The Muse, She Calls at Night

Depending on whom you ask, the severity of what it means to have writer’s block ranges from a minor annoyance to an anxiety inducing migraine.  Everyone experiences a bit of writer’s block now and again.  Often it takes the form of not knowing how to verbalize going from Point A to Point P in a prose; or, at least, not knowing how to write it seamlessly enough that it would count as decent writing.  In these cases, it can be something as simple as the ideal word or phrase that turns it all around to unclog the ol’ writer’s pipelines.  Other times, just the act of persistent writing (followed by heavy editing)  is enough to help get the creative juices flowing back onto the page.

As is to be expected, the people who feel the most emotionally committed to what they are trying to write tend to feel the most distraught when their creativity is experiencing a slowdown, or has reached a complete halt altogether.  If you find yourself in a situation like this, then you are fortunate enough that there is plenty of advice out there for you.  Reading more (both related and unrelated works) to inspire your own writing, is one of them.  As is the aforementioned idea to persevere through the block through sheer willpower and keep typing away until something halfway decent starts manifesting itself.  Exercise, eating a well-balanced meal, and getting enough sleep are probably somewhere on the list, too.  Someone once told me that it’s also worthwhile to try stepping away from one’s writing entirely to cure writer’s block.  Although I’m sure this might work for some, I’ve also seen it have the opposite effect of causing writer’s to lose the motivation to go back to an unfinished work the more time they spend away from it.

In this sea of helpful remedies to cure writer’s block, I would like to take a moment to share what helps me personally ward off this dreaded ailment.  It’s more of a writing guideline–or routine–I have found to be the most conducive to getting me where I need to be when confronted with the heavy hurdle of staring at a blank page.   And it can be plainly stated as:

Write at night, and edit by day. 

For me, there’s just something about writing in those last few hours before bedtime that gets my creativity firing at its full capacity.  Maybe it’s the fatigue of the day, where my mind had already spent several hours going through a few rough drafts long before I ever started to write a word down.  Or perhaps it’s a combination of the still of the night, and the dreamlike state of slumber already taking a hold of my senses to steer my imagination where it needs to go.  I don’t really know what it is, but for me the writing muse comes at night.

Now, I also added the bit about editing by day, which shouldn’t be ignored.  While I might feel most inspired to write at night, I’m also more prone to make avoidable grammatical errors when I’m already drifting off to sleep.  This is why, after I hit save and turn in for the night, I’ll spend the next day (or two) going through what I had written to fix any spelling mistakes, cluttered diction, or to revise anything that might have looked decent when first written, but in the light of day reads like it’s been overworked, or is off in some other way.

Is this an obsessive compulsive routine that needs to be followed to the letter for me to be able to write anything?  Of course not!  Plenty of things get written and edited by day, too, within a few short hours, with no creative hindrance whatsoever.  Just like there are nights when the muse decides to turn in early and doesn’t bother to come at all for one project, and barely manages to phone it in for another.  However, outliers shouldn’t be used to negate a general trend.

I will freely admit, though, that I have always been somewhat of a night owl, laced with infrequent bouts of insomnia.  Hence, it’s possible that I just happen to be the personality type for whom a habit of nightly writing comes the easiest, and you might not be.  But, if you are struggling with writer’s block, and none of the other remedies have offered you much relief in the matter, do feel welcome to try my personal guideline out for yourself.  Take the last two hours or so before your normal bedtime (no need to force wakefulness past your usual comfort level), and see if it helps unclog that cerebral blockage.  Just be prepared to possibly have to edit and revise a few things the next day, like a motherfucker!

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Treatise on Blasphemy

Recently the Republic of Ireland held a referendum to repeal longstanding blasphemy offenses in its country.  While blasphemy still stands as a finable offense in the Republic under the 2009 Defamation Act, the referendum is still a demonstration that, as far as the Irish people are concerned, charges of blasphemy ought not to be a part of punishable civil law in their nation.

Friends of my adopted homeland here in the United States usually have a conception of Western Europe as being made up of a set of predominantly secular and progressive cultures.  And speaking as someone who spent many years growing up in Western Europe, this conception isn’t wholly unfounded.  As a result, it might astound many Americans to hear that some of these secular, progressive, ultra-liberal, borderline lefty countries still have enforceable blasphemy laws in place.  Granted, the actual enforceability of such laws is largely theoretical in nature, given that they are usually undermined by far more salient laws allowing for the freedom of religious expression and the freedom to believe in accordance to one’s personal conscience.  Thus, blasphemy laws currently exist as a vestigial organ in European law books; without practical purpose or application, but still present nonetheless.

“If these laws are unworkable, than why even bother to fret about them with referendums at all?  Why not just continue to ignore them, and get on with your blaspheming ways?”

This could be a reasonable response, but it misses an important point concerning blasphemy laws.  Putting aside the fact that it makes perfect sense to oppose the criminality of blasphemy on principle alone as unbecoming of any modern democratic nation, there is also the issue of the frailty on which the laxity of these laws currently exist.  To put it more plainly, the reason blasphemy charges are unworkable in most of the European nations that have them is precisely because the current sociopolitical climate is too secular and progressive to enforce them.  However, as any student of history knows, sociopolitical climates are anything but static.  So what happens if the political pendulum swings too far to the right, towards a political faction that views the protection of religious sensibilities as far more important to a nation’s cultural well-being, than the free expression of its citizenry?  Suddenly, these outdated blasphemy laws that have had no real thrust in civil law for almost two centuries, become a very powerful weapon in the hands of reactionaries all too eager to use the existing rule of law to conform society to their line of quasi-pious thinking.  And this is a potential threat both believers and unbelievers alike ought to be concerned about.

Blasphemy isn’t simply the act of professing one’s disbelieve in religious claims, whole cloth.  Blasphemy is the very nature in which all religions profess the very doctrines that make up their faiths.

Whenever polytheistic faiths, like certain sects of Hinduism, profess the existence of multiple gods, they are blaspheming against monotheistic religions which insist that there is only one god, and none other (and vice versa).  Within the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, when Christians profess that Jesus Christ is the foretold messiah, they are blasphemy against the Jewish faiths that claim that the messiah is yet to come (and vice versa).  When Muslims claim that Jesus, though a prophet and a messiah, is not the son of God, they are blaspheming against a central claim of Christianity.  The Catholic Church’s stance on the supremacy of the Roman papacy is blasphemous to the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Protestant rejection of Catholic ecclesiastical authority is blasphemous to Catholics.  The Methodists are blasphemers to the Calvinists, and just about every Christian sect considers Mormonism a heresy.

The obvious point here is that to take away the right to blaspheme is to make it impossible for religious pluralism to exist within a society.  Perhaps this is fine as long as your religious opinion is the dominant one in the society you inhabit, but what happens if you find yourself just short of the majority opinion?  What if a population shift occurs, and the very laws that enforced the thin-skinned sensibilities of your religious persuasion becomes the means why which the new dominant line of thought undermines your right to religious expression?

I could stop writing now, and end on this appeal for mutual cordiality between people of all faiths, and how it is in everyone’s self-interest to oppose blasphemy laws, but I fear it would leave things very much against the spirit of healthy discomfort that blasphemy really should elicit in a person when coming across it.  On that note, allow me address the elephant in the room that needs to be brought up when concerns regarding religious offense of any sort, in law or public discourse, rears its head.

Undeniably, religions make bold claims for themselves.  Claims that offer definitive answers on matters concerning life, death, morality, with a wager on possessing a monopoly on Truth with a capital T.  And they are always keen to wrap this all-knowing, all-encompassing bit of absolutist wisdom in a garb of self-proclaimed humility, as if to say, “No, no, don’t mind me…I’m simply professing to know the answers to all of life’s mysteries, ready made with the consequences (read: threat) that will befall you if you don’t follow along with my modest creed.”

