The Tragedy Of Political Conversion, Part I
Howard Dean has not come to terms with it, Nancy Pelosi has not come to terms with it, Harry Reid has not come to terms with it, and, yes, good Conservative friends, even Joe Lieberman has not come to terms with it.
Coming to terms with it does not mean wringing your hands over it, it does not mean changing your beliefs because of it, it does not mean throwing a Zell Miller temper tantrum at a Republican Presidential Convention because of it.
It means looking at it clearly and trying to understand it's implications.
I really like many of the women bloggers who have gone through this conversion experience, and I find their self-revelations about what they think caused it fascinating. In a certain sense, there is a far greater emotional depth in their story and their writing than in political bloggers, like myself, who have not gone through this experience. You can feel an intangible, but none the less real, difference in attitude toward both life and America in someone like Baroness Alexandra, who I suspect has held rightist views since adolescence, and among like-minded friends and relatives, and someone like the Anchoress, whose conversion experience happened during the Reagan years and in adulthood.
Courtesy of the Anchoress, I have found a fine and lucid new spokesperson for the phenomenon of political conversion, NeoNeocon, whom I have added to the Right Views on my blogroll. She is highly representative of the new breed of feminine Conservative converts that were shocked into this experience by 9/11. During the last Presidential election they even earned a catchy media tag: security moms.
So why do I think this type of conversion a tragedy? Well, certainly not because I think being a Conservative itself is a tragedy. But a complete reorientation of your world-view, particularly as an adult, when you have far less emotional resilience, and you are the creature of many more developed and comfortable habits, is a searing experience that leaves many scars and, sometimes, leaves wounds that fester and will not stop bleeding. This is particularly the case when the conversion frightens and repulses a network of family, friends, or colleagues.
So many security moms who blog are New Yorkers, as is NeoNeocon. This is perfectly understandable. 9/11 in person, or through friends and family, cannot conceivably be compared to the proxy and mediated way in which I experienced it. The Gotham survivors of it, whether Conservative or Liberal, all have my goodwill [even when I disagree sharply with them] and my immense respect. But it is certainly the case that the Northeast as a whole is strongly Democratic, and the New York security moms have faced a far more scalding conversion because of that fact.
There is no question that the rabid political anger of our time has take a toll on this country, and the emotional lacerations that the security moms have had to bear are some of the ugliest and saddest parts of it. There may be no healing for these hurts, ever, in the same way that there will be no healing for the Vietnam War, whose lasting wounds reopened in the persons of George Bush, John Kerry, the venomous Swift Boat Vets, and the Texas National Guard Hoax. It will be for both pieces of history, I think, a matter for the memories to completely die with those who hold them and will take them to the grave.
So I said "tragedy", and I mean it.
NeoNeocon has written a fine series of essays about this transformation of her life. They are so good that I wish I could simply blockquote them all. But this will not do. So, up front, I want to strongly suggest that you read them in full. I will be quoting selections only, and I will be drawing some rather pointed political conclusions from them, and I want you to be prepared to make an independent judgment whether my choice of quotations has loaded the dice. I don't think it has, but no honest partisan, speaking of views he does not hold, can ever be sure.
So immediately below is a summary of what I thing are the most relevant parts of NeoNeocon's conversion, whose seeds go back to the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980:
I had a vague sense that events in Iran boded no good, and watching the Iranian women don their chadors I wondered why they would be so eager to go back to what seemed to be medievalism. But what did it matter to me if they wanted to wear black robes and have a cleric for their leader? It seemed to be their choice; was it any of my business?...
When the Soviet system collapsed, it seemed to me that the end came very suddenly. Oh, there were rumbles during Gorbachev's tenure-- something was indeed happening--but in 1989 it seemed as though the entire Iron Curtain came down so precipitously you could almost say it evaporated. My question was: how can an Iron Curtain evaporate? And, even more to the point, why didn't any of the 'experts" see it coming?...
The Gulf War of early 1991 seemed to mark some sort of return to 'history," although I thought (and hoped) that perhaps it was an anomaly...I understood the rationale for the war, and the necessity of it, but watching it and thinking about it
seemed more than I could bear...
But there were other distant warning bells sounding. Some were not so distant at all. The first World Trade Center bombing certainly grabbed my attention in 1993...I was stunned to discover that the intent of the bombers had been to topple the building and kill many thousands, and that it was only through chance and incompetence that they had failed to achieved their goals...
And so time passed. When the millennium came, people seemed much more worried about the threat of the millennium bug than the millennium bomber who was caught before he could carry out his plans to blow up LAX...
But instead, John's calm words came out in one long run-on sentence, although their content was anything but calm, or calming."Two planes just crashed into the World Trade Center, and the towers have fallen, and then another plane crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth one is missing, and a few others are missing, too" (the final destination of Flight 93 was unknown as yet, and a mistaken report had been issued that there were further planes still unaccounted for)...
