The Glass Without
Using the occasion of the far-right extremist Canada/U.S. border blockades to suggest a more holistic way to think of conservatism and progressivism.
Note: this essay was originally published on Revue on February 13, 2022.
Good morning everybody. In case you missed it, a bunch of assholes have blockaded the Canada-US border at the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor and Detroit, in protest of mandates implemented to prevent the spread of Covid, which is a deadly virus that has already killed millions of people and seems perfectly willing to go on killing millions more if we let it, in case you hadn’t heard.
They’re doing it because of bodily autonomy, or because recommended Covid prevention measures are bad for the economy, or to protect children from harm, or for personal freedom, depending on who you ask when.
Anyway, they’re blockading this specific chokepoint of the border, and more recently they blocked off two other spots, and maybe they’ll block more, and all of these crossing are collectively responsible for an estimated fifty-eight trillion GDPs of Economy every fiscal year, and so it’s sort of posing a problem, if you’re somebody who uses Economy in your daily life. And they’re using their schoolchildren to blockade roads, and so forth.
So much for the economy. So much for the safety of children.
And of course Rand Paul, the famous American Senator and popular neighborhood piñata weighed in yesterday, because weighing in is what he does for a living, saying he hoped that truckers in America do something similar, and “clog up our cities.” Rand Paul opposes abortion rights for women, incidentally, and voting rights for minority groups, and his voting history and rhetoric bear this out.
So much for bodily autonomy. So much for freedom. Double so much for the economy.
Rand Paul is conservative, and so are all the members of his party, and so are the Canadian extremists calling themselves “truckers,” and so are most if not all of those who support their cause. That’s how they define themselves.
The people who would like to see policies designed to prevent the spread of a deadly virus are progressive, by and large. That’s sometimes how they define themselves, though it’s not a group that can be said to be as united when it comes to self-definition … almost as if they are not one side, but many.
But all that aside, the terms are in common currency for these two ideologies, when we think of them as a binary—which is often.
Conservative, progressive. Given how much these ideologies clash, it’s probably worth spending some time thinking about what the two terms mean. Maybe since they’re ideologies, we could look at the positions they hold.
If you looked at the situation in Ottawa, you might think that a conservative is somebody who supports protests and other direct action that leads to disruptions like adverse economic impact or blocked traffic, and a progressive is somebody who is against them, and appeals to existing authority. On the other hand, two summers ago, when Black activists and allies, who are progressive, protested systemic racial police brutality—often engaging in disruptive direct action that involved adverse economic impact, occasionally blocking streets—conservatives were so outraged that they proposed and passed laws that would make it legal to hit them with vehicles, and cheered as the cops bashed heads, and so on. Anyway, I don’t know if we can look to specific activities to understand what a conservative is, or a progressive.
I suppose you could try to listen to how people define the terms for themselves, but what I’ve discovered doing that is that the terms mean “the people with the obvious solutions to all our problems” and “the people who are actively creating all our problems,” and which term matches which definition depends on who you’re talking to. So it’s a real “both sides” scenario, I guess, as long as we carefully neglect to investigate the specifics of what each side wants to do, or the causes they fight for, or the effects that would come with their victories or losses, and just focus on what they say about one another. But I’ll say this for sure: you can’t really get an idea what the terms mean by listening to what people have to say.
One thing I hear from time to time is that we need both conservative and progressive perspectives in order to achieve a balanced policy. In this view these sides are like wings—right and left—and it’s impossible for the great bird of politics to fly without equal measures of each. Balance is a big thing is what many people are saying, and they’re saying it more and more, and they’re looking into it very strongly. The answer is always in the middle, is the word, and that’s a lucky enough thing if true, because then you just have to stake out the positions and triangulate to find some perfect center, and then just stay in the center, no matter what the two poles are, or how they move.
But then again, I do wonder if that’s how it works. Because if I say the glass holds water, and you say it holds poison, the correct answer probably isn’t “the glass holds water” even if it holds a mixture of half water and half poison. Even if I am technically 50% correct just like you, on a practical level you are more right than me, because the dominant issue is whether or not drinking poison is a good idea.
