So I'm taking a brief break from my pounding out chapters in advance of my
Tuesday 50 per cent deadline to catch up on the newsgroups I follow (taking
happy advantage of
the new T1-- damn, but it's fun to not be fazed by 5000-line attachments anymore),
and I found myself noticing something.
See, the group in question, and the demographic that I've been sidling around
for the past six years or so, is one that's made up in large part of young,
angst-filled, disillusioned guys of alternative sexuality who feel themselves
to be alienated
from the mass of humanity -- largely of their own volition. Whether in college
dorms or their parents' basements, many of them have lived on some form of
dole for the majority of their lives, and (like anybody would be) they don't
terrifically self-confident or self-sufficient as a result. These are people
who are so disgusted with the human race and its perceived vagaries, cruelties,
inequities, and crimes against the planet, that they'd rather not even be human.
(Don't even ask what I'm doing floating around such a group.)
So it's not as though I can really reasonably expect to find a whole lot of political
balance there. And upon pulling up the chatty newsgroups, which I'd last read
in mid-February, it was with a twinge that I realized I'd soon be scrolling my
way through an inevitable morass of truly, truly dumb anti-war sloganeering.
As, indeed, it turned out to be. We had insightful sentiments from DJ-ish types
like "Drop Beats Not Bombs", and speculation was batted about that the Bushies
were planning to use nuclear weapons in Iraq, and someone had changed her signature
to an FDR quote: "A conservative is a man who, having two perfectly good legs,
has never taken a single step forward."
But before that was a startling thread from one person who was on the verge of
tears for an entirely different reason: he was a Christian. And he felt totally
alienated by the group he loved-- vilified and discriminated against by the very
people to whom he'd attached himself largely because he'd thought they were all about tolerance
and open-mindedness. He felt betrayed. He felt surrounded by scowling faces who
saw no difference between him and Pat Robertson, between him and the KKK, between
him and a Satan that the scowls didn't believe existed anyway. And he didn't
know where he could turn next.
And I got to thinking. Let's see: since so many people start out as liberals,
being idealistic and full of progressive, anti-capitalist, anti-McDonald's, anti-modernist
causes to fight for from the safety of their prepaid tuitions, it follows that
for anyone to become conservative later in life has to involve a conscious change
in attitude, catalyzed by some series of personal events or shifting of interests.
Remaining a liberal is the default state, and in the absence of some defining
event to change one's attitude, one is likely to find a community of like-minded
compatriots with which to experience one's twenties and thirties in the same
relative comfort and idealistic certainty as one was used to.
So it follows, it seems to me, that a great many people who grow up proud to
call themselves "liberals" have quite possibly never actually met a real, live
conservative-- except maybe for their jingoistic fathers whom they remember
as the guy who always told them to mow the lawn or stop dating hippies, or
square-jawed buzz-cut gym-and-civics teachers who always growled about commies.
It's hard to grow up these days with a positive impression of conservatives--
and it's equally hard to grow up with a real first-hand understanding of what
conservative politics are about.
The realities of the business world are opaque to the high-school student,
who sees only grimy air and ugly smokestacks next to a white-sand California
The rights of the landlord are ignored or seen as irrelevant by the tenant,
whose friends and roommates are naturally on the opposite end of an adversarial
with what can only be a tall and dark-cloaked figure with a top hat and a greasy,
curled moustache who darkens poor welfare recipients' doorways each month to
demand exorbitant rent to support his own opulent playboy penthouse. The gun
owner, casually visiting the range twice a month to brush up on his target
practice, is inscrutable to someone who sees the government as being a more
than his neighbors, or who would equate the killing of an animal for food with
killing a human for sport. The moderate religious citizen, no matter how low-key
or benign his faith, is automatically folded into an über-class of oppressors
by kids opening their minds for the first time-- cataclysmically, like a ship
floating through the last trammeled channels of a river delta before suddenly
finding itself out at open sea with no boundaries in sight-- to the myriad
possibilities of existentialism and atheism and Matrix scenarios; it's
so attractive for such a wondering youth to think of the past two thousand
years of human experience
being a deluded mass fiction that even those who take just a passing part in
such a delusion become synonymous with the great perpetrators of intellectual
darkness in our species' history. Christianity is old and staid and established,
and so it becomes evil. Likewise with so many other traditional hallmarks
of conservatism-- gun rights, business-friendliness, acknowledgment of military
necessity. Group enough of these memes together, and the college student or
young adult can't help but equate "conservative" with a caricature so vile
and objectionable that it's inconceivable to look at the underlying
realities with clear eyes.