What were the main assumptions that had died in that instant for me? They had to do with a sense of basic long-term safety. Some utterly fearful thing that had seemed contained before, although vaguely threatening, had now burst from its constraints. It was like being plunged into something dark and ancient that had also suddenly been grafted onto modern technology and jet planes--Huns or Mongols or Genghis Khan or Vlad the Impaler or Hector being dragged behind Achilles' chariot--a thousand swirling vague but horrific impressions from an ancient history I'd never paid all that much attention to before...
This had been the first time I had ever followed a war [the Afghanistan war--ed.] so closely--day by day, almost hour by hour. It was the first time I'd eagerly devoured so many stories as events unfolded. And, most importantly, it was the first time I'd read a variety of newspapers, both geographically and politically. It was the first time I had been made frightened and deeply apprehensive, over and over again, by negative predictions in my favorite papers--and then discovered, to my growing puzzlement and even annoyance, that these predictions bore no more relation to subsequent reality than if they'd emanated from the I Ching. It was the first time I noticed that the more reliable papers had seemed to be the more conservative ones.
This is the most important turning point that I see consistently in these compelling conversion narratives as a whole:
Betrayal By The Mainstream Media!
I use the capitals, and the exclamation point, advisedly. Because, among the security moms, this may well be the most shattering experience, the discovery that people who report and edit the news are shaped by their own political biases and do things through disingenuous motives.
When I first started encountering women like NeoNeocon on the net I was utterly bewildered, particularly by their venom toward publications like the New York Times and television news commentators like Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. What, I wondered, was all the fuss about? Of course news coverage is politically biased. All of it is and always has been. There is no such thing as a neutral point of view on the news, and you chose the newssource whose flavor you like best. Where have these women been living?
No one like myself, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, was ever under any real illusion that news reporting was objective. Not when it was clear to even a precocious eight-year-old that the Columbus Dispatch, both in news and editorials, was an open and shameless supporter of the Republican party of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Governor James "Profit Is Not A Dirty Word In Ohio" Rhodes.
This was, of course, not the Republican party of the neo-cons. Nor even the neo-neocons. In a few days I may talk about why. But it is important to understand that it is not the same party for the political conversion experience to make sense. Republicans and Democrats now literally live in different worlds. They didn't then. So a change of opinions, or a shift of political view, which did occur with some frequency in perfectly ordinary people and without major trauma, was a development, not a cataclysm.
In a like manner, it has been perfectly clear to me that the New York Times was a Liberal paper from the first moment I ever saw a copy in High School, as clear as the fact that the Wall Street Journal was a conservative one. And this both in treatment of news, particularly the choice of what to cover and what to say about it, as well as the content of the opinion pages.
This is the first pointed conclusion I draw from such narratives: the converts were incredibly naive. And naive not just about news. The implicit demand that the "experts" predict things like the fall of the Soviet Union is something that was utterly unworldly, and a gaping flaw in NeoNeocon's attention and education.
In order to understand this, we must consider how much we take on trust from specialists who "know better" than we do. Everybody from Steven Hawking the physicist to our local pharmacist falls into this category. There are quite pragmatic reasons for this, but education should teach us that, logically, it is a fallacy. Technically it is known as the Argument From Authority. NeoNeocon clearly didn't absorb this.
To think that specialists "know better" than we do is the precise verbal equivalent for confusing pragmatic trust with unthinking belief. Experts and specialists know more, but they do not necessarily know better. The fall of the Soviet Union depended on human motivations and human choice, but it was by no means an assured and inevitable thing. The reactionary coup against Mikhail Gorbachov's reforms failed, but there was no inherent reason that it might not have succeeded. You can't count on the future. You must bet on it. You must bet on it even if you are an "expert". And when you bet, you can lose, no matter how much you know.
It is noteworthy in this context that the "experts", at least in America, appear to have been of one mind that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction and was hiding them somewhere. The "experts" were wrong, and George Bush was betting on finding them rather than counting on it, whether he knew it, or NeoNeocon knew it, or not.
Because it has come up again with the airing of secret tapes of Saddam. It is of interest to quote what NeoNeocon has to say about these:
I have no idea how this will pan out. It may wind up like so many previous WMD "smoking guns"--a cap pistol....But if all that the tapes ever reveal is what was shown on Nightline last evening, I think they still tend to bolster the WMD argument rather than negate it. Certainly, they substantiate the Duelfer report's conclusions about the dangers of the fact that Saddam could easily reconstitute his weapons programs.
The original argument went like this: Since Saddam clearly would like to have Weapons of Mass Destruction, then he must actually have them. The fallacy of this should have been self-evident--indeed it was self-evident to the British experts whom Tony Blair chose to ignore--the premise was sound but the conclusion did not follow.
