraid of them, and that fear of them comes through in her piece in many ways. From her recognition that her children's love for brie might mark her as an outsider here, to the sense that this is all an alien environment she cannot comprehend, it is clear she is afraid of these people, and of a joy she can neither name nor understand.

Yet she is trying to understand it. She is trying to make friends.

Both she and Dr. Haidt ultimately are far from understanding -- reading Dr. Haidt's clinical descriptions is enough to make a man chuckle. Yet I respect their kindness and their humane desire to understand, to have empathy, to like and befriend.

They will probably not quite grasp what I mean when I say that conseratives are not subjects-for-observation but neighbors; and that in choosing "Love thy Neighbor" as their method, they have found the right road. I expect Dr. Haidt will read that as my desire to enact my life in accord with a defined sacred order, to reduce uncertainty and bring meaning to my life.

That is not at all what I mean: what I mean is that, in this world, that is the road most likely to lead to genuine understanding between people. Like Chesterton, I learned that from the world, and then found it reflected in the books.

That, though, is a longer trail. For now, it's enough to take a moment to recognize a good thing, to welcome it and praise those who are trying to make it work.


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