Month: December 2015

The Problem With Perfectionist Conservatism, Part I of II

Kayla Sue wrote a post a couple months ago talking about “a disturbing movement within the [pro-life] movement that is strongly anti-contraception.”  What she doesn’t get into is how much deeper it goes and why it exists in the first place – there’s a lot going on in the background and below the surface that most visibly manifests this way, and I think it’s worth taking the time to understand where it’s all coming from.

My background, in a nutshell – I was raised a conservative Catholic, I’m still Catholic, and I had a few very messy years in early adulthood.  So I’m fairly familiar with conservative thought and Catholic apologetics, but I’ve had the experience of challenging a lot of my assumptions, sifting through to see what’s bullshit and what holds up.  I’ve worked on seeing what works for me, what works for other people, what doesn’t seem to work for anyone, and occasionally what seems to work for most people.

Now, once you’ve established what’s true and good and beautiful at an individual level, you still have to decide what works for public policy.  And while you have to keep in mind that the way you see the world is not the only way to see the world, I agree with Archbishop Chaput that “A healthy democracy depends on people of conviction working hard to advance their ideas in the public square – respectfully and peacefully, but vigorously and without apologies.”  Unfortunately, this means that for many issues there is realistically no such thing as “live and let live.”

Meet the Perfectionist Conservative

When I say “perfectionist conservative” I am referring to the conservative that is shooting for the moon, social policy-wise.  They want no same-sex marriage, no divorce, no birth control, no abortions, no sex outside of marriage, no single parents and NOTHING LESS IS ACCEPTABLE.  They are unable to prioritize; they want it all at once.  In no way does this represent all conservatives, but as Kayla Sue noted, there’s a bunch out there.  So let me take you inside the mind of a perfectionist conservative, beginning with some baseline concepts:

Human nature – Human nature is corrupt.  Without external constraints, humans will descend into ugliness.  But we need people to behave to minimize the negative impact on innocents such as children.  To get people to behave, we need to make the consequences of bad behavior unpleasant so people will not do those things.  We also need to make unfortunate circumstances unpleasant so people will be sufficiently motivated to do something about it.  Everything is seen through this punitive lens.

Feeding into this, I think, is the way many perfectionist conservatives were raised as children.  Many will wax poetic about how their parents were successful at controlling their behavior with the constant threat of a spanking.  For their own good, of course.  So all they can conceive of for social policy is an environment of punitive control that should be put into place for everyone else’s good, too.

Theology of the Body – Shorthand for the grand unified theory of how our bodies relate to our souls, and based on that, how we should treat our bodies.  Based on a series of talks by St. JPII.  Note: It’s actually on my reading / blogging list because I keep getting referred back to this body of work in my struggles to understand and accept Catholic teaching on sex and birth control.  Widely assumed that if everyone everywhere followed the guidance of Theology of the Body, various social issues would go away.  Specifics include:

  • Sex – An acceptable activity only for married couples so that children have a safe place and stable household to grow up in. Leads to a lot of smug attitude from married conservatives, with an undercurrent of “nah nah ni boo boo” whenever they talk about how people shouldn’t be having sex if they’re not married.  Also leads to a lot of hostility in abstinent single men who are being eaten alive with jealousy that other people are having more fun than they are.  Anyone who has sex outside of marriage is a slave to lust and is party to an inherently abusive relationship, both with their own bodies and with the other person.  Even if you have sex with your fiancée a half-hour before your wedding.  Purity culture addendum: Men have sex because they “need” it; women have sex because they are trying to trick men into loving them.  So women need to deny men the satisfaction of their “need” in order to wrest a commitment (i.e. marriage) out of them in order to satisfy their own need for love.  It’s just the way men and women are; no use denying biology.
  • Birth control – Enables people to have sex outside of marriage without the “consequences” of children. Also enables married couples to continue to selfishly use each other for lustful purposes without the consequences of children.  Note: All that being said, I have to think that the long-term effects of all of us dumping hormones into our bodies en masse cannot be benign.  It would be nice if we collectively could maybe not assume that turning our bloodstreams into artificially-created hormone rivers is necessary and normal.  It would also be nice if young women could go to the doctor for things unrelated to reproduction without being pressured into taking a prescription for birth control pills.

