Mon, Feb

A Defense of Legitimate Conservatism, and Endless Questions


GELFAND’S WORLD--Curiously, the weekend’s rioting forces us to admit that there is validity in the conservative viewpoint.

At the same time, it forces us to confront some of the fatal weaknesses in the way conservatism has been practiced in this country. 

What’s right about the conservative view? Simple: There are bad people in the world and the rest of us need protection from them. In this case, a relatively few of the bad people shut down a city for two days, burning and pillaging, and threatening violence against anyone who would try to stop them or even expose their identities. 

Yes, one must make the de rigueur statement (true, nonetheless) that there were thousands of people who were not only legally, but morally right to be protesting. They marched and held their signs, and I would like to join them in reciting our mutual hurt, anger, and frustration. It’s anger that is not about just one man, but about an ongoing problem which creates a divide in our society. 

An aside, one for which we don’t have the time or space in this discussion: At what point do protest marches change things? I think the sum total of the anti-Viet Nam War protests had an effect, but it took something like 4 years to really make an impact. Did any of these 2020 marches change any politician’s mind on anything? Do they affect the political outcome of, say, an election in November? It’s a discussion for another day . . . 

Conservatism, and what’s wrong with it? This part couldn’t be simpler. For multiple centuries, American conservativism has been the defender of racism and government sanctioned violence. For a century, there was state-mandated Jim Crow, thousands of lynchings that were ignored by the authorities, restrictive covenants on real estate (probably including where you are now living), and the preservation of routine, everyday racist practices in everything that involved human interactions. You might also classify the defense of slavery as a nineteenth century conservative position. 

So yes on conservatism in that we need to protect ourselves from the acts of bad people. No on conservatism when it supports and defends bad behavior by violent, brutal whites against non-whites and religious minorities. 

So there you have it. We need to face reality, but we also need to be careful about deciding what our reality should be. In the one sense, we have to recognize that a certain percentage of all people born will grow up to be bad. There are those who are genetically psychopathic and those who learn to be bad from their parents and peers. 

Still, we want to avoid creating a state that is organized and run by the psychopaths and sociopaths themselves, and we want to avoid a system (such as the political machines that ran American cities) that mimics the genetically evil. 

So we have endless arguments about how far to extend the rules. Today we are caught up in one particular question: What is the proper response to organized looting? In the coming days, we will be hearing arguments as to methodology and as to the level of resources that should be deployed. 

The enduring question: What is the proper role of government? Is it to enforce Jim Crow (and previously to enforce slavery)? That certainly used to be one conservative point of view. In the present day: what is the appropriate level of punishment for those caught stealing? And critically important, what is the balance between your right as a citizen to be left alone and the need by the authorities to investigate crime? This question comes up time and again in debates over “stop and frisk” and questions about the rights of the authorities to pull you over and search your car. 

The police are always at the center of the question. 

Let’s start with an old principle that in our democracy, the government has to have the monopoly on violence. That doesn’t mean that the government is supposed to be violent as a rule, or that its practitioners should be enjoying doing violence. It just means that the only time violence is legally used (excepting self-defense) is when it is used for a proper purpose by well-trained government officials. Ordinary people shouldn’t be allowed to go around bashing each other or shooting each other without consequences, but the corollary is that sometimes it takes violence by the authorities to quell the violence engaged in by the bad people. 

Over the weekend, we saw organized gangs of looters arrive in cars to recently smashed-in doors, send brigades of runners into the stores to carry out loads of merchandise, and then to load the cars, jump in, and drive away. They came prepared, having figured out to cover or remove their license plates. They weren’t protesting George Floyd’s death; they were opportunistically taking advantage of the moment. 

And all through these televised events, we pretty much never saw a police action against the original looters. What is the appropriate response to such events by a police department that has the use of helicopter spotting, drones, and enough weaponry to conquer a small country? The answer is going to be all tangled up in all those questions about the proper use of force and the limits on police powers to investigate crimes. 

Another corollary to the concept of law and order under a benign government: A lot of us ordinary people don’t realize that you are supposed to obey the lawful orders of the police. And central to this principle is that people who are told they are under arrest are supposed to cooperate fully. Any little bit of resistance is an attack on the structure of the law itself. The police have not only the authority, but the duty to enforce their arrest orders, and to use reasonable force when it is necessary. 

Notice that word “reasonable” attached to the word “force.” It’s a concept that has been going through some serious evolution over the past half century. It may seem obvious to us that the police should limit themselves to the minimum force necessary to subdue the subject, but it was not always so. Police officer turned novelist Joseph Wambaugh wrote a column following the beating of motorist Rodney King. I don’t have it in front of me, but I can still remember the central point: In the old days, it was acceptable within police culture to administer a beating to somebody who had forced them to engage in a high speed chase. What we saw in the Rodney King video was, apparently, just such a beating (maybe a little overly enthusiastic, even according to older police culture, but not unheard of). 

A related question involves the inappropriate use of the arrest power by the police. This is a huge question that is directly tied to American racist practice, but extends to other areas. 

Another question involves the acceptable techniques to use in trying to subdue a subject who is resisting. Choke holds are effective, but they are also dangerous. Some police departments don’t allow them. In the case of George Floyd in Minneapolis, we had the ultimate sort of choke hold, administered with a forceful knee drop, for long enough to result in death. Reports just now coming in suggest that the Minneapolis police have been choking people by the hundreds over the past few years. I suspect that this practice will now be banned, but it is legitimate to ask why it wasn’t banned before. 

Regarding the death of George Floyd: From the standpoint of this naïve viewer and apparently lots of other people, the officer seemed to be doing his best to punish the subject, and the 3 other officers were protecting his ability to do so by keeping bystanders away. It is a whole other discussion as to the psychological effects this event will have on the onlookers – will they have enduring psychological problems themselves, the equivalent of survivors’ guilt? 

And one more question that pushes the envelope but will, I predict, be a common topic in the next few weeks: The acceptance by an entire population of the violent actions of its government received a name in the post-WWII period. The term “good German” was invented to describe someone who looked the other way from (or supported) the genocidal acts of the political leadership. In the postwar period, it became common to argue that the public had some sort of moral obligation to resist improper acts by government. Clearly the killing of George Floyd was such an act. 

What rights and obligations do bystanders have when they are witnessing a police killing? Apparently under the law, we have no right to resist, or at least no enforceable right. You will be arrested and charged with interfering with the actions of the police. And if some bystander had managed to interfere (even momentarily) with the Floyd killing so as to save his life, how would it be possible to show that in an alternate future, George Floyd would be dead? 

The questions beget questions and create an endless spiral. But the solution, however long it takes, is for our society to grow up and get over the racism and racist practices that stem from the post-Civil War period and have bedeviled us to this day. 


The events of this weekend should be a learning experience (and sobering, to say the least) to those of us who have been involved in trying to prepare our population for a major earthquake. I believe that we have been making assumptions about how people will behave that are, perhaps, not warranted. That discussion is for another day. 

The president predictably showed no ability, or perhaps it was lack of interest, in being a national leader. His current shtick is to insult the governors. 

By contrast, the LA County Sheriff (who has been taking a lot of flak from the Supervisors, among others) said all the right words, defending the right of protest. It was a long ways from 1968 and Chicago.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])



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