To say that the new tapes "bolster" the original argument is ludicrous. WMD's were never found and all the tapes can do is reiterate the premise not support the faulty conclusion. But it is clear that NeoNeocon is completely impervious to the fact that the argument itself was false. And also to the fact that, because of this false reasoning, George Bush and his experts not only made a bet, they made an unintelligent bet, convincing themselves, for no real reason, that the odds of finding WMD's were overwhelmingly in their favor.
Which is another way of saying that the "experts" did not "know better" even though they may have known more. Which NeoNeocon still has not truly absorbed because of the cognitive dissonance that it causes.
What we are looking at here is an irrational craving for an impossible objectivity, certainty, and authority. When you look at the broader scope of NeoNeocon's narrative of her change of mind, the reason for it becomes clear. What is important to her in her intellectual and emotional history is the constant sense of outside danger to herself, her country, and her family. It is the source of the lurid images, "Huns or Mongols or Genghis Khan or Vlad the Impaler", in which she wrapped the destruction of the Twin Towers in the first hour she knew about them.
We must be particularly clear here. I am not talking about the emotions of utter shock and horror at the event, which she shared with all of us. I am talking about the specific mental images which she chose to give it shape.
The danger in her childhood was ever-present. First it was the Korean War and the color red of the Communists, later it was the Cuban Missile Crisis, nuclear annihilation, and the Soviet Union--this fear intensified by the fact that one of her older relatives was an unregenerate Marxist and caused constant political conflict in the family because of it, making politics itself a dangerous and threatening confrontation to be avoided.
Then it was the completely unexpected and shattering imminence of danger within America implied by the Kennedy assassination [as an aside, also perpetrated by a committed American Communist, though NeoNeocon does not note this fact].
As she moved into the college years, it was danger to her boyfriend, who had flunked out and was drafted and sent to Vietnam. Then danger by proxy in photographs such as Nick Ut's napalmed child or the famous shot of summary execution in a Vietnamese street. And, finally, the overwhelming American transformation, exhaustion, and sense of unease and betrayal that followed for all of us after the fall of Saigon.
This was so deep and lasting a wound for her personally, that at this point in the narrative she largely slips into the third person and starts talking about everybody else. Then, finally, after an apolitical interlude as a wife and mother, the danger returned in the form of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1980.
After this, as you can see quite easily from what I have quoted above, a momentum of half acknowledged worry built up, ending in the events of 9/11, which simply shattered her like glass.
So let's stop a minute and think. If you have read the entire narrative [It covers ten full posts!] you will have found, as I have, that it is an incredibly detailed, honest, and strongly integrated personal story. It is also a fine summation, particularly, of the pain, contradictions, and loss of our war in South East Asia.
But the amazing thing is the list of what's missing from a detailed autobiography of a half-century of political development:
1. The Depression, the Roosevelt Revolution, and World War II are missing [this would be like our children knowing absolutely nothing of the Vietnam War and its politics, despite the years they've lived with us].
2. The Army/McCarthy Hearings, House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and the blacklists are missing--and this despite NeoNeocon having a relative with open Communist leanings.
3. Brown vs. Board of Education is missing, Bus boycotts are missing, Freedom Riding is missing.
4. The 1964 Democratic landslide, the Great Society, and its grand expansion of social welfare programs is missing.
5. The controversial Earl Warren Supreme Court decisions are missing.
6. The apogee of Unions and Organized Labor is missing, as is their decline.
7. Martin Luther King, the March On Washington, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers are missing--as are the black ghetto riots of that time.
8. The Generation Gap is missing; drugs, sex, and rock and roll are missing; the Sexual Revolution is missing; feminism is missing; Roe vs. Wade is missing; and the anti-abortion movement is missing.
9. Watergate and the fall of Richard Nixon are missing.
10. Galloping inflation, stagflation, double-digit interest rates, and the precious metals windfall are missing.
11. The unbelievable twenty-five year explosion of crimes of property and violence, as well as their startling ten year decline, are missing. Also missing are the return of the Death Penalty, mandatory minimum sentencing, "three strikes and out" laws, the Brady Bill, the now routine tragedy of school shootings, and the Assault Weapons ban.
12. The wholesale uncloseting of American gays is missing, as is the AIDS epidemic.
13. The McJobbing of America since 1980 is missing, along with the concurrent skyrocketing rise of the Stock Market, two separate Stock Market crashes, and the trade policies of NAFTA and CAFTA.
14. The rise of the far-right "militia movement"--culminating in the horrible confrontations in Idaho; Waco, Texas; and the Oklahoma City domestic terrorist bombing are missing.
15. The "Contract With America" and the confrontation of the Republicans in Congress with Bill Clinton which actually shut down the Federal Government is missing.
