Jan 19, 2004

Recanting my Republican crimes against humanity
An opinion for the Hillsdale Collegian

This is a confession: I want to be an NPR liberal.

I want to care about politics in India, I want to consider new technologies in binding rare books, I want to follow the latest trends in folk music and Canadian book awards. I want to embrace a kind of political world thinking about humans not in that distanced way of wonkery and polls and elections but with the humanist concern for individuals, for stories about people crying or laughing, for art.

I came of age on talk radio, you could say. In high school I worked for a beekeeper and listened to 8 hours of right winged air waves every day as I painted beehives or extracted honey from the comb. I listened to the local guys and the national guys and I collected attacks on Clinton with my paycheck.

I read Tom Paine and the founding fathers. I looked up old issues of National Review dating back to the 80s. I read Russell Kirk and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I came to Hillsdale College. But, slowly, I started slipping.

I think it was Solzhenitsyn first. I didn’t realize it at the time but, reading the Gulag Archipelago as a 15-year-old political activist, I took in the horrors of ideology and was learning to replace them with the particulars of human stories. From a long-bearded man in a Russian prison system to the foothills of central California I was taught a lesson: Never place politics over human hopes and human pains; never replace humanity with ideology; never set politics at the core of your world.

I didn’t realize what was happening until I read Whittaker Chambers, a man hiding from Communists in darkened farmhouses writing a letter to his children and refusing to call himself a conservative lest he commit the sin of ideology. As I went door to door wearing a Republican tee shirt and talking up a Republican Senator, I began to question my political eagerness, I began to doubt, to slip from my fortified position as a fighter for the right, the true, the Grand Old Party.

As I sat in a Young Republicans meeting listening to my friend and co-campaigner state definitively that all poor people deserved to be poor I began to wonder, in the darkness of a silence that was a fear of self-condemnation, if we weren’t guilty of the sin of political ideology. I wondered if we, arguing against the evil that was political and working towards a political solution, weren’t guilty of the same crimes against humanity as the Stalinists and the Fascists, of the spirit of the dirty politics of Nixon and Clinton, Henry Kissinger and Heuy Long.

This is a confession: I let the political take over my world; I was an ideologist; I made humanity second to candidacies and party platforms; I was a politico committed to the sins of the fascists, the communists and poll-driven politicians.

The summer before I moved to Hillsdale I read a lot of Jonah Goldberg – before we knew he was the poster child for neo-conservatism – and a bit of Russell Kirk. There was a growing dissonance in my soul, a growing rift between the conservatism that I wanted to believe and the conservatism I was practicing. There was an increasing conflict between the politics I was learning and a politics that could harmonize with philosophy, art, culture and humanity itself.

I was Jacob wrestling in the desert night.

I was trying to save something… a political vision, a party affiliation, a candidate, a side in the political battles raging about my ears. I was trying to hang on to the place I’d carved out as the aggressive young man in my local party, the opportunity of a career in state politics, the approving looks and the encouragement from older party members and activists. I wanted to keep my world painted in red, white, blue and elephant.

And yet, the angel who refused me his name kept saying, you cannot lose art; philosophy must be more than political philosophy; you cannot fit every story to the frame of a party platform; you cannot take every thought captive for your candidate.

I’ve not renewed my subscription to National Review this year. I’ve asked Hillsdale College to erect a statue to a non-political poet or philosopher. I’ve tried to avoid the daily polls and election journalism. I’ve reminded myself not to dehumanize political enemies. I’ve begun to listen to NPR. I’ve refocused, working on philosophy, poetry and poetry criticism.

I’m a repentant politico, a recovering wonk, and a humbled man confessing I once believed politics could save us.

This is a confession, and I pray that my penance be accepted.