So it's with some disappointment that I still find myself floating through
social groups full of people who, if they knew I was no longer comfortable
with the "liberal" label
myself, would suddenly view me with the same narrow-eyed suspicion as they
would if told that I donned a white hood and burned
crosses at night. But, naturally, I try to keep my mouth shut, for fear of
losing friends. Even the most conscientious and centrist conservative viewpoint
can seem callous or cruel to a dyed-in-the-wool liberal; how do you discuss landlords'
rights with someone who lives in an unpleasant and overpriced apartment, or discuss
the Second Amendment with someone who lives down the street from a kid who was
killed at school by a classmate who brought his dad's .38 to campus?
I don't have the answer, obviously. If I did, we'd have the Grand
Unified Theory of Politics and the way to universal bidirectional dialogue.
But there's that unfortunate one-way tendency of politics to contend with,
more's the pity. Lots more people spend their childhood reacting positively
to the word "liberal" and
with distaste toward "conservative" than the other way around. This leads to
a profound imbalance in politics and demographics, one that's likely impossible
Of course, there's always the contingency of anecdote: I could describe a conservative
as "someone who would pull a gun in order to face
down a racist", and surely it would short out a few synapses, particular
on one of those ever-present people who seem to be absolutely fetishistic about
guns, but who viscerally dread the idea of Americans legally allowed to own
them. Just as it would ring hollow with someone quoting FDR or Marx for me
out that American conservatives are the firmest believers in individual liberty,
self-determination, and the innovation and technological and social progress that
inevitably follows. Danger! Danger! Does not compute. Conservatives are against progress!
Why do you think they call it Congress? Taglines don't lie!
But anecdotes can only go so far; there is, unfortunately, the reality that political
schisms and prejudices can't be resolved with a well-placed tactical one-liner.
The best I can do is to just hope that as these people grow up and find their
place in the world, they'll come to realize why it is that half the American
political system consists of people who occupy a school of thought that they
reflexively think of as evil. Fifty Senators and 240-something Representatives,
to say nothing of the highest elected officers and appointed Cabinet positions--
all evil. Never mind the lifetime of thought and philosophy that leads
each such politician to such a platform; never mind how much time each one spends
each day thinking about how to advance freedom and personal happiness throughout
the country and the world, using the proven tools of capitalistic creation of
wealth and individual liberty. These must be meaningless three-card-monte shells,
pushed forward to hide an ever-present evil agenda and a black, black, corrupt
I have no problem with people being genuinely in favor of those causes one
normally associates with "liberal" thinking. Equality, environmental preservation, assistance
to the down-at-heel, spiritual freedom, peace-- these are all fine goals. I believe
in every one of them, and firmly. However, I also believe that the paths toward
them that are so casually espoused by the Left-- equality enforced and over-enforced
by fiat, environmental protection through barriers against business, welfare,
abolishment of religion, pacifism-- are superficial and short-term semi-solutions
that treat the symptoms rather than the causes. That's why I'm no longer comfortable
with the term "liberal". I think there are better paths toward these admirable
goals, but they're more subtle, or they involve intermediate steps that may
seem counterproductive. To have peace, for instance, you can't just not fight;
have to take positive action toward lasting mutual good-will, which can involve
things like the overthrow of tyranny-- in other words, war. To bring happiness
to the downtrodden, you need to create wealth in the economy, not just dole
out the wealth you already have in the hopes that the recipients will somehow
inspired to achievement (or at least become magically happy); and to create
jobs, you've got to make your city a favorable place to run a business, not
anyone stupid enough to set up shop there. To protect the environment, you've
got to let businesses become more efficient and less wasteful as a result of
their own internal process development, which is in fact in their own interest.
It's a complex world out there, much more complex than it ever seemed when I
was peering out the window of my college dorm. It's full of tradeoffs; but it's
also managed to survive this long, and those mysterious and shadowy people over
on the right who stand for what I always thought of as evil must actually
sort of have a point-- because, after all, it's their "conservative" ideals that
have kept this country on the amazingly successful track toward all those "liberal" goals,
to which we're closer now than ever before in history.
It pains me to think that I'm what so many people whom I like to think of as
friends and kindred spirits would think of as evil. But I'm comforted
by the thought that there are as many people there whose ideas can and will change
over time as there are people who are forever fixated on the worldview they developed
from the comfort of a computer chair, disgusted with being unable to see the
Golden Arches across the street because of the smog.
Those images are hard to shake, I know. But it's the starkness of what appears
to be their truth that is most insidious about them: there is, indeed, more to
the picture, and it can only be revealed with time.
Brian C. Tiemann operates the popular blog Peeve
Farm where this article
first appeared as a blog entry on August 30, 2003.