So it seems sometimes at least somebody is clearly in the right, and somebody is clearly in the wrong. Or—more likely, usually—somebody is closer to what is correct (though not there yet), and the other is further from it (and possibly moving even further), which means that meeting in the middle involves somebody who is more correct moving away from what is correct toward what is incorrect.
Which might be worth doing, I suppose, if it compelled people to move from the less correct position toward the more correct one. The math there would seem to me to depend on how far the more correct ones are expected to move away from what is correct, and how far the less correct ones are willing to move toward what is correct, and what the stakes are of being incorrect in the first place. If we want to drink 3% poison, we are not entirely correct, but agreeing to drink 50% poison is probably not a great compromise to make with the people who want everybody to drink 100% poison, and not something we’d want to move much toward, particularly if we had the option of listening to some way-out-there radicals who have landed on a plan to just drink pure filtered water with no poison at all, which seems very unrealistic because nobody has ever tried it. Nor would it be a very ethical compromise to let the pro-poison crowd force other people to drink what we knew to be pure poison, so we could go on drinking nice nonlethal water.
Either way, we don’t need both a correct wing and an incorrect one.
Sometimes it might be better for the more correct wing to simply move further toward what is correct, without seeking permission from the incorrect wing. Maybe even frequently!
So much for balance.
But all this is unhelpful to questions of defining the groups. Which is right? Which is wrong? Conservatism, progressivism … if we don’t need them both, which one do we need?
It’s understandable if you’re wondering what I’m getting at. It’s reasonable to be asking what my point is.
I guess my point is this: I want to propose a different way of thinking about conservatism and progressivism, structured around the idea of movement.
Let me suggest that we think about the two positions not as detectable ideologies themselves, but as situational orientations around an existing order.
Specifically with this order. The one that exists. This reality. The way our systems and laws are set up, the way they’re codified and the way they’re operationalized. What they claim to intend to do, and what they actually do. “The way things are,” in other words.
Let’s think of conservatism as being, in its essence, an orientation that desires to keep the existing order just as it is, or to make slow and deliberate calculated minor adjustments, to the existing order.
Conservatism, then, sits at the center of the existing order, whatever that order is.
Conservatism, then, is only as good as the existing order upon which it sits.
Another way of saying it: in order to understand conservatism, you need to look at what it’s trying to conserve. For us to know whether we need conservatism requires judgement and discernment about the existing order—which requires some underlying value against which to judge it.
Let’s think of progressivism as an orientation that seeks to move the existing order from its existing state to some other existing order. A deliberate movement, and possibly a dramatic one.
Progressivism, then, pushes out from the existing order, whatever that order is. It’s only as good as the direction it intends to go.
Another way of saying it: in order to understand progressivism, you need to look at the end to which it is trying to progress. For us to know if we need progressivism also requires judgment and discernment about both the existing order and the that proposed endpoint—which requires some underlying value against which to judge both.
If we drink clear water and somebody wants us to move to a place where we drink nuclear sludge, that is a “progressivism” we must reject.
If you accept these suggestions, then our struggles are not taking place on an axis of conservatism and progressivism at all, but on an axis of moral value. We’re contending not over movement, but over what moral value will undergird our moral order … which will determine whether or not we should stay or move in the first place.
Let me propose a name for the struggle: I think we are experiencing a struggle between a moral value of universal justice and a moral value of specific dominance.
Since I brought up the protest at the U.S./Canada border, let me use borders as an illustration of how this dichotomy might play out. The current state offers a relatively open and porous border between those two nations, but not without its structure and regulation and enforcement; and, indeed, due to the Covid pandemic, the movement has been toward greater restriction. Meanwhile we have a heavily policed and blockaded southern border with Mexico, involving arrests and recent family separations and incredibly cruel conditions and the sort of bigoted and demonizing talk that usually prefigures genocides. Incoming and outgoing flights from all nations, meanwhile, are heavily guarded and blockaded, controlled by authority and backed by the world’s most powerful economy (or one of them, anyway), and enforced by the most powerful military in global history.
Our status quo, then is one of easily observable specific dominance; of us, over those who would come into our territory.
A status quo of universal justice might desire a universally free and open border.
That’s the destination.
