Frontpage Interview’s guest today is David Swindle a free lance writer, film critic, and blogger. He frequently writes about politics, ideology, spirituality, and culture. He contributes articles to Front Page, Parcbench, and American Thinker. He's currently working on several books including one about the ideas of David Horowitz. He has a degree in English (creative writing emphasis) and Political Science from Ball State University.
FP: David Swindle, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Swindle: Thanks Jamie. It's a real pleasure to talk with you.
FP: I’d like to talk to you today about your journey into and out of the Left.
How did you at first become politically engaged? How did you enter the political faith?
Swindle: When I started college at Ball State University in the fall of 2002 politics weren't even on my radar. I was a creative writing major with aspirations toward a career in fiction writing. When I became an op/ed columnist for the Ball State Daily News in January of 2003 I'd occasionally get political but not with much seriousness. That began to change as the events of that year unfolded -- of course I'm talking about the Iraq war. I felt the war was a big mistake. I doubted the justifications the Bush administration gave for why it was necessary and saw only that people that would die in the conflict.
The Daily News had several conservative columnists who regularly made the case for the war but no one who would stand in opposition. So by January of 2004 I reinvented my column to become the page's resident "progressive." Each week it would be challenges to the Bush administration, broadsides against the Conservative Movement, and support for Democrats. This led to me becoming a political science major and also developing a familiarity and appreciation for leftist thinkers and media.
My column propelled me into Ball State's political culture. I befriended campus activists and other columnists of all political stripes. I would found and lead team political blogs and even a bi-weekly political discussion group we called CAP (Conversation, Alcohol, and Politics.) Every other week a large group of liberals, conservatives, libertarians, radical feminists -- we even had a communist -- would gather at my apartment for drinks and spirited debate. At CAP we found a sense of inter-ideological friendship that seemed to be missing from the political culture at large. It was one of the happiest times of my life.
FP: And so how did your second thoughts begin? Tell us about your journey out of the Left.
Swindle: The seeds for my stumble out of the Left were planted while I was still in it. As my leftist politics were raging I was also developing a deep appreciation for the agnostic philosophy of author Robert Anton Wilson. (The documentary "Maybe Logic" remains the best introduction to Wilson one can get.) I also learned to doubt in my literary studies. Through my great literature professor, Pat Collier, I developed a passion for British Modernism, specifically James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and especially Virginia Woolf. In the novels and poetry of the period I found an exciting exploration of the need to doubt our individual perceptions and consider the complexities of the world.
With this skepticism in place it was only a matter of time before the schemes of the Left began to crumble. This was accelerated, though, by my entering the workplace after college. (After all I had to pay the bills somehow while I worked on my novel.)
I first worked in a customer service call center and after a year started to feel as though the Left's ideas about the exploitative nature of corporations was correct. I worked on behalf of corporations that made shoddy products and failed to support them properly. But the Left's prescriptions began to seem inadequate. I tried to figure out how government could intervene to fix the various problems I'd come to know so well. And I realized any solution that one might try would be ridiculously complicated and probably wouldn't work. More importantly, though, I bumped up against the question of economic freedom. As a "progressive" I hated the Religious Right's attempt to impose their morality on others through government. How then could I want to impose my economic morality on corporations? Who was I to say what an ethical business practice was? Shouldn't people have the freedom -- within reason -- to run their business as they chose?
I truly started to become more conservative, though, when I started my second call center job, this time as a debt collector. Here's where I really started to understand and embrace the relationship between capitalism and freedom. It's here where I'd develop the appreciation for personal responsibility as for eight hours a day I'd listen to people blame everyone but themselves for the debt they, themselves, created. It was finally here that I began to shed the leftist delusion of the corporation as the malevolent antagonist of all "good, working people." I started to see how rather than a vision of class warfare the fates of the CEO and the worker bee at the bottom were knit together. The fundamentals of capitalism worked and they could be exciting once you started participating in them.
And as all this was going on I came across David Horowitz again and started reading all of his books, this time with a much more open mind. And when I started writing about David's books I began to see how many leftists actually behaved just as he wrote about. He wasn't making it up. I'd read about how leftists behave and then encounter them as they responded to my writing. That didn't help maintain the progressive faith at all.
FP: Tell us about your involvement with the Academic Freedom campaign.
Swindle: One of my conservative sparring partners and friends at Ball State was a College Republican and columnist who leveled accusations of indoctrination against Peace Studies professor George Wolfe. These claims led to George's inclusion in David's The Professors and Indoctrination U.