Marriage – the basis for the family, the building block of society.  We need to encourage strong marriage … by making it supremely unpleasant to be in anything other than a monogamous, heterosexual marriage.  And we need to make it difficult / impossible to divorce, because people only divorce for selfish reasons.  Also, if people do “need” a divorce because of abuse, they need to prove it in court.  Because abusers always leave a neat trail of evidence, and if they don’t then it’s not really abuse anyway.  Also, abuse victims should be able to clearly and logically piece together their stories in a sequential fashion, because trauma isn’t a thing.  If they can’t tell a clear, logical, sequential story in which they reacted to every stimulus like a “reasonable person,” it’s not because of the way trauma messes with your brain; it just means they are lying.  Marriage is also a ticket out of poverty, and we will prove it by trotting out statistics of how middle class and rich people behave and make the logical leap that poor people can become like middle class and rich people by behaving like them, but only in ways that we care about, such as marriage.  Note: No word on whether you can magically lift yourself out of poverty by buying a yacht and a vacation home in the Hamptons.

Family – the building block of society.  We need to encourage strong families … by making it supremely unpleasant to be in anything other than a nuclear family.

Self-denial – Life is not about what you want and it is childish to use “but I want it” as an argument for anything.  We need to be better than the animals and master self-denial and self-control.  Note: A fair point, but too often used as a crutch.  By itself carries no weight, even though it is often treated like it does.

Right to life – the foundation for every other human right.  Liberty, bodily autonomy, equal protection under the law – none of those have any meaning without the right to life as an inviolable foundation.  Touches a lot of specific issues, but for today we are only roping in:

  • Abortion – This is the only issue that is actually a matter of life and death.

Why the inability to prioritize?

You will notice that at the end of a very long section detailing the perfectionist conservative’s opinions on all the things that are wrong with society, there is one small sentence on abortion – the only issue that is actually a matter of life and death.  But that’s not good enough for the perfectionist conservative – they want it all.  At once.  Right now.

I mentioned earlier that one of the defining characteristics of the perfectionist conservative is the seeming inability to prioritize one issue over another, and I think I see two reasons for this:

  • Cultural blend – not so long ago, American culture and Christianity were very intertwined. They still are, but not to the extent they used to be.  Even so, this is why you see a lot of people falling back on Christian theology to explain their recommendations for social policy.  They are unable to separate what every Christian optimally ought to practice with what you can reasonably expect people from a variety of backgrounds to conform to.  So you ask the perfectionist conservative what his non-negotiables are for social policy and he says, “All of them.”
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good – the perfectionist conservative believes that ALL of their pet issues need to be addressed RIGHT NOW or any remaining permissiveness will once again rot society to the core. After all, with the very future of Western Civilization™ at stake, one simply cannot negotiate with terrorists. Note: I give them points for realizing that things are connected to causes, but then I take those points back away for refusing to listen to what actual problems and actual causes are.

 

In Part II we will talk about how the perfectionist conservative sees various social ills, how they want to fix them, where they are wrong, and where they are right.

Cows and Graveyards, Revised

Once upon a time, I went on a two-hour drive through rural Iowa with some classmates, and the girl who was driving taught us all how to play Cows and Graveyards.

Here’s how you play:

  • Divide the car into two teams: left side and right side. Note: It should be decided before the game begins which team gets the person sitting in the middle of the back seat.  It is recommended that they be on the “left side” team, as the “left side” team includes the driver, who cannot really commit to playing since they are, you know, in charge of driving.
  • Each team watches their side of the car.
  • When you pass cows, count them. You must count them out loud, and you must stop counting when you can no longer see the cows.  Cow totals are cumulative.  For example, if you pass a herd of 15 cows and later pass a herd of 10 cows, you have a total of 25 cows.
  • When you pass a graveyard, all your cows “die” and you have to start over.
  • The winning team is the team with the most cows when you reach your destination.

