This is a world of relativity, especially the world of politics. If I have an extremely right-wing political view, someone who is generally considered left of me can yet be right of center, while I might find someone who is right of me to have aspects that are widely considered extremely left.
If someone told Hitler that every Jew should be killed, he would agree. If he was told that every German that ever spoke kindly to a Jew, even if just once in life, should be killed, he would think that view extreme. If such an extreme view had no Hitler types beside it for relative comparison, I would be considered insane. But in Nazi Germany, It would just be radical.
In political environments that are dominated by extreme right-wing ideologies, everyone in the moderate position will naturally appear to be more left while the insane right will just seem extreme. Center will shift right.
People who are not able to question and challenge their positions usually think they are right, meaning correct, in their views. Such people usually think they are dead center, as they can see views on both sides.
For these reasons, conventions such as left and right, liberal and conservative, don’t mean a whole lot without a referencing context. Furthermore, referring to someone as left or right does not constitute an argument against his or her views, if just left at that. More often in extreme contexts, it is just name-calling.
What is conservatism? Abraham Lincoln asked, "What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?"
Lincoln’s definition certainly has its limited uses. His points seems to be that in the realm of thought, at least, no human being has the right to be conservative. We are left with the challenge to fairly entertain, without bias or prejudice, any idea, even if it is new to us. At the end, we may land on a particular conclusion we feel is right, but even that conclusion should stand in our minds as a sort of temporary judgment, not as a final edict. Open-mindedness toward new ideas, new thoughts, new theories, and new circumstances is a type of fearlessness. It is the antithesis of conservatism by Lincoln's definition. To be liberal in this regard means to be liberal in our thinking, and we lose nothing if our thinking has been liberated from as much conditioning as possible.
But a radically liberal idea, by society's standards, is not right just because it is radically liberal. It must be weighed through reason like any other ideal. Even if it is found to be correct logically and by the standard of human progress in knowledge, the distance between the state of things and a theoretical ideal state of things makes tempering correct radical theories necessary. Context is important. We may want to walk from Paris to Rome, but we will not end up in Rome if we try to get there in one step.
Starting the long journey toward actualizing a radical idea (we must bear in mind that equal rights for women and minorities was at once a radical idea) with radical actions is not necessarily the best way to go about things. Halfway on the journey, or even ten steps later, we may find that our very perception of the radical idea, if not our circumstances, has changed. Or, maybe reaching the goal of the radical idea requires that we do not go in a straight line. Hence, reason dictates that immediate conditions are continually taken into account as an idea is formulated, because present conditions alone might be creating the sense of a mirage of an ideal oasis--one that we will never reach.
Continuing with unpacking Lincoln's definition of conservatism, and for the present limiting ourselves to it, it is necessarily in a mirage that the conservative believes is standing. Everything is in constant flux. Some things change so slowly that we can hardly tell they are changing, so perhaps in those cases the conservative has an excuse in that he or she could not tell that things are fluctuating. But this is not the case with societies to whose histories we are privy, and it is certainly not the case with a society like ours that has introduced life-changing technologies, such as the Internet, in quick succession.
As has been often said, in order to keep things the same (which strictly is impossible) to the best of one's ability, one must perforce not be a conservative in how Lincoln defines it. One must change with the times to the degree that the times change, in order to keep things relatively the same. They will never be exactly the same for any individual, but they may be socially similar to what was before.
Lincoln’s conservatism is thus wishful thinking at best and willful self-deception at worst. Luckily, such conservatives fight loosing battles.
But radical conservatives live even more precarious lives, for they want to change things so they are the way the used to be a long time ago. While impractical liberals want to go to Rome from Paris in one step, halfway to Rome the radical conservatives want to go back to Paris in one step. Either extreme, when successfully implemented, results in violent shifts in society. The Iranian Islamic revolution is an example of this. Transforming America into a new Roman Empire in these first years of the twenty-first century, despite decades of corporatism and profitable conflicts paving the way, is another.