When the charges were first made in 2004 I responded to my acquaintance's claims with public support -- not vouching for their accuracy (I wasn't in the class in question) but for his sincerity and integrity. I came to regret this decision during the summer of 2006 when I wrote my undergraduate political science senior thesis investigating what had happened and how Ball State had defended its institutional integrity. After months of research and 90 pages of argumentation I had come to the conclusion that George had been slandered -- a position I still hold passionately. None of the student's charges stood up to the facts. He misrepresented classroom dialogues to ascribe to George opinions -- like absolute pacifism -- that he didn't have.
By the end of it I was furious. When David came to Ball State in the fall of 2006 after I'd graduated I returned to campus, a thick pile of questions and evidence in hand, and confronted him. I assailed him from the audience, claiming that the reason he wasn't taken seriously was because his campaign was based on "a mountain of lies." We exchanged some harsh words in front of the audience and some harsher emails a few days later. (Which you might recall since you forwarded my initial correspondence to David.) And I thought that was that. David truly was the "demented lunatic" Paul Berman had once smeared him as.
Or so I thought. When David's daughter Sarah died and I read the eulogy he wrote for her in the spring of 2008 something prompted me to send a letter of condolence. Over the next several months David and I emailed and debated frequently on seemingly every issue under the sun but especially Academic Freedom and George's class. I coordinated a debate between George and David on my blog -- my attempt to reconcile them -- and began writing analyses of Horowitz's books. And gradually Horowitz won me over closer to many of his positions. (However, it's important to understand we still hold several key differences of opinion on plenty of issues. I'm not a Horowitz clone -- not that he would want or need one.) And when he released his new book on indoctrination, One-Party Classroom, a few months ago I was prepared to demonstrate how he'd re-focused his arguments in important ways. The Academic Freedom Campaign was now something I could support.
FP: What books have influenced you and made you reconsider your radical past?
Swindle: The first book which showed me how I might take conservatism seriously and eventually begin to develop my own variation of the philosophy was Andrew Sullivan's The Conservative Soul. I read it while I was still a leftist but Sullivan's description of "a conservatism of doubt" really struck a chord with the passionate agnostic in me. (Even if movement conservatives are still pissed at Sullivan for x, y, and z they simply must read his book. It's wonderful.)
This understanding of conservatism set me up for David's work. Having read almost all of them now my favorite is still The Politics of Bad Faith. David articulates a compelling case for understanding the Left as a religious movement. It's an idea that just rings so true. Uncivil Wars, with its exciting, unifying vision of the American Idea is also one of his books whose praises I can't sing loud enough.
On the subject of the intersection of religious and political faiths, though, your recent book, United In Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror really sent my mind exploring over the ideological terrain I'd explored -- but surely not in the way you would have guessed. Because the radicalism it forced me to reflect on was not the leftist radicalism of my college years but the Christian radicalism of my junior high and high school years. My deep agnosticism didn't emerge from nowhere. From 1995 up through about 2000 the driving pursuit in my life wasn't political but religious. I was a zealous Evangelical Christian on an intense mission to try and convert as many people as possible so they could escape the fires of hell. Your book made me reflect on this time of my life primarily because of what you wrote about in your chapter "Cravings for Death," what I reflected on in my FrontPage essay.
I realized that during that time of my life my obsession was in obliterating myself in subjugation to the idea of salvation. My mantras of the time were to "lose my life for Christ" and to "pick up my cross and follow Him." And this tendency to destroy the self in this manner can be found amongst radicals of almost all political and religious ideologies -- you certainly show how leftist and Islamist radicals do it.
Radicalism is a universal phenomenon that can be fueled by almost any ideology. And sometimes these radicalisms stumble upon common objectives. That's why you find the "Unholy Alliance" which David first wrote about and which you elaborated on in your own book. Having made these connections I've become intensely interested in what I refer to as "the radical spirit" and the attempt to figure out how those of us possessed of it can channel it into more productive directions than the radicals you and David have been so good at critiquing.
FP: Are you still a Christian? Tell us how your spiritual journey has evolved during your political transition.
