What Kind of Together Do You Want? 12/1/08

It’s been awhile since my words have graced this corner of cyberspace. Electoral politics reared their ugly head and I was embroiled with this, that and the other thing, trying to get those I identified with elected. Oh, I had plenty of time to write, but when I arrived home after a day of campaigning I was exhausted, partly from the work but mostly from the stress of not knowing if the country would be led in a better direction. Besides, if I had anything to say it would probably be a diatribe against my candidates opponent and lord knows there was plenty of that to go around, offered by better minds than mine.

I have been devoting those brain cells I have left to a concise definition of the difference between the two isolated and polarized political camps that populate modern American politics. This conundrum has perplexed lots of pundits from both camps, although traditionally conservatives have done a better job of lying about liberals than vice versa, thus giving the appearance of clearly delineating a definition of “those who hate America”. These distortions aside, few experts have been able to divine a concise and accurate presentation of the differences between conservative and progressive character. Perhaps George Lakoff has come closest to the pin, describing conservatives as espousing “strict father” values with progressives choosing “nurturant parent” values instead.

The understanding of strict father and nurturant parent mentality unfortunately drifts about too much for my tastes. In general they provide a fairly accurate description of the two dominant modes of political thinking we see expressed today but who really knows exactly what they mean.

To accurately pin down a clear understanding of these differences in a sound bite easily digestible by the masses we must use few words (a struggle for this writer it is clear). They must be easily understandable by a majority of Americans and have elements both of commonality and separation, as that is the true nature of Americans, separated by ideology but bound by great commonality of purpose. Let me offer my contribution to this struggle to nail down a definition once and for all. I do not say it is the best solution, only mine. I do feel it has merit however slight it might be.

Lots of people I have talked to say that conservatives are about me and liberals are about we. This is concise to be true and descriptive but, I feel incomplete. I know plenty of conservatives that care about people and progressives who look out for number one. I hear others say conservative favor corporations and progressives are for workers. This again is basically true but narrows the scope of consideration to issues of commerce. Once again, in refutation, I think we all know conservatives who care about working people and progressives who are quite corporate in their approach to business.

I have always loved words and their etymology. Where words come from gives us a clue as to the reason for their creation. Words arise from a need to communicate something. Their roots give us a glimpse of their real meaning. The words I have chosen to describe the difference between conservatives and progressives are simple and related. Simply put conservatives compete and progressives cooperate. Both of these words are from the Latin and have as a prefix the Latin co or com, meaning together. Everybody, whether they care to or not, acts together. Even the hermit, far away in his mountain cabin, cannot get absolutely everything he needs from the land. He had to buy an ax somewhere and for some unknown reason most hermits drink coffee, necessitating some kind of relationship with Juan Valdez or his surrogates. Society is a series of individual acts that impact other individuals. We cannot escape it. We are social animals.

The roots of these two words are also related but subtly different. Compete has as its root the Latin verb petere, which means to aim at. Put the prefix and root together and we come up with an intentional meaning of aiming at something together. To compete means we all have the same thing in our sights but the implication is that only one of us will reach the goal, that all others will fail, unless you are Robin Hood and can split the sheriff’s arrow at the bullseye. Few of us can compete at that level. This type of problem solving implies that we all start with a quiver of arrows and a bow, essentially equal, but the skill of one individual will out. There is only one winner and everyone else loses.

Cooperate, on the other hand, has at its essence the Latin verb root operari which means to work. The word means to work together. As we can see there is great similarity in the two words. Both of them refer to people acting together to accomplish a given goal. The difference is in the focus of the two roots. When people cooperate i.e. work together, they accomplish a common goal and all benefit. They use their skill not to outwit or defeat an opponent but in accord with and augmenting the skill of others to produce a given result. Of course, there must be accord from the beginning of the task. In competition there are a variety of personal goals in play. Some compete simply for the thrill of winning, some to glorify themselves, some to prove a point. When people cooperate they have already thought out and agreed on the goal. This is work, something that many ego oriented competitors find boring and ultimately wasteful. Just set up the damn target and lets go at it.

So how do these related but finely differentiated words describe what I say they describe? Conservatives believe competition is the way to solve problems and act in the world. They posit that the most skillful will find the best solutions and that it is in all of the losers’ best interests to meekly accept that superiority. They believe in the competition of the free market system. They believe that each human interaction is a test of competence (notice where that word comes from). They believe that only the strong survive and that as Orwell so succinctly put it “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. They believe in helping those who have less than they do but from a philosophy of “charity” which they tout as a virtue but from which they most often simply confirm their superiority. They give to those “beneath” them to feel good about themselves and their higher status. The people they give to do not deserve charity but the magnanimous conservative grants them the clemency of his gifts if they jump through whatever behavioral hoops he sets out before them, like a Roman gives the thumbs up to a particularly effective slave warrior in the Colosseum.

This is not to say that many conservatives give for altruistic reasons for there is such a thing as compassionate conservatism but unfortunately the former reasons are all too prevalent among those who worship the modern philosophy of Objectivism which rejects altruism out of hand as a weak and timid response unworthy of those who understand and have the strength and discipline to be powerful. Conservatives give of their treasure to show they have won, to confirm their competitive victory.

Conservatives believe that the purity of one man’s (or corporation’s) skill and power trumps the “compromised” and inherently weak mutual decisions of people working together in cooperation. They believe winning is everything. They want to drill in ANWR because not to drill is to admit weakness in the face of the power of foreign oil. They teach their kids to kick ass and take names. They teach them that making money is essential in proving their value. They believe in personal responsibility but twist the meaning of that noble pursuit into one where one is only responsible for oneself and not for others. The conservative world is one where all individuals are constantly bumping heads and chests with the winner becoming the Alpha and everyone else cowers. It is innately animal and hierarchical. It is regressive, involutional and wastes an incredible amount of energy.

Cooperation, while retaining the same aspect of acting together as competition, does so from an entirely different philosophic perspective. Progressives cooperate because, in the words of the late Paul Wellstone “We all do better when we all do better”. In fact there are plenty of bromides that describe a progressive philosophy of cooperation, ” A rising tide floats all boats”, “…the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped. “, “United we stand, divided we fall”, etc.

The point of cooperation is to maximize the collective skills available to best and most efficiently solve problems and accomplish tasks. Progressives believe that no one person has all the answers. They feel that we all have gifts, in different areas, and that together we can apply those gifts to the benefit of all. Progressives teach their kids to share. They tell them to be whatever they have a passion for. Progressives value what are apparently weaknesses in others for they know that accompanying those weaknesses are commensurate strengths. Progressives believe not only in individual responsibility but in mutual responsibility where people are responsible not only for their own actions but also look out for others. They temper their decisions with honest concern about the welfare of people they don’t even know, save that they are members of the human race and thus worthy of that concern.

The progressive world is one where people work together to make things better than any one of them ever could acting alone. It is evolutional and always looks forward, knowing the past is to be learned from but can never be relived. Progressives seek out win-win situations. They recognize that resources are scarce and precious and work to be efficient in their use of energy, especially human energy.

So in essence we find two systems, one which envisions being together as individuals all vying for the same prize and another where being together means we give up a small portion of our individuality for the good of the whole. To be frank both systems work. The true question is which system will bring us closer to potential extinction and which will bring us into a new dawn of human endeavor. For me the answer is clear but then again I am but one man. Perhaps we can work together to determine which course leads to a future and which does not.

I am ready to help.

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