Monday, January 05, 2009


No, Sam has not undergone an overnight transformation.  He is allowing me a guest post. Which he no doubt violently - or preferably non-violently - disagrees with.

Firstly, Sam asked me to tell you who I am. My name is Al von Fintel, a friend of Sam's from university.  He introduced me to green politics and helped introduce me to Christianity. And now he is allowing me to introduce myself to you.  Which I just did.

I am going to try and make the following case: The conservative instinct is to fear, the liberal instinct is to trust.  Trying to be a good Christian and to follow Jesus means trying to trust and therefore also rejecting conservatism. I'd probably need a few chapters of a book to make this case properly, but I'll try my best.


First of all, a simple definition: Conservatism is what conservatives "preach" - ie. what they call for, what they write in their manifestoes. Classic conservatives are traditional smalltown American Republicans, traditional British Tories or the German CDU - but not the neocons or libertarians. The centre-right, if you will.  And liberalism is the centre-left, e.g. left-wing Democrats, German and Swedish Social Democrats and Neil Kinnock's Labour Party - yes, there really did used to be a left wing in Britain.

First, a small amount of hard evidence.  A University of Nebraska study of people with strong political convictions examined the link between each participant's stated political views and his or her physiological response to a perceived threat. People with stronger measurable threat responses tended to adhere to "socially protective" political policies, or those that suggest more concern for preserving the social unit - for example, supporting the Iraq war and the death penalty but opposing abortion rights and gay marriage.,8599,1842523,00.html

And now a quick apology: my attempt to explain these results - which I'm happy to try because they confirm the theory I had already postulated - will include quite a few generalisations.  Finding exceptions will be easy. Criticise me if you think a generalisation doesn't hold.

Here are some examples of how the two sides think: The conservative strategy broadly is to fight crime by protecting innocent citizens using more prisons and police, to increased police powers and make prison a longer and less pleasant experience, and in favour of the death penalty.  The conservatives do not try to understand - understanding other people is not their strength, that's why the caring professions are full of liberals - but to deter and to punish.  We fear what we do not understand and conservatives simply don't (want to?) understand criminals.

The liberal strategy is to fight the causes of crime, i.e. unemployment and poverty, to invest more in prevention, and use prison less as punishment and more as a means of rehabilitation and reintegration. Redemption is never ruled out, which is why the death penalty is rejected. Liberals have a deep urge to understand.  This means showing trust, and the strategy can of course backfire.

Social security is another interesting area.  The conservative response is: "Well, I've looked after myself, and I see no reason why others can't do the same.  If they are lazy, what they need is a kick up the backside."  The liberal response is to look for and find a whole host of reasons why particular people have problems and need help and then to offer that help. (Sometimes people do actually need a kick up the arse, and there is certainly a breed of woolly liberal who is afraid to use this remedy at any stage.  The classic liberal response would be to listen first, encourage second, and only kick as a last resort.)

The Nebraska study suggests that conservatives are interested in preserving the social unit and are afraid of what might happen if it were to fall apart.  Let's compare the social unit with a car we are driving.  Imagine the car starts having problems, maybe it's backfiring or the gears won't work properly (and let's assume that the car is 20 years old and so could be fixed by someone with an understanding of machines rather than require a software engineer).  The conservative response would be not to mess around with the engine too much because it might make things worse - ie we don't know how the social unit works, let's leave it as it is - or maybe screw off the bits that are making unhappy noises.  The liberal response would be to try to fix the problem as a whole, investing time and attention in the problematic parts - or in the language of the Daily Mail, rewarding poor behaviour.

I think it is reasonable to say that liberals know more about how the social unit works, because the professions which deal with analysing and "repairing" social units are staffed overwhelmingly by liberals: social workers, sociologists, psychiatrists, therapists and in a wider sense also doctors, nurses and teachers.

I imagine that the fear that conservatives experience when they see too many (from their point of view) immigrants in the streets, read about violent hooligans in the Telegraph or see Islamic terrorists on their televisions is similar to the fear that I experience when my computer refuses to work.  I know I don't know how my computer works, my intellectual make-up isn't suited to allowing me to understand how it works, I therefore tell myself that I don't want to know how it works, the idea that it might screw up all my files scares me, I just want the bloody thing to work. And deep down, the fact that I'm dependent on the computer for my work but don't understand it and therefore can't trust it produces a certain amount of latent fear. My one desire is for there to be no new programs to learn, no updates to install and for everything to just carry on working.  And while I don't really mean it, when the thing crashes I find myself calling for the death penalty for Bill Gates.

It is no accident that conservatives are more likely to preach fear - both at the pulpit, where the threat of hell is more likely to be used, and in politics.  It is what they and their voters can relate to better.  The recent American presidential election is only one example - Obama could be accused of using fear a little bit when warning of McCain's economic policies, but the McCain campaign can hardly be credited with a hopeful message.

(Conservative tendencies are likely to be a majority in most societies, by the way.  But there are many working class and lower middle class people with essentially conservative social values and conservative psychological make up who vote for liberal parties because they believe this is in their own - primarily economic - interests.)


To argue that Jesus was a liberal based on the positions he took with regard to political issues that we can today still easily relate to - death penalty, immigration, wealth and poverty, violence - isn't difficult. Christians should please remember that the word Christian contains Christ, the bloke from the Gospels.  If your positions on social and moral issues are based mainly on some of the less savoury parts of the Old Testament, then you have a problem. And if we look at the liberal/conservative "division" in terms of willingness-to-evolve-social-conventions versus-desire-to-preserve-the-social-unit, Jesus remains a clear liberal. He challenged and even repudiated the laws of Moses, leaving the (Conservative) Pharisees feeling threatened.

As the bard sang, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. So I'll be interested to see which passages of the Gospels will be thrown back at me, proving that Jesus and Norman Tebbit would have been soulmates.

So. Sorry that was a bit long - and that the second bid ended up a bit short.  I hope it was interesting and that you made it this far.  I look forward to reading your comments and I'm sure at least some of you will help me bridge the gaping holes in my argumentation.

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