Swindle: It depends on who we let define what it means to be a Christian. If one must believe in things like the Virgin Birth, the talking snake, and the inerrancy of the Bible then I'm not a Christian. But if we define "Christian" more broadly as I do, and we understand Christianity as a love for the ideas and example of Christ, then I'm very much still a Christian. I still read the Bible, consider its teaching, and seek to emulate Christ's call to live a life of absolute love for humanity. I want to internalize the spirit and metaphors of Christianity while discarding its archaic, and often downright destructive dogmas. (I hold this exact same attitude about the Left by the way. "Progressive dreams pursued through conservative means" remains one of my mantras.)
During my leftist college days I often drifted into exploring mystical and occult ideas. I explored the writings of Aleister Crowley and the variant of chaos magic advocated by comics author Grant Morrison. And I still find the magical metaphor to be a useful, intriguing way of looking at the world.
More recently, though, I've been strongly influenced by George's Inter-Faith spirituality. In addition to teaching the saxophone and peace studies at Ball State, George is an ordained Inter-Faith minister who leads Inter-Faith worship services twice a month. The Inter-Faith religious tradition sees each religion as contributing to the collective wisdom of humanity and offering a different metaphor for how to understand God. Within the services rituals from different traditions are incorporated and readings from different holy books are juxtaposed, usually to demonstrate common themes. This spiritual approach has seemed to fit so well that my wife April and I chose to have George marry us in an Inter-Faith wedding ceremony which was held on May 16. I find this spiritual outlook fits with my agnostic tendency and lines up pretty well with M. Scott Peck's fourth stage of spiritual growth -- a model for understanding spirituality that I find accurate and useful.
FP: Many leftists who come out as conservatives or anti-Left are banished by their leftist communities, made in to non-persons. Tell us a bit what has happened to your social life ever since he left the Left. Have some/many friends abandoned you?
Swindle: Well, here's the funny thing about that -- and this is maybe the first time I've realized this... Looking back on the many political friends I've retained from my college days, most of the strongest friendships I still have are with my conservative debating partners -- all of whom have been delighted and amused by my rightward turn. And there are many explanations for that. When I was in college I wasn't interested in isolating myself in a "progressive" community. I was interested in discussion and debate. And you only got that if you had conservative, libertarian, neo-conservative, and Christian radical friends with whom to debate. None of us -- right or left -- took the Che Guevara, Stalinist attitude that to be friends with someone they had to agree with your politics.
I think debate -- done with a positive attitude -- is actually good for friendships. I got closer to my conservative friends than my leftist friends because I debated with them more. Most of my friends who are still proud progressives have been open and interested in my political evolution. So now that I'm no longer a leftist I have a whole new set of debating friends and find myself growing closer to them again.
To be honest, it's not so much the Generation Y progressives I'm worried about so much as the Baby Boomers. (I like to hope that my generation of leftists is just a bit less Stalinist than those that came before it.) I've been more concerned about trying to explain myself to my parents' friends and my old professors. Of the latter I have quite a challenging road ahead of me as I'm going to have to explain the Academic Freedom campaign and why it's nothing for them to fear, especially with the new approach David's utilizing. (There's simply so much misinformation and confusion on this subject).
FP: What are some of your future plans?
Swindle: I'm going to continue working on my books and writing articles. I have a long road ahead of me as I continue researching and writing Losing Faith in the Left: Understanding David Horowitz In Depth on my blog. I also have to keep plugging away at the memoir I'm working on, tentatively titled Making Peace with David Horowitz, which is a book-length exploration about many of the themes I've discussed here, in my articles, and on my blog. I plan to continue submitting pieces to FrontPage and other venues. One new publication I've begun writing for that's just starting to take off is Parcbench. It's kind of a right-leaning pop culture site run by Kellen Giuda and Brett Joshpe. Keep your eye on them and Parcbench.
What I'm most interested in right now is continuing to develop a new approach to ideology and the Left/Right culture war of the Baby Boom generation. The terms "liberal" and "conservative" have been so abused that they've lost much of their usefulness. "Liberal" means "leftist radical" and "conservative" has come to mean "Christian radical" -- both unacceptable developments. I choose to avoid this by identifying myself as a "New Centrist." There are many components of this agnosticism-based, bi-partisan political outlook but foremost among them is a robust appreciation for individual liberty, capitalism, and especially the American Idea. I'm interested in reframing these concepts in an exciting, unifying fashion and transcending the political battles of my parents' generation. I think many of us in Generation Y have had enough -- the contests have been won, some by the Right, some by the Left (usually with the latter not even realizing it) -- and it's time to move on to more important things.
FP: David Swindle, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.