Why I Abandoned Conservatism

To most people who don’t know it already, here’s something that will probably come as a surprise: until about two years ago, I was a far-right conservative.

No, really, I was. Here are some things that I believed when I was a conservative. I believed that there is no real racism or sexism anymore. A Black man is president and women can work outside the home, so none of that. I thought same-sex couples should not be able to get married because that’s not what marriage means. And they definitely shouldn’t be able to adopt children because then the children would also become gay and we can’t have that.

I thought that the government has no right to tell people how to live, except when it does. It has no right to take our taxes and use them to help poor people, because poor people just don’t try hard enough. I thought that lowering taxes makes people spend more, always. I thought that affirmative action is exactly the same thing as racism, because after all, you’re doing things based on people’s skin color.

I believed that the United States has the responsibility to spread democracy throughout the world, by use of force if necessary. Needless to say, I applauded both of our recent wars. I thought that global warming was either a lie or at least an exaggeration, and even if it wasn’t, the government has no right to dictate what we do with the environment, anyway.

I pitied the women who went out carelessly and got themselves raped. I thought the justice system generally does its job, so if rapists weren’t getting convicted, that probably means they didn’t really do it. I thought false rape accusations were a much bigger problem, in fact.

I adored Clarence Thomas, George Bush, Antonin Scalia, Ann Coulter, and, of course, Ronald Reagan. I reserved a particular hatred for Al Gore and Barack Obama.

I believed that abortion was murder, and that it should be illegal in almost all cases.

I figure I’m supposed to be terribly ashamed and contrite about all of this, but truthfully, I’m not. I was a teenager, first of all, and second, I don’t know what I could’ve done to find any other narrative. There are a number of reasons why I was a conservative, and they were chiefly these:

  • because my family was
  • because I grew up in suburban Ohio
  • because our K-12 education teaches us that the American government is Good, that laws are Just, that the justice system Works, and so on
  • because children tend to believe that their values and morals should be everyone’s values and morals
  • because I didn’t have access to the sort of critical analysis that encourages examination of one’s politics–until I got to college

So there you have it. Once I got to college, I took some sociology classes and quickly became a moderate. Then I took more classes, read more, made more friends, read much more, got involved in sexual health activism, got involved in other types of activism, started to see how everything in our society interacts with each other, read some more, and developed the ideology that I have now.

That ideology is something I call progressivism because I favor change in a positive direction. I don’t think that things are fine as they are. I don’t think we should just calm down and stop whining. I don’t think humanity has reached its potential and I don’t think it’ll reach it for a very, very long time. I think our intellect and our compassion are two human qualities that do not get used nearly enough.

People always ask me how I made such a 180-degree shift in politics. I don’t really know how it happened, perhaps because it happened while I was in the midst of a major depression, which means I don’t remember anything too well. But everyone asks that–my friends, my readers, my professors. My therapist asked me today.

I think the way I changed is that I started looking beneath the surface more. Why are there so many Black men in prison? Is it because Black men are naturally predisposed to crime? Apparently not. For instance, in California in 2011, African Americans were 12 times more likely than non-African Americans to be imprisoned on drug-related felony charges, but studies show that African Americans are no more likely to use and sell drugs than anyone else (in fact, they may be less likely to). What’s going on?

That’s just one small example. I learned dozens upon dozens of such examples over the past few years, about everything. About women, people of color, the environment, food policy, agriculture, mental health, disability, LGBT folks, the poor, drug policy, city planning, wars, guns, education, sexual assault, business, discrimination laws, religion, the media, language, abortion, sex ed, obesity, scientific research, healthcare, elections, the Supreme Court, college, advertising, fashion, feminism, queer theory, money.

My head is overflowing with this information and yet I learn more and more of it every day. Whereas I used to think that each person is an individual who makes choices that are absolutely his or her own, I now know that we are acted upon by countless societal forces at every moment. I still do believe that people should strive for independence, but that can’t happen without gaining a deep understanding of these forces.

Do I have a solution for all of this? No. And frankly, I’m kind of tired of people demanding me to provide them with solutions. If I thought I could save the world, I’d be a politician. And I’d be wrong.

But sooner or later, we as a society will stumble upon solutions, slowly but surely.

Everything is connected. Everything is politics. Everything affects you, even in some little way, somehow.

