By Keith Thompson
To say I grew up fascinated with politics and current events is an understatement. It was closer to fervor. I tracked causes and candidates as most junior high aged boys in my Ohio hometown tracked batting averages and NFL trades.
I raced my dad for the new issue of TIME [magazine]. Seldom missed the Sunday TV news shows. Wrote outspoken letters to the editor. Cut class to work on political campaigns. The more I joined the fray — ideas in action — the more I wanted to.
I began my activist career championing the 1968 presidential candidacies of Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, because both promised to end America’s misadventure in Vietnam. I marched for peace and farm worker justice, lobbied for women’s right to choose and environmental protections, signed up with George McGovern in 1972 and got elected as the youngest delegate ever to a Democratic convention.
It was a time — mid-1970s — when liberalism still encompassed Robert F. Kennedy’s conviction that “the individual … the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, all groups and states exist for that person’s benefit.” Civil rights and women’s rights stood for equal opportunity for individuals regardless of race or gender. I was proud to call myself that kind of liberal.
Then the strangest thing happened: both movements turned against their core principles.
The civil rights movement betrayed Rev. Martin King, Jr.’s commitment to color-blind public policy by embracing a form of reverse discrimination called affirmative action. Feminists turned against their movement’s early commitment to legal and civic equality for women by demanding special preferences and waging war against males.
Amazingly, both movements started encouraging followers to view themselves as dependent “victims” rather than as resourceful individuals capable of tapping hidden reserves of energy, talent, and strength. Americans who valued initiative, self-reliance and independence were to be scorned.
Still more surreal: this crusade declared itself “progressive.” Equal opportunity was suddenly so yesterday. These fierce utopians demanded guaranteed equal economic and social outcomes, regardless of an individual’s talent, training, skill, or motivation. Liberals who once stood for the potential of individuals now championed group rights and skin-deep diversity.
Scary example: Derrick Bell of Harvard Law School actually declared Clarence Thomas ineligible for the Supreme Court because he “doesn’t think like a black.” A black man who thinks for himself was now called dangerous by self-styled progressives. Wasn’t that what the Jim Crow culture of the Deep South believed?
A turning point came at a dinner party on the day Ronald Reagan famously described the Soviet Union as the pre-eminent source of evil in the modern world. The general tenor of the evening was that Reagan’s use of the word “evil” had moved the world closer to annihilation. There was a palpable sense that we might not make it to dessert.
When I casually offered that the surviving relatives of the more than 20 million people murdered on orders of Joseph Stalin might not find “evil'” too strong a word, the room took on a collective bemused smile of the sort you might expect if someone had casually mentioned taking up child molestation for sport.
I look back on that experience as the beginning of my departure from a ‘left’ already well on its way to losing its bearings. Two decades later, I watched with astonishment as leading left intellectuals launched a telethon- like body count of civilian deaths caused by American soldiers in Afghanistan. Their premise was straightforward, almost giddily so: When the number of civilian Afghani deaths surpassed the carnage of Sept. 11, the war would be unjust, irrespective of other considerations.
But it was the horrific events of September 11, 2001 that made it impossible to keep ignoring reality. The starkness of that day forced me to recognize the moral confusion and venom of the ‘Blame America First’ movement.
Remember Susan Sontag clearing her throat for the “courage” of the al Qaeda suicide pilots? Norman Mailer snidely comparing the dead of 9/11 to “automobile statistics”? Gore Vidal insinuating that Bush and Cheney had advance knowledge and allowed the attack to happen? Noam Chomsky insisting that al Qaeda was no worse than the United States on an average day?
“It took the Iraqi election to make me realize I’d become an ex-leftist,” …The American Left’s reaction to the election in Iraq — a fervent hope for its failure, thinly disguised as prediction — was “the tipping point,”… “cheering against self-determination for a long-suffering Third World country because they hate George W. Bush more than they love freedom.”
“Their walk is so completely at odds with their talk,” he said. “They claim to be for free speech, but they create all these campus speech codes that stifle freedom. Didn’t many of these people in the 1960s stand up for self-rule for oppressed people and against fascism in any guise?”