In short, religions by their inherit design simply claim to know things they couldn’t possibly know.  But I, in turn, admit that I don’t know.  I don’t know what the answers to life’s mysteries are; nor do I know which of today’s mysteries will remain mysterious forever, and which might become common knowledge for subsequent generations to come.  I don’t know which moral answers yield the most objective good for humanity; nor can I say for sure that such answers are even completely knowable.  The truths I do know come with a lowercase t, held provisionally in accordance to forthcoming evidence and reasoned arguments, and I don’t know if I can do anything other than to reject the grammar of bolder Truth claims when confronted with them.

It is precisely that I don’t know that I am left with little recourse than to examine, question, dismiss, disbelieve, and (when I see fit) deride those who do claim to know, but offer hardly a dearth of evidence for their claim.  It took centuries of debate and bloodshed of previous generations of thinkers for any of us to be able to enjoy this simple — yet powerful — privilege to skepticism.  A privilege I do hold up as my right, and which I will speak up for without hesitation or apology.  What you call blasphemy, I call critical thought.  And if anyone can appeal to traditions as a means to protect religious sensibilities by legal means, I am fully within my right to appeal to the tradition of cultural and intellectual pushback towards religious doctrines and religious authorities that has made it possible for any sort of interfaith (and non-faith) social cohesion to exist in the modern world.  A tradition that includes both the right to the profane and the blasphemous, which cannot be allowed to be abridged in a democratic republic, for as long as one wishes to be part of any nation worthy of the claim.

Steelmanning: Argumentation for Lazy Intellectuals

I’ve heard it said that the hallmark of argumentation is being able to summarize an opposing viewpoint in a way that the person holding this view would agree with your summary of their position; thereby ensuring that you not only understand the viewpoint you are arguing against, but are also tackling the most robust interpretation of the opposing side.

This principle of charity in arguing has been around debating circles for a long time, but has in the last few years gained traction under the neologism of steelmanning (an obvious negation of its logical antonym of straw-manning, where one argues disingenuously against a position that an opponent never presented, and does not hold).  And on the face of it, this seems like a great development I can entirely get behind.  Who would come out and seriously propose that one should not have a clear understanding of an opposing argument, let alone that one shouldn’t argue against an honest representation of said opposition?  This is simply a case where, in principle (even if not in practice), the majority of reasonable people will be of one mind.

That’s all great so far.  However (don’t look shocked, you knew this was coming when you read the title of the post), while it’s not hard to steelman the argument in favor of steelmanning, the way in which the concept has been thrown around lately leaves much to be desired for me personally.  Whereas it’s meant to stand as an honorable demonstration of mutual respect between intellectual opponents, it’s also taken on the form among some very, very lazy thinkers (who, nonetheless, fancy themselves as stalwart intellects) where they demand for others to strengthen their arguments for them, in ways they never did, and never could have done to begin with.

As a point of principle, if I’m feeling inclined to engage in an argument with others, I will argue against what they say.  Not what I think they should say to make their side more compelling.  Not even what I would say, were I to hypothetical be forced to switch to their side on gunpoint.  But, strictly, what the arguments are that they give to me to support the viewpoints they deem worthy to state aloud for public criticism and/or derision [no, despite what some people say, mockery does not immediately make one guilty of having committed an ad hominem, as long as the mocking follows a salient line of counterarguments; though weak debaters are usually prone to focus in on any well-placed jabs made against them as a clever means to deflect from the fact that they’ve run out of things to say to support their position.]

So when I come out and say…oh, I don’t know…promoting the concept of a white ethnostate is racist and fascistic, and I in turn get emails lecturing me about how I haven’t dealt with the most robust arguments in favor of the alt-right’s ethnostate position, I’m going to call bullshit on claims of my supposed failure to steelman such a clearly racist and fascistic position, because I didn’t pamper it first with a string of dishonest white nationalist euphemisms used to conceal a proposition invoking outright ethnic cleansing.

The fact that I can follow an argument from its premises to its unpalatable logical conclusion–whether or not its proponents have the reasoning capabilities or the guts to follow the same thread of their own argument–does not require me to waste my time to think of ways to make these kind of arguments more pleasant for mass consumption before I attempt to refute them (personally, I find it far more honest to deal with things in their unfiltered form).  Nor am I required to do other people’s intellectual legwork for them, and bend over backwards to make their arguments stronger than they could ever hope to do on their own, so they can feel like they are being given a fair hearing in “the marketplace of ideas” (TM), where apparently every half-baked idea should be allowed to be spouted free of consequences.

Instead, I’d ask the question that if you keep finding yourself in a position in which you have to call on people to give your arguments the most charitable interpretations, you should: 1. Consider the possibility that you are a lousy communicator on behalf of the positions you are looking to promote, and 2. Give some thought to the notion that it’s not really the case that people are misinterpreting your views as absurd, horrendous, or laughable, but that your views actually are exactly that.

If you feel the need to argue a point, go argue it.  If you want to have controversial conversations, then have them.  But if you’re going to spent as much time whining afterwards about how everyone’s just so mean and unfair to you because they won’t paint every inane thing you say in the best possible light–or take every opportunity to fellate your ego about how brave you are to say dumb shit people will take offense to–save us all the trouble (and the bandwidth) and keep your poorly constructed arguments to yourself.

Forcing the Narrative

So you’ve decided to write a story.  Before you begin, you put together a pretty coherent outline.  You have your protagonists and antagonists all clearly panned out.  You might not know exactly how long it will be, or all the minor details that will pull the whole plot together, but if there’s one thing you do know it’s exactly how the major parts of this story will progress from beginning, to climax, to finish.  There’s just one itsy-bitsy problem–your characters aren’t behaving like they should.

It’s hard to pinpoint what it is, really.  The dialogue is crisp and clean; without too many overly excessive and cumbersome adjectives repetitively cluttering up the prose.  All the different personalities are well laid out, and totally not cliche or one-dimensional.  There’s a deep subtext noticeable throughout the work, though not of the rambling variant [yeah, suck on that, David Foster Wallace].  But there’s something that just is not working, and it’s driving you crazy trying to figure out why your narrative is not behaving as it should–as you have so clearly planned it out from beginning, to middle, to end.

What the hell is going on?!

Well, you’re in luck, because I may just have the solution to your problem.  The problem probably isn’t that the story you’ve set out to write is unmanageable, or that the characters you’re eager to create aren’t as capable of being the greatest heroes and villains in fiction as you’ve imagined them to be.  More than likely, the problem is you.  By which I mean, the problem is that rather than letting your story unfold, and your characters respond and adapt to their surroundings, you have allowed yourself to get stuck in one of the easiest pitfalls for an author to find her or himself in: you have forced the narrative.

Forcing the narrative can happen in many different ways, but the most common occurs when authors stubbornly refuse to follow the natural progression of the story they have set out to create, for no other reason than that doing so may deviate from the original blueprint they have arbitrarily committed themselves to in their minds.  And, of course, stagnant character progression is often the first victim to suffer as a result of this stubbornness.

Say, for example, that you’re writing a story that has two characters that you know you intent to have fall in love halfway through the plot.  You introduce them separately to the reader, so each can have distinct personalities that your potential audience will relate to.  They spent all these pages developing identities that are unique and self-sustaining (as they very well should be), but the moment you finally have them interact with each other–the moment the entirety of your whole plot hitherto was supposed to be leading up to–and…there’s nothing.

Where you thought the dialogue would flow smoothly between these two people you crafted to be perfect for one another, all their exchanges instead sound too contrived to be authentic.  You can force them to say all the things you think are necessary to convey the message that they are love-bound soulmates, but every time you do just that everything that comes out of their mouths starts to read like a rejected script for a corny made-for-TV movie of the week.

