Why I Left: Part II — What Was I Thinking?

An ex-conservative probes the right (wing) brain — but has he really changed his own mind?


[Last week Adam Lieberman talked about his life-altering journey on a Green Tortoise tour bus. This week he gives a closer look at what he was thinking in the first place.]

My Conservative Pathology

So, you may ask, what was I thinking? When one knowingly holds two contradictory ideas and accepts them both — as I did, by hating “the 60s” while accepting almost every value they had engendered — one can legitimately be considered neurotic. I would go further and suggest that for me and many others, contemporary conservatism is a pathology, an intellectual cover for certain mentally unhealthy defense mechanisms and rationalizations. Exhibited by many mainstream conservative figures and mimicked by their followers, some of these behaviors are characteristic of “true believers” of any persuasion (they were certainly features of Marxism at the time it held intellectual sway, and helped lead to its demise). As a conservative true believer, then, I found myself and my cohorts afflicted with the following psychological tics:

Denial. Michael Lind, a former Buckley protegé and author of the book Up From Conservatism, had a political awakening similar to mine several years ago after he exposed the apocalyptic and implicitly anti-Semitic theories of Pat Robertson. (Let us remember that Robertson, not the more palatable Ralph Reed, is the head of the Christian Coalition, the most influential interest group in the GOP.) After writing an article on Robertson, Lind called on fellow conservatives, including Buckley and Norman Podhoretz, to denounce him; they told Lind they were aware of Robertson’s views, yet somehow justified to themselves that Robertson didn’t really mean it, or that his statements should be overlooked for the sake of ideological unity.

I too was guilty of this willful denial of unpleasant facts. In the fall of 1994 and again in the spring of 1996 I became quite exercised over the fate of radio talk-show host Bob Grant; in the first case, Grant was attacked by Jesse Jackson and others for calling black students “sub-humanoids, savages, who really would feel more at home careening along the sands of the Kalahari”; in the second, Grant was finally fired for saying that he hoped Ron Brown’s body was not found alive. In both cases I was aware of his comments, and in addition I had heard him make many other racially charged comments, repeatedly hang up on any caller with a foreign accent, and generally use race as an undertone of hate throughout his show. Yet I still expressed genuine outrage when anyone called Grant a racist, and became livid when he was finally fired.

Most of the conservatives I know are not racists, in that they do not judge people on skin color. Yet they not only look the other way when their fellow conservatives express racism — when National Review editor Peter Brimelow bases his anti-immigration book Alien Nation explicitly on the argument that America cannot survive as a predominantly non-white society; when New York Post editorial page editor Scott McConnell declares that increased Hispanic immigration will transform the U.S into a society in which democracy cannot flourish, since after all it has never taken root in Latin America (although he does not analogously call for ending immigration from Eastern Europe); when D’Souza openly declares much of black culture to be pathological — but they become genuinely indignant when the charge is raised.

Paranoia. I am not referring to Waco, black helicopters, or other aspects of the militia mentality. I am talking about the tendency for those on the right to declare each new Clinton policy, however trivial, to be the end of the world; to see themselves as persecuted; and to view every aspect of modern society as in a state of irreparable decay, rattling with the drumbeat of impending doom.

For instance, in late August 1994 I had too much time on my hands and listened to a great deal of talk radio. The dominant topic was the Clinton crime bill, and it was not enough merely to suggest that it was a boondoggle or that it would not really put 100,000 cops on the street. Rather, listeners were subjected to endless hours about the evils of midnight basketball and other minor programs in the bill; even those provisions conservatives would presumably have liked — such as increasing penalties for attacking law enforcement officers — were transmogrified into “increases in government power.” What was paranoid about this were not the arguments per se but the degree, passion and length of time spent making them, day after day, week after week as though the fate of the Republic lay in the balance.

Even in my most recent job, I was placed in the position of suggesting that the future of society was in jeopardy if consumers rejected the use of the fat substitute olestra or the milk-producing growth hormone rBST in cows. Granted, such gloom-and-doom hyperbole may be part of any political operative’s work, but conservatives certainly have made wider use of it because of their tactics of stereotyping their opponents, and their “either-or,” nearly Manichean worldview (e.g., if you don’t view Clinton as evil, then you personally are evil).

Repression. When I announced I was moving to San Francisco, almost everyone I notified assumed that this meant I was gay. They were wrong, but in a sense they recognized a parallel, for just as the loudest bashers and baiters are often “in the closet,” I too was repressing desires: for self-discovery, for personal, intellectual and artistic exploration, none of which I dared venture into for fear of doing something “leftist.”

