What Is A Conservative?

I will come right out with my thesis: current Republicans, who are traditionally called conservatives, no longer have a right to be called conservative. Definitions in Webster's dictionary include "tending to preserve old institutions, methods, customs, and the like;" and "modest, prudent, safe."

The word implies the desire to respect and conserve the systems and institutions human beings have created, as well as the Earth itself. Being a conservative is a respectable position, but the neo-conservatives (neo-cons) who are currently running our government no longer practice a levelheaded, modest approach to governing. They do not deserve to be called conservative. The central pillar of neo-con ideology is their belief that unilateral military solutions are the best way to solve international problems. This is the classic view of empires.

George Orwell, in his great and prophetic novel 1984, talked about "doublespeak." Words come to mean their opposite: War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, and Freedom is Slavery. The people go along with this because, as Orwell wrote, "There will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness." Nowadays, right-wing think tanks devise positive-sounding policy titles like "clear skies initiative." This sounds good, but the initiative removes environmental safeguards, so the reality is more polluted skies. Using nice language to express mean-spirited policies is called "framing issues," or "spinning." In the non-political world, it is called lying.

After Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, our leaders could have united the people of our country and the people of the whole world. There was an opening where we could have transformed the future for the betterment of all people and the long-term health of our planet. We could have begun what Joanna Macy calls "the Great Turning," working together to move toward a sustainable economy. Such a massive change in our goals has the potential to revitalize our economy by creating whole new industries. We could have begun to solve the problems of global warming, starvation, and war, which would have undermined and isolated the terrorists by taking away the basis of their critique of the injustice of American foreign policy.

Combating terrorism is an international problem that requires international cooperation and coordination. After developing a strong alliance to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S. chose to ignore our traditional European allies and invade Iraq. France and Germany were publicly derided for failing to support the invasion, but their assessment turned out to be correct. Developing and keeping allies and alliances is not easy; it requires diplomacy and compromise. Countries have competing interests. Insulting our allies and acting unilaterally is not conservative and people whose actions create more terrorists should not be called conservative.

Little White Lies

With the invasion of Iraq, the neo-cons demonstrated their extraordinary faith in military power. The American military is obviously powerful. Our expenditures exceed the national expenses of countries that have the next fifteen largest military expenditures combined. The neo-cons refuse to recognize any limitations to military solutions, even when their predictions turn out to be dead wrong, as they did with the invasion of Iraq. Invading a country on cooked-up evidence about WMDs is not a conservative action and people who support unlimited military power should not be called conservative.

A strong army has the potential to deter war, but we used our army to aggressively invade Iraq. Not only was this a violation of international law, but the U.S. botched the invasion terribly. The Powell Doctrine held that if we are going to war, go in with overwhelming force and a well-formulated plan to end the war. Donald Rumsfeld believed he had a better doctrine: shock and awe with a smaller, faster force, and he had no plans for leaving because the neo-cons do not plan to leave. They want permanent military bases in Iraq to protect American interests. Saddam chose not to fight and the Iraqi army dissolved into the people, only to reemerge as the insurrection, the increasingly well-organized resistance to our occupation. Rumsfeld was wrong. The American and British forces were too small to keep the peace. Iraq was looted and chaos descended upon the country. American companies, not Iraqis, were given contracts to rebuild the country, but after two years, the most basic infrastructure – water, electrical power, and sanitation – have not been restored. Part of being conservative is assessing situations in a clear-headed, clear-eyed way. People who refuse to see reality should not be called conservative.

The exposure of the scandal at Abu Ghraib, where American guards tortured and humiliated often-innocent Iraqis, lost us whatever support we still had from the Iraqi people. Muslims throughout the world turned against us. Only low-ranking soldiers are being held accountable. The primary apologist for the torture, Alberto Gonzales, called the Geneva Conventions "quaint" when he was Counsel to the President. He was promoted to U.S. Attorney General in 2005. If we wanted to hand al Qaeda a recruiting tool, we could not have done any better than Abu Ghraib. Allowing torture in violation of international laws is not conservative and people who support torture should not be called conservative.