So what gives?  Are you such a lousy writer you can’t even get a genuine romance plot right?  Maybe…or maybe you’re working to hard to wedge a square peg trope into a heart-shaped prose.  By which I mean, maybe the characters that seemed perfect for each other before you put pen to paper…err…I mean, fingertip to keyboard?… whatever, the point I’m making is that a plot idea can seem perfect before you set out to write it, but once you get going it can become downright impossible to stay true to said idea without sacrificing the integrity of the narrative you have created up to that point.

As already mentioned, this dilemma can show itself in the most basic of details.  Including the very issue of whose story it’s going to be.  You might have a main character in mind from the start, but the more time you spend with him the more you start feeling like writing intriguing dialogue for him is a strenuous task taking up way too much of your creative concentration than it should.  Perhaps you even find yourself preferring to spend time with secondary characters that have taken on more interesting lives compared to your once-great-now-bland protagonist.

“Well, what’s to be done in this case?”  Good question, hypothetical reader!  When you are in the thick of this frustrating bit of a writer’s conundrum, it’s easy to miss the simplest of solutions staring back right in your sleep-deprived, bloodshot eyes.  That is to say:  Screw your preliminary outline.  Tear up your rough draft notes (it’s called a rough draft for a reason, after all).  Go with what your instincts tell you as a reader first, and ignore the self-righteous indignation of your inner-writer unwilling to deviate from an unworkable premise.

Are two characters not hitting it off as well as you thought they would?  Fine, try having them hate each other instead.  Or even try pairing them up with side characters that showed more prospect in the plot, and see where that goes.  Is your main character too wooden to lead the story the way you hoped?  Then why not sideline him, and shift the perspective onto a different character whose personality and dialogue carries your narrative forward with so much more ease than you ever thought possible?

All these options are readily available to you, because, no matter what, it is your world–it can only exist as you wish it to.  But you need to trust your instincts, not just as a writer, but also as a reader on what makes for compelling storytelling.  And you are allowed to change your mind about the details of the happenings in your fictional world, if these changes help bring about the greater narrative you set out to breathe life into.  Treat the initial bits of ideas that inspired you to start on your journey as just that–a cursory launching point to something better.  Nothing you write down–be it at the beginning, the middle, or the end–is sacred scripture.  It is not absolute, or inadaptable to subsequent burst of creativity that may strike you once you have already begun to feverishly churn out the bulk of your prose.

It’s important to be aware that if something doesn’t feel right about your story to you as you are barely writing it, it will definitely not seem right to your readers as they are reading it.  Even if they might not know how to articulate what’s so off-putting about it when they notice a belabored prose, the audience can definitely sense when something isn’t working as well as it could be.  And forcing a narrative, in an otherwise great story, is a perfect way to ensure that it won’t be working for anyone; neither you, nor your characters–but, above all else, not the reading public.

Conscience Revisited: Barry Goldwater and the History of the Conservative Movement in U.S. Politics

Considering how prominent of a role conservative politics has played in the closing decades of the 20th Century, and still plays in these two initial decades of the 21st Century, it would probably be strange for many contemporary observers to hear that the emergence of conservatism—as a distinct political identity—is a relatively recent phenomenon within greater American thought.

Partisan politics has been a mainstay in the American political scene since even before the contentious presidential election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (and Aaron Burr).  Nonetheless, the ideological quarrels that surround the now-common left-wing/right-wing divide between the Democrats and Republicans were not so clearly defined throughout most of American history.  Originally, the differences that existed between the two leading parties usually rested more on regional, than national platforms.

In the first half of the 20th Century, an individual Democratic policymaker could be either conservative or liberal, depending on the demographic of his constituency; the same went for individual Republican policymakers.  To really understand the significant of the shift between party politics now and then, consider the fact that the American South was once largely Democratic, yet still conservative on social issues; likewise, the American North was largely Republican, yet still liberal on social issues (at least, in comparison to the South).  Obviously, it would be misleading to say that the two parties have simply switched and traded their platforms over the course of the last century.  The truth is that, even then, a noticeable fraction of the Democrats tilted liberal, and a noticeable fraction of the Republicans tilted conservative.  The real difference between the party politics today and then, is that on the national scene both major parties used to be dominated by political moderates; thereby, allowing for more variation in thought within the outlying margins of the party line on specific issues, while the main interests for both the Democratic and Republican parties remained on average centrist (with a handful of notable exceptions, of course).

When it came to conservative politics in the early-to-mid 20th Century, the underlying fact is (although there certainly existed conservative ideas, issues, and proponents) there still was no organized conservative identity among leading policymakers, or the average voter.  Moreover, due to the economic stability that followed the Second World War, public opinions on issues like taxation and the welfare state tended to be (what would now be called) left-of-center, with little overt suspicion being directed at the efficiency of the federal government to play a leading role in the socioeconomic sphere.  And the outward demeanor of both the Democratic and Republican parties reflected this general sentiment in the political realm.

As far as mainstream American culture was affected, there were no prominent, self-identified conservative voices, no talk of the inefficiency of big government regulators, and no serious calls for the transfer of federal power to smaller state authorities.  Strange as it sounds to present-day ears this was very much the reality of American politics circa 1960.  And might very well have remained the reality to this day, if Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater had not seen fit to make his views heard; views he was sure would resonate with Americans and change the course of US politics thereafter.  Although largely forgotten outside of political circles today, Barry Goldwater was the cementing force that built the backbone of a developing conservative movement that began in 1960 with his publication of Conscience of a Conservative, tested the waters with his failed 1964 bid for president, and came full circle with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 Presidential victory.

Building the Foundation for the Conservative Movement

Although post-World War II American culture was largely characterized by conservative social mores, throughout the 1940s and 1950s there existed no united or organized political movement that placed conservative interests as its guiding ideology.  That’s not to say there were no conservative voices in the era.  William F. Buckley, Jr. launched the bi-weekly right-wing magazine National Review in 1955, proclaiming in his missions statement, “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”[1]  And in 1957, Russell Kirk sought “to pursue a conservative policy for the sake of a liberal understanding”[2] with his Modern Age journal.  But even these were de facto reactive outliers attempting to counter the dominance of moderate (and, arguably, progressive) attitudes of the time.  Certainly, as far as a political presence is concerned, the conservative right’s influence was downright nonexistent on the national scene.

The 1950s were heavily marked by bipartisan cooperation under the leadership of President Dwight Eisenhower; where moderates from both the Democratic and Republican front worked to create an exceptional time of tranquility and political peace.[3]  It was a time of prosperity; where the calls of a disgruntled minority of individuals warning of social and economic doom were easily rebuked as delusional by the comfortable reality enjoyed by more middle-class , white Americans than ever before.  It was in this atmosphere of consumerism and comfort that Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater proclaimed the need to counter the rise of the welfare state and the economic collectivist practices of the federal government, and bring about a drastic change in the structured view of the human being and of society; or, in his words, “to put things in their proper place.”[4]

Goldwater begins his 1960 book, Conscience of a Conservative, by declaring his concern that conservatives are far too apologetic about their political convictions.[5]  He quotes Eisenhower’s stance of being, “conservative when it comes to economic problems but liberal when it comes to human problems,”[6] as evidence that conservatives are not properly represented in American politics by either of the two dominant parties.  This was a grim reality in Goldwater’s view because it was the conservatives who take account of the whole man (though he never really elaborate on this point in much detail), while the liberals tend to look only at the material side of man’s nature.[7]

Speaking in a time where there were more than enough material goods to go around (still talking primarily about the white, middle-class here), many Americans would have disagreed with Goldwater, arguing that the Government was doing more than enough to provide for its citizens whole being and needs.[8]  After all, 1960 was the dawning of the New Frontier, a symbolic rise (even if arguably a superficial one) for the liberal agenda, seeking to expand the ideals of the New Deal, organizing and regulating the socioeconomic aspects of American policy under the function of the federal government.  This was precisely the problem, Goldwater argued, “Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his development,”[9] not the government, which represents power in the hands of some men to control and regulate the lives of other men.[10]  For was it the other way around, Goldwater would argue, the outcome always results in a large national authority out of touch with the people, and removed from their control.