These were the same intellectuals who had ignored the pleas of dissidents in Soviet prison camps. American academics were now enthusiastically endorsing politically correct speech codes on college campuses. It was getting harder to ignore the differences.
These days the postmodern left demands that government and private institutions guarantee equality of outcomes. Any racial or gender “disparities” are to be considered evidence of culpable bias, regardless of factors such as personal motivation, training, and skill. This goal is neither liberal nor progressive; but it is what the left has chosen. In a very real sense it may be the last card held by a movement increasingly ensnared in resentful questing for group-specific rights and the subordination of citizenship to group identity. There’s a word for this: pathetic.
I started getting up to date on political philosophy. Fact: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (both men of the Enlightenment) were fierce opponents of group tyranny and fierce champions of liberty. Both men were “liberals” because they opposed collectivist group-think. Today Jefferson and Madison would probably consider themselves libertarian or conservative. After all, they risked their lives to oppose the malice of the British monarchy.
I explored these ideas in my book ‘Leaving the Left,’ amidst celebrating America as a place where individuals can be trusted to think for themselves and to make the primary decisions that shape their lives and the lives of their children.
In the sixties, America correctly focused on bringing down walls that prevented equal access and due process. It was time to walk the Founders’ talk — and we did. With barriers to opportunity no longer written into law, today the body politic is crying for different remedies.
America must now focus on creating healthy, self-actualizing individuals committed to taking responsibility for their lives, developing their talents, honing their skills and intellects, fostering emotional and moral intelligence, all in all contributing to the advancement of the human condition.
For a long time I have wondered why societies cease to thrive while others remain innovative, creative, and productive. Likewise, why do some individuals grow stagnant as they age, while others remain robust and inspired? Some years ago, the social philosopher John Gardner, author of a wise book called Self-Renewal, had this to say:
“The ever renewing society will be a free society whose capacity for renewal depends on the individuals who make it up.” Such a society, Gardner continues, “will foster innovative, versatile, self-renewing men and women and give them room to breathe.”
“Room to breathe” is a defining quality of liberty. The framers of America’s Constitution understood that the freedom to earn, to achieve, to create; the freedom to be left alone — ultimately the freedom to be — cannot be taken for granted. As Ronald Reagan said so well:
“Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.”
[M]y liberalism was in full throttle when I bid the cultural left goodbye to escape a new version of that oppressiveness. I departed with new clarity about the brilliance of liberal democracy and the value system it entails; the quest for freedom as an intrinsically human affair; and the dangers of demands for conformity and adherence to any point of view through silence, fear, or coercion.
True, it took a while to see what was right before my eyes. A certain misplaced loyalty kept me from grasping that a view of individuals as morally capable of and responsible for making the principle decisions that shape their lives is decisively at odds with the contemporary left’s entrance-level view of people as passive and helpless victims of powerful external forces, hence political wards who require the continuous shepherding of caretaker elites.
Today, at least, being a “leftist” means embracing “materialism, extreme secularism, and a kind of scientism — not science, but scientism — that arbitrarily excludes the inner life.
“I have to say I never shared the hostility to Christianity that’s so characteristic of the Left today. As a boy, I loved the church. My family was active in it, and I was an acolyte. I was always deeply moved by the symbology of the church, by that experience of the holy. I never lost that.”
Not all conservatives are religious, There are secular conservatives who care mostly about economic freedom. But it’s fair to say that for many conservatives, religion and moral values go together. The conservative movement at this time is largely a recognition of this. It’s a sharp break from the 1960s and the radical celebration of the individual.
The Secular Left has made a big mistake. They don’t see that the ‘wall’ between church and state exists as much to connect the two as to separate them. It’s one thing to differentiate between the two spheres. It’s another to foster a dissociation of those realms. To insist that ‘theocracy’ looms whenever citizens bring their religious and spiritual faith to bear on pressing social and cultural issues is dangerously simplistic.