Empty souls

This essay was written by Chris Dashiell, and is cross-posted by permission.

Andrew Sullivan’s latest book has the unintentionally ridiculous title of: The Conservative Soul. The sub-title is: “How we lost it, how to get it back.”

This of course assumes that the conservative had a soul to begin with, a proposition that I don’t find self-evident. From defending the right to own slaves, through fighting against suffrage for women, to suppressing the right of labor to organize and championing the war in Vietnam, the American conservative has not demonstrated what I would consider a soul under any but the most abstract definition.

For conservatism to gain something resembling a soul, it will have to pay attention to the needs of people rather than just corporations. It will have to recognize that the public good is not subsidiary to the profit motive. The conservative strategy has been to turn everything into an opportunity for business to make money, and to hell with education, health care, the arts, human rights, and the environment. If liberals hadn’t intervened, children would still be working in factories. (They still are in other countries—countries where American corporations move their plants.) The conservatives weren’t the ones fighting to end segregation—they were busy calling Martin Luther King a Communist. Karl Rove didn’t invent the “win at any cost” strategy—he just refined it. The Republican Party has been cynically exploiting racial bigotry and fear in order to win elections for generations.

So I’m not particularly receptive to the lukewarm awakenings of conservatives such as Mr. Sullivan. If you’ve turned a blind eye to torture, the killing of innocents for profit, and the undermining of the American Constitution itself, your sudden realization that Bush is fiscally irresponsible does not qualify as an act of moral redemption. When you’ve cheerleaded the war in Iraq, stupidly swallowing every lie and deriding those who had the sense to question or challenge the Bush regime, turning around now and saying that the war was a mistake is not a significant revelation.

If Bush’s poll numbers were in the 70s instead of the reverse, I am certain that Mr. Sullivan would not be questioning the conservative soul, just as I know that if he had not happened to be born gay, he would be just as opposed to gay rights as any other Thatcherite. Mr. Sullivan spends a lot of time telling us about his devout Catholic faith. If there’s one facet of Christianity he and his conservative soul-mates could really use, it is true, heartfelt repentance. Their policies have led us to disaster. Their advice has been the most unreliable and destructive we could have received. Yet I sense no remorse, only belated justifications.

For the conservative to get a soul, he needs to find out what a conscience is. He needs to stop lecturing the rest of us about morality and look at the immorality, the criminality, of what has been done by his movement and his party. The conservative (and I speak figuratively of the so-called conservative movement and not just of Mr. Sullivan) has blood on his hands. It will take a lot more than blithely talking about the soul to wash those hands clean.

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