In other words, virtually any domestic event of the past 50 years which would call forth a Democratic response in a Democrat as contrasted to a Republican response in a Republican has simply been off of NeoNeocon's political radar screen.
As far as I can see, this is the central issue, and the most important thing to understand, about the 9/11 Security Mom political conversion experience. It is not a conversion from being a Liberal to being a Conservative and it is not a conversion from being a Democrat to being a Republican.
It is a conversion from being an apolitical individual to a political one from a single instantaneous and appalling shock.
Early in her narrative NeoNeocon makes the following remark:
During these early years I was quite aware that everyone in my family was a Democrat. So, I was a Democrat too, whatever that meant. It meant I was for Adlai Stevenson and that I didn't like Eisenhower, although since Eisenhower was the President I had to root for him, too, which was a bit complicated...I hadn't the foggiest notion what Democrats actually did, just that they were supposed to be kinder and nicer, especially to poor people, and that Stevenson was smarter, too.
The great, simple, and tragic secret to NeoNeocon's conversion is that she still doesn't know what being a Democrat meant.
This is probably because she never let herself find out. Probably because, emotionally, she learned at a very early age, from the aggressive behavior of that Marxist relative, that politics itself was too dangerous, too threatening to the peace and safety of her family and her country, to allow herself to truly participate. And now, as she herself observes, as a pointedly political individual she is a nuisance to her family, her friends, and her professional peers.
It may not have occurred to her that she has become what she really most feared. But it certainly has occurred to me. And the tragedy is that there was no reason in the world to fear it, nor is there now.
The scope of her current lack of understanding of the political history of her past can be absolutely incredible. Here is what she has to say about the political and social results of the tumultuous decade between 1965 and 1975:
Despite all this change, it's hard to know whether any of it translated into changes in political affiliation. Did Republicans become Democrats (or vice versa)? I have been unable to find statistics on the matter, but my guess is that there were no major trends in either direction.
Think about it. An entire region of the country, the one below the Mason-Dixon line, was transformed by the events of that decade from a politics of absolute dominance by the Democratic Party to general control by the Republican Party, and she appears to have completely missed this fact!
Not only that, an entire segment of Americans, the white working class and much of the white middle class, changed in general opinion from political and economic Liberalism, in a country where, in 1964, true Conservatism was a devastatingly rejected minority, to one of social and political Conservatism where anything in the Liberal social agenda is totally suspect.
I was there. I watched it happen. So was NeoNeocon. And she needs statistics [think "experts"] to determine what went on? Amazing.
So what broad conclusions do I as a Liberal and a Democrat draw from NeoNeocon's example? And what would I suggest to the Democratic Party luminaries who I think have not come to terms with it?
First, we must acknowledge that there is an important, fairly broad, and politically potent, segment of the American people who have not been paying serious political attention to what has been happening in this country since the Vietnam War ended. And when they do not self-identify as Independents, they usually self-identify as Democrats.
They do not self-identify as Republicans.
It is the politically indifferent who are the most prone to such a shocking conversion experience as NeoNeocon's. Also, in a country still relatively prosperous--though in slow but sure overall economic stagnation and decline--the only event that will provide the shock of conversion is a foreign attack on the United States. We had one. Hence the Security Moms.
As Liberals, our greatest weakness has been the long-term success of our economic and social policies in preventing another Great Depression. What motivates the politically indifferent is the violation of their needs for safety, comfort, and a belief in a completely objective and authoritative public point of view. No piece of domestic public policy, no economic reverse, and no terrorist or criminal event originating within our borders, not even anything as horrendous and dangerous as the Oklahoma City bombing has been a sufficient shock to those needs to make them politically active.
Only 9/11 has been. Only after 9/11 has "everything changed". Only after 9/11 has anyone changed in any significant way in this country.
This is the starting point, this is what we really have to work with in human terms, the tragedy of failing to take politics and public life seriously until it is overwhelmingly forced on you.
Our true task is not to try to reconvert those who have made choices, like NeoNeocon or the Anchoress. They have their views, which we can both respect and disagree with. Our true task is among those who are, "Independents", in the bad sense that they have no genuine involvement with public policy at all, whether they self-identify as Democrats or not.
Our true task is to make clear to these people that all political choices we make, and not just the ones we make to protect ourselves from terrorism, can be lethal for our future as a free and prosperous people, that some of them are well on their way to being so, and that they were mostly made while the "Independents" were not looking.
NeoNeocon has, generally, integrated her political conversion quite well into her life, as the thoughtful and well written posts on her blog indicate. It may appear, in consequence, that I am indulging in hyperbole when I call such political conversion a tragedy. In the second part of this essay I will examine a security mom whose coversion was as lethal to her well being as the broader American failure to make political choices can be lethal to this country.