Conservatism, pt. 2

I got away from my main point talking about the shooting, I think. Emotions got the better of me, I suppose.

My point was primarily that I identify with a lot of the toxic beliefs that those angry young white men have. The most toxic one to me is that the world is fair.

It’s not. If you truly believe the world is fair, ultimately, you are going to develop some terrible beliefs. I don’t know how to justify children starving or dying of illness. I don’t think it’s God’s fault, but I also don’t think God is going to help out either.

This is a common problem for religious believers–theodicy, or the problem of suffering–and it’s a large part of why I’m not religious anymore. Bart Ehrman, Duke theologian, articulates it a bit here:

How can one explain all the pain and misery in the world if God—the creator and redeemer of all—is sovereign over it, exercising his will both on the grand scheme and in the daily workings of our lives? Why, I asked, is there such rampant starvation in the world? Why are there droughts, epidemics, hurricanes, and earthquakes? If God answers prayer, why didn’t he answer the prayers of the faithful Jews during the Holocaust? Or of the faithful Christians who also suffered torment and death at the hands of the Nazis? If God is concerned to answer my little prayers about my daily life, why didn’t he answer my and others’ big prayers when millions were being slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, when a mudslide killed 30,000 Columbians in their sleep, in a matter of minutes, when disasters of all kinds caused by humans and by nature happened in the world?

My fundamental problem with what I see as the core of American conservative beliefs, is that they hold American society to be a mostly fair place.

  • The free market works, AND we live in a free market society.
  • The wealthy earned their money. Therefore, people in poverty too did something to deserve it.
  • Fortunate people are Godly and deserve their good luck. Again, by extension the unlucky deserve their luck as well.
  • Private charity can take of those in need. American society is not so unjust as to require things like social services, affirmative action, etc.

Those are four big problematic ideas for me, and they’re a large part of why I drifted away from conservatism in college. But. But but but but. These are uncontroversial beliefs among many US conservatives. And they are terrible. If you are even remotely privileged, these beliefs essentially tell you it’s okay–you deserve it. 

These angry young white men all had a sense of entitlement that I had. They were decent, young, middle-class men. Surely the world was going to be their oyster. It wasn’t that easy.

But they deserved happiness! They deserved money, and sex, and good careers! Someone took those dreams away from them–whom?

Women? African-Americans? Immigrants?

That’s my point. These angry young men believed they were owed ideals, money, women’s bodies, that never belonged to them. Their core belief system seemed to reinforce the idea that they deserved good things happening to them–it is only fair. But the world isn’t fair.

And so my problem with conservative beliefs in the fundamental fairness of the world, as I see it, is that they create two terrible outcomes.

  1. You are fortunate. Congratulations. Maybe you’ll donate a little bit of money to charity, but fundamentally if people are righteous, decent people they would have your luck. So it’s not really a moral imperative to help the less fortunate.
  2. You’re not fortunate. Clearly you’ve been wronged, because the world is a fair place. It’s time to get angry.

These aren’t the only outcomes, of course–that would be silly. But I’ve seen an awful lot of #1, and #2 seems to not be uncommon either.

The world isn’t fair. And that’s okay, sort of. We’re humans. We can create social systems and structures to mitigate the worst effects of poverty. We’ve made a lot of positive steps towards the equality of all humans. Shit, we’re not living in a feudal system anymore–that alone is worthy of praise. We can improve peoples’ lives if we want to.

But with conservative faith in the Just World fallacy, there’s just this sort of deadly complacency. This seems to be especially true among some of the evangelicals I know–having the “correct” belief is enough to guarantee heaven, so why bother with deeds?–but it’s seen in a lot of conservative policies. You see it when Jeb Bush tells single mothers to just get married already. Or why have abortions, ever, when you can just find the right husband who earns enough to raise all of your children? Why help the poor, when charity will obviously take care of it? Why bother to improve things at all when the world is going to end anyway?

So, anyway, that’s my long-winded explanation of how being raised conservative turned me into a liberal. And it’s why I think those angry young men probably were raised to be conservative–the core belief of entitlement practically demands it. I had it too, years ago, and I still remember its appeal. A simple explanation for the world, where I had been wronged? It was great, and seductive, and the only problem of course was that it was 100% dead fucking wrong.

Charleston, entitlement, and on being raised conservative

Something terrible happened this week. A young white supremacist went to a historical African-American church in Charleston, attended a Bible Study session, and then killed nine people. I am omitting his name because he is a disgrace unworthy of the attention that his pathetic actions warranted. Most of us, perhaps, have one chance in life to really be remembered for something, and he chose the worst possible route.

I think I understand his motives, however, and that troubled me. So here I am today.

Based on his statements so far, he believes some truly wild things. To wit:

Witnesses to the killings said the gunman asked for the pastor when he entered the church, and sat next to Mr. Pinckney during the Bible study.

They said that almost an hour after he arrived, the gunman suddenly stood and pulled a gun, and Ms. Washington’s cousin Tywanza Sanders, 26, known as the peacemaker of the family, tried to calmly talk the man out of violence.

“You don’t have to do this,” he told the gunman, Ms. Washington recounted.

The gunman replied, “Yes. You are raping our women and taking over the country.”