So: Should we stay or should we go?
What would we like to move to?
What would be the most like the glass without poison?
It’s not the simplest question in the world. There are reasons to control movements across national borders or geographical areas. Certainly the desire to containing the spread of infectious disease should be high on our list right now; but also there are invasive species and environmental realities to consider. And, while the danger of criminal or terrorist elements or the economic impact of cheap undocumented labor might seem to some a greater moral and existential danger than they actually pose, nevertheless they have effects that might be difficult to predict.
So, universally opening borders right this second without any other planning could be hasty, to use my starting Wordle guess as a descriptor.
Which is probably why people who would like open borders also want to address those issues, while people who fear open borders merely present these issues as reasons not to do it, rather than problems to solve.
Because, yes, there are reasons that our border is not free and open, some of which deal with bigotry and hatred and fear, to be sure, but some of which deal with actual real-world social, economic, and political factors and environmental concerns.
So let me pose this question: if a border could be free and open, what would that indicate?
A free and open border would indicate a new order, wherein those reasons were no longer present, or no longer required regulated borders in order to address them. It would be an order wherein voices of hatred and fear had been minimalized so entirely as to no longer factor into our decisions, while our various nations had reached such a degree of cooperation and goodwill that the various other challenges that make heavily regulated borders necessary had been cooperatively managed to such a degree that its various citizens could pass between with ease.
It’s plain to me that we aren’t there right now.
However, to me, this sounds like the glass without poison, and an excellent place toward which to move. Also, it strikes me as a worthy goal—not because the journey is so close that the destination would be easy to reach, but because we are presently so far from that mark, living in a world of fear and danger that is the way things are, so far from the clear glass of water that is a world so free of strife that borders are unnecessary, that to remain where we are is to choose the glass with poison. Which is to be poisoned.
So, I’d like to move from here to there—which makes me a progressive.
If we finally got there, I think I’d probably be a conservative, because that is the sort of order I’d very much like to conserve.
The proposition of a world with free and open borders terrifies people who have a conservative orientation, I’d argue, because what they want to conserve is the existing order, which is an order of specific dominance, and a world that could have open borders would mean the end of that order. Hence, the blockades to that end goal they see not as obstacles to overcome but as realities that are not only unchangeable but undesirable to change even if they could be changed, because they present good reasons not to move in the first place.
So, let’s finish up by returning to these anti-vaccine extremists who call themselves truckers, who are conservative. What do they seek to conserve?
Here’s my observation: they seek to conserve a reality in which they and they alone dominate as a social, economic, and political force.
Canadian extremist conspiracy theorists who call themselves truckers are being told by their government they must act as if the lives of immunocompromised people matter, or else they must face a consequence. The extremists who call themselves truckers find this intolerable.
Let’s stop asking why they are demonstrating, and focus on what they are demonstrating. They’re demonstrating the fact that the current order allows them, and only them, to determine whose lives matter, and whether or not a pandemic that is still killing thousands of people a day is still a danger, and whether vaccines work, and what reality itself is.
They are demonstrating their specific dominance. We might call it their supremacy, since their actions are being accommodated by power even as they harm that power, in a way other people would very clearly not be accommodated.
The police bashed in the heads of Black Lives Matters protesters. As of this writing the police haven’t yet done the same. The police are being very patient in this case. It’s true that these are police of a different country, so perhaps this explains it. And maybe by the time this hits your mailbox, they’ll have started to bash heads; wealth’s patience with white people isn’t infinite, I suspect. However, my guess is that, whatever the outcome, the police will keep it peaceful for white antivax extremists calling themselves truckers, in a way they absolutely will not for human rights protesters—as we’ve seen police do in the United States in other cases as well.
Do I want to see police bash these trucker’s heads? It’s not the simplest question in the world to answer, but I guess ultimately my answer is no, I’ve seen all of police bashing heads that I can stomach, thank you. However, it does illustrate the specific dominance that conservatives enjoy, and which they are currently fighting to conserve.
And maybe all this isn’t being entirely fair to conservatives, because obviously not all people who call themselves conservatives are blockading roads or making white supremacist statements, and so forth. The extremists who call themselves truckers aren’t real conservatives, you might argue. You can’t lump them in with the “sane” ones.
