Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Slow Fade from Liberalism

I was raised in rural Pennsylvania, in the shadow of the Vietnam War, by working-class Democrat parents. A strange mix of stuff was going on there. Long hair on kids didn’t become the norm in our area until 1973 or so, long after the 60s; things moved a lot slower back then without cable TV or the internet. Most people openly supported the war, as they had sons fighting in it. (It’s also fair to say I was raised in the shadow of World War II, as that aspect of American culture was still very strong in rural America; I was raised watching a constant stream of WW II movies on the TV, playing army with my friends, and talking with G.I. Joes.) The combination of “working class” and “Democrat” implies a pragmatic take on politics: people who are getting the shit end of the stick, but maintaining belief in some form of LBJ/Depression era liberalism that was a lot harder and bore little resemblance to the wilder strain of liberalism that broke out of the late 60s.

When I look at my life and recognize I have faded far away from identifying myself as a liberal, in a lot of respects, I think I’m simply hearkening back to how I was raised. Because I remember that type of liberalism being more to my liking, and having lived in one of the world’s epicenters of liberalism for nearly 20 years now, I’ve pretty much had a belly full of the left, who strike me as being just as dogmatic, off-putting and wrong-headed as the right.

I think a lot of this can be attributed to simple naiveté on my part. Being raised with Vietnam, especially as the situation soured and waned in the 70s, I took a hard swing left in my youth. It was easy with the music and movies of the 60s and 70s, which were great, along with regularly reading Rolling Stone in its prime, being exposed to beat writers, folks like Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe: an overwhelmingly positive experience. The 70s were a pretty hang-loose time for kids. Adults from that time remember it as an awful decade: Vietnam petering out, oil crises, inflation, recessions, Nixon, Ford, Carter, the beginning of terrorism, the Iran Hostage Crisis, the drug trade growing exponentially, etc. Sixties people got a bit older and found themselves growing up and realizing “come the revolution” was an empty catch phrase.

But kids had a ball in the 70s! I was about as spoiled as you could be on my factory-working father’s “$20K a year to support seven people” budget. When I see myself as being a spoiled kid, understand that I’m comparing myself to my dad’s childhood during the Depression, where he got a baked-bean sandwich for breakfast, and that was it until dinner, at which time it was some similarly non-descript, small-portioned meal. I understand my grandfather would usually get to work one week a month at the coal mines, making just enough money to put a meager amount of food on the table. (He and my grandmother had five kids.)

Compare and contrast to a kid having the ability to make money by mowing lawns, buying books, magazines, records, clothes, eating junk food constantly. My father would look at us and recognize that just the opportunity to work for money was something he never had as a kid, much less all this material shit we piled on top of that ability. The sense of liberalism he had was forever tied in with the Depression, and all those programs LBJ launched at the time to combat it, followed by World War II, which pushed the country into a better economy by sheer force. It was a liberalism related to basic survival and whatever sense of politics flowed from that. As opposed to the full-on cultural wars the 60s brought.

I still understand and respect that sense of liberalism as it relates to the basic right to work, put food on a table and roof over head. For better or worse, I’ve always lived around and understood working-class people, be it in the city or country. In the city, it’s been a necessity as I refuse to pay extortionate rents. (And now that real-estate values in my neighborhood have gone through the roof, you better believe I’m sweating it.) But all the other political stuff that somehow gets packaged with this, I’m not so sure about. Or more accurately, like most human beings, I have mixed thoughts on a lot of issues. I don’t vote party line. (These days, I don’t even vote – I’ve lost the urge with the professional wrestling style, good guy/bad guy dynamics of the two-party system that now seem worse than ever.) I don’t identify myself as a liberal because I’m not. I don’t identify myself as a conservative because I’m not. (What am I? I’m a little bit country. I’m a little bit rock and roll. I'm a little bit of Memphis and Nashville. With a little bit of Motown in my soul.)

Because I came up in a time where so many kids leaned left, in my mind, at least at first, I felt like I was losing something by veering away from liberalism in those first few years after college. A pivotal experience for me was moving to the Bronx and living there just shy of 10 years. My take on race relations before that was very liberal. Afterwards, you’d call me a pragmatist. After the 10,000th time some black or hispanic kid spit as I passed or muttered “cracker” as an informal invitation to stupidity, it pretty much sunk in that these weren’t Magic Negroes Who Save the Day, as so often portrayed in movies and TV. They were just people, many of them fucked-up and blinded by their hatred as much as any white racist. (If you can give me one good reason why inner-city kids were filled with racial hatred beyond cultural inundation, as they had virtually no personal experience with white people, I’d love to hear it.) Many more people there were just like me: struggling to get by and not interested in getting dragged down in any kind of racial horseshit. I saw it all and learned from it. When I’m around white people who don’t have that sort of racial experience, I know it – because they tend to be spouting laughable feel-good/whitey’s-fault excuses or hateful racist swill that has nothing to do with reality.

While all this was going on, I’d occasionally notice news stories about conservative speakers on campuses being routinely shouted down by liberal audiences (as if there’d be any other kind at all but a handful of universities). The newscasters would interview the shouters, and they’d shout down the newscasters! I graduated from Penn State in 1986; if there were people this far gone on campus, I didn’t know them. Sure, I knew a few kids, from wealthy backgrounds it always seemed, who identified themselves as socialists or anarchists, and I’d sure love to see if they’re still toeing that moral line from college. (I doubt it, I’m not even toeing my own line, but who knows.) That was the age of college kids building and “living” in ramshackle shanty towns on campus to protest universities investing in the South African diamond industry while the country practiced apartheid. It seemed like the age of kids screaming down any form of dissent to their point of view came directly afterwards. To judge by the stifling, vaguely fascist wave of political correctness that swept college campuses in the 90s, I suspect this liberal dogmatism just got worse as it went along.

