Booted Out of the Left
So, it seems I’m now a “social conservative.”
I spent my early years in an environment dominated by reformed Jews who leaned left and who saw advocating for civil rights and social justice to be part of a long and noble tradition. My family then moved to a town that was known for its large middle-class black population, high average level of education and its active artistic community. In high school, many of my friends proudly declared themselves to be “radicals, not liberals.” I had my hair dyed pink and posed nude for aspiring photographers. I accompanied a friend to the Chelsea Piers and snuck into midnight drag shows in the West Village.
The opinion of my teachers and the guidance councilor at my high school was that I leaned left even in this overwhelmingly leftward leaning environment and they all highly recommended that I go to one of those small, liberal arts colleges known for breeding radicals.
But it seems I’m a social conservative.
At fourteen, I told my high school friends I was bisexual and groped and fondled some of the girls. In college, I had a relationship with a radical lesbian separatist feminist who wore a black leather jacket, rode a motorcycle and fixed cars. A few years later, I nearly managed to cohabit with a man while having a girlfriend on the side. Might have worked if they hadn’t gotten jealous.
This is the behavior of a social conservative.
I’ve been a highly vocal supporter of the right to abortion and contraception since ninth grade.
I take an uncompromising stance on women’s bodily autonomy. “No” means no, and saying “yes” isn’t only for boys.
During the late eighties, when racial tensions rocked New York City, I found myself rethinking much of my politics. Different minority groups were in conflict with one another with dueling claims to being “the oppressed.” As I’ve recounted before, the way of viewing the world that I had been taught left me unable to make sense of this. At this point, many of my acquaintances and one of my close friends had become anarchists. At the same time, my boyfriend received an anonymous gift subscription to The National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley. I became disheartened by the willingness of the left to subordinate the truth to propaganda, the degree to which they actively discouraged me from reading sources they of which they didn’t approve. Despite being warned against it, I read the forbidden magazine. I agreed with next to nothing in it. Despite the fears of my friends, reading conservative ideas didn’t make me automatically agree with those ideas. Still, the left was failing me intellectually and I spent several years trying to make sense of my own politics.
Though I lived in Brooklyn, much of my free time was spent in the East Village and on the Lower East Side. One of my anarchist friends kept trying to get me involved in the “occupation” of Tompkins Square Park. She knew of the political questions I’d been asking myself and thought if I could see what she saw in the encampment I would find myself drawn to anarchism.
As luck would have it, although I’d barely spend anytime there at all, I would be there when the riot broke out. A week or two later I’d be with that same friend at a bar in the East Village. With a few other anarchists, she told her war stories. It was all a lie. I’d been right there with her. I listened to these self-aggrandizing accounts and felt disgusted with them all.
In the meantime, I’d been reading more of older liberal thinkers. Years earlier, I’d been kept from embracing the Marxist position of many of my friends due to a copy of The Wealth of Nations I’d picked up without any real reason in a used bookstore. Now, I read Hume and reread John Stuart Mill. I also became interested in the origin of liberalism and the ideas of John Locke.
It is important to note that while I was growing up, leftism and liberalism were still seen as two distinct ideologies. Nowadays, the term “liberalism” is used to indicate a wide array of positions, some contradictory, on the left.
It is important to understand that engaging with a thinker’s ideas does not mean that one accepts all of his or her ideas or that one accepts them uncritically. However, the ideas of long dead liberals pointed a way out of the intellectual bind in which I had found myself.
This major reworking of my ideas in my early twenties has served me well in the decades since. I’m having a hard time articulating my ideas because I’ve rarely spoken to anyone about them, and I’ve never had a chance to talk to anyone who was especially knowledgeable who didn’t simply want to tell me how to think. I’m nearly fifty. I’ve read a fair amount and been intellectually engaged, at least in a passive sense. I may not be particularly articulate, but I know enough to not want to be instructed in what to think.
I’ve not had reason to alter my ideas significantly since, although there have been minor adjustments and addenda. One of the most influential thinkers on my ideas in the decades since, for instance, was Amartya Sen. So, while there has been a development of my ideas, there hasn’t been significant movement along the left-right axis. Despite this, as the political center in the United States moved to the right under Reagan and Bush, followed by a movement of the left towards the center under Clinton and then the rightward edge further to the right under the younger Bush, I found myself much further to the left vis-à-vis the prevailing political discourse than I had been when I first developed my ideas.
Furthermore, the language had changed. Partly, I think this came about because successful political action requires alliances. The rise of conservatism during, and immediately preceding, the Reagan years caused liberals and people further to the left to make common cause with one another. Shared opposition to the rising conservative movement concealed underlying ideological differences. For instance, I, as a liberal, might support LGBT issues due to my belief in individual liberty, while a leftist might support LGBT issues because they are an historically oppressed group. Our immediate goals are the same, but our reasoning is very different. To a conservative, we are both “liberal” opponents.
