Why Did I Become a Leftist?

In a previous post, I threw out some observations and conjecture about empathy in the context of recent interactions I’ve had with my conservative parents. My parents aren’t happy. Their having worked as poll workers in a liberal town on the day of Obama’s victory didn’t help matters.

Politics lately have rubbed salt into the open wounds of conservatism. The media gives us daily updates on the writhing that this has caused in the Republican Party and in the conservative movement in general, especially in relation to the Tea Party whose supporters are always going on about RINOs versus real conservatives. I don’t personally care too much about who those on the right end up sacrificing from their ranks. I’m perfectly fine with them eating their own, as they are apt to do at times like these.

However, I do care about my conservative parents which means I can’t help but personalize the issue of conservatism. I’m easily affected by the unhappiness and distress of those around me. I have a hard enough time keeping myself in a moderately good mood on the best of days, even when the people in my life are feeling satisfied with their place in the world. It would be different if I didn’t see them as often, but their moving back into town has made regular interactions the norm.

I actually like my parents in a general sense, by which I mean when they aren’t explicitly in righteous conservative mode. I’ve always been closer to them than my brothers have, for reasons that I don’t wish to entirely explain at the moment. To put it simply, I guess it comes down to understanding on a fundamental level why my parents are the way they are. I see how much I am my parent’s child. Every trait I love and hate in myself I can find correlates to varying degrees in my parents. Only circumstances clearly distinguish why I became a liberal-minded leftist rather than following in the rightward footsteps of my parents.

Looking back on my high school years in South Carolina, I can see how my left-leaning tendencies weren’t entirely formed and so not inevitable. Any number of events could have caused me to have become a conservative or at least more conservative-minded. At that time, I hadn’t yet returned to this liberal college town in the Midwest, i.e., Iowa City. I also hadn’t yet discovered the wonders and glories of the internet. My intellectual world back then was severely confined relative to my present situation living in a literary town full of book stores and libraries (public and university), all within short walking distance.

Growing up, I talked to my dad about all kinds of intellectual topics (and I still do). It was from him that I learned my intellectual abilities. This was eased both by the fact that I wasn’t yet fully a leftist and my dad wasn’t yet fully a right-winger (my dad could actually watch and enjoy the most liberal of tv shows such as Star Trek: Next Generation without any complaints). At that time, I didn’t have any other role models for what it meant to live a life of the intellect. So, my dad’s conservative intellect, albeit not without some basic liberal-mindedness, was profoundly influential upon my tender young emerging psyche.

I specifically remember two things we discussed around then in my late teens during the mid 1990s: 1) a book about the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of homosexuality, and 2) Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve which discusses race and IQ.

I look back now and see these ideas in a larger context. The right-wing culture wars were heating up and my dad was pulled into it. But at the time, I wasn’t a liberal and wasn’t versed in the liberal criticisms. I didn’t know, for example, that Murray’s book wasn’t intellectually credible. I actually took those ideas seriously for the simple reason that I took my dad seriously. I even remember repeating these ideas to others. If my intellectual development had stopped there, I would be an ideologically very different person.

The reason I took those ideas seriously was because of the social environment I found myself in. I was living in South Carolina during high school. After high school, I spent three summers in a conservative Christian YMCA camp in the belt buckle of the Bible Belt. Also, the colleges I went to (Clemson and a local community college) weren’t exactly bastions of liberalism and leftism.

I had no larger perspective at the time, but I knew on a gut-level that there was something wrong with the world I found myself in. Maybe it was depression that saved me. The tidy conservative vision of life appealed to a part of me. Like my parents, I just wanted to be a good person… which in the conservative worldview goes hand in hand with being ‘normal’. There was just one problem. I was incapable of being normal. I had profound sense of dissatisfaction and suspected that it was more than a mere personal problem.

Nonetheless, on a basic level, I understood the attraction of the simple vision of life offered by the conservative worldview. I can’t emphasize that enough. Even to this day, a strong element of conservative-mindedness has survived within me. This is why I’m so conflicted in my relationship with my parents.

