Thursday, November 8, 2018

From Conservatism to Libertarianism: My Personal Journey (Part II)

Part I

It is very dangerous to believe that one is on the right side of history. It makes one arrogant and it excuses all kinds of behaviors when you do not have to fear standing in the dock with those you persecuted on the bench. Historically, one of the advantages of conservatism over liberalism is that, if you are a conservative, it is harder to believe that history is going your way. On the contrary, one learns to accept that history is a tragedy in which you are going to lose. A good conservative should see themselves in much the same way as the Norse gods going out to Ragnarök. One thinks of the famous example of Whittaker Chambers who, when he abandoned Communism for Christianity, said: "I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side." Conservatives of a religious disposition can take comfort from the Judeo-Christian tradition of martyrdom. A life spent in choosing to be one of Foxe's Protestant martyrs as opposed to the triumphant Catholic tormentors can have meaning. 

By the time I entered college at Yeshiva University in the fall of 2001, I had already spent years believing in the twin threats of Arab/Islamic terrorism and of liberalism. It was only a matter of time before the terrorism faced daily by Israelis would reach the United States and the left would be exposed as the moral bankrupts they were. And then one morning, several weeks later and only several miles to the south, 9/11 happened to “prove” that I was right. Now it was going to be “obvious” to all reasonable people that the United States had no choice but to wage war against Arab/Islamic terrorism in much the same way that we once fought Nazi Germany. As with World War II, this would not just be a military struggle but also a moral struggle in which the United States would have to embrace a new understanding of itself as the global defender of freedom. (My teenage self was a bit obsessed with World War II. In fact, I read through Winston Churchill's six-volume memoirs on the War while in Israel, several months before 9/11.) 

I held this position for several years through the beginning of the Iraq War. Since even Bill Clinton had built a major part of his foreign policy around the assumption that Iraq had an ongoing weapons of mass destruction program, I took it as a given that the weapons were there as the Bush administration claimed. The lead up to the Iraq War seemed to play into my assumptions of a liberal collapse as the question of invasion served as a perfect wedge to split the pragmatist faction of the Democratic Party from its ideological wing. Once the weapons were found and post-war Iraq turned into post-war Germany, the ideological left would become irrelevant and go the way of Charles Lindbergh’s America Firsters. 

The difficulty with being on the right side of history is that it has a habit of throwing uncomfortable curveballs. As it turned out, Saddam did not have an operational weapons of mass destruction program. The occupation of Iraq proved to be a bloody mess. To top it all off, the Republicans proved to be a poor model of competent honest and limited government. In a similar vein, the Christian right, the power behind the Republicans, proved to be bullies rather than caretakers of a nation moving to the right and hypocritical incompetent ones at that. Not surprisingly, the ideological left, instead of slinking away into oblivion, was suddenly becoming very relevant and even someone far from the left like me could see it.

By the fall of 2006, several months before I first started writing this blog. I had stopped listening to talk radio. Part of it was the change in my life. I left Yeshiva University for Ohio State to work on my Ph.D. and my daily schedule was different. The biggest thing, though, was that I had gotten bored of the genre. I had been waiting for years for the collapse of liberalism and it seemed even less likely to happen now. Furthermore, neither Limbaugh nor Hannity seemed to be reacting to this fact. It was as if they were in some kind of time warp in which it still was September 2001 or even March 2003. (I am reminded of the German movie Goodbye Lenin, in which the hero shows his mother old East German news clips to hide the fact that the Berlin Wall had come down and Communism was defeated. The fact that the clips are old does not matter as East German news tended to be the same thing every day anyway.)

Did this make me more liberal? It was also in my first year at OSU that I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and became involved with the autism community. I had been aware of Asperger syndrome since my father had brought it to my attention in high school. I had long since accepted that I was on the spectrum but I did not do anything about it. As I started work on my doctorate and pursued dating, I was forced to confront the fact that if I wanted to get a job or get married I would need to radically rework my people skills. This led me to seek out psychiatric help and a diagnosis. Much like my Judaism, being on the autism spectrum served to make me an outsider to established society. While this may have made me more open to alternative lifestyles in general, it did not make me more liberal politically. On the contrary, it simply fed my alienation from the left as I became conscious of the fact that my group was not on the left's list of special groups to be protected. 

This had implications for how I related to the gay rights movement. Like many Americans in the mid-2000s, I was conscious of the issue of gay marriage and was growing, at a personal level, to accept homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle. It probably helped that I had a number of friends who identified as LGBT (a number of them in my autism group). That being said, I was bitterly opposed to the gay rights movement as I saw it as privileging homosexuals over people on the autism spectrum. For example, when I visited the health department and saw the various pro-LGBT stickers on offices, what I noticed was the lack of autism-friendly stickers (and no Autism Speaks puzzle stickers would not have counted). For me, this meant that the people who put up those stickers had either consciously decided that we were not important enough to put up stickers or, even worse, had not taken us into account in the first place. Hence, I came to take gay rights advocacy as a personal insult that hypocritically used the claim of tolerance to deny my very humanity.   

Most conservatives reacted to the failures of the Bush administration with cognitive dissonance and doubled down on their hatred of the left. This would eventually enable the rise of Trump as you had a generation of conservatives who lost all of their conservativism except for a desire to “stick” it to liberals. As for me, perhaps because I was no longer operating within the bubble of conservative media, instead of focusing my anger at liberals, I started losing patience with the Republican Party. Liberals, however much I might dislike them, were who they were. Republicans were supposed to be something better and they had failed. 

Instead of going into an apocalyptic panic mode and saying that we must stop liberalism at all costs, I made my peace with the fact that, whether I liked it or not, the left would dominate our society and our politics (even when Republicans won elections). If it was going to be my opponents and people that did not share my values who were going to dominate society, then my only chance of survival would be to make sure that political power was limited as to stop anyone from actually being able to interfere with my decidedly illiberal life-style. (In a sense, I had stumbled on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option in starting from the premise that I was going to be on the losing side both socially and politically. The fact that, as a Jew, I accepted it as a given that my religion would never dominate American society likely helped.)

As I lost the conservative movement as a base, I lost the ability to consistently focus my hate on the left. I did not spend eight years fuming at Obama and 2016 was not some kind of flight 93 election in which Hillary Clinton needed to be stopped at all costs. The Democrats were who they were, a fact of life living in America. Until the men and resources could be placed for mass civil disobedience with the goal of bringing radical constitutional changes, they were to be endured. 

Rabbinic messianism made the Messiah irrelevant in practice by exiling him to the daily prayers and the claims of the supernatural. A mere political leader, who could restore Jewish self-rule was no longer enough and therefore there was no reason to work toward it. Similarly, I lost interest in fighting the left through electoral politics as that would not be enough. I was waiting for the revolution (likely not in my lifetime) and while I was waiting I was not going to disgrace myself by exchanging that hope for a mere Republican victory. 

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