Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money.”     Alexis de Tocqueville

July 15, 2011

Cultural Tensions Between Conservatives and Progressives is a Feature Not a Bug

by Stephen Littau

Whether you consider yourself more of a conservative or a progressive (as defined below), have you ever stopped to think about what our culture would be like today if your side had ever “won” the culture war? Would this truly be a culture you would like to be part of?

Before I go any further, for the purpose of clarification I think it’s important to define some key terms namely “conservative” and “progressive” as I’m not using these terms necessarily in the political context that readers here and elsewhere are most familiar with (though in the political context, I find both these terms to be often quite ambiguous).

According to the World English Dictionary, the most appropriate definition for the purpose of this post for conservative is “favouring the preservation of established customs, values, etc, and opposing innovation.” The same dictionary’s definition for progressive is “favouring or promoting political or social reform through government action, or even revolution, to improve the lot of the majority: a progressive policy” (this definition is a little more off the mark IMO; progressives don’t necessarily have to use government via the political process to change the culture).

In thinking of my original question with these definitions in mind, I also find it instructive to learn about other cultures. Believe it or not, my inspiration for this post and raising this question came from watching a documentary series on TLC called “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.” My wife introduced me to the series just the other day. Because I knew next to nothing about Gypsies and being the curious person I am, I decided to watch several episodes with her that we had recorded on the DVR. This documentary series follows several British/Irish Gypsy families and interview the few trusted outsiders (the bridal dress makers in-particular) to give viewers a small glimpse into their culture.

What did I learn about English Gypsy culture? I learned that they are a very closed community; very resistant to allowing outsiders in. Girls are married off at a very young age in very extravagant weddings, many are engaged by the time they are fourteen (girls who marry at 20+ are considered old). Wedding receptions are especially important events for both single Gypsy boys and girls as this is where many find their mates. Teen and even preteen girls are scantily clad and dance provocatively (almost like stripper moves) to attract the boys who are encouraged to “grab” one of the girls for a kiss (i.e. often against her will). At first glance, watching the reception Gypsy culture seems quite hedonistic. But then I learned that Gypsies are actually quite strict on the question of sex. Cohabitation and/or premarital sex is an absolute taboo as to engage in either would bring shame to their families. Divorce is also a big no no and marrying non-Gypsies is rare and frowned upon (to put it mildly). Gypsy girls are usually taken out of school at a very young age to help care for younger siblings and therefore illiterate. Most have no dream of having a career or even a menial job outside the home as they are expected to be good housewives for their families (the woman’s place is in the home which is usually a camper trailer). According to the show, there is no notion of equality between men and women in Gypsy culture. These aspects of Gypsy culture isn’t likely to change anytime soon as many Gypsies fear that any change would further threaten their culture already in decline (according to the show, there are some 300,000 Gypsies in the UK).

In watching this, I couldn’t help but think of our own culture and then culture more generally. There’s nothing all that unique about gender roles in Gypsy culture, even as appalling as we might find them. This sort of male dominance is common throughout world history and has crossed nearly all cultures at one time or another. It wasn’t all that long ago when this was how our culture treated women. I doubt that all that many American conservatives would want to return to that time. Progressives challenged the notion that women should be second class citizens and I would argue that our culture has benefitted. Yet at the time, conservatives must have thought such change would doom our culture.

Even in the Gypsy culture, there are members of the community who rebel against the traditional values. In one series’ episodes, a woman who left and divorced her abusive husband was interviewed. She is not allowed to remarry. Because of the inequities inside the community, Gypsy men physically abuse their wives with little or no repercussions. In another episode, a young Gypsy man did the unthinkable: married a “country girl” (i.e. a woman who isn’t Gypsy). When asked why he would do such a thing he said that it was none of anyone’s business who he chose to marry.

Even as the culture wars rage on here and elsewhere, I think it’s important to see how far we have come. Just last century, not only were women treated as second class citizens but there was also Jim Crow, bans on interracial marriage, “sun down towns,” the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II, McCarthyism, and various other government policies that treated people differently who happened to be ethnic, political, and religious minorities.

When I hear a cultural conservative pine for a return to “simpler times” this is what comes to my mind. Yeah, times were simpler: the women, blacks, and other minorities knew their place and white males didn’t need to worry about competing with members of any of these groups. Times may have been simpler but certainly not better for these people.

On contemporary controversial issues like gay marriage, women soldiers serving in combat roles, immigration policy, conscription, trade, and the death penalty to name a few, in the face of well-reasoned arguments for change, those resistant to changing any of these policies offer the standby appeals to tradition. “This is the way it’s always been, its tradition!”