This is why it’s useful to focus on orientation to the present order: while these “real” conservatives don’t engage in extremist behavior to demonstrate their supremacy, they demonstrate it in other ways. They’ve proved they’ll pretty reliably provide their financial, spiritual, and political support to parties and structures and organizations that act to maintain and defend that supremacy. They refuse to switch their political affiliation unless their exacting demands are catered to by the opposition party, and even when the opposition party moves all the way over to accommodate them, most still refuse to move in the slightest, staying with their party even as it’s taken over by extremist reactionaries, even when they start to elect more and more open white supremacists and conspiracy theorists.
They express their concern, yes. But no matter what, they still exist in a world where they demand specific accommodation of their personal comfort and advantage over other concerns. And, crucially—because our present order is one that accommodates their desire to maintain and defend their current levels of supremacy—they won’t move away from the present order to a more universal justice. They come up with polite reasons not to move, much more complex and reasonable-sounding rationales, but the endpoint is still the same: not moving.
So yes, they’re conservative.
You might call these extremist truckers “regressive,” I suppose, because they actually want to move us further out, back toward a world even more dominated by their supremacy. Or you might call them regressive because they insist that the way things are is a state that is, observably, not connected with reality in many important respects—like whether or not a virus exists, or whether epidemiological professionals know more about epidemiology than Joe Rogan. But I’ll stick with “conservative,” both because it is what they call themselves, and because the supremacy they want to move deeper into observably exists in our present order, and it is that supremacy which is the observable constant they are willing to fight to conserve.
So yes, they’re conservative, too. In fact, they are conservative in the same way as the “sane” ones, and they seek to conserve the same thing.
The only true differences between the “sane” ones and the conspiracy-addled extremist “truckers” are rhetorical and tactical—if even that distinction is apt, because we’ve seen that “sane” conservatism will support pretty much any tactic and defend pretty much any rhetoric in defense of supremacy, up to and including a coup attempt.
So that’s conservatism in 2022.
How about progressivism?
Progressive activists took to the streets in 2020 because the police have been brutalizing and terrorizing communities—particularly Black communities—for years, and over the years police have grown more militarized and more occupying, drawing a greater and greater share of the community wealth in order to act as an occupying force and treat the communities they are ostensibly meant to protect and serve as an occupied territory.
But leave aside for a moment why Black Lives Matters demonstrated, and focus on what they demonstrated.
They demonstrated that they were indeed terrorized and brutalized by an occupying force, which indeed terrorized and brutalized them, night after night, in city after city: seized them off the streets, struck them with cars, shot them with rubber bullets, shoved them down and trampled them underfoot, choked them with tear gas, kettled them into corridors and smashed them with batons, made deputized allies of armed white supremacist militias who came from out of town to join them. They demonstrated that, to the preponderance of white power in America, Black lives were not more valuable than property, and not actually of any matter at all.
Black Lives Matter demonstrated the existing order of specific dominance, while pointing us toward universal justice.
Black Lives Matter were and are opposed by people who value and seek to conserve our present order, which values property and white supremacy over Black lives, and pays an ever-increasing amount of money to what can only be described as a domestic military budget, in order to ensure our fellow citizens are treated like an occupied force.
Those activists sought to move us from our present order of specific dominance—dominance of police over their lives and bodies—to a new order of universal justice, in which their lives mattered simply by dint of being lives, in which the money upon which police have been gorging themselves went instead to community services and public good.
That’s where progressives want to move us, and I sure hope we get there someday. It seems to me to be the glass without poison.
And yes, there are a lot of other issues tied to that issue, which conservatives present as a reason to not move. But the real progressive answer is to address those issues, too.
I think it’s worth working for a day when nobody would block a bridge to defend their right to put other people in mortal danger, or to insist on their individual right to define reality for everybody else, and working for a day when nobody will have to block a bridge to force the world to contend with their lives as something that ought to matter, because we are so aligned with that belief that it has become the way things are.
We’re not there yet, obviously. So, until then, I’m a progressive.
But I would love to someday be a conservative, protecting and maintaining a new order of universal justice.
A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.