Both types of radicals ignore the present and the innumerable possibilities for variation that arise over time. In fact, they are one and the same, only with their backs to each other. They are opposite sides of the same coin, and they are both forms of conservatism, meaning that in addition to Lincoln’s definition, a qualifier would be that ideas, even liberal ones, that stick to ideals and fail to account for circumstances and consequences, are conservative.
The fundamentalist religious and corporate conservatism of today is shortsighted and selfish, and will not change with the times for fear of losing something. Ironically, the changeless position ensures loss. If a conservative wanted to protect private property and free enterprise, for example, the best way to do it is to remove the injustice and unfairness they cause. In that case, it would be hard to distinguish between the far-sighted conservative and the practical liberal. But today, too many conservatives are true to Lincoln’s definition of conservatism in their shortsightedness and too many liberals end up accomplishing nothing because of a misplaced loyalty and reliance on present-day institutions to effect even incremental change.
Extremist, liberal or conservative, are made of a similar psychological mold. It is no surprise when a youthful extreme radical becomes a middle-aged extreme conservative. The hippies are a classic example of this. Their radical, though reactionary, pseudo-spirituality led by false gurus and outright quacks fell flat on its face, so they largely became in their middle-age money-minded conservatives. In a sense, they followed their paragons well, since they were all about money too.
By Lincoln's definition, to invent, to come up with new ideas, to improvise, and even to write music or poetry is antithetical to conservatism. Not a few American writers have noted that not one great piece of American literature came from the millions of American Catholics – wedded to a religion known for its extreme suppression of sexual and other creative urges. Conservatism, they conclude, is artistically barren, which is why conservative societies kill their art and replace it with entertainment. Who in the history of the world has ever been called a conservative and a creative genius in the same breath?
Lincoln’s conservatism is fear of the new and distrust of others. Arthur Schlesinger echoed: "All those who dread uncertainty either because of timidity or from conventional-mindedness or for fear of material loss are enlisted under the conservative standard." Conservatism in this regard is akin to mediocrity, self-satisfaction, and an attitude born from feeling privileged. It is a dangerous luxury no one can ever earn but many assume. Today, it is synonymous with the narrow sense of self that often believes wealth and weapons, not cooperation and discussion, are the best determinants of leadership. It is the guarding of a fabled past.
One can't but find the irony in the fact that liberal ideas – from Christ’s to Marx’s -- have repeatedly been appropriated, though in name only, by the most conservative and uneducated segments of our society. It's as if the conservative authorities get wind of the dangers of progressive ideas and so grabbed them, called themselves Popes and Apostles and Prime Ministers, rigidify them, and used them against the very social activists that work to incorporate those principles in society.
The Buddha was against the religion of his day as well. But Emperor Asoka appropriated it, normalized it, and now it has its own baseless authority figures that promote themselves in the Buddha’s name. The same is true of Judaism as well, where the Orthodox actually believe they have some authority or special knowledge over everyone else. But rabbis and lamas have no real knowledge, for they have no real power.
In fact, creative genius is practically synonymous with nonconformity. Every philosopher that I have ever read, and every individual whose life exemplified the expansive self, was against the standardized ideals of the day that the masses embraced. Perhaps that is why they are remembered as great in the first place; century after century, they challenge us to stretch our own limits of thought and self.
Who could reject the probability that Jesus would be against Christianity today? Who rejects the idea that the Buddha would be against Buddhism today? Who rejects the likelihood that if a Hebrew prophet like Elijah came today, he would again be warning the entrenched Jews? Only conservatives who want to maintain the status quo and their sense of empowerment rejects these well-known certainties.
So, we might as well look for the real enemies of an idea in those that promote and further it, especially where institutionalization forms. Bush is the enemy of the virtues that conservatism represents (which we will get to), even as Yoga Journal is the enemy of the virtues of yoga.