Even without those news stories, living in New York, I was surrounded by shrill liberalism all day, every day. I tried reading The Village Voice, but gave up after a few years, as even fucking recipes and sports stories would carry pointless leftist barbs. What struck me most about so many New Yorkers was the arrogance, people who assumed everyone they spoke to was on the same liberal wavelength, the sort of sickening cultural strong-arming I’ve often seen racists employ in casual conversation, where if you don’t openly disagree with them, they assume you somehow agree with them. I’ve never felt that culturally comfortable, or manipulative, to operate like that.

It feels like we’ve reached a point now, with 9/11, the specter of radical Islam, war in Iraq, the last few elections and such, that the people who want to be polarized, left or right, have pretty much decided that’s all there is to America, and if you’re not on either side, party line on every issue, then you don’t exist. This is marketing! People have somehow tied in aspects of target marketing with politics, to the extent where if you’re not buying a certain product, and buying similar products that enhance the overall value of the product line via synergy, then you’re either stupid or just not grasping how the world operates. Think Grr Animals shirt/pants combinations for kids. Macs, iPods and now iPhones, along with the carrying cases. American politics have become much the same stable of products, with all the attendant lifestyle implications.

Gay marriage feels like one of those hip products that I see all the time now. (Global warming, too, but I got into that a few posts back, as far as I’m willing to go.) The left has set up conditions where if you don’t openly and fully accept gay marriage, then you are against it, and are somehow less humane. You are incapable of disagreeing with the issue without being morally inept at best, and bankrupt at worst. You must be a right-wing zealot!

I’ve never been right wing, nor a zealot, save for various pop-rock and country bands. I have no major beefs with gay marriage, as I’m not an overly religious person. But I don’t see it as some huge civil rights struggle either, that must occur lest we remain mired in out-of-date, so-called traditional values. (I'm never quite sure what those are supposed to be.) Frankly, if it got voted down in every state, I’d be perfectly comfortable with this; if it got voted in for every state, ditto.

It’s just not an issue I care all that much about … probably because I’m not gay! And if I was, I can tell you now, at least from the aspect of a straight guy looking in from the outside, one of the most attractive aspects of being gay appears to be that you’re able to reject traditional values simply by dint of who you are. Our culture is filled with people who adopt affectations to show what they believe to be some type of rebellion (anything related to the music industry, tattoos, drug use, etc.), but homosexuality is one of those issues that will always be controversial, no matter how much anyone tries to normalize it. So why would I want to not just accept, but celebrate one of the most hallowed traditional values that is fraught with all sorts of issues (infidelity, desperation, boredom, etc.)? If I was gay, I’d be glad as hell that I didn’t have to get married, or feel any pressure from anyone to get married. And get into the whole kids/mortgage/in-laws quagmire that most adult Americans call every-day life. (Going on 43 years as a bachelor, you better believe I know of where I speak. If I had a dime for every mind-blowing conversation I’ve had with “gadar” men and [usually] women who, when the subject of my being single was broached, had thought balloons pop up over the heads with me sucking a great big cock …)

Am I allowed to oppose gay marriage simply because if I was gay, I wouldn’t want to get married, and would, in fact, reject this sort of rhetoric as something totally meaningless to who I was and how I wanted to live my life? I am allowed to have that belief. I suspect there are plenty of gay people who agree with me, too, although it would be hard to hear them above the din of those who have made this a make-or-break civil rights issue. (It isn’t. It’s another soup bone for the left and right to chew on.) You are allowed to agree or disagree, mildly or vehemently. By the tenets of the left, this is not possible. You’re with us, or against us. Ditto, the right, too, of course. But I’m approaching this as a former liberal who abandoned liberalism once he realized what appeared to be a majority of people who identified themselves as such were just as dogmatic as their supposedly far more dogmatic conservative opponents.

Maybe that’s the problem: “appeared to be a majority.” For all I know most people who identify themselves as liberals are open-minded enough to understand you can oppose gay marriage, whatever your orientation, and still be no more or less humane than someone who doesn’t. But from what I read, in newspapers and all over the web, I’m not seeing this at all. And I would love to! But, again, with liberalism, it feels like a rigid uniform one must wear, and god forbid saying you might have second thoughts on a given issue. That’s not true liberalism, which should be the ability for a person to choose any mode of thought, feeling or expression, without regard to how anyone else perceives it. That shit doesn’t fly with people holding agendas, whatever side they see themselves on. Liberalism has been turned into a political agenda by the left, as opposed to a free-standing value system that allows for change and all types of dissension, especially within the ranks.

If we could go back to that LBJ form of liberalism, strip away a lot of the baggage the 60s hefted onto the concept, I might be willing to call myself that again. But I don’t see that happening any time soon. I think above all else, I’ve ditched politics and resent how they’ve crept into people’s value systems to the extent that they’ll out-of-hand reject someone for having different political values than they do. That’s just sick. Not liberal at all. And I see it all the time in New York, with people who spout stuff like “I don’t know any Republicans” as if that’s a badge of pride, as opposed to a badge of provincialism, the sort of thing a wealthy housewife in, say, Fargo, might say, save the pride would be in not knowing any Democrats. Things have grown that fucked up, and I don’t know why. The world feels a lot more constricted now than when I was a kid. I’m willing to write a large part of that down to growing up and having to deal with the attendant realities and responsibilities of adulthood. But some of it isn’t.

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