We do things when we’re young we wouldn’t do later. We do things later, we wouldn’t do again. The biggest mistakes I’ve ever made were personal — relationships and vocation. I think it’s safe to say we’re capable of those until we die. The second biggest, however, have been religious and political, specifically the religion and politics of my youth (by which I mean pretty much everything before I was 30).
For roughly the period from 1991–1996 (with a year or two of transition on either side) I was a conservative and, initially, a religious conservative.
Those were the years in which conservatism was transforming into neoconservatism and entering public life in a way that dwarfed either the McCarthy or Goldwater or Reagan eras. The last shreds of a cultural consensus were still intact. But, like many people avidly exploring ideas at the time, I was responding to the imminent collapse of that consensus.
Imagine, for instance, the irony of a government increasingly resorting to guns and violence in order to take away people’s guns and eliminate violence. The ethics were seemingly fluid and, like a lot of people, I valued consistency. Unfortunately, I needed to live through enough changing of the guard to realize that, when the worm turns, people do the very thing they accuse their opponents of doing. Consistency just means the other guy is in power. The incumbent doesn’t have to be consistent.
Rewind back to that time: George HW Bush is President and Dick Cheney is Secretary of Defense. Helmut Kohl has just been elected Chancellor of Germany. Margaret Thatcher has just completed her term as Prime Minister of England. The Berlin Wall has fallen, with the interesting side effect that (largely mob-controlled) adult video stores are being flooded with loads of cheap porn from the Eastern Bloc (still VHS, of course). Clarence Thomas is being confirmed to the Supreme Court, despite the allegations of Anita Hill. The House has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Gulf War is underway. The repartee between left and right is strained and becoming desperate. “Political Correctness” has just appeared as a term among academics. And Lewis Grossberger writes in the NY Times that Rush Limbaugh has more listeners than any other talk show. Yet, for all this, the dam still has not broken.
So, more specifically, try to imagine the overall turmoil ‘on the ground’ during that period.
1991 — The Soviet Union collapses, and charges are dropped against Ollie North, for his part in a conspiracy of Reagan’s White House to illegally sell arms to Iran in order to illegally fund the Contras in Nicaragua. Operation Desert Storm commences, and Operation Rescue kicks off its “Summer of Mercy” blockades of abortion clinics in Wichita, Kansas. The Intelligent Design movement is born. Rodney King is beaten. And Stephen L. Carter publishes The Culture of Disbelief, charging that “religion in the United States is trivialized by American law and politics, and that those with a strong religious faith are forced to bend to meet the viewpoint of a “public faith” which is largely faithless.” There are 1532 citations of “political correctness” where in the previous year there were 70. National Review founder and host of Firing Line, William F. Buckley founds the National Review Institute (NRI) to foster conservative advocates in public life. Favorability toward Israel reaches a record 64% in the US. James Davison Hunter writes Culture Wars, defining the massive political realignment (e.g. the end of the Southern Democrats) and the polarization transforming American politics and culture.
There you have the mud in the water… communism, oil in the Middle East, abortion, evolution, thought and speech control, and religious faith in public life. That’s just one year.
1992 — The siege of Randy Weaver’s two-story cabin occurs in Ruby Ridge — his wife and homeschooled child are killed, along with a Deputy US Marshall (the event occurring over gun control). George HW Bush (“Read my lips — no new taxes!”) is re-elected. In Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, the Court overrides “states’ rights” as it pertains to restricting abortion. Spike Lee releases the film “Malcolm X”. The LA Riots occur in the wake of the Rodney King acquittals and provide cover for the wholesale looting and burning of Korean-American shops and stores. Race is an excruciatingly tense topic. The Court rules that a graduation prayer by a clergyman invited by school officials is unconstitutional.
Gun control, taxation and its perceived counterpart issues of big government, small business, jobs and the middle class, abortion again, with a whipped up polarization over race topped with a bright red smackdown for school prayer. You’re getting your sprinkle of nuts, like it or not. And we’re not done…
1993 — Bill Clinton, a Democratic candidate from the South — the last to bridge the divide between rust belt and urban center — becomes President. He’d better be impeccable. Seige is laid to a religious sect compound in Waco, Texas — over suspected firearms violations — same as Ruby Ridge. 76 people are killed. The Brady Law goes into effect. Thomas Sowell writes Inside American Education (hearkening back to Buckley’s God and Man at Yale and Bloom’s The Closing of The American Mind), which criticizes the perceived stealthy introduction into public schools of widespread fad programs for affective education such as ‘values clarification’, which he compares to brainwashing. As if that’s not enough, get ready to chat about it. This is famously the year the World Wide Web starts to become ubiquitous in the US when AOL grants web access to its enormous user base. Interestingly, in the same year, Playboy wins an infringement case against a smaller BBS (digital bulletin board system), reminding us why people use the internet in the first place. Hilary Clinton begins to warn the nation about the dangers of overly inflammatory rhetoric and ‘hateful words’, as precursors to violence. The year ends with the President instituting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. The alliance of rust belt and urban center is shaky, but it holds.