Conservatism by Lincoln's definition is a polarizing agent, but no less than is any form of radicalism or entrenchment. To the radical--conservative or liberal--everyone who doesn't agree gets to wear a label--commie or pinko, socialist, liberal, extremist, leftist, or right winger, tree hugger, pacifist, Nazi, tyrant, socialist, racist. Of course, that is the list used by the less vulgar radical segments.
Perhaps the greatest crime of Lincoln’s conservatism is when it is inculcated in children, stunting their intellectual and emotional growth and inhibiting the questioning and inquisitive process. Limiting the search for truth, meaning new ideas and new knowledge, is the kiss of death. When prevalent, such as the empty radical nature of the hippies that was falsely considered progressive, it is a sign of a diseased society.
The worst danger of conservatism is when it seeps into government. Governance, for it to be successful, demands debate, investigation, sincerity in truth seeking, honesty in embodying the latest confirmed knowledge, and even the willingness to experiment with new ways of doing things. Conservatism in government is thus the height of hypocrisy. Only radical conservatism in government, as we have all recently witnessed, is worse. It is so radical it does not even conserve those things of value, like international relations and allies.
Debate, of course, assumes at least two sides of an argument. But when Lincoln’s idea of conservatism steps in, it polarizes the populace so there are only two sides perceived, when there are always far more. Ideally, there would be only one political party: the thinking, discussing, scientific, reasoning, and willingness to doubt party. As one nation and human family, we must either have a hundred and one parties or one willing to entertain a hundred and one ideas. Two only is obviously a setup.
With all due respect to Lincoln, his definition of conservatism is not a very good one. It has a serious flaw. First, some things are worth conserving and protecting, aside from the “environment” or resources. Many things have shown their enduring value and have withstood the test of time.
Systems, aside from the obvious eco ones, which best afford us food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare, are worth fighting for and conserving. They have proven their uses and may be improved upon. At the same time, they are not worth utilizing to their own detriment, as in contributing to overpopulation. The arts and histories of all cultures are worth conserving. They relate our past, however illusory our interpretation of it is, to us. I personally feel pranayama methods have proven their worth and I would like to both conserve and proliferate them so that they are both utilized and have a better chance of continuing to be conserved in the future.
This kind of conservatism, if it is genuine, must be rightly discriminating. Otherwise, the conservative will be attempting to conserve not only that which has withstood the test of time, but that which has been decomposing for centuries. Misplaced conservatism is usually done to secure the facade of power or some system of control. The rotting corpse of religion comes to mind as a perfect example. Organized religions must be conserved in museums and in reference material, not in practice and identity.
Second, while it may be that we must all walk forward in life, and the only other alternative is to go backward since staying where we are is not possible in this world of change, we might better define a conservative not as a person who cannot walk forward, but one who holds the ground as the other leg moves forward. To define conservatism otherwise would be simply equating conservatism with utter foolishness. We need a positive definition of conservatism so that it is also a good thing in moderation, or where it is more a tool that can be used in a number of ways, not as something that is always to be avoided.
We might then see conservatism as an indispensable part of balanced liberal progressiveness. The liberal walks forward only when sure of his or her footing. So if the conservative segments of society no longer attempt to thwart forward motion, but instead take it upon themselves merely to insure that our footing along the way is solid, then the liberals can more easily and more effectively do their job, and be tempered in their natural enthusiasm to change everything all at once.
Meanwhile, when the liberal segment has made a step, the conservative segment can relax their grip on balancing the foot behind and let it go forward while keeping the new position secure and workable. The liberal may then find that the conservatives, while they may not have as much vision, are often very pragmatic, and further realize how they can learn pragmatism from the conservative fold. They will more easily appreciate the work of the conservative.
Ideally, each individual will develop his or her faculties and embody the virtues of liberal and conservative, the left and right. Both perspectives are necessary for both individual and collective progress, just as are both sides of our brains, and together do they constitute the whole.