Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled

     I just received an email from a friend of my parents with a political joke in it. Apologies for abridging it and spoiling the punchline, but the gist of it is this: A little girl calls her newborn kittens, whose eyes haven't opened yet, "Liberals", and later, when their eyes have opened, she calls them "Conservatives".

     Ha ha. Cute.

     Yet I found it troubling, because it is part of perpetuating the myth that conservatives are somehow the hard-headed realists who know how the world really works, and everyone else is a naive idealist. And that's simply false.

     The source of the confusion, of course, is the word "conservative". By itself, it's a fine word, and it's conveys an admirable sense of caution and thrift. To be conservative is to avoid unnecessary risk and expense, and these are both things that we'd want in our leaders. It's natural to hope that this kind of conservatism (cautious and thrifty) is rooted in an understanding of how very wrong things can go if we're not careful, and it's natural to import this idea that conservatives' eyes are open to the harsh realities of the world.

     But there's a danger in that assumption, and all the more so because it's so seductively reasonable. If you buy into the idea that you are wise to the ways of the world, while others are naive and gullible, you become especially naive and gullible yourself. You become smug and complacent, and feel that you don't need to listen to the ideas of those naive and gullible idealists who have no idea what the real world is like. Their eyes are closed, and yours are open, so you can't be fooled. Heck, you know how things really are, so you don't even need to look anymore...

     And that, I fear, is exactly what's happened, as evidenced by the joke I referred to at the beginning of this post. Conservatives have become so confident in their superior expertise (and the utter worthlessness of any opinion that doesn't bear the label "conservative") that they are willing to barge on ahead with policies based entirely on idealistic visions of how the economy is supposed to work, or "common sense" ideas of how the criminal justice system is supposed to work, or how foreign governments ought to respond to our clearly superior morality.

     (Our own federal Conservatives have been systematically closing their eyes by slashing funding to Statistics Canada and a host of other government agencies and research programs intended to give government and Canadians the objective information needed to make sound decisions. Republicans in the United States have been doing much the same with not just budget cuts but also legislation like the Data Quality Act.)

     The scorn I sense from conservatives in expressing their opinions about things is palpable. They talk about how obvious it is that this or that policy is the right one, and how stupid anyone would have to be not to see it. Well, if everything true was obvious, and everything obvious were true, this would be a very different world. There are things which seem obvious but are in fact false, and truths which are very subtle and profoundly counterintuitive. You cannot hope to understand these things if you think you already do.

     I love the quote from The Usual Suspects: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." There is no surer way to keep your eyes closed than to convince yourself they're wide open.

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