"The human nervous system ceases to perceive phenomena that do not change."
In the waning days of this debate over health insurance reform -- a debate which may, it turns out, have been for naught -- I'm trying, as part of an internal misanthropic dialogue, to understand the philosophical underpinnings of modern conservatism. (Which, incidentally, is kind of like trying to answer the age-old question: "What the fuck?") Not because I have nothing better to do, but because I'm at the end of my rope when it comes to the eternal ping-pong-game-from-hell that is American politics.
The problem with such an inquiry, as you probably know, is that much of what registers as "conservatism" these days is hardly "philosophical" at all. (Indeed, the more pompous right-wing pundits would probably brand me an "elitist" for daring to use those words in tandem.)
Of course, in 2010, political labels in general are badly mangled approximations of understandable English. "Liberals" take their name from the Latin root that also gives us the word "liberty" -- and thus can at least point to an etymology that centers on the notion of "freedom." Sounds great, right? (Which reminds me: when was the last time I saw a liberal make this very straightforward, potentially useful point in the context of a Republican attack? Oh, yeah: never.)
And yet in current usage, liberals are typically accused of being freedom fuckers. See for instance the handy phrase "government takeover," recklessly tossed out like so much splenetic confetti over the last year. See too the long history of the word "socialism," used as a sloppy pejorative. See the Hitler references ad nauseum.
"Conservatives," on the other hand, get their label from a different Latin word, conservare, which means "to save" or "to preserve." And so while conservatives also claim to be interested in "freedom," that interest is trumped by a deep and extreme cautiousness toward (read: a paranoid resistance to) new things. (Or, more specifically, new things that are not also war.)
That may be overbroad, but it's surely how things have played out in the health insurance reform debate. Consider, for instance, this excerpt from a David Leonhardt piece in the NYT:
Together, the cost-control measures are serious enough that the Congressional Budget Office estimates they would save the government $1 trillion in the next 20 years, over and above the cost of covering the uninsured. Some experts remain doubtful of these projections. Others, though, think the budget office is underestimating the savings, as it has with past Medicare changes.
Someone like me looks at that paragraph and impatiently thinks: "Okay. The fiscal brilliance of this proposal is perhaps not guaranteed, but the odds that it is financially sound are pretty damned good. Also (and this is of paramount importance): the status quo is bloody horrible. Pass the damned bill!"
A conservative looks at that same paragraph and says: "Fuck you. I'm not interested in taking chances. I'm interested in guarantees. The status quo may not be perfect, but it is preferable, because at least it is certain."
Moral impatience/risk versus inertia/certainty. In a time of economic and political upheaval, which side do you think is going to win? (Well, that depends, of course. But on this side of the misery tipping point, which has enough built-in distractions to assuage the pain of "keeping on," you can bet that inertia will win.)
What is so exasperating about all of this is that few people are even framing the issue that honestly. I can't tell you how many conservative friends have in recent weeks insisted to me that they are "for reform" -- even though Republicans have never truly tried to own health care as an issue. Instead of coming clean that this is a debate between adventurousness and sticking with the familiar, we have had a year's worth of truly nonsensical discourse. And that, it turns out, is what may actually seal the deal.
"Adventurousness," eh? I know, I know. The analogy to starting and running a big band (or indeed, doing anything artistic in modern America) is not lost on me.
Actually, the analogy to culture in general is not lost on me. Every day I have to grapple with the fact that some significant percentage of human beings prefer the musically familiar over the musically unknown. On some level, I can't necessarily blame them: I have to acknowledge that the risk of exploring new music doesn't always pay off, and can even be costly.
At the same time, of course, I have staked my career on the idea that to studiously avoid that kind of risk is to deny at least a little part of your soul.
Turns out it may deny you a functioning country, too.