Because many conservatives believe that the answers to life are simple and have already been discovered, they mock any efforts toward self-improvement, self-awareness, or the “sharing” of thoughts and feelings. The WASP ideal of never revealing your inner emotions is very much alive in conservative circles: At the Dartmouth Review, “sensitivity” was used as a catch-all pejorative, and D’Souza once pointed out how one could string together terms such as “meaningful caring relationship” or “supportive interdependent community,” as if to suggest that all such terms relating to one’s emotional state were simply meaningless rhetoric.

Among religious conservatives, the idea of self-awareness is nearly blasphemous; for those who are not particularly religious, Ayn Rand has played a special role, in setting up a non-theistic thought structure that in some ways is even harsher than Biblical justice, condemning as “irrational” and “anti-human” any belief or person that does not reflect her values. Although I never considered myself an Objectivist, Rand’s system served as a powerful rationalization for shutting myself off from those people on the cultural “fringe” with whom I would have had the most in common, while making myself believe I was a happy, well-adjusted “mainstream” individual. In the meantime, I became so artistically repressed I did not attempt to write creatively for a full seven years — until the Tortoise trip changed my mind.

I will not even try to scratch the issue of sexual repression; suffice it to say that behind the conservative’s opposition to abortion, birth control, or even sex education, is a view of sexual pleasure as evil, and sexual honesty as immoral.

Subjugation of Individual Happiness. Closely allied to this emotional and cultural repression is the curious fact that conservatives ultimately do not believe in the idea of individual fulfillment or happiness: or rather, they believe in economic fulfillment (lower taxes), but believe that in the spheres of personal and family life, happiness must be sacrificed to something else.

For religious conservatives, this something else is the afterlife. As a basically secular conservative who believed that his ideas were based on reason, it was always disconcerting to know that most of my strongest allies felt that there was literally no earthly argument to support our viewpoint. I remembering reading an article on the Internet defending Alar (an agricultural chemical Dr. Whelan had vocally defended), agreeing with it, then scrolling down to find the second half laced with scriptural quotations used to defend Alar’s safety.

For secular conservatives, family stability is the current raison d’etre for denying the individual’s happiness; this is seen most clearly in the movement, led by conservative columnists such as Maggie Gallagher, to discourage or even abolish no-fault divorce.

The day before I went on the Green Tortoise trip, I went out on a date with a woman my age, divorced, with one daughter to whom she was absolutely devoted (and who saw her father regularly), a woman who was apolitical but clearly socially traditional and conservative. Her ex-husband had not been abusive in any way; they divorced simply because “We changed from when we were married. I grew as a person and he didn’t.”

I had no response to give her from my conservative ideology, which had declared such “no-fault” divorce to be immoral, irresponsible, and selfish. She was clearly none of the above, and I was not going to tell her that her daughter would be better off in a household with two people who did not want to be together. For the first time, I realized my beliefs might literally be inhuman.

The End of the Conservative Road?

The next day, I boarded the Green Tortoise and my change of heart began in earnest. Again, no political discussions transpired during these two weeks — even my fears that the other travelers would be militant vegetarians were unfounded, and by the second day of the trip the bus was littered with enough potato chip bags and fast food containers to make the food police blush.

What did happen was that I took a vacation away from my own identity — political and otherwise — that made me realize that there was very little of it I wished to return to. When I first met many of the other travelers, I privately looked down on them because they did not hold “real” jobs and merely lived day to day; as the trip progressed, I found myself noticing how independent, spontaneous, and happy they seemed, and asking myself why I had not allowed myself to be similarly so. I realized that my conservative, “risk-free” existence was actually riskier for me, in terms of other psychic burdens. Ideological security had become a straitjacket.

If there was an epiphany of sorts to be had, it occurred the night we arrived in San Francisco. Strolling down Columbus Avenue past Vesuvio Cafe and City Lights Bookstore, I felt I understood the spirit of liberty that motivated the Beats of North Beach, the hippies of the Haight. I saw clearly how during our trip, we travelers had even formed a kind of family united not by birth, but by outlook — in my case, a new outlook. By the end of the trip, I was forced to ask myself whether I had been living the way I truly wished to, or the way my family, society, and the Republican National Committee had expected me to — and I have answered my question, and made my decision.

I do not blame conservatism for my past unhappiness — I’m merely explaining how it served as a useful tool to propagate and justify that unhappiness, and to block off alternatives. Surely, conservative Republicanism “works” for some people who are truly comfortable with its precepts. But the fact that a political philosophy could carry such heavy psychological baggage should cause conservatives to take a moment for introspection, and cause everyone else to ask what kind of society would we be living in — or under — if this philosophy ever truly achieved its political and cultural goals.

Adam Lieberman returned to New York City, where he is writing a political novel and a memoir about growing up as a young conservative.