If I had never discovered the wonders of liberal-mindedness, I would have ended up as a tragic figure in a conservative story. But my parents had unintentionally planted within me the seed of liberal-mindedness. My parents taught me to think independently, especially my dad who taught me to question and doubt and to think analytically. My parents also kept plenty of liberal-minded literature around the house which formed the background of my mental development.

Still, that wouldn’t have been enough to have made me into a liberal or leftist. My earliest strong introduction to the liberal worldview was public education. Despite being in the Deep South, public school introduced me to a wide variety of people, both my peers and teachers, but particularly teachers.

I had an English teacher who was British and who taught the clssics of the traditional liberal education. Two books that I discovered through his class were Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Hermann Hesse’s Siddharha. The two protagonists were typical liberal heros dissatisfied with the conservative world they were born into, both ending up alone in poverty, one ending in tragedy and the other in spiritual vision. I internalized the liberal hero and the two possible endings continue to play out in my psyche.

The other teacher I had was in an art class. He loved art with almost a sense of mission. He was one of those rare teachers who realized the power and rsponsibility of being a teacher. What he taught me was to think outside the box, to never assume anything, and to not be afraid to experiment. He is the only teacher I hated to disappoint for he saw potential in me and so allowed me to see it for myself.

Before moving back to liberal Iowa City, I had this basic liberal foundation, although I didn’t yet have a comprehension of liberalism on its own terms. The classical liberal hero, as found in Jude the Obscure and Siddhartha, lived in a conservative society. That was my situation in South Carolina, but Iowa City was a different world. All of a sudden, I found myself surrounded by well-educated liberals, authors regularly visiting for readings, aspiring writers everywhere, and numerous libraries and bookstores. My liberal-minded potential blossomed into my present bleeding heart self.

My mom recently asked me why her children all became so opposite of her and my dad. There is no way I could explain this so she could understand. Asking why I failed to become a conservative is inseparable from asking why conservatism itself has gone off the rails.

As I came into young adulthood, one thing became abundantly clear. Conservatism has offered no good answers or solutions to the problem of human suffering. This isn’t to say conservatives never will, but it would require a lot of deep soul-searching. I’ll be more than willing to reassess conservatism if it ever as a movement decides to offer a compassionate response to the struggles and sufferings of the the least among us.

22 thoughts on “Why Did I Become a Leftist?

  1. Conservativism has been incoherent for a long time, and leftism outside of liberalism has had the same problem since communism went so awry. The issue with conservatism is no one conservative really wants to admit that they intellectually chopped the Brain out of their coalition by a mixture of populism and theocracy being led by reactionary liberals with a few libertarians in tow. If conservatism has a future, the conservatives are going to have to be much more realistic about the fact that wishing the world was a certain way doesn’t make it so.

    • I think you are both way over-estimating the number of actual intellectual conservatives in the conservative political movement. And the new leaders are not buying into the right-wing mythology they’ve created for the masses, except when it coincides with their true motives, which are money and power. I’d be willing to bet that most self-identified conservative voters are motivated by one hot-button issue, carefully cultivated by the Fox/Talk Radio propaganda machine. Go beyond this and my money is on either of you two to explain the conservative positon better than these folks could. If Ben’s parents are honest to goodness, old fashioned Buckley type conservatives, what they are probably feeling right now is homeless.

      • There is one dynamic that is very relevant.

        A change of the conservative movement came when they started promoting issues related to such things as racism. This attracted authoritarian types into the party. And there is a codependent relationship between authoritarian types and social dominance orientation types. This would at least partly correspond with the differences between the Republican base and Republican leaders.

        My parents probably could be described as old fashioned Buckley type conservatives. If not for the GOP and Fox fearmongering, my parents wouldn’t feel so pushed to the extreme right. The whole War on Terror has caused many otherwise moderate conservatives to lose perspective. Also, society has changed in a way that allows people to become isolated in ideological enclaves which leads to even more loss of perspective. It has become a vicious cycle that will have to play itself out.

