Sunday, July 30, 2006

Conservatives Without Conscience or Learning

We'll take a break from our series of posts on the works of the incredibly insightful in incredibly few words Albert O. Hirschman to do a quick review of the book that seems to have everyone's attention right now, John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience. Along with his earlier Worse Than Watergate, this book will likely serve as the starting point for future historians (maybe in other nations than this one) who try to understand what happened to the promise and the legacy of the United States. A self-professed Goldwater conservative who will live rightly or wrongly in the shadow of Watergate in the minds of those of us of a certain age, Dean spells out in short but telling passages the history of real American conservatism and how it was highjacked by the reactionaries who always are in their midst. He also outlines the characters and plots of our current Shakespearean tale as written by the Onion and Jonah Goldberg. It really does bring together those threads well for those late to the goings-on and details the dangers that have been obvious to many of us from the beginning.

Dean's treatment of authoritarianism is getting a lot of the buzz from other reviewers, and his description of the research, including Stanley Milgram's experiments in the '60s and Bob Altemeyer's work since the '80s, will bring people up to speed quickly. What interested me, though, in his forthright depiction of his prior ignorance of this material was his prior ignorance of this material. Look at the dates of those studies. We've known everything he tells us for 40 or more years. And he still apparently is unaware of other very important works of the same type and results, such as Zimbardo's "
Stanford Prison Experiment" in 1971 or the 1968 work of Jane Eliot, a third-grade teacher in Iowa featured in a Frontline documentary. We know the authoritarian personality, have known it for decades. We know its dangers and delusions and deceptions, and yet we allowed it to be installed not once but twice (actually, counting Nixon and Reagan/Bush (who were part of it all, no matter their current reputations) 6 times). Dean is holding up a mirror years after the disfiguring surgeries have been done.

I guess my point here is just a sense of wonder once again about our own ignorance as to the research and studies that should have enlightened us and made our current dangerous future impossible. Dean tells us nothing, warns us of nothing that wasn't spelled out 25 years ago by Bertram Gross in Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America. Why is he so late coming to the party? Why are his readers acting like he just turned on a lightbulb (or cigarette lighter, depending on the person) over their heads? Why are we as a nation, a nation built on the ideal of opposition to authoritarianism, a nation that defeated two authoritarian nations in one war and another in a cold war, so unknowledgeable about the causes and consequences, the personality types and their actions, of something so poisonous to the American Legacy?

Much of it has to do with the failure of academic political science and history, their practitioners warped into silly specializations that can tell us everything we need to know about probabilities of victory for incumbents in primaries who get more or less than 50% of the vote but don't educate students well on why we have primaries to begin with. (That lesson might still be useful to a guy named Lieberman and his venal toadies in the permanent minority hierarchy.) I have a full-scale rant on my former profession still stored up, but Dean's book and the reaction to it proves that we have a couple of extraordinarily well educated and accomplished generations now who have gotten where they are without adequate training in what the threats to democracy are and what it takes to maintain it. That, as much as the unsurprising power-grabbing and cheating (but let's not worry about how the votes get counted, right, Kos?) of the current authoritarians destroying our Constitution, will be determined to be the proximate cause of the failure of our democratic republic when those historians, wherever they may be, find Dean's books and realize they hold in their hands the basic explanations for how what was once the great United States with all its promise for human history failed so badly, and predictably.

Even if it's a little late, it's good to have John Dean on board. He gets an audience, and maybe people will start putting 2 and 2 together themselves without our leaders and media providing a "balanced, bipartisan, unbiased" presentation of all the possible answers. One way you can help is to buy the book. Another way is to act on it. Just don't expect the Constitution to protect you anymore.