Friday, October 18, 2019

Liberals are Sauron, Conservatives are Boromir: My Adventures in Narrative Thinking

We human beings are fundamentally narrative creatures and it is specifically good vs. evil narratives that attract us. We make sense of the world through a framework of a once-great world under attack by the forces of evil who threaten to plunge us into perpetual darkness. It is the task of the hero to defeat evil to usher in a new golden age or at least to allow some sliver of good to survive.

This is part of the appeal of fantasy as it is the genre that is most unapologetic about its embrace of good vs. evil. Take the example of Lord of the Rings. It is the task of Frodo to save the Shire from Sauron. We are never meant to question the fact that Sauron is evil or consider negotiating with him. That path leads to Saruman. Now it is the genius of Tolkien that he deconstructs this very narrative. The reader who is paying attention will realize that the chief villain of the trilogy is not Sauron but the Ring and, by extension, potentially our heroes trying to save Middle Earth. This is crucial for the story because as long as someone thinks that the main villain is Sauron, they will inevitably, when pressed, fall to the temptation to use the Ring. This is Boromir’s mistake. He joins the Fellowship under the perfectly reasonable assumption that his job is to save Gondor from Sauron. If the only way to prevent the imminent destruction of Gondor is by taking up the Ring then so be it. That being said, even Tolkien's deconstruction relies on the power of good vs. evil to control our thinking. Boromir could never have fallen unless he believed that Sauron was an evil that needed to be defeated at all costs.

One might respond, why not just stick to the facts. Part of what makes narratives so important is that they allow you to make use of facts. Without a narrative, facts are just gibberish, difficult to remember and useless even if you could. Furthermore, the good vs. evil narrative is a powerful weapon that allows you to stare down your opponent. You cannot hope to stand up to someone speaking the language of good vs. evil without a counter-narrative of your own. Lacking such a narrative, you will be reduced to a quivering “but I am a good person and let me show you how reasonable I am by compromising on everything important.” When you care more about what the other person thinks about you than vice versa, you have lost. If your opponent is Sauron, you will never be tempted to care if he likes you.

Consider the example of the Westboro Baptist Church. Part of what is so hard for most people to understand about the WBC is to the extent that this church honestly does not seek popularity. The WBC waving signs saying "God Hates Faggots" and picketing the funerals of American soldiers was a diabolically genius move to guarantee that everyone in this country, from left to right, would hate them. It was never designed to stop the gay rights movement. On the contrary, by giving the LGBTQ movement a villain straight out of central casting, WBC likely hastened the legalization of gay marriage by several years. We are used to shock jocks who try to offend but still, deep down, want respectability. This country was never prepared for people who truly wanted to be hated and were not simply striking a pose long enough to cash in. As Megan Phelps-Roper discusses in her memoir Unfollow, since the WBC believe in predestination and see themselves as the elect and essentially everyone else in the world as damned, their protests have never been about outreach even to social conservatives. On the contrary, they are designed to alienate even potential allies.

This makes sense if you truly, to the very core of your heart, believe your opponents are irredeemably evil. The moment you believe that your opponents have some sliver of goodness (think of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi), it is inevitable that some part of you will try to reach out and convince them. This leads to compromise as you try to frame issues in their terms.

The WBC does not care if you walk away from them feeling compelled to march in your town's next Pride parade. On the contrary, it proves their point. From their perspective, you deserve to go to Hell because you value your own sense of right and wrong over the word of God. The fact that you would reject their "biblical" morality because it was not pitched in the right fashion simply proves that they are right about you. Thus, the WBC advances the coming of the Kingdom of God when the world will be clearly divided between those who obey God's word even if their sinful hearts find parts of it distasteful and those who think they know better than God. 

The most powerful narrative figure on the political stage at the moment is teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. Part of what makes her such a frightening opponent is that, for her, there is no debate in the face of her narrative. Older people are responsible for endangering all life on this planet and now the only choice is to get behind her plan whatever it is. If I could put her in a formal debate, I would pick the late Hans Rosling as her opponent. I would love to see her having to handle questions like "are you willing to forgo getting the world's poorest billion out of poverty."

Thunberg’s narrative strength as an activist makes her useless for actually doing something for the environment. She speaks as if she has a nuclear weapon to threaten her opponents. On the assumption that she (or the people pulling her strings) does not, what is the plan? The very purity of her narrative will never allow her to compromise and politics is the art of compromise.