Adding to the confusion, in the nineties people on the left decided to resurrect the word “progressive.” Essentially, pollsters had been finding that many Americans were reluctant to identify themselves as “liberals.” Many people on the left felt that conservatives had been successful in their efforts to demonize the word and they wanted to flee the label. Since the left was often portrayed by conservatives as anti-American, to resurrect their reputation in the eyes of the American public, activists on the left reached for the long disused word “progressive” with its echos of the “Progressive Era” in American politics. I was not originally fond of this since I believe that changing language without changing the substance yields poor results. However, in recent years, I’ve come to use it myself to describe the area where leftist and liberal goals overlap.
The past couple of years have been very disorienting for me. Much as the rightward edge of the political spectrum moved far to the right during the 2008 presidential campaign, the leftward edge seems to be moving far to the left. Suddenly, after years of being somewhere to the left of center, I’m a “social conservative.” My ideas have not changed, but other people’s have.
The other day, on the website Politico, in what I thought was a rather puffed up celebration of “a landmark year for civil rights”, I read the following:
For many Americans, these milestones have been cause for rejoicing. For many others, they have occasioned alarm—and could incite further backlash, whether in the name of social conservatism, religious liberty or claims of color-blindness.
In the realm of ideas, one of the greatest achievements is to have your idea become so accepted that it goes uncontested. This year, we have seen several forces on the left push the idea of race as the defining aspect of an individual’s identity from the realm of debate to a place of unassailable acceptance. To think that an individual is defined by more than their race is now an idea that is beyond the pale to the left. By insisting that “color-blindness” remains an ideal I put myself in the company of the owners of Hobby Lobby.
The University of California system held seminars this year ostensibly to teach professors how to avoid racist and sexist statements. According to a Daily Beast article, an example of a “racist” statement is “There is only one race, the human race.” Under the guise of not giving offense, the university is forcing professors to tacitly affirm particular a particular philosophical and political idea, an idea that I would argue is still up for discussion.
I just finished reading Kenan Malik’s discussion of Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah Berlin.
For many, the two dominant themes in Berlin’s philosophy seemed horribly at odds with each other. How was it possible to have a commitment to individual liberty and also be sympathetic to the idea that individuals should aspire to a group identity? For Berlin, however, such contradictions were inevitable because contradiction was the very essence of the human condition.
Reading this drove home the point that it is ridiculous to pretend that this is a settled question. This emphasis on group rights as opposed to individual rights is a rejection of liberalism and it is a political question.
Recently, in The Atlantic, Conor Freidersdorf wrote:
But if adherents of colorblindness are vulnerable to ignoring or underestimating race as a factor, the academic left is vulnerable to fetishizing it and missing some of the ways in which race is a pernicious construct that robs people of their individuality. Ensconced in campus bubbles, the academic left also underestimates how divisive it can be to put anything other than individualism at the center of identity.
Then, after reflecting on the appearance of white nationalists at rallies supporting Donald Trump, he goes on to say:
Even the most naive iteration of colorblindness looks damned good next to the subset of people who’ve interrogated their whiteness and then embraced white supremacy or separatism. The academic left casts all proponents of color-blindness as naive. Perhaps they’re correct that the ideal of colorblindness alone will never bring about an America where anti-black racism is no more prevalent than anti-Irish racism is today. But isn’t it more naive to imagine that masses of white people will identify more strongly with their racial tribe and then sacrifice the interests of that tribe?
There is no precedent for such a trajectory.
I’m going to repeat that last sentence –
There is no precedent for such a trajectory.
Well, I’ve been rambling for some time now and I’ve gotten tired and I need to wrap this up without reaching any clear conclusion. All I can say is that I find myself disoriented by being grouped with social conservatives and people who claim that foisting their religious beliefs on others is inherent in a free practice of their religion. One of the reasons that the far left radicals have found it useful to masquerade as liberals is because there is not enough popular support for their beliefs.
You’re far from the only one. I’ve been watching this shift online (and on American universities) for a few years now, and I’ve had to abandon some places for going straight into the SJW camp.
On race and colorblindness, I find it helpful to distinguish things in terms of experience, not identity. What I mean is, it’s true that in some societies, one’s group label (race, or LGBT) leads to experiences of discrimination. But it doesn’t mean you can treat identity and experience as the same. A black person in a racist neighborhood is in solidarity with an Irish or Slavic white person in 1800s US, not with every “PoC” alive today, such a Chinese person in China who has never experienced racism.
I find Malik’s writings of how anti-racist movements in 80s Britain operated to encompass the former much more, with blacks and Asians uniting solely on shared experience of racism, not group identity.