Based on most media reports, the Iraqi people liked having an election. There was widespread euphoria in the United States as our leaders claimed a great breakthrough in creating democracy, a reason that was not mentioned when we invaded. I believe this recent euphoria is going to be short-lived; in the long term an extremely destructive civil war is much more likely. Civil wars can kill vast numbers of people and create hatreds that can last for centuries, as it did in our own country. Democracy needs to rise up from the hearts and minds of the people, spontaneously, as it did in Eastern Europe and South Africa, where democracies were created non-violently. Imposing democracy through a badly run military invasion is not conservative and people who create these policies should not be called conservative.

The most serious threat to the future of humanity is the use of nuclear weapons. The neo-cons currently running our government have cancelled treaties that limited the production and testing of nuclear weapons. They have announced their intention to develop a new generation of "small" nuclear weapons and they reserve the right to the first strike use of these weapons. The neo-cons are telling the world that development of nuclear weapons is strength. If we, again, let the nuclear genie out of the bottle, there will be no stopping the new nuclear arms race. Developing new nuclear weapons is not conservative and people who threaten their first strike use should not be called conservative.

It is my belief that the real driving force behind Star Wars is the development of first strike weapons that can be launched by the U.S. from outer space. Most countries in the world favor keeping outer space free from weapons, but the neo-cons are convinced that the United States, and no one else, must militarize space. They call this policy the "ownership of space." This is not conservative and people who support the militarization of outer space should not be called conservative.

Charity Begins at Home

How is the war in Iraq and the development of multiple weapons systems being paid for? It isn't, except in the debts we are passing on to our children and grandchildren. Budget shortfalls of close to five hundred billion dollars per year are being created by rampant military spending and tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations. This deficit spending threatens to undermine the entire world economy. And why? So that the wealthy can avoid paying taxes and insure their children will never have to pay taxes. This will create a permanent aristocracy of wealth. As we know from oft-repeated discussions about welfare, unearned wealth destroys the moral fiber of those who receive it. People who support a welfare state for the wealthy should not be called conservative.

Second only to the threat of nuclear war, the most serious problem facing humanity is the heating up of the planet. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma called global warming, "the biggest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people." This statement should be put in the dictionary as the definition of denial. The Wall Street Journal, widely regarded as the source of levelheaded business advice, has used its ideologically driven neo-con editorial pages to lead the way in denial. Holland, Venice, Bangladesh, island nations, and Manhattan will be among the first places to suffer the massive problems that global warming will bring. Denying the dangers of global warming is not conservative and people who support this denial do not deserve to be called conservative.

During the Great Depression, vast numbers of people lost their jobs and a great many older people starved or froze to death, because they didn't have the money to buy food or to stay warm. Franklin Roosevelt, when he signed the Social Security legislation in 1935, said, "We have tried to frame a law that will give some measure of protection to the average citizen…against poverty-ridden old age." Social Security was an agreement that we share a common destiny and we can all contribute to the common good. There is a base line below which people cannot fall. Jim Hightower wrote, "Before this program, two-thirds of Americans spent their last years in cold, hard, often desperate poverty. Today only ten percent of seniors fall below the poverty line." George W. Bush wants to "rescue" social security by dismantling the safety net it created. This is not conservative and people who support this privatization should not be called conservative.

Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican president at the beginning of the 20th century, made his mark as an enemy of robber barons and monopolies, and by creating many national parks. This is conservative. The natural world is where we live; it is our home. "Fouling our own nest" is the antithesis of conservatism, yet that is what we are doing.

I believe my point of view is clear. Empires tend to overreach, and they eventually collapse. Unfortunately, our empire is armed to the teeth and run by neo-cons, whose ideologically driven policies are radical and dangerous. And they have shown no sign that they are learning from their mistakes. What we need are some true conservatives running our government, people who deserve to be called conservatives. This vision is conservative. It will involve "the Great Turning," but it can be done. It will be creative and invigorating. Let us begin.

Doug Wilson is a Unitarian Universalist Minister and Executive Director of UU Rowe Camp and Conference Center in Rowe, Massachusetts. He can be reached at 413-339-4954 or doug@rowecenter.org.