Goldwater cites as evidence the fact that the government takes six percent of most payrolls in Social Security taxes, “thus compelling millions of individuals to postpone until later years the enjoyment of wealth they might otherwise enjoy today.”[11]  Of course, the fact that so many people in the post-War decades were enjoying great wealth seemed to counter Goldwater’s position.  If there was ever a time to preach of a shortage in prosperity, to most observers, 1960 was not it (as Goldwater would later learn in his failed 1964 run for President).  Nonetheless, Goldwater saw his appeal as a return to the ideals of limited government, which he considered to be the core principle of the Constitution.  He saw himself as standing up for the laborer, whose earning potential is being jeopardized for the sake of a collectivist agenda, which he considered tantamount to socialism,[12] and inexcusable in the broader Cold War struggle against the Soviet Menace.[13]

But the fault for the abandonment of conservative values does not lie solely with the federal government.  Goldwater had no apprehension about declaring that we, too, share the burden of responsibility:

All too often we have put men in office who have suggested spending a little more on this, a little more than that, who have proposed a new welfare program, who have thought of another variety of security.  We have taken the bait, preferring to put off to another day the recapture of freedom and the restoration of our constitutional system.  We have gone the way of many a democratic society that lost its freedom by persuading itself that if the people rule, all is well.[14]

Goldwater’s overall message in Conscience of a Conservative is that the system is broken, we are contributing to it, and it’s time we reverse the trend for the sake of preserving our core political and ethical values.  In an era remembered for experiencing the zenith of liberal progression, and dominance of political moderates, Goldwater’s rallying cry for conservatism appeared far more radical by comparison.  His uncompromising stance that America is lacking something in the face of unparalleled abundance, served to alienate him from the electorate and moderate Republican base, yet planted the seed in the minds of a still infant right-wing movement that would champion his points in the decades to come.

Impact of the 1964 Election on Mobilizing the Conservative Base

In 1964, four years after publishing Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater would be trumpeted by a grassroots movement of conservatives, eager to oust out moderate influences from the Republican Party, and put one of their own in the White House.  The reaction to Goldwater’s rallying cry was a rise in independently (usually suburban) organized conservative groups, reflected in how the number of right-wing groups more than doubled from 1957-1965.[15]  Goldwater had struck a chord with a potentially large electorate, who saw him as “a symbol of the ambitious and growing power of the newly mobilized Right”[16], for whom he affectionately came to be known as “Mr. Conservative.”

Quite early on in the presidential primaries, both the National Review and Modern Age voiced heavily in favor of seeing Goldwater make a bid for the Presidency, and on February 16, 1963, a body of 55 conservatives organized the Draft Goldwater Committee.[17]  Thus, on September 16, 1964, Barry Goldwater stood at the stage of the Republican National Convention, as the Party’s Presidential Candidate, declaring, “The Good Lord raised this mighty Republic to be a home for the brave, and to flourish as the land of the free.  Not to stagnate in the swampland of collectivism, not to cringe before the bullying of communism,”[18] to the ovation of an enthusiastic group of conservative supporters.

The run-up to his nomination was a direct confrontation between the moderate wing of the Republican Party and the growing right-wing movement, emboldened through Goldwater’s conservative message.  Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal Republican governor of New York, was the primary candidate (next to Goldwater) who stood to gain the Republican Party’s nomination in 1964.  Rockefeller had criticized Goldwater in the past for being a captive of the radical-right, dependent only on rhetoric, and without any clear positions (claiming, among other things, that he did not know whether Goldwater was a segregationist or not).[19]  Goldwater, on the other hand, made it a rule to not respond in similar fashion to the attacks levied against him by Rockefeller, and maintained that their disagreements (and the general disagreements between the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party) lie strictly in their views towards the welfare state, “when [Rockefeller and I] argue, it’s in the relatively small…but…important fields.”[20]  Here, Goldwater’s tactic was docile, but calculative, in that he understood the need for a unified Republican Party to exist in order to secure a victory over the still strong Democratic base.

Nonetheless, the possibility of a Rockefeller victory did much to rally conservatives in the early 1960s, who foresaw a Rockefeller nomination as a return to Eisenhower bi-partisanship.[21]  Despite his appeal for party harmony, Goldwater must have been aware that his promotion as the voice of American conservatism more-or-less secured him a place in the 1964 election; thus, he could afford to play the role of the polite and loyal Republican, while urging for a reformation of the Party from within: “I realize that in the country there are people who accept me suspiciously; and some not at all.  Now, why is this true?  And I think this is important, not because it’s Barry Goldwater, but because I’m conservative and not ashamed to talk about it.”[22]

  • The Influence of Changing Demographic Trends

Goldwater’s campaign heavily restated the position he had made in Conscience of a Conservative.  His demand for Freedom for Labor,[23] where employers could operate without government interference did much to bring in support from self-employed businessmen and farmers, who were struggling to operate financially under extensive government regulations.  He also voiced his discontent about America’s involvement in distributing foreign aid, “Today your tax money is being used by the politicians in Washington to subsidized foreign aid—which in turn is robbing American workers of their livelihood.”[24]

Besides the humble conservative suburban family and simple employer who might have resented the lack of social values and welfare taxes respectively, Goldwater also had an appeal to the growing evangelist movement.  This was partly due to his stance that man’s spiritual self needs to be restored,[25] but even more so because of his hard-line, uncompromising take on eradicating the Soviet Union, which “among religious conservatives—who saw the Soviet Union as the ‘Anti-Christ’—this stance was the only form of principled anticommunism they would accept.”[26]  In contrast to his Republican counterpart, Nelson Rockefeller, Goldwater was truly seen as the first candidates of his kind; unmoving and unashamed to denounce all forms of government programs and assistance, and demand a revitalization of individual responsibility.  As one supporter put it, “It is time we have a fine candidate for president from the west for a change and not permit a few Republicans in the east to keep control of our party.”[27]

Another surprising outcome that was seen in the 1964 election was the start of a political shift in the South, which had since the time of Franklin Roosevelt been a Democratic stronghold.  The shift was partly caused by the migration of suburban Whites into the sunbelt, but more relatively it was a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement—and the liberal support of it—which had engendered bitterness in the South, and garnered growing support for Goldwater who had voted against the Civil Rights Act[28] (not so much on account of possessing any personal racist sentiments, but because he favored the state’s right to implement reform rather than the federal government).  Although, the South remained Democratic for the 1964 election, the Goldwater campaign had chiseled a crack in the region, and set the stage to where the GOP could compete and eventually overtake the electorate beneath the Mason-Dixon Line.

1964:  Harnessing Victory Out From a Loss

Goldwater’s opponent in the Presidential election, incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson, for his part was determined to crush the other side with a decisive victory.  Having assumed office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson felt himself in need to demonstrate his ability to actually win the Presidency through the electorate rather than a default clause.  This he did; ultimately winning 61.05% of the popular vote and 90.3% of the electoral vote[29]. By any view of the margin, it was a landslide victory for Johnson, symbolizing that in 1964 the majority of Americans were indeed satisfied with the policies of the government, as well as the national programs being implemented by the moderate-to-left policymakers of both parties.

