Monday, September 3, 2012
Colonial attitudes and American federalism
Recently I read an article with responses in which several academics/intellectuals traffic in the stereotype that conservatives are cognitively restricted, easily manipulated sheep with authoritarian leanings, who require the comfort of pat, cookie-cutter answers to make sense of their world, answers that are seductive in its black-and-white, emotionally appealing simplicity.
In the fine progressive state of California, it doesn't seem all that comfortable to have and express conservative thoughts. Especially within the educational institutions. There, in fact, it often seemed like I was surrounded by people that embraced ready-made, pat, black-and-white oversimplicities. You could tell who was bad by looking at their skin, looking at their gender, looking at their religion. They were definitely not conservatives though. This mode of thinking seemed overrrepresented as well in the journaling niches of cyberspace.
Aside from the superficiality of arguments, there was also the strange sense of pluralistic thinking. It was a selective kind of pluralism that celebrated the inherent values of all cultures, as long as it wasn't conservative culture in the U.S. or Christian culture in the U.S. Here pluralism means making room for different points of room as long as they aren't the unacceptable ones; multiculturalism means embracing primitive cultures except for the primitive unenlightened culture of the U.S.; relativism means that all points of view are equal but some are more equal than others. A point of view that, like the mission of the Starship Enterprise, pretends to treat the imposition of one's enlightened policies upon the mores of the native population as an unacceptable, arrogant, colonial attitude. Except when it means imposing progressive ideals upon conservative communities.
I think one of the pivotal tensions in the United States throughout its history has been the tension between pluralism and majoritarianism. This seems inherent in its unique brand of federalism. The colonies that became independent states ratified a contract between their people and a federal government that would preserve the autonomy of the States to continue following their ways and mores and policies while providing a federal governement that would protect their shared interests while being checked against abusing its power over said States. One of many guaranteed protections to this end was a BIll of Rights to restricted certain branches of the government from curtailing criticism of the government, from imposing a national religious orthodoxy, from interfering with the maintenance of an armed public, etc.
It was understood when this contract was made and signed that within individual states the majority could hold sway in cultural, social, and religious matters. Each state determined the rules of its society in its own way for good and ill. Great care was taken to try to keep a group of states from using the centralized government from imposing their ways on the other states. The Tenth Amendment, for instance.
The idea of states as maintaining their traditions was a way of, at one level, giving each people a chance to determine their way of life. The Constitution couldn't, without amendment, give each community or village its freedom to create its own society, but it could do this at a state's level. The very term state connotes the idea of a sovereign country--whose sovereignty would be violated if other countries tried to impose their collective will on it.
Since that time, the nature of American federalism has changed in response to the suppression of state secession, the 14th Amendentment, and the much later development of the "doctrine of incorporation." Since then there have been many attempts to make all the states abide by the same precepts. Federal policy becomes state policy becomes county policy becomes school policy becomes community policy. The states have once again become colonies of an Empire, and imperialism is executed in the name of individual rights.
The right to not hear "God" referred to (or see a Nativity manger) in the public square, the right to cheap contraceptives, the right to not only have a marriage ceremony someone of your own gender but have your society call it a marriage, the right to for your child to not hear the term "intelligent design" in a science class (except in a derogatory way) and to not hear that the neo-Darwinian formulation is just a theory, the right to make your Catholic organization pay for your birth control. All these individual rights become rationalizations for imposing a federal outlook (a national religion?) upon communities in each state. A community must be protected from handicapping their children's future science careers by exposing them to fanciful notions of design. A community must not have any say over what their children are told in school about sex with various genders. Nationalized education policy will protect the children from ideas that will damage the fabric of society. It is the government that must have this responsibility; parents can't be entrusted with it. Some might get it wrong. The ACLU and various federal courts concurring with them have asserted that they do not recognize the rights of parents.
There has always been a special relationship between totalitarian states and nationally controlled education.