Having made my case that cultural change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, change isn’t necessarily a good thing either. Progressives play an important role in challenging tradition but sometimes the conservatives have valid reasons for preserving tradition. While conservatives at times resort to appeals to tradition progressives make fallacious appeals to novelty. Arguing that adopting a change because its new is no better an argument than arguing for the status quo because its old. Also, sometimes progressives try to change too much too soon without considering unintended consequences.

In a country of 300 million or so individuals, it’s difficult to imagine either the conservatives or the progressives having their way for very long – which is a very good thing. With every action there is a reaction. Consider the counterculture of the 1960’s. This counterculture challenged just about every long held traditional value and institution. This progressive movement tested the limits of free speech, civil rights, ignited the sexual revolution as well as the antiwar movement, feminist movement, gay rights movement, and environmental movement. But at some point, there was a strong reaction to what was viewed by some as the excesses of such libertine (not to be confused with libertarian) and hedonistic notions such as “free love” and drug experimentation.

Returning to my original question: Whether you consider yourself more of a conservative or a progressive, what would our culture would be like today if your side had ever “won” the culture war? Would this truly be a culture you would like to be part of?

Many people I know seem to have no problem telling others how they should live their lives, even going as far as urging their avatars in congress to write laws to employ government force if necessary to get their way. Most of these same people (often legitimately) feel like their rights are violated when it is they who are being encouraged, lectured, or forced to conform to the will of a majority. It’s this political “might makes right” mentality that makes politics way more important than it should be in an allegedly free country. If most or all of our elected and unelected public servants respected the rights of life, liberty, and property and took their oaths to defend the Constitution seriously, the individuals who happened occupy these offices would be of very little consequence.

But since we do not live in such a libertarian utopia, to answer my own question I would have to say that this conservative vs. progressive push and pull is a very healthy thing. I believe the counterculture of the 1960’s in some ways was very good in challenging the establishment and the social mores of the time. It was time for a shakeup. I also believe, however; that if the progressives of the time had gone unchallenged and reached the logical conclusions of their philosophy, our culture today would be almost as terrible as many of the conservatives critics claim.

Are there any conservatives reading this who would like to argue that America would be better off today if not for them damned long-haired dope smoking Hippies, feminists, civil rights protesters, antiwar agitators, and environmental wackos of the 1960’s and beyond? No sexual revolution. No rock n’ roll. Nothing that challenged the traditional values of this culture at all.

Are there any progressives reading this who would like to argue that America would be better off today without the stubborn, conservative, Bible thumpers, and guardians of the establishment who stood in the way of bringing all these novel ideas to fruition fundamentally changing everything? Are there not at least some aspects of our culture that you are glad the conservatives were successful in preserving?

As someone who frankly would like to be left alone and not be told or forced to live my life a certain way, I’m quite happy that I don’t live in either of these Americas. Cultures that are worth enduring will endure and those that are not will not. But participation in one culture or another should always be a matter of personal choice, not force.

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1 Comment

  1. “The usual terminology of political language is stupid. What is “left” and what is “right”? Why should Hitler be “right” and Stalin, his temporary friend, be “left”? Who is “reactionary” and who is “progressive”? Reaction against an unwise policy is not to be condemned. And progress towards chaos is not to be commended. Nothing should find acceptance just because it is new, radical, and fashionable. “Orthodoxy” is not an evil if the doctrine on which the “orthodox” stand is sound. Who is anti-labor, those who want to lower labor to the Russian level, or those who want for labor the capitalistic standard of the United States? Who is “nationalist,” those who want to bring their nation under the heel of the Nazis, or those who want to preserve its independence?

    What would have happened to Western civilization if its peoples had always shown such liking for the “new”? Suppose they had welcomed as “the wave of the future” Attila and his Huns, the creed of Mohammed, or the Tartars? They, too, were totalitarian and had military successes to their credit which made the weak hesitate and ready to capitulate. What mankind needs today is liberation from the rule of nonsensical slogans and a return to sound reasoning.” Ludwig von Mises

    I would also question the idea of a ‘libertarian utopia’ as I don’t believe there is such a thing. Especially not in a country of 300 million people. Your liberty is what you make of it and there is no guarantee of success. There is no utopia, period. I find that those that do argue in favor of a utopia of one sort of another are actually arguing for what makes them happy and forcing others along for the ride.

    Comment by tkc — July 15, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

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