Despite the spectacular failure of the Goldwater campaign, all was not grim for the newly emerging conservative movement, which was experiencing its first true attempt at organization.  It had managed to get one of its own in the front lines of battle, against the will of a predominantly moderate wing of the Republican Party, and without possessing any true political clout yet.  Whereas a mere four years ago it possessed virtually no representation in Washington, the conservatives were now in a position to challenge the moderates within their own Party—and actually get their way.  Gleefully boasting Goldwater’s famous soundbite as their slogan: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!…Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”[30]

The Decline of Liberalism and the Economic Woes of the 1970s

After 1966, Johnson’s Great Society was well on its way to the furnace, as the once dominant liberal factions began to fracture over domestic and foreign issues, allowing the rising conservative movement to steadfastly advance to political prominence.  Johnson himself was largely to blame for the decline of liberalism, as his push for war in Vietnam lagged on throughout the 1960s, and his refusal to raise taxes to support his extensive governmental programs destroyed the edge the Democrats had held since the 1960 election.[31]  Whereas in 1964 the election reflected the notion that the American people still had a substantial amount of faith in the government’s policies, the closing of the decade brought about a different picture; illustrated by protests, race riots, and growing distrust for Washington’s competence, as inflation rose and devastated the economy.[32]  The age of affluence, enjoyed by the baby boomer generation since the end of the Second World War, was dead and gone.

  • The Final Days of the Moderate Republicans

What followed in the 1970s was the once underrepresented conservative movement becoming an unrecognizable juggernaut of its former self, as it displaced the moderate factions of the GOP, and filled the void left by the decline of liberalism; drawing more and more appeal from an American public that was steadily becoming disenchanted with the promises of Johnson’s Great Society.  The final push needed to get Goldwater’s conservative movement going came from the actions of Richard Nixon, arguably the last elected moderate Republican to hold the Presidency.  Nixon capitalized on the bifurcation of once loyal Democratic factions to build a political coalition around elements of disaffected Democrats.[33]  Nixon’s strategy was to mobilize working class whites into a hopeful Republican majority, but many of his foreign policy undertakings, such as his détente position with the Soviet Union and his visit to communist China in 1972, caused conservatives to grow dissatisfied with his take on Republicanism right from the start of the 1970s.[34]

After Nixon’s resignation matters did not improve between the feuding factions of the Republican Party, as his successor Gerald Ford dealt the final blow to the moderates of the Republican Party when he nominated Nelson Rockefeller—Barry Goldwater’s liberal 1964 rival for the Party’s nomination—to be his vice-president.  The decision created uproar among conservatives who sought any and every means at their disposal to stop the Rockefeller nomination.  Still weary from the Nixon resignation, moderate Republicans had no strength to fight another battle, feeling themselves more and more outnumbered and subdued by their more conservative counterparts.[35]  What resulted was the formation of a New Right:

The New Right is not merely an election coalition concerned with winning elections and roll calls; it is the political expression of a relatively new social movement that regards itself as a depository of American values and as the exploited victim of an alliance between an entrenched elite and a ravenous proletariat.[36]

Whereas political moderation and liberalism had been the mainstay for the initial decades following the Second World War, in the mid-1970s, amid wide-scale inflation, economic downturns, and growing government security, a shift occurred within the white middle-class sector of American society, eager to dissolve the old liberal elites (which, in their opinion, had been floundering money on welfare programs) and replace it with its own sociopolitical interests; it was suburban radicalism.

Nevertheless, in 1973 the widely held believe was that Nixon’s resignation would seal the fate for the Republican Party,[37] and the 1976 presidential election victory for Democrat Jimmy Carter certainly seemed to indicate a setback for the GOP.  In reality, 1976 was the shining year for the conservative movement, as it brought to prominence the leading figure it had been waiting for since Barry Goldwater:  Ronald Reagan.

Reagan had been a strong supporter of Goldwater’s 1964 election campaign, and two years later had made his own entry into politics by becoming Governor of California, in 1966.  He had spent the great bulk of the 1970s criticizing Nixon’s détente strategy,[38] and convinced of Ford’s disastrous economic policies (which consisted of having employees wear WIN, “Whip Inflation Now”, buttons that, unsurprisingly, did not do much to end inflation),[39] he challenged the incumbent for the ’76 GOP nomination:

This collectivist, centralized approach, whatever name or party label it wears, has created our economic problems.  By taxing and consuming an ever-greater share of the national wealth, it has imposed an intolerable burden of taxation of American citizens.  By spending above and beyond even this level of taxation, it has created the horrendous inflation of the past decade.[40]

It was a statement of bold uncompromising leadership, of the Goldwater variant, but more so than that it was an answer.  Whether it was a good answer or merely vague oratory was trivial to the people who identified with it, as it was more than what Americans had been getting for nearly a decade.

Unfortunately for Reagan, after making several headways in the primaries his campaign ran into a roadblock as it became short of money and short of the spark necessary to challenge a sitting president.[41]  But, just as in 1964, the seed was planted.  Unlike then, this time around conservatives were not starting from nil, but had overtaken several key political positions, created enough think tanks, employed grassroots issues to great effect, raised money, and capitalized on internal fracturing of the liberal coalition,[42] that when it came time for the 1980 election they were ready for victory.  Carter, for his part, would be plagued with problems all throughout his one-term presidency; from high inflation (hovering around 12% in 1979)[43] to prolonged hostage negotiations with Iran[44] to high energy/gas prices,[45] everything fell into place for Reagan to make a comeback in 1980.

The Political Ascent of Ronald Reagan

Well armed to take the White House this time around, Reagan mobilized the conservative base (which had by 1980 taken control of the Republican Party) under his heartwarming slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again.”[46]  Unlike Goldwater, Reagan approached the American public with optimism of American greatness and perseverance, and set out a simple message:  The United States is, and can continue to be, the dominant nation in the world in economic, geopolitical, and moral terms without citizen sacrifice, if it is not held back by the dead hand of government.[47]

Reagan’s political ads played up his success as California Governor, championing him as the greatest tax reformer in history who inherited and fixed a state that was near bankruptcy.[48]  Unlike Goldwater, Reagan understood the importance of appealing to the public’s self-worth.  Whereas Goldwater had no reservations about placing blame on the American public for its willingness to go along with government spending on welfare programs, Reagan discarded the dark mood by calling on the great values of a bygone era in America’s noble past (though few bothered to ask him to identify and provide the exact details of this vague Golden Age he kept referring to) that needs to be rediscovered if the country was to solve the domestic and foreign ills afflicting it.[49]  Reagan also resonated with the electorate through his good-natured sense of humor.  A famous example being when asked by reporter Sam Donaldson of ABC News, about whether or not he himself accepts any of the responsibility he seems to place on past administrations and politicians, he wittily retorted with, “Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat.”[50]

Reagan used the points made in Conscience of a Conservative and applied them as solutions for contemporary problems.  For instance, the need to reduce regulation of businesses to stimulate the economy was an idea promoted by Goldwater, but gained little enthusiasm during the time of great middle-class affluence in the early 1960s.  Another major theme he took from Goldwater’s book is the call for a decisive victory in the Cold War against the Soviet Union:  “Today, we are not equal to the Soviet Union, and that is why they were able to cross into Afghanistan / we have betrayed our friends and appeased our enemies…There will be more Taiwans and more Vietnams.”[51]  This was blatant hyperbole on Reagan’s part, as the US had a well forged industrial military complex, rival to—if not far superior of—the Soviet Union.[52]  Nonetheless, the rhetoric worked.

It worked because for the first time conservatives were heavily represented in both the regional and national platform, but also because of Reagan himself, who “embraced an unrealistic worldview formed in the Hollywood of bold heroes and dastardly villains during the prewar and early postwar years when patriotism and fantasy were unashamedly blended together.”[53]  And what America needed more than anything was for someone to plainly tell them who the bad guys were, something Reagan had little trouble doing.

  • The 1980 Election: The Conservative Movement Comes Full Circle

In 1980, Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter in a landslide victory, winning 489 electoral votes compared to Carter’s 49,[54] becoming the first president of the conservative movement to be elected to the Presidency. Despite having sheared Goldwater’s original message of its doom and gloom, during his inaugural address Reagan firmly stated, “In this present crisis, government is not the answer to our problem, government is the problem,” drawing a clear parallel to the arguments made by Goldwater two decades earlier.

