Friday, November 19, 2010

A Letter to Conservatives

Dear Conservative:

I want to take you on a nostalgic tour of the modern conservative movement. Now, I know that there will always be individual exceptions to any of the issues I mention here. So I acknowledge them and confess to be speaking about modern conservatism in general. But the exceptions are just that, exceptions. My analysis holds true in general and when we judge a movement it is the general movement, not various individuals, that must be judged.

Let us go back to the 1950s as a starting point; surely over half a century of history will give us an accurate appraisal of conservatism.

In the 1950s it was widely illegal in the United States for a black person to marry a white person. Where the laws were most stringent are today considered conservative bastions. Of course, they were conservative back then as well. The very idea that an interracial couple might exist was abhorrent to many conservatives.

The most intimate relationship that two people could enter into was one that conservatives argued ought to be subjected to state regulation for that very reason. Your movement argued that marriage is so intimate, and so important, that it must NOT be left up to the couple in question but regulated by the state, for the greater social good.

In the 1960s women lobbied for the right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term or not. Their slogan, you might remember, was “my body, my right.” Conservatives, however, disagreed. The body, they said, does not just belong to the individual, but society has a claim on it as well. And you argued it was a greater good to force women to give birth, so a woman’s right to control her own body had to be subjected to state power.

The gay rights movement came into existence. Gay men and women claimed the right to control their own bodies and enter into whatever sexual relationship they wanted with other consenting members of their same sex. You were quite adamantly against this. You fought hard to keep sodomy laws on the books, in order to make it a crime for people to control their own bodies sexually. You argued that there was some greater social good that would come from state control over the bodies of people.

Of course those same “sodomy” laws regulated things like married spouses having oral sex or engaging in anal sex. Your regulations didn’t just cover gay couples, but were often widely written to include every sexual relationship that consenting adults could consider. And sometimes you wrote the laws so vaguely that it was unclear what sexual acts were being controlled. You argued that the state had the final say about people’s bodies and that the individual must give up freedom for some greater social good.

Various actors performed in very sexually explicit films that were sold to consenting adults. You wanted these films made illegal. The actors involved said it was their right to use their bodies in this manner. You disagreed quite strongly and insisted that control of the body ends when a greater social good is at stake.

Similarly, even today, when various individuals wish to sell sexual services to other consenting adults, you demand that the heavy hand of government come down on those people. You want them arrested and subjected to harsh punishment. You assert that their right to their own body has to be placed secondary to yet another "greater" social good.

During the Vietnam War various movements arose to fight conscription. Of course conscription means that the state has total control over what someone does with his body. It means they wake when the government tells them to wake; they march when the state tells them to march. You get the idea; this was total state control over an individual’s body. And while some conservatives eventually came out against conscription, many, if not most, defended the practice. Yet again the individual’s right to control his own body was made subservient to a claimed social good.

Recently campaigns have arisen to legalize marijuana and other “drugs” which you want regulated. The campaigners argue that what individuals do with their own body is their own business and should not be subjected to majority approval or state sanction. You have disagreed. You have said that people do not have sovereignty over their bodies, and that they must surrender their liberty in the name of a greater social good. When you argued: “Just say no,” you meant that the State would say no on behalf of everyone and that no one would be free to say yes.

For the last half century—and before that as well—the conservative movement has fought virtually every attempt by anyone to expand an individual’s control over his own body. You have been explicit in your denunciation of the idea that the body is under the sovereign control of the individual and insisted that some collective good required that the State have the final say in what one does with their physical body.

Today the Obama administration has introduced the most intrusive assault on the bodies of the American public that has ever been done by any government in the world, as far as I know. Anyone, American or not, who travels by air is subjected either to a scanner that takes what amount to nude photos of the passenger or they must be subjected to a government agent fondling their buttocks, genitals and breasts. Government agents now take their fingers and rub them along the length of a man’s penis in the name of a greater good.

And you are outraged. I am thrilled that so many conservatives are outraged about this. But on what premise do you base your outrage? It certainly can’t be on the claim that each individual owns his body. You have spent the last half-century claiming that such ownership is a fraud. Are you upset that the State has asserted control over a person’s body? But the entire modern conservative movement has argued, since I was born and then some, that the State must be the final authority over what individuals do with their bodies.

As much as you may loath the man, Barack Obama and his administration, are acting fully within conservative principles when they subject Americans to intrusive, intimate searches. And, just like you, the Obama administration is appealing to some greater good that takes precedence over individual liberty. Mr. Obama and Ms. Napolitano may be intruding on the bodies of Americans in ways that are totally unheard of in any civilized society, but they are not violating conservative principles.

You might fume, and fuse, and fidget over these intrusions. You might find this an unjustified intrusion on the body rights that you want to enjoy for yourself. And it is just that.

But Mr. Obama is not betraying your principles at all. He is carrying them out to their logical conclusion. The next time a TSA agent "touches your junk" or fondles the genitals of your daughter, son, or spouse, remember that you and your family members don't own your bodies. Your right to control your body is always, according to your own values, subjected to state control for a greater social good.

So, when the TSA agent puts on his rubber gloves and demands you bend over, take it like a true conservative. And think of America while you do it. The great libertarian H.L. Mencken said, “People deserve the government they get, and they deserve to get it good and hard.” But, from Mencken’s days until now, you have derided and insulted the libertarians who argued for the individual’s right to control his or her own body. In that conflict you have built the logical foundation for what the TSA is now doing to you and your loved ones. So, in Mencken’s tradition, I can only say you are getting the government you deserve, and I hope you get it good and hard.


  1. Very interesting.

    Although, your third and second to last paragraphs are exactly the same except for one word addition. It's most likely an editing error.

  2. Thank you for catching that. The system screwed up when I went to do some editing. And for some reason it wasn't letting me replace the paragraph that needed editing with the new one. This meant typing it in a second time and somehow the first one didn't get deleted in the process. It has since been corrected and is only there once.