It was a lot of fun!  So naturally I taught my children how to play.

Good times, right?  Wrong.

See, the problem I run into while driving through the Chicago suburbs is that there are no cows.  There are plenty of graveyards, but no cows.  So to make sure we had a playable game while driving to my parents’ house in Iowa, I made some … minor modifications.

General rule:

If you can see it, you can count it.  All animals count – cows, horses, dogs, squirrels, birds, and even musk oxen.  However, the unit of measurement is still the cow.  So, for example, if you count five horses, two dogs, and three birds, you have ten “cows.”

Count modifiers:

Different things you see while driving will either add to or subtract from your total cow count.

Businesses:

Fast food: Some of your cows are hungry and stop to eat.  -15 cows.

Gas station: Your cows are more energized.  +10 cows.

Hotel: Your cows feel better after a good night’s sleep.  +10 cows.

Starbucks: Your cows are more energized.  And Mommy is in a better mood.  +2 cows.

Wal-Mart: Save money.  Live better.  +3 cows.

Optional rule:

As a practical expedient while travelling on the highway, players may elect to use logos on blue highway signs (i.e. “Lodging next exit” or “Food next exit” signs) instead of looking for businesses from the road.

Medical centers:

Secular medical center: +50% bonus cows.  Because science is awesome.

Religious medical center: +100% bonus cows.  Because science + God is even better.

Catholic medical center: +110% bonus cows.  THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU … to have more cows.

Churches:

Catholic church: +6 cows.

Any other church: +5 cows.

Note: Initially, passing a Protestant church required subtracting 2 cows for embarrassingly bad theology, but my 10-year-old protested, “Mommy, you’re not being very nice to people who believe differently than you.”  Point taken.

Other landmarks:

Water tower: Some of your cows drown.  -10 cows.

Community college or university annex: Yay for smart cows!  +30% bonus cows.

Trains: +1 cow for every train car with graffiti.

Optional and proposed rules:

Optional rule:

When passing a graveyard, instead of all of your cows dying, a number of cows equal to the number of gravestones in the graveyard die.  Useful for those small country graveyards with maybe 20 stones.

Proposed rule:

“Mommy, what about auto parts stores?” asked my 12-year-old.  I don’t know – it seems like we should do something with auto parts stores, but I’m not sure what.

Proposed rule:

When crossing the Mississippi River, all your cows fall into the river and drown.

“NOOOOOO!”

Okay, fine: when crossing state lines, your cows are confused by the new surroundings and get lost.  Lose 20% of your cows.

Proposed rule:

“Mommy, shouldn’t we get +10 cows for passing a barn because the cows are rested?”  You currently have almost 200 cows – clearly you are doing fine.  Why are you lobbying for more?  “I don’t know.  Just ‘cuz.”

The following rule is optional, but if adopted, it must be wholly adopted.  Partial adoption is disallowed.

When approaching a barn, barn-like structure, or a cluster of barns or barn-like structures, if cows are visible from the road, players may elect to either: 1) count all the cows they can see (consistent with the rest of the rules); or 2) use the 10-cows-per-structure practical expedient.  Before passing each newly-sighted barn, barn-like structure, or cluster of barns or barn-like structures, one option or the other must be verbally elected.

For each green highway sign (mile-markers and exit signs don’t count), one of your cows stops to read the sign.  Lose that cow.

(And this is how you know your mother is a CPA.)

(P.S. The above proposed rule was NOT adopted in my car.  I can’t imagine why.)


 

Obviously, you can do whatever you want with this.  If you’re an atheist parent, for example, you may want to flip around the bonuses for the medical centers, or subtract 5 cows for ANY type of church you pass.  Whatever makes it fun!