The warning Conscience of a Conservative sounded in 1960 against the ills of consumerism and government collectivism, which during a time of prosperity was seen as pessimistic and out of touch with reality, suddenly began to find an audience among the American people in the late-1960s, leading to the election of prominent conservatives in favor of the old liberal guard.  It was in this scenario that Ronald Reagan, an enthusiastic supporter of the Goldwater campaign, emerged on the national scene.  Utilizing Goldwater’s political principles and modifying his message to resonate with a disgruntled public eager for change.  He seized the opportunity to establish a strong base in the 1970s and, in 1980, captured the White House for the movement, setting the country on a course of conservative policy that would be defined in his personal image, but never straying far in tone from Goldwater’s model first expressed within the prose of Conscience of a Conservative.

Afterword

The purpose of this post is to chronicle the founding and rise of the conservative movement from a small grassroots campaign surrounding the person of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, to its modern incarnation as the defining voice of the Republican Party, and a major political force on the U.S. political scene as a whole.  Yet, it would be incomplete of a narrative were this text not to have a word of mention on the development of conservatism since its ascension to the mainstream of American political culture.

For his part as the founder of the conservative movement, Barry Goldwater often experienced a gradual level of contention with the more ardent factions rising to prominence within conservatism.  Despite having insisted in his groundbreaking book that the political establishment is not doing enough to nurture the spiritual needs of the nation, by the 1980s Goldwater was openly opposing the growing influence of the Religious Right on the Republican Party; vehemently declaring:

I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?
And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of “conservatism.”[55]

He opposed anti-gay discrimination in American society, and also called for the open inclusion of gay individuals into all branches of the American military; remarking, “quit discriminating against people just because they’re gay. You don’t have to agree with it, but they have a constitutional right to be gay,”[56] and “why the hell shouldn’t they serve? They’re American citizens. As long as they’re not doing things that are harmful to anyone else,”[57] respectively.  Most surprising of all for a social conservative, Goldwater considered a woman’s right to an abortion to be strictly a personal choice, which ought to remain free of any government intervention.[58]

For these reasons (and a few others), Barry Goldwater started to look more like an outcast to the movement he helped launch; something he himself made reference to in his final years, reportedly telling his colleague Bob Dole just two years prior to his death “We’re the new liberals of the Republican party. Can you imagine that?”[59]  Considering the fact that Goldwater maintained the same basic political positions all through his life and career, this supposed “break” from what was rapidly becoming the conservative mainstream, illustrates the ideological growth and transition the conservative movement underwent from the 1980 election onward.

Goldwater’s more politically successful protégé, Ronald Reagan, has become the hallmark of the conservative politician for today’s right-wing policymakers and voters.  Although it would be accurate to point out that Reagan did not really decrease the scope of the federal government, or lower taxes to a significant level (he actually raised them throughout his Presidency),[60] the fact still remains that the popular image of Ronald Reagan (even if it’s only based on superficial idealism) stands as the ideal of conservative politics today.

Reagan’s active career in U.S. politics came to an end not long after leaving office, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in early 1994.  Thus, his personal opinion of what he may have thought of the continued development of the movement his person has come to define is impossible to tell.  In a sense, it doesn’t even matter, because it the legacy of the man that has been canonized to political sainthood by its admirers, rendering any nuanced details about the man himself essentially irrelevant in the greater narrative.  It is this quasi-sainted legacy that has found itself referenced in the policies, adorations, and campaigns of just about every conservative candidate and public commentator that has appeared on the national scene of American political discourse since the Great Communicator left office.

There is, however, a noticeable change in the evolution of the conservative movement since its inception in 1960, and its political validation in 1980.  Whereas in its infancy and developmental years the movement largely tended to center around leadership figures like Goldwater and Reagan, today the conservative movement (comfortably nested in the mainstream of the Republican Party) is much less concentrated on any individual politician to carry the message home to the greater public; like most political movement that gain mainstream status, conservatism has become more ideology, than personality driven.  Furthermore, the message has shifted from calling for a reformation of America’s sociopolitical reality to a preservation of it (most likely due to the fact that conservative thought is today an indisputable part of the political order, instead of a fringe outlier).

No doubt conservative thought has changed and adapted over the years (for better or worse, depending on whose opinion is consulted on the matter).  But, given the backdrop of the ongoing 21st Century, and the continued move away from a regional to a global perspective among the coming generation of voters and policymakers, the future of conservatism in America is unlikely to be shaped by any rising figure, à la Goldwater or Reagan.  Rather, its representation and relevance will rest with the broader scope of the people and groups who choose to identify with the political message in the current and coming decade(s).  In addition, to a number of other potential circumstances and events, the sociopolitical and economic details of which are impossible to foreshadow in advance.

The very election of President Donald Trump may be a prime example of this, given that he embodies an executive whose own personal character and behaviors are of little importance to his conservative, right-wing supporters, whose steadfast allegiance appears to be solely based on President Trump’s correct recitation of standard conservative talking points, spruced up by the man’s aggressive dosage of vilification against the conservative movement’s standard political targets.  Hence, whatever failings the current Republican President has that fall short of the conservative ideal are deemed irrelevant by conservative leaders and voters on the trade-off of what they hope he will do to propagate conservative ideology and dominance in the political scene.

Only time will tell whether such developments lead the conservative movement in this country to maintain its continued public and political relevance, or if it will result in its eventual demise as a political force.

 

Footnotes

[1] William F. Buckley, Jr., “Our Mission Statement,” in National Review, November 19, 1955.

[2] Russell Kirk, “Apology for a New Review,” Modern Age, Summer 1957.

[3] Walter Williams, Reaganism and the Death of Representative Democracy (Washington D.C.:  Georgetown University Press, 2003), 82.

[4] Barry Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative (New York:  Manor Books, 1974), 10.

[5] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 9.

[6] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 9.

[7] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 10.

[8] “Trust the Federal Government 1958-2004,” The ANES Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior, http://www.electionstudies.org/nesguide/toptable/tab5a_1.htm.

[9] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 12.

[10] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 17.

[11] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 21.

[12] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 70.

[13] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 88.

[14] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 21-22.

[15] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001), 113.

[16] McGirr, Suburban Warrior, 122.

[17] McGirr, Suburban Warrior, 123.

[18] Barry Goldwater’s Acceptance Speech at the RNC, San Francisco, July 1964.

[19] Jack Bell, Mr. Conservative (New York: MacFadden Books, 1964), 178-179.

[20] Bell, Mr. Conservative, 181.

[21] Gregory L. Schneider, The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009), 106.

[22] Bell, Mr. Conservative, 173.

[23] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 45.

[24] Stephen L. Cooper, A Rhetorical Analysis of Invention in Selected Speeches by Senator Barry Goldwater in the Pre-Convention Campaign of 1964, (Thesis: The University of Texas, 1965), 106.

[25] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 10.

[26] McGirr, Suburban Warrior, 132.

[27] McGirr, Suburban Warrior, 132.

[28] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 170.

[29] 1964 Election Presidential General Election Results, 2005, http://www.uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/national.php?f=0&year=1964.

[30] McGirr, Suburban Warrior, 140.

[31] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 120.

[32] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 120.

[33] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 126.

[34] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 127.

[35] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 127.

[36] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 128.

[37] William Safire, “G.O.P., foot-soldiers, and guilt,” Chicago Tribune, November 21, 1973, sec. 1.

[38] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 129.

[39] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 132.

[40] Craig Shirley, Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign that Started It All, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 80-81.

[41] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 132.

[42] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 155.

[43] Jerry Bishop, “Age of Anxiety Stress on American Life is increasingly Blamed for Economic Turmoil,” New York Times, April 16, 1979, sec. Business and Finance, D14.

[44] Adam Clymer, “GOP May gain Nationally; harder for Carter and O’Neill,” New York Times, November 6, 1978, front page.

[45] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 147.

[46] Elizabeth Drew, Portrait of an Election: The 1980 Presidential Campaign, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), 113.

[47] Williams, Reaganism, 54.

