Recently I published an essay titled “Leaving the Left,” an account of how I came to recognize the enormous gap between the worldview of contemporary liberalism (the cultural Left) and the principles of classical liberalism: limited constitutional government; the dignity and equality of individuals; freedom of thought, speech, and action; the right to private property.
As the piece was widely circulated on the internet, I received e-mails from close to 2,000 people throughout the world. One writer captured a common theme: “I too dislike what the left has become, but the monolithic, conform-or-die right terrifies me.” I smiled when I read this sentence, because it sounded so much like something I once might have said.
I grew up in an Ohio town where leading conservatives were overtly contemptuous of blacks, Catholics, and Jews. Fairly early I concluded that conservative thought per se was reactionary. I also decided that “liberalism” and “the Left” (synonymous in my adolescent mind) represented genuine progressive thinking suited to the complexities of a modern world. Students of critical thinking will recognize this as binary logic. (If a light switch is not on, the only alternative is off. If conservatives are bad, liberals must be good.)
Yet ultimately the appeal of liberalism was not its opposition to something else, but instead what classic liberal thought affirmed about the dignity of individuals and their capacity to shape their lives and contribute positively to their communities. In a very real sense, I found out I was a liberal the same day I became an individual.
In the summer of 1963, while playing with a schoolmate in his backyard on a Saturday afternoon, my friend’s father called us into the house to watch something important on television. This was a first. Since when did parents think two 10-year-old boys should be inside watching TV rather than playing outside on a hot August day? We spent the next hour in my friend’s living room watching an Atlanta minister speak to a sea of people in Washington, D.C.
At the time I knew only that Martin Luther King Jr. was controversial, and black. By the time he had declared, “I have a dream,” I understood how those two facts were related. I also knew why so many people considered him a dangerous man. My dad always let his sons know bigotry grew from weak and contemptible minds, yet we couldn’t deny the cruel legacy of prejudice in our town.
My friend’s home was always a welcoming place of ideas and conversation and high spirits. On August 28, 1963, it was more: a refuge where I didn’t have to try to rationalize or refuse the moral force of King’s words. Everybody sitting in front of the TV agreed this man spoke truth. His decency was obvious, his call for equal protection undeniably right. I had never experienced such an inspired presence.
Walking home that evening, I was struck by a concept that seemed beyond me: For the first time, I realized that the thoughts and opinions running through my mind at any given moment were…mine. I was responsible for where my ideas might lead and whatever choices I might make, whether in the town of my birth or the world at large. I’d gone to my friend’s house as a person; I returned home an individual. The shift was exhilarating and not a little scary.
After discovering others around town with similar views, I became an overnight activist: helping organize voter registration campaigns in poor neighborhoods where people had given up hope; writing letters to the editor supporting civil rights, defending civil liberties, citing connections between poverty and crime. My credo became Bobby Kennedy’s 1966 “Day of Affirmation” speech in Cape Town, especially this passage: “At the heart of that Western freedom and democracy is the belief that the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit. Therefore, the enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and the abiding practice of any Western society.”
The first glimmers of trouble in political paradise came a decade after Kennedy’s tragic death. That’s when the civil rights establishment began a fateful shift from King’s commitment to equal opportunity for individuals toward enforced equal outcomes for groups. At the time I convinced myself that the shift was one of degree, not of kind. In a nutshell, I rationalized: “True, group preferences patronize their intended beneficiaries and discriminate on the basis of color. But it’s just a temporary way to balance the historic scales. The proponents mean well…and don’t forget the racism of your hometown.”
My doubts grew louder as women’s groups likewise began insisting that any gender “disparities” could only be considered prima facie evidence of culpable bias, regardless of other factors. Supreme Court legislator Harry Blackmun extended this argument with his 1978 Supreme Court ruling that enforcement of the Equal Protection clause required a new round of state-sanctioned discrimination. In a sentence Orwell would have appreciated, Blackmun proclaimed: “In order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.”
This was no temporary shift. Race was back as a decisive marker of American social reality, with gender coming up fast from behind. Decrying Jim Crow as a racist for viewing individuals as members of demographic groups, the new proponents of the same discredited approach declared themselves progressives. Like Murphy, Orwell was an optimist.
Years later, when the civil rights and feminist establishments set off a sexual harassment smokescreen to discredit Clarence Thomas for the high crime of thinking independently while black, I realized liberalism had acquired the conceptual and moral equivalent of a pathological virus — but not just on domestic issues. I had opposed American involvement in Vietnam but found it impossible a decade later to grasp the Left’s romance with Daniel Ortega’s Nicaraguan reign of terror. What exactly was “progressive” about Sandinistan thugs blowing up churches, torturing priests, closing down TV and radio stations, and imprisoning labor leaders?
Yet despite my growing disenchantment, becoming a “conservative” was not an option. My mind still pegged conservatives as provincial and liberals as broad-minded, especially on social and cultural issues. Sure, the Left had its contradictions — but at least their language was right vis-à-vis “tolerance” and “pluralism.” It was easier to imagine conservatism as something far worse, monolithically so, since the liberal-left worldview was the norm in my personal and professional cultures. I didn’t even know any actual conservatives, at least none living in the open. It never occurred to me to consider that the actual diversity of my world; it was the intellectual equivalent of a gated community.