That’s why I am no longer a conservative.

That’s why this is not “just a phase,” “youthful idealism,” or “naivete.”

My exact views on specific issues will change throughout my life, but what won’t is my awareness of the fact that none of us live inside a bubble, no matter how much we may wish that we did.

The graphing calculator I used in high school had a big ol’ John McCain 2008 sticker on it. I rocked that damn sticker. Now I have stickers from Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, and Occupy Chicago. It’s kind of both fun and sad to look back at who I used to be. But I’m not ashamed. We all did stupid things in high school, and honestly, I could’ve done worse than plaster McCain stickers on things and rant about how evil feminism is.

Difficult ≠ Impossible

I’m going to come out of my cave and write about something that pisses me off. (OK, so I could start any blog post this way, but whatever.)

Here’s something that I consider one of the most glaring cultural problems in America today–it’s the idea that just because something is difficult, it is impossible and not worth trying. Our culture has become a deeply pessimistic one, and the message that it sends these days is “Oh, forget it, we could never change that anyway.”

Don’t believe me? Well, you should, because I’m right. There’s a reason that the issues that land on the political agenda are fairly simple–go to war, or not go to war. Allow gay marriage, or not allow gay marriage. Raise the debt ceiling, or don’t raise it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these issues aren’t fraught with difficulties of their own. But they are very simple–yes or no. Right or wrong. Do, or don’t.

The issues that don’t really get talked about much are the complex ones. How to fix our education system. How to achieve equality between women and men, and between whites and people of color. How to create a more just and sustainable food system. How to end our addiction to oil. How to end the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. How to encourage democracy to take root in other parts of the world without shoving it down people’s throats.

To be sure, our government does things to try and ameliorate these issues somewhat, but they’re always band-aid solutions to broken-bone problems. For instance, George W. Bush tried to “fix” our schools with No Child Left Behind. President Obama issued empty threats to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop settlement building, with no regard for the religious and political complexities that the settlement issue dredges up. Then there’s that little Iraq thing. As for our screwed-up food system, racial justice, and ditching the oil habit, I don’t think anything’s being done at all.

Try coming up to an older person (by which I mean, someone old enough to have their own kids) and talking to them about these issues. About education, about food, about the racism still embedded deep within our society. Ten bucks says they tell you something like, “Yeah, it’d be great if that could get fixed, but face it–it’s never gonna happen.”

Why? Why the hell not?

Well, because it’s hard.

People think that these things are never gonna get fixed because it’s so hard to fix them. And by hard, I mean like when you’re trying to do a math problem and you don’t even know where to start. You’re completely stuck. Nothing you’ve ever learned is going to help you here.

The stuff that gets in the news, like gay marriage, the debt ceiling, and all of that sort of stuff, is different from these issues because, despite our disagreement on them, we know what to do. We either vote yes, or no. But you can’t vote “yes” or “no” on education reform or on ending racism, because you have to figure out what the hell to actually do about it.

Note what a clusterfuck occurs when our government actually tries to take on a complex and nuanced issue–for instance, healthcare reform. It nearly stops functioning. Our culture is terrified of complexity.

Usually when young people like me talk about fixing some of these complicated problems, older people call us “idealists.” (And that’s at best–sometimes they use less charitable labels.) To me, all that’s saying is that we’re willing to think about and talk about things that are hard, and “realistic” people are not.

Well, realism is dooming this country. Realists are people who don’t think we can stop global warming, who don’t think we can have just and efficient healthcare, education, and food systems, who don’t think we can ever achieve equality between sexes, races, socioeconomic classes, or sexual orientations.

And guess what? If you tell yourself you can’t do something, it’s not going to get done.

And anyway, isn’t that a terribly demoralizing thing to say? I think we’re selling ourselves short when we say that we can’t solve complex problems like these. After all, the human race invented democracy, finance and agriculture, created the Mona Lisa, painted the Sistine Chapel, put a man on the moon, eradicated polio, and set up the Internet. Do our accomplishments really end there?

Just because something is difficult does not mean it’s impossible. Things that are impossible, at least with our current knowledge and technology, are traveling through time, sprouting wings and flying, curing cancer, and turning lead into gold. But things that are merely difficult? Well, that’s just about everything else.