Jemima Lewis: A craving for order is born in the playground

While left-wingers believe in the inherent goodness of human nature, right-wingers know better

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If your child is insecure and clingy, brace yourself: the worst is yet to come. According to the American psychologist Professor Jack Block, the fruit of your loins is a Young Tory in the making.

Professor Block, of the University of California at Berkeley, spent 20 years tracking the development of 100 children, from nursery school up. His conclusions, published in the Journal of Research into Personality, make painful reading - at least for right-wingers. Whiny, insecure children, he says, "tended to grow up conservative, and turned into rigid young adults who hewed closely to traditional gender roles and were uncomfortable with ambiguity". By contrast, "the confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests".

If they weren't whining before, America's conservatives certainly are now. Puffed up with wounded pride, they have accused Professor Block of using shoddy science to advance his own liberal agenda. They point out, quite reasonably, that children growing up in the left-wing academic enclave of Berkeley are hardly representative of the American people - let alone the human race. A survey of Texan children might have produced entirely different results.

Conservatives have traditionally eyed psychologists with distrust, and Professor Block sounds like just the sort of sandal-wearing, yoghurt-weaving subversive they abhor the most. His detractors point to a 1990 study of teenage drug use in which Professor Block claimed that the best-adjusted adolescents were those who had experimented with drugs. Children who abstained altogether, he said, were "anxious, emotionally constricted and lacking in social skills".

Any study of personality traits is bound to be somewhat subjective: one man's emotionally constricted control freak is another man's law-abiding citizen. Professor Block seems to have an almost schoolboyish admiration for cool kids, and a corresponding contempt for wimps, squares and misfits. Hence, his palpable scorn for the social losers who grow up into Republicans. But a right-wing psychologist - if such a thing exists - might have drawn an entirely different conclusion from this latest survey.

You could argue, for instance, that there is nothing conformist about being a conservative in Berkeley; that, on the contrary, it is about the most daring thing a young person could do. Most teenagers have an urgent need to blend in with their peers, and even in non-university towns it is virtually a requirement of adolescence to be piously left-wing. It must take great courage, or desperation, to rebel against that orthodoxy.

You might say that conservatism is attractive to wimps and misfits for a very good reason: because of the emphasis it places on good manners and self-control. The most fundamental distinction between left- and right-wingers, it is often said, is that the former believe in the inherent goodness of human nature. The latter know better - in many cases because of their experiences in childhood.

Anyone who has been bullied at school knows something about the fetid recesses of the human soul. I lost faith in the utopian society while being dragged around the playground of my progressive North Oxford comprehensive by my hair. Our teachers believed that bullies needed understanding, not punishment. When my mother complained that I kept coming home from school with bits of pencil lead gouged into my flesh, my teacher's eyes filled with sympathetic tears - my tormentors, she sighed, must be so terribly unhappy.

That kind of suffocating piety has little to offer the most vulnerable children: the naturally timid, well-behaved, delicate creatures for whom the Darwinian struggles of the playground come as a brutal shock. Professor Block calls them whiny: a more forgiving observer might call them terror stricken.

Is it any wonder they gravitate towards conservatism, with its comfortingly gloomy acknowledgement of human wickedness? Everyone gets more pessimistic and right-wing as they get older: nerds and misfits just have a head start.

The right-wing thinker Michael Oakshott once described conservatism as a kind of craving for realism. "To be conservative," he wrote, "is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss."

Instead of flying into a rage with Professor Block, America's right-wingers should embrace his researches. What he is really saying, after all, is that society's most vulnerable people are best served by conservatism. He may not know it, but the man is practically a Republican.

jemima.lewis@virgin.net

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