[48] Ronald Reagan Campaign Commercial 1980

[49] Williams, Reaganism, 56.

[50] Press Conference, September 1982.

[51] Drew, Portrait of an Election, 115.

[52] McGirr, Suburban Warriors, 26.

[53] Walter, Reaganism, 56.

[54] James Whitson, President Elect, 1980, http://www.presidentelect.org/e1980.html

[55] Speech in the U.S. Senate, 16 September 1981.

[56] Lloyd Grove, “Barry Goldwater’s Turn Left,” Washington Post, July 28, 1994, sec. C01.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Robert A. Goldberg, Barry Goldwater (Yale University Press, 1995), 331.

[59]Michael Murphy, “Conservative Pioneer Became an Outcast,” The Arizona Republic, May 31, 1998, http://www.azcentral.com/specials/special25/articles/0531goldwater2.html.

[60] Catherine Rampell, “Tax Pledge May Scuttle a Deal or Deficit,” The New York Times, November 18, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/19/business/economy/tax-pledge-may-scuttle-deal-to-cut-deficit-economic-memo.html.

Egalitarianism; A Practice in Self-Scrutiny

Genuine self-scrutiny is a personal virtue that is much easier preached than practiced.  Usually the furthest most of us are willing to go is a relativistic acknowledgment that differing opinions exist and that, all things considering, we would be willing to change our minds if these alternative viewpoints were to persuade us sufficiently.  But, in my opinion, this sort of tacit relativism isn’t much in the way of self-scrutiny.  To self-scrutinize is to actively challenge the values and ideals we hold dear to our person–to dare to shake the foundation holding up our most cherished beliefs, and test if the structure on which we house our beliefs is sturdy enough to withstand a direct attack.  In contrast, the aforementioned acknowledgment that differing (and potentially equally valid) views exist to our own is a very passive stance, as it strictly relies on an external source to come along and challenge our own position(s), with no actual self-scrutiny being involved in the process.

Up to this point, this very post can be rightfully characterized among the passive variant; i.e. it’s me (an external source) attempting to challenge you to question the manner by which you view the world around you.  Although there are occasionally posts on this blog in which I sincerely try to adopt opposing stances to my own, the truth is that I do this primarily to better strengthen my own position by being able to effectively understand what I’m arguing against.  This, too, is not self-scrutiny.  And it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.

To truly self-scrutinize I would have to pick a position–a value, an ideal–by which I orientate my worldview around, and mercilessly strip it to its bone.  The frustrating part of such a mental exercise is the inevitability of having to rely on generalizations of my own opinions in order to be able to paraphrase them thoroughly enough, without getting trapped in a game over petty semantics.  The important thing to remember is that the points I will be arguing over with myself in this post are admittedly stripped of their nuances regarding some obvious exceptions and caveats, so as to not lose focus of addressing the underlying principles that are being discussed.  Consider that a disclaimer for the more pedantic-minded among my readers (you know who you are).

First, it would be helpful if I stated a value by which I orientate my worldview around, prior to trying to poke holes in it.  Above most else, as long as I can remember, I have always valued the egalitarian approach to most facets of human interaction.  I truly do believe that the most effective, and just, and fair means for society to function is for its sociopolitical and judiciary elements to strive for as equitable an approach to administering its societal role as possible.  In this view, I also recognized that this can more realistically be considered an ideal for society to endeavor towards rather than an all-encompassing absolute–nonetheless, I still see it as a valuable ideal for modern society to be striving towards, even if we must acknowledge that its perfect implementation may forever be out of our grasps.

Additionally, I should clarify that I do not necessarily claim this personal value of mine to be derived from anything higher than my own personal preferences to how I think society ought to be.  Yes, it is subjective, because it is subject to my desires and interests, however I would argue that this is true of just about any alternative/opposing viewpoint that may be brought up.  Furthermore, the merits and benefits I believe to be implicit in my personal preference of an egalitarian society (though admittedly subjective) are, in my opinion, independently verifiable outside of just my own internal desires.  In short, I value egalitarianism on account that, because I have no just and tangible means by which to sift through who merits to occupy which position in the social hierarchy, I consider it important that (if nothing else, at least on the basic application of our political and judicial proceedings), we hold all members of society to an equal standard.  Moreover, not that it matters to determining the validity of the egalitarian viewpoint, but I’m convinced that the majority of the people reading this will have little trouble agreeing with the benefits of such a worldview (though probably more in principle, while leaving room on disagreement on the most practical means by which to apply said principle in a social framework).

Now, the immediate issue I see arising with this stance of mine is the objection that genuine egalitarianism can easily lead to outright conformity–especially enforced conformity–as a society built on the model of complete equality might find it difficult to function unless it actively sets out to maintain the equality it’s seeking to establish.

It is a harsh fact that large-scale human interaction is not naturally egalitarian; meaning that left to their own devices there is little in historical evidence to suggest that a society of people will not diversify themselves into a multi-layered hierarchy; thereby instinctively creating the social disparity that the egalitarian mindset is aiming to combat.  The most obvious response would be to insist that egalitarianism simply means that the basic functions of society (i.e. the laws) have to be applied equally, and that as long as measures are upheld in society, the system can self-correct to its default setting.  Yet, this outlook is only convincing as long as one is inclined to have faith in the sincerity of the application of the law, in terms of holding all in society to an equal standard.  This also brings us to the issue of who is to be the arbiter warranted with upholding the principles of an egalitarian system.  The judicial system?  The policymakers?  The public at large?  And does this then bestow on these individuals a set of authority (i.e. power and privilege) that thereby creates a disparity which in itself violates the very premise of a truly egalitarian model?

“In a democratic society, the authority rests with the people in the society to ultimately decide on who is to be the arbiter(s) to ensure that equality is being upheld in said society on the people’s behalf.”

But maintaining social equality by means of representative democracy brings us to the issue of having those in the minority opinion be subject to the whims of the majority.  And is this not also in itself a violation of what an egalitarian society ought to be striving for?

When we play out the potential pitfalls of every one of these concerns what we end up with is the realization that, in practice, egalitarianism seems to only function when applied on a selective basis.  Complete equality, across the board, on all matters, has the serious consequence of either ending up in a social gridlock (rendering all manners of progress on any issue impossible), or coercion (negating the benignity that is ideally associated with egalitarianism).

I’ve heard it said how in this sort of a discussion it is important to differentiate between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity; that the latter is the truly worthwhile goal an egalitarian ought to be striving for in order to ensure a just and fair society.  I’m not sure this does much to address the primary issue at hand.

If there exists no disparity in opportunity, but we reserve room for an inequity in outcome, than will it not be the case that you will still end up with a select number of individuals occupying a higher role in the social hierarchy than others?  And once the foundation is laid for such a development, is it not just as likely that those who end up occupying a higher role could put in place measures that will be of interest to themselves alone; or even at the expense of those who fall into lower social roles?  Meaning that even though in this model all opportunity was equally available at first, the caveat that different people can have different outcomes–fall into more favorable and less favorable social conditions–fails to safeguard against the potential dilemma of having those who manage to rise high enough manipulating matters in society to their advantage; thereby stifling the outcome and opportunity potentials of future generations.  If the rebuttal is that in a truly egalitarian society measures would be in place to prevent this, we fall back to the question of who exactly is to be the arbiter warranted with upholding the principles of an egalitarian system?  Thus bringing us full-circle to the line of inquiry mentioned in the preceding paragraphs; hence, making an equality of outcome vs an equality of opportunity distinction does little to nothing to resolve the issues being discussed here.

All these objections are ones that, even as someone who considers himself an egalitarian, I can sympathize with.  Mainly because I don’t have any way to refute them without appealing to a personal intuition that these concerns are not endemic to an egalitarian model and that it’s ultimately feasible to avoid such potential pitfalls when we leave room within the social system to be amendable to debate and revision.  However, I have to also admit that I’m not always entirely sure of this myself.