    • Yeah, there is a lot going on with how conservatism has become what it is. I agree with you about reactionary liberals in that it captures a paradox for the conservative movement. I just can’t see how Reagan was ever a conservative, just a disgruntled liberal and cynical progressive. But reactionary liberalism and reactionary conservatism have become allied and conflated, such that it is hard to understand the two as separate phenomena.

        • Maybe it would make more sense to simply speak of reactionary ideologies or predispositions. When reactionaries form movements, they attract reactionaries of all varieties: liberals, conservatives, authoritarians, social dominance types, etc. Maybe reactionary movements become identified with different ideologies, depending on the society and the historical moment.

          But why has conservatism as a movement been taken over by reactionaries? What do conservatives gain or think they gain by, for example, following the leadership of a non-conservative reactionary like Reagan? And what does this mean in defining liberalism as a social force that is either opposing or complicit?

          • I still maintain that the leaders are not reactionaries; they are coldly calculating businessmen who are simply using whatever means they can to use reactionaries and other conservatives to acheive their ends, which are money, money, money, power, and money. If their followers don’t seem to recognize the contradictions, that just goes to prove my point that most of them are focused on one hot button issue, and the job of the right-wing echo chamber is to keep pushing that button all the way to the voting booth.

          • Yeah, I more or less agree.

            I wouldn’t go so far as to say there aren’t any conservative leaders who are reactionaries. What I would argue is that a disproportionate number of them are social dominance orientation types, possibly some sociopaths as well.

            There is research about the relationship between authoritarian types and social dominance orientation types, the former wanting authority figures to submit to and the latter wanting loyal followers to submit to them. This is the dynamic that took over the conservative movement following the Southern Strategy.

            I’d assume there are still many moderate conservatives in the conservative movement and in the GOP. But they aren’t the people with the power and they are kept in line through constant fearmongering. Get rid of the social dominance orientation types and you would see moderate conservatism emerge again.

          • I’m speaking only of our own country, naturally, where capitalism has run amok. Marx’s criticisms seem to be spot-on, even if Marxist governments and economies have largely been failures.

          • Conservatism reactionary stance seems to be due to the fact it’s psychological mentality is largely based on hueristics of disgust and its ideological mentality is past-oriented. But then again libertarianism mucks all this up?

  2. Asking why I failed to become a conservative is inseparable from asking why conservatism itself has gone off the rails.

    And that’s the problem here as I see it. There used to be honorable conservatives, even compassionate. Conservatism has been taken over by the crazies, the lunatic fringe who will stop at nothing to advance their misguided agenda. Many people who used to consider themselves conservatives no longer do because of these crazies. No less than Jeb Bush himself who has stated this publicly. Say what you want about George W. Bush, but he sent millions of dollars in his first administration to combat AIDS in Africa. I know because a former professor of mine was instrumental in making this happen.
    Maybe the real problem here is that your parents can’t see that legitimate conservatism has changed, and that really isn’t your problem. Storm Sandy here threw a monkey wrench into the conservative “small federal government” philosophy. When Chris Christies embraced President Obama there was weeping and gnashing of teeth in conservative circles, they felt betrayed. Christie had a problem of epic proportions to deal with, many schools in New Jersey still have not opened since the storm. Many houses will never be rehabilitated, its still not safe to turn power back in many areas. No entity can possibly deal with anything of this magnitude except the Federal government, there’s no way the conservatives can put a “private enterprise” spin on this. You should be encouraged by this election, legitimate Republicans know the Party has to change, and the radical right-wingers are not going to have a place at the table, believe me. They got the message loud and clear.

  3. I remember how shocked and dismayed I was to discover that my mother was a racist. My mother is (was) the non-demonstrative, keep-it-all-inside type. Among her children, I was the least close to her. I started dating a black woman, and after I had brought her over to my mother’s a few times to swim, she must have decided I was getting serious, because she busted out with some racist crap (thankfully not in front of my GF) which doubly pissed me off because she was acting like my GF wasn’t even human – like saying this stuff to me was not attacking someone I cared about.