This eerily resembles the manifesto of the Santa Barbara shooter, who similarly deserves to remain nameless. Sexual frustration seemed to drive his shootings too.

It all has to come to this,” Mr. Rodger says, his voice at once placid and chilling. “Tomorrow is the day of retribution. The day I will have my retribution against humanity. Against all of you. For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires. Girls gave their affection and sex and love to other men but never to me. I’m 22 years old, and I’m still a virgin. I’ve never even kissed a girl. I have been through college for two and a half years, more than that actually, and I’m still a virgin. It has been very torturous. College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. All because girls have never been attracted to me. In those years I’ve had to rot in loneliness.”

“I do not know why you girls aren’t attracted to me,” he said, “But I will punish you all for it.”

These jackasses have a profound sense of entitlement. They feel entitled, apparently, to women’s bodies. Charleston Jackass feels specifically entitled to white women’s bodies, while Santa Barbara Jackass has a less specific desire to be found attractive by women. They did not find him attractive, and this enraged him enough to kill 6 people.

And I can relate to this feeling of entitlement. I don’t like to admit to it, but it’s there. I’m not sure it’s possible to be raised as a white American male and not feel at least a little of it.

When I was growing up, there was an expectation that I Would Make Something Of Myself. My parents had done so, after all. I was their child, and I was a citizen of the Greatest Nation On Earth. Saint Reagan’s Utopia of free enterprise and opportunity.

You can still see a lot of this expectation levied upon millennial graduates in general, I think. A sort of bemused wondering why they haven’t been successful relative to their parents yet. If they are, it’s often with a significant leg up from those same family members. But millennials, unlike the Greatest Generation or the Baby Boomers, just can’t get their shit together. They’re hung up on trigger warnings and gay marriage and other trivial bullshit. What is their problem?

Well, let’s look at recent history a little bit.

In America, following World War 2, there was a virtual firehose of money directed at white men. The GI Bill subsidized the education of many returning (white!) veterans, who then used their new college degrees and business education to capture an enormous share of the money heading to America from the vast number of nations devastated by World War 2. It was an unprecedented time in human history for white men. If you were a white male business graduate or perhaps an Ivy student graduating in the late 1940s, the world was quite literally your oyster. There were limitless opportunities.

One of the most important factors, perhaps, was public subsidization of education. College degrees were useful, and dirt cheap. This is obviously not the case in 2015, where the proliferation of degrees has rendered them simultaneously essential (everyone has one!) but not particularly useful as a signifier of skills, knowledge or talent. Bloomberg states that college tuition and fees have risen 1120 percent since 1978. Incomes have, of course, not risen by the same percent.

Housing costs, too, are substantial, and have soared well past the inflation rate for decades. A new term has come up recently (the “sharing economy”) to describe the fact that ownership of assets is simply out of the reach of most millennials. This too is significant, because most middle-class family wealth is tied primarily to their home’s value. If you can’t afford a house, you can’t play the game.

So now, if you’re a privileged white guy graduating in 2015, you have a bit of a problem. It’s entirely possible that your father with an English degree (or maybe even a HS diploma) walked onto a job that paid enough for him to buy a house, two cars, and even invest a bit in the stock market. The situation waiting for you is not as rosy: college is very expensive, housing is often out of reach, and you even have to be careful which degrees you try to aim for. The factors that led to success in 1945, or 1965, or 1985, are just not the same as in 2015.

But you live in America. You’re privileged. You believe in the American Dream. Is the problem that you’re a screwup? Or did someone else–like a minority, or immigrants–take that dream away from you?

And so, with the proper conservative upbringing and just enough privilege to not realize that the American Dream is oversold, you get angry. What changed since those golden years in the past? Was it offshoring of manufacturing? Was it women entering the workplace in large numbers? Perhaps it was immigrants? Or maybe it was ethnic minorities finally achieving some measure of equality?

Here’s the thing. A lot of people, when faced with that sort of coming-of-age dilemma, will not turn violent. I didn’t. Most won’t–they’ll accept that the causes are complex and that they need to adjust. But some start looking for explanations in the wrong places.

I’m not saying that a conservative upbringing is going to lead you to white supremacist beliefs. But conservative beliefs are practically essential for the formation of white supremacist beliefs. It’s like the joke about Fox News – not racist, but #1 with racists.

Here’s the thing, too. As news comes out, it appears more and more likely that a lot of people knew about his incredibly racist beliefs as well as his plans to start shooting, but didn’t think this was remarkable enough to notify anyone.

The suspected gunman who massacred nine people inside a historic black South Carolina church Wednesday got a gun for his 21st birthday in April and bragged last week about his plans to “kill a bunch of people,” sources said.

How comfortable with poisonous beliefs do you have to be, to not report a suspected mass shooting of African-Americans? This wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t unavoidable. The shooter held some incredibly common beliefs, and took them one step further. 

Sure, he was raised to be a racist. He just did racist homework, on Rhodesia, and South Africa. He took his beliefs to their awful conclusion.

Maybe his family was just a little racist. Maybe they were ironically racist. Maybe they just loved the Stars and Bars. It doesn’t matter now, because he took those beliefs, ran with them, and now nine wonderful people are dead.