This problem brings me directly to the confrontation of what should be valued more in society:  the complete equality of all people, or the value of the autonomous individual?  And whether creating such a dichotomy is necessary, or a balance can be struck in satisfying the interests of both entities?

The threat that removing all disparity that exists between all individuals might lead to a stifling of the distinct individuality of people is something I believe is worth worrying over.  What good is a world where equality is triumphant but reigns on the merits of absolute sameness?  Not to mention, what will happen to the human ingenuity all of us in modern life depend on for our survival as a society?  The prospect of attaining personal achievement is necessitated by one’s ability to stand out above the fold, and create something unique and distinct from that which is common.  The possibility that this drive will be held in suspect in a completely egalitarian world, in the name of preemptively combating all forms of perceived inequality, no matter how unpleasant it might be to my core values to acknowledge, is not something I can dismiss simply because it’s inconvenient to my worldview.  Essentially, I believe that it would be unwise to simply brush off the point that a world safeguarded to the point where no one falls, is also potentially a world where no one rises.

When I started writing this post I had a standard set of points I knew I would raise to fulfill my interest of demonstrating a genuine attempt at unrestrained self-scrutiny.  I know that some readers might wonder why I’m not doing more to combat the objections I’ve raised here against my own egalitarian perspective, and the simple truth is that it’s because I understand my desire for egalitarianism to be practical and feasible rests almost entirely on the fact that I want both of those things to be true, as it would validate my presupposed worldview, by fiat.  Nonetheless, I do understand that reality does not depend on my personal whims and wishes.  In all honesty, having actually reasoned out the premises here, I’m left wondering why, if for the sake of practicality we will undoubtedly always be forced to be to some extent selective with our approach to egalitarianism, we (myself included) even bother calling it egalitarianism at all?  Perhaps there is a term out there that more honestly fits what most of us mean when we strive to uphold what we refer to as egalitarian principles.  That, however, is a wholly separate discussion to my intentions here.  My goal was to hold my own views and values to the fire and see where it ends up.  In that goal, I think I’ve succeeded…what results from it will take a bit more thinking on my part to figure out.

The Power of Names

Shakespeare invited us to consider, “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.”  The Bard’s musings on the subject notwithstanding, the truth is that names do hold a fair bit of power in forging our perception of other people, as well as ourselves.

If you are a foreign-born individual who goes about in your adopted land of residence with a first name that points clearly to your nation of origin, you immediately know how vital a role a name can play when trying to integrate yourself with the local population (so much so that many foreigners will give in, and change their foreign-sounding names to something more palatable to the culture they aim to assimilate in).  Although few of us will readily admit to it, we are all susceptible to making generalizations about people we come across in our daily life based on superficial features.  Names are definitely one such feature.  That is not to say that every assumption made about someone based on such features is either wrong, or malicious.  It’s not wrong (factually or morally) to deduce that a person with an obviously Asian sounding name is in some way culturally connected to Asia.  Same with a man named Hans Gunterkind most likely being of some kind of Germanic heritage,  Jean-Pierre Neauvoix being French.  So on and so forth.

(It goes without saying that the contemptible part in forging a preconception about someone isn’t the initial preconception itself, it’s what you do with it from there on forward.  If on recognizing you’re about to speak with Chen Huiyin leads you to assume she is probably Asian before seeing her, no sensible person will raise an eyebrow for that assumption.  If, however, you further take your preconception to assume she is in some way personally inferior to someone who isn’t Asian, that’s where we run into issues of bigotry that will rightly be condemned by much of the public at large.)

Issues of what might be called ethnic names aside (are not all names relatively ethnic to different cultures, one might be inclined to ask here?), there are naming norms within American culture that occasionally shape our interactions with each other.  When you’re in the middle of everyday America and come across the name Kevin, it is unavoidable that you will imagine a man.  Unless you just happen to know a woman named Kevin, but even then you are likely to ascribe it to a rare anomaly.  What if over the course of the next three decades a swarm of new parents decide that Kevin makes for a great name for their baby girls, and the social paradigm shifts so that suddenly you run into more female Kevins than male ones?  Would you easily adjust to the new cultural trend, or still stick to the norm you had been accustomed to of Kevin being a predominantly male name?  If this sounds like an unlikely scenario to happen, think about how the name Ashley in America at the start of the 20th Century changed from mostly male to predominantly female by the start of the 21st Century.

Not to belabor a point past my humble reader’s generous patience, but it would feel disingenuous not to touch on my personal experience here.  Growing up in continental Europe as a boy named Sascha/Sasha the social assumption about it was that my parents must be bland, unimaginative, and possibly even a tad bit conservative in their leanings, precisely because boys named Sascha/Sasha are so common to come across there.  At the time, it formed a personal impression of myself being just another average lad going about my business, similarly to how I imagine an American youth named Michael or David would feel on the matter in contemporary American culture.  When I moved to the U.S. in my early teens I came to find out that my name was somewhat of a peculiarity to my peers; one that definitely demanded further explanation on my part.  Suddenly, I was no longer merely a random guy with an average-to-boring name, I was a random guy whose androgynous-to-feminine name invited further conversation (occasionally schoolyard taunts, too, but I’m pretty good at deflecting unkind commentary and rolling with the punches, so I bear no negative grudges from it).

I would argue that your name is the most basic qualifier of your identity, and people’s reactions to it forms a great deal of your learned behavior when interacting with others.  I can honestly say that the change in perception in how people reacted to my name on moving to the U.S.–as opposed to the reaction I received for it back in Europe–did affect how I carry myself and interact with others to some non-trivial extent.  At least in that I know when I introduce myself to others, I can be sure of two things:  1. I will be pegged as foreign regardless of my citizenship status, 2. I may be asked an awkward follow-up question regarding my name (to which, when I’m feeling lazy, my typical response will be either “My parents were really hoping for a girl, and were surprised when I popped out, dick-swinging and all,” or “I wanted to be able to better relate to women, but Nancy Sunflowerseed sounded too butch, so Sascha had to do”).

Believe it or not, the purpose of this post was not to regale anyone with anecdotes about naming cultures, as a clever ruse to sneak in a dick-swinging joke.  It’s to touch on a greater point about forging better writing habits and being mindful of one’s intended audience’s social palate.  Sooner or later, just about all writers find themselves fretting over picking out the perfect name to convey their characters’ personalities and backgrounds effortlessly to the reader.  And there are definitely right and wrong names one can decide on, for the roundabout reasons stated above.

If you’re writing a story about a street-wise, inner-city black kid, born and bred in the Bronx, but is named Hans Jorgenson Gunterkind, well you better be ready to explain how the hell that came to be.  Same if you’re writing a story about a 15th Century Samurai named Steven.  While clever names can add exotic intrigue to characters, and piece together unspoken–unwritten?–context about their personal interactions with their environments, it can also needlessly distract the reader if it’s not really meant to be a focal point of the narrative.

It’s perfectly fine to be bold and go for something unconventional when you’re crafting your written world, but don’t bend over backwards to convey uniqueness unnecessarily, to the point that it hinders the readers ability to become immersed within the narrative.  A story that has five characters named Mike to show the absurd commonality of the name can be witty and fun, or it can end up confusing and frustrating to the reader.  Take a moment to consider how the greater world you have created interacts with this dynamic, and whether it helps or hurts the story you’re setting out to tell.  Reading practicality should not be dispensed for the sake of creativity; they should operate together to form a coherent story that can be enjoyably read.

You can’t please everyone, and someone will hate your work no matter what or how you write.  Which is why the starting point for all my writing advice is to always start with being honest with every story’s first reader: its author.  And if, as you put pen to paper (or, more realistically, fingers to keyboard), what seemed like a great name in the first outline is becoming harder to work with as the story progresses, rather than forcing the narrative to conform, there is no shame in revising the basics–character names included.

Suck on that, Shakespeare, is what I’m really trying to say here.