    The really sad thing was my GF’s reaction. Of course I didn’t tell her, we just stopped going to my mother’s house. She must have guessed, because one day she just asked me what my mother had said. It was like she expected it; like she was used to being treated that way by white people. She wasn’t upset at all, never said anything bad about my mother.

    Then another black friend of mine, a young single mother, signed a contract to buy a brand new custom built house in a subdivision that was being created just outside of Tampa. She used to tell me about picking out carpet and wallpaper and everything; she was so excited. Then, just before she was ready to move in, somebody vandalized the place, broke the windows and sprayed graffiti like “No N—ers!” and shit like that all over the whole house. It was even in the news and that’s where I heard about it.

    When I saw her next, I was so ashamed that I was afraid to look her in the eyes. BUT SHE WASN’T PISSED EITHER!!! It was just like my GF, like she expected it. You know – Oh well, I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. I’ll just go look for something else in a black neighborhood.” I mean, I hate the racism, but I hate the acceptance of it too. I just don’t think we have any idea how something like that constantly hanging over someone’s head must shape a person’s life, must limit what they expect to achieve.

    Now, when you see conservatives trying to deny people of color even the basic right to vote, trying to rationalize their latest racism… That’s why I’m a liberal. I’m not a philosopher, I just don’t want to see this kind of cruelty going on.

    • My parents aren’t racists, but they do sometimes express attitudes that some would describe as racialist. They were drawn into the race-based rhetoric of the Southern Strategy. It’s an odd thing. My parents would never identify as racist and they would be offended if you called them such. Even so, they sometimes say things that imply racial prejudice and really don’t make sense on any other basis.

      I think it’s just because they grew up at a time and in a place where race was a defining factor. It’s just there as a background.

      This racialism in my parents poked out its ugly head again during this recent campaign. It is the saddest part because my parents genuinely want to be good people and they know racism isn’t what good people do. It’s just that they can’t shake these unconscious biases that are embedded deep in their psyche.

      This is why I keep pointing out that research about multiculturalism. It is the only antidote for racism. It’s the default position of the human mind to identify with those one grows up with and mistrust those one didn’t grow up with. The only way to get around this instinctual racism is to be around many diverse people as a child and hence come to identify with that diversity.

    • Nope. I didn’t notice that.

      Then again, i don’t pay much attention to what is going on at Clemson. I only went there for a semester and it was a rather unhappy time of my life. It was when it became all too clear that I would never be the person my parents hoped I would become.

      The incident at Clemson is sadly unsurprising. The comments at that article are even more depressing.

  4. Always appreciate how you can weave your own specifics together with generalities into a more meaningful examination/analysis/query. Especially here enjoyed hearing about your evolution. I totally agree that early exposure to diversity is the best way to up the probability of breaking outside of particular boxes. I had that kind of upbringing, myself, and have always been grateful.

    • It’s how my mind works. I want to understand partly out of curiosity, but the personal motivates me even more. The understanding and the personal are already woven together. I just try to explain it.

      There are many reasons I’m reluctant to call myself a liberal. The evolution aspect is part of it. I often just use the label ‘leftist’ because it is openly vague. Still, the word ‘liberal’ has meaning and so I try to retrieve from it what meaning it still contains.

      People are complex. Conservative and liberal refer to patterns which people can fall into, but people have the potential for much else. However, the earlier a pattern is set such as early exposure to diversity and the longer that pattern is established, then the more likely the pattern is to hold and remain stable.

      Such more permanent patterns that come to create our sense of identity are gifts to us, whether or not we like what was given us. Some patterns seem useful or positive, others less so. But a pattern is just a pattern.

      Liberal-mindedness is the pattern that has come to define me the most in many different ways. The label of ‘liberal’ correlates to liberal-minded traits. They aren’t the same thing and yet the correlation is very close, so close that speaking of liberal without liberal-mindedness isn’t overly meaningful. Nonetheless, some people who are identified as liberal (by themselves or by others) aren’t overly liberal-minded.

      My developing liberal-mindedness wasn’t inevitable. And having developed liberal-mindedness, my ideological self-identification isn’t inevitable either. I could have become a liberal-minded conservative, maybe a rare creature but they do exist.

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