It is telling that for all the policy disagreements I have with my teenage self, what had not changed is my fundamental narrative. Traditional society is fundamentally good as it is what protects us against the Hobbesian horrors of both Nazism and Communism. In the long run, this traditional society is best protected through a Burkean commitment to reform founded with a healthy dose of rationalism and respect for individual liberty. Traditional society finds itself under attack by leftist liberals. These leftists are not classical liberals like those previously integrated into the system with the rise of modernity. The leftist marches under the banner of justice for all. This is cover for the leftist grab for power.

To battle the leftist liberal, one needs to first sure up one’s defenses to take away the obvious charges of prejudice. Not that anyone is ever truly free of prejudice. That is part of the hypocrisy of the leftist. It does not really believe in holding itself to its own standards. The leftist will accuse you of bigotry no matter what. The trick is to force leftists to get creative with their post-modern sophistry and expose the fact that they do not actually care about actual human beings. When liberals say “equality and justice for all people” what I hear is “non-liberals are not human and it is only right to harm them if it benefits liberals, the true humans.”

In addition, becoming a libertarian has meant that I see all government activity as literal violence. So when liberals talk about government programs, I hear “we are planning to kill you.” To give an example of this. Beto recently proposed seizing all privately owned AR-15s. When a gun owner responded that he would be waiting with his AR-15, Beto accused the person of advocating violence. No mass confiscation of firearms could happen without the government signing off on Ruby Ridge scenarios in which federal officers murder women and children. The fact that Beto’s conscience does not struggle with this issue means he is a moral dark lord who loves to kill people. Because of this, despite the fact I have moved left on most policy issues, I am not more inclined to cooperate with the Democratic Party in its current form.

One might object, what about conservatives? For all that I can intellectually articulate the flaws of conservatives, my heart cannot bring itself to fully embrace a sustained anti-conservative narrative. Thus, I am inclined to de-narrate conservatives who do things I oppose, like embracing racism or other forms of collectivism, as lunatics. When forced to acknowledge that something is truly rotten in the state of conservatism, my inclination is to simply fall back on my narrative. Such conservatives need to be eliminated because they play into the hands of those nefarious liberals, thereby endangering the world by allowing liberals to triumph. For example, my primary reason for not supporting Trump even on pragmatic grounds is that, long after Trump has left the White House (whether in handcuffs or after finishing a second term), I do not want liberals to be able to use Trump as a weapon. I consider this to be more important even than control over the Supreme Court.

This means that, while I might denounce many conservative figures and policy positions, I do not see myself as fighting Sauron for the fate of the world. At best, I feel like I am going against Boromir and trying to stop him from seizing the liberal Ring of Power for himself. Boromir may need to die but it is not because he is evil. It is because his failure endangers the Fellowship's mission. (Yes, Boromir does not actually die as a result of trying to seize the Ring. The fact that he is killed several minutes later though indicates that he is being punished for being the one person in the Fellowship to give in to the Ring's temptation. Boromir clearly sees and accepts his death in these terms.)

Understand that when I talk about my narrative it is not necessarily what I actually believe intellectually. It is a framework to which I instinctively fall back on when I feel threatened and angry. I am very good at fitting facts into my narrative, perhaps too good. This arms me with the moral certainty not only that I am right but that I am righteous and that my opponents are satanic and outside the realm of moral obligation. Keep in mind that my narrative is fundamentally a counter-narrative designed to respond to the liberal narrative. If liberals are going to question the good intentions of their opponents then we must conclude that either liberals are right or that they are evil. It is the mark of imperfect but not evil people that they can see how even their opponents might also be in the same category.

One of my goals for writing Izgad was less to convert liberals than to simply get them thinking outside the liberal narrative by being the kind of person who does not fit into the liberal narrative of I support social justice so I am a good person and my opponents must be hateful bigots. When I find myself talking to liberals, regardless of the particular issue being debated, the conversation that I am having in my head is whether or not they can think outside of the liberal narrative. Convince me of that and regardless of whether we agree on anything of substance, we can have a productive conversation. A good example of this is the blogger Clarissa. There is very little, in terms of practical policy, that we agree on. That being said, she has demonstrated a consistent ability to operate outside the liberal narrative. I can even forgive her use of the term "neo-liberal" as she mostly uses it to go after the liberal narrative. The moment I believe that I am talking to the liberal narrative and not a person, I fall back on my narrative and the discourse slowly but surely goes down the drain into Godwin's Law. I will be compared to Hitler and I will show my superior class by simply calling the other person Sauron.