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.