We have talked occasionally (scroll to "Threats and the Tea Party") about the difference in threat perception between those who are more conservative and those who are not. There may be some evidence that conservatives are more inclined to perceive both real and false threats; whereas liberals are less inclined to be able to perceive a threat whether or not one actually exists.
If true, that suggests that conservatives need to check themselves carefully against false positives -- and work on extending the benefit of the doubt. It also means that liberals should be a little more careful to listen to conservatives, who have a capacity they don't have when it comes to recognizing dangers. Or, you could say, we should each of us stand to what we feel is our duty: recognizing that, by each side fighting for what it believes, we will eventually come to the right solution.
In other words, both mental capacities are useful. Neither approach accurately perceives the world as it is. We need each other: the conservative to defend the tribe, and the liberal to try to relax what could otherwise become punishing standards.
I mention this in reference to three recent pieces. The theory offers a useful way to understand both past and future. From the NYT:
This is typical of how these debates usually play out. The first America tends to make the finer-sounding speeches, and the second America often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes. The first America welcomed the poor, the tired, the huddled masses; the second America demanded that they change their names and drop their native languages, and often threw up hurdles to stop them coming altogether. The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics.From Five Books (an interesting site that promises to guide you to 'the best five books on anything'):
But both understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer, and both have been necessary to the American experiment’s success. During the great waves of 19th-century immigration, the insistence that new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture — and the threat of discrimination if they didn’t — was crucial to their swift assimilation. The post-1920s immigration restrictions were draconian in many ways, but they created time for persistent ethnic divisions to melt into a general unhyphenated Americanism.
The same was true in religion. The steady pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul, eventually persuaded the Mormons to abandon polygamy, smoothing their assimilation into the American mainstream. Nativist concerns about Catholicism’s illiberal tendencies inspired American Catholics to prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American.
So it is today with Islam.
I think the typical view of politics from inside a partisan mindset is to see politics as a battle of the good guys versus the bad guys. Maybe the good guys are on the left, maybe the good guys are on the right, but it’s this Manichean struggle and the way to get progress is for the good side to win and impose their will. [John Stuart] Mill sees through that and sees that, in fact, politics is a dialectical process. At any given time truth is partly on one side and partly on the other. It’s more a battle of half-truths and incomplete truths than of good versus bad. The excesses of each side ultimately create opportunities for the other to come in and correct those excesses. Liberalism, in Mill’s view and in mine, provides the basic motive force of political change and progress. It will go astray, it will have excesses, it will make terrible mistakes – and a conservatism that is focused on preserving good things that exist now will be a necessary counterweight to that liberalism....On Sir Winston Churchill, who managed to be both at once:
So again here, we have this notion of a conservatism whose role is to moderate a movement in a generally egalitarian direction?
Yes. It is, I’m afraid, their fate often to be decrying cultural trends that they see as leading to chaos, when a generation later those warnings look like the most benighted obscurantism. So we had Bill Buckley in the late 50s warning that enfranchisement of blacks would lead to catastrophic political consequences…
Did Buckley say that?
Yes. He said that the white race is the more advanced race and if it doesn’t have the votes, it should maintain its authority any way it can. There’s a devastatingly frank passage in a National Review editorial in the late 50s along those lines. Of course, that just looks horrible now and, later in life, Buckley admitted that was a terrible error. You had people thinking that a woman working outside the home in traditional male professions was the end of the world – and it wasn’t.
As soon as he could, Churchill charged off to take his part in “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples.” In the Swat valley, now part of Pakistan, he experienced, fleetingly, an instant of doubt. He realized that the local population was fighting back because of “the presence of British troops in lands the local people considered their own,” just as Britain would if she were invaded. But Churchill soon suppressed this thought, deciding instead that they were merely deranged jihadists whose violence was explained by a “strong aboriginal propensity to kill.”
He gladly took part in raids that laid waste to whole valleys, writing: “We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.” He then sped off to help reconquer the Sudan, where he bragged that he personally shot at least three “savages.”
The young Churchill charged through imperial atrocities, defending each in turn. When the first concentration camps were built in South Africa, he said they produced “the minimum of suffering” possible. At least 115,000 people were swept into them and 14,000 died, but he wrote only of his “irritation that kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men.” Later, he boasted of his experiences. “That was before war degenerated,” he said. “It was great fun galloping about.”
After being elected to Parliament in 1900, he demanded a rolling program of more conquests, based on his belief that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph.” As war secretary and then colonial secretary in the 1920s, he unleashed the notorious Black and Tans on Ireland’s Catholics, to burn homes and beat civilians. When the Kurds rebelled against British rule in Iraq, he said: “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.” It “would spread a lively terror.”
This is a real Churchill, and a dark one — but it is not the only Churchill. He also saw the Nazi threat far ahead of the complacent British establishment, and his extraordinary leadership may have been the decisive factor in vanquishing Hitlerism from Europe. Toye is no Nicholson Baker, the appalling pseudo historian whose recent work “Human Smoke” presented Churchill as no different from Hitler. Toye sees all this, clearly and emphatically.
So how can the two Churchills be reconciled? Was his moral opposition to Nazism a charade, masking the fact that he was merely trying to defend the British Empire from a rival? Toye quotes Richard B. Moore, an American civil rights leader, who said that it was “a most rare and fortunate coincidence” that at that moment “the vital interests of the British Empire” coincided “with those of the great overwhelming majority of mankind.” But this might be too soft in its praise. If Churchill had been interested only in saving the empire, he could probably have cut a deal with Hitler. No: he had a deeper repugnance to Nazism than that. He may have been a thug, but he knew a greater thug when he saw one — and we may owe our freedom today to this wrinkle in history.
This is the great, enduring paradox of Churchill’s life. In leading the charge against Nazism, he produced some of the richest prose poetry in defense of freedom and democracy ever written. It was a check he didn’t want black or Asian people to cash, but as the Ghanaian nationalist Kwame Nkrumah wrote, “all the fair brave words spoken about freedom that had been broadcast to the four corners of the earth took seed and grew where they had not been intended.” Churchill lived to see democrats across Britain’s imperial conquests use his own hope-songs of freedom against him.
In the end, the words of the great and glorious Churchill who resisted dictatorship overwhelmed the works of the cruel and cramped Churchill who tried to impose it on the world’s people of color.