Still, I want to be clear that mine is not a “blinded by childhood” narrative, or some sad account of being brainwashed by ruthless ideologues. As Simon and Garfunkel wrote: “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” That changed for me last January, when 8 million Iraqi voters risked everything to vote in their first genuine election.
Their quest resembled an American one that had taken place two centuries earlier, near Trenton. The hungriest, sickest, most exhausted soldiers marched with General Washington through ice and snow, many with rags wrapped around their feet. Their mission was independence from a despotic ruler, whose cruelty didn't begin to compare to Saddam’s. Their most powerful weapons were hope and belief in the justice of their cause. Freedom was their faith. Watching Iraqis weep with joy while dropping ballots into voting boxes and lifting ink-stained purple fingers toward the sky recalled Washington’s words to his men on the banks of the Delaware, “Remember now what you are about to fight for.”
To my amazement, most of the commentators celebrating Iraq’s step toward autonomy were conservatives. By contrast, most self-declared progressives seemed strained to get beyond vague affirmations of Iraq’s electoral “attainment.” Rep. Nancy Pelosi used this curiously disinterested noun repeatedly in remarks that carried all the enthusiasm of a wake. If this was a funeral, who or what had died?
I watched as liberals who previously championed solidarity with all oppressed peoples rolled out scenarios of likely Iraqi failure. How many ways might Iraqi democracy collapse? Here’s a quick review of the anti-war Left’s practiced election-day shortlist:
• Voter turnout would probably be low.
• Surely there wouldn’t be enough Sunni voters to legitimize the results.
• The insurgents might blow up all the polling places.
• Iraqis don’t really understand democracy, and they’re not ready for freedom.
• Pluralism can’t be imposed.
These excuses were topped off with scattered thoughts on Iraq from the Left’s greatest hits: What about the WMD? If Saddam was so bad, why did the U.S. support him in the past? Why didn’t we listen to France and Germany before the war?
Listening to all this, my mind flashed on something a political science professor had said on an American election day many years earlier. The word “idiot” comes from the ancient Greek for those who concentrated solely on their own affairs and took no part in community life. Choosing not to vote, he said, was a decision to stay silent. People who made that choice couldn’t consider themselves citizens in any meaningful sense. Was that what we wanted?
I now understood that my silence in the face of what I knew about the Left verged on idiocy. Then and there, I returned to the political world — the arena I had entered years earlier on the strength of the visions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. At that moment I realized there was nothing at all “amazing” about the Left’s nonchalance toward the Iraqi vote. It was way too late for astonishment.
These were the same people who scorned Ronald Reagan for daring to call the totalitarian gulag state of Lenin and Stalin an evil empire. Their ranks included Tom Harkin, Susan Sontag, and Noam Chomsky, who had flown to Managua and held court with Ortega but couldn’t find time to seek out the opinions of the many thousands of Nicaraguans who had fled Ortega’s Nicaragua for Costa Rica, Honduras, and the United States. A cadre of botched and bungled Sixties radicals openly rooted for the Iraqi elections to collapse. Having failed to convert middle class America to the virtues of Ho Chi Minh, these people now used their tenured positions to wow impressionable undergrads with banalities about all cultures and worldviews being equivalent.
You know the drill: “Truth is only a matter of shifting consensus. Different claims about reality are simply different styles of speaking, socially learned processes, and agreements. We have no right to judge any cultures because universal values are a myth.” These are America’s most fervent champions of inclusiveness, who seek the exclusion of any hint of individualism, logic, the Enlightenment, capitalism, science, Judeo-Christian values, traditional families, the concept of personal merit, and the possibility of objective knowledge. (After 2,000 years of future marginalization, these topics may deserve a campus day pass. Please check back.)
“I, too, dislike, what the Left has become, but the monolithic, conform-or-die right terrifies me.” If only my anxious correspondent could scan the many hundreds of smart, good-natured, reasonable (and typically quite funny) messages I got from a veritable non-monolith of readers who identified themselves with these kinds of labels: independent, libertarian, classical liberal, conservative, federalist, culturally Western, free-trading, constitutionalist, free-marketeering, religious, religious-and-secular, spiritual-but-not-religious, patriotic. This self-description, spoken more than any other, comes closest to monolithic: “I am an American.” Dangerous stuff — call out the campus grievance committee.
Conform or die? Don’t make me laugh. Two weeks of electronic replies to my public “goodbye to the Left” surfaced more genuine pluralism among the non-Left than I encountered during my years inside so-called “progressive” America. The one type of diversity that isn’t there permitted — diversity of thought — echoed repeatedly in the messages that welcomed me to new political terrain.
“Inquiring minds want to know: Where have you landed, where do you stand now that you’ve left the Left?” That’s a query I’ve pondered extensively of late. Suffice to say I’ve come to a more comprehensive sense of what the categories “Left” and “Right” mean at this time in America’s journey. (Hint: The terms are about much more than politics.) Left and Right represent two fundamentally different ways of being in the world. That will be my focus in a forthcoming article. I've come to find my way outside the narrow confines of the Left — and life after the Left is liberating.
Keith Thompson is northern California independent journalist, author, and father. His work is available at www.thompsonatlarge.com.