Porn, the battle over which public a public education is actually for, and reinforcement of the perception that people who don’t believe in gun control might be killed with the very guns that are being controlled… the seams are showing. The NRA, formerly an association of marksmen, but which had started to be radicalized with the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, is louder than ever. Still, the gay thing is safely in the closet. And we’re all looking at Bill, and you can just feel the moment of relative stability amid the rising chaos can’t last.
1994—Newt Gingrich and the Republic Party release their “Contract With America”, largely based on the ideas of the Heritage Foundation and a return to Reaganism, and the Republicans win the House for the first time in 40 years. Congress restricts public funds from education agencies that limit voluntary school prayer. The Whitewater Investigation launches (and Bill Clinton’s days are numbered, though we don’t realize yet that it’ll be the sex scandals). The ire is fanned as he signs the “assault weapons ban” as a subsection of the largest ever crime bill passed by Congress — written incidentally by Joe Biden. The Bell Curve is published, as is Alternatives to Afrocentrism. There are 7000 citations of “political correctness”, and many of them are not friendly to it.
This is “The Empire Strikes Back” for the right. All these issues (with a dose of big business and political ‘gerrymonkeying’ thrown in) are now institutionalized in conservatism’s “Contract With America” (in one form or another). But it is also a contract with themselves to get into lockstep. In the name of Vader… <cough> uh Reagan.
1995 — The OKC Bombing kills 168 people — with those arrested claiming to be motivated by Ruby Ridge and Waco. Gun shows are doing the most profitable business ever, fueled by these public disasters and pending assault weapon limitations. NRA membership swells to 3.5 million. There aren’t that many marksmen on planet earth. Gingrich becomes Speaker of the House and promises a vote on a school prayer amendment. The “Million Man March” on Washington DC is led by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan (formerly known as “Louis X”). The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Christian Coalition form an alliance at the 1995 annual AIPAC meeting, wedding the 2nd largest pro-Israel lobby with dispensationalist fundamentalism (a unified Jerusalem is required for the ‘rapture’ to occur). The US passes the Jerusalem Embassy Act (to move its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv). The legislation is initiated by Bob Dole, as a reversal of his previously articulated attitudes (in 1990), but following meetings with AIPAC and fundamentalist groups like Falwell’s Liberty University. It helps align Christian and Jewish support for Dole’s impending run for President. The identification of American conservatism with Israel, not always intimate even under Bush for example, is now set — as is the US relationship with the Middle East.
You can feel the weight of it all coming down the pike. The shape of our polarization — the prospect of our future. Maybe Hilary’s warning is right.
1996 — Congress passes and President Clinton signs the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Fox News is launched by Rupert Murdoch, and the Communications Decency Act is the first attempt to regulate porn on the internet. Not Out of Africa is published just as, on the other end of the spectrum, the Oakland School District institutionalizes ebonics. The Court rules the male-only policy of the Virginia Military Institute unconstitutional. The Judiciary just isn’t playing ball.
Then, it ended… at least for me.
It’s 1997, the year before Hilary Clinton popularized the term “vast right-wing conspiracy”, cementing suspicions on both sides. I have gotten a closer look at a Republican president and a Democratic one. I have seen a left-wing Congress pass sweeping gun control laws with cover for the right in the form of a ‘crime bill’, and a right-wing Congress pass a law allowing states to forbid same-sex marriages with cover for the left under the rubric of states rights. Both sides still compromise, even as we inch closer to a breaking point.
I go to live and work in another country and another (non-European) culture. I don’t speak the language. I don’t know the customs. The culture shock is intense. I rail — I am angry for six months. What’s wrong with these people? But after a while, I learn. When someone laughs, it doesn’t mean they’re laughing at you. They might just be embarrassed. There are many things like that. And soon I am defending my newfound ‘family’ from other newcomers who are confused. I learn the language, the speech patterns, the customs, and I even get married.
The thing is, you can’t immerse yourself in a culture, go to work when they go to work, go to the doctor where they go to the doctor, for years, and come back certain that the way you’ve known and lived is the right way. In other words, Conservatism doesn’t survive intimate, long-term, involvement with ‘the other’. It can’t. More correctly, neo-conservatism can’t. What’s the difference, you might ask? Well, (classical) conservatism might say “We value this aspect of our culture and want to preserve it.” Neo-conservatism would say “And if you don’t do it that way, you’re wrong, and should be kept separated from us, so we don’t have to see it.” There’s an insecurity with neo-conservatism that doesn’t burden the classical conservative.
Another analogy: you won’t hear a classical conservative saying, “I’m an American imperialist. Love it or leave it. Bomb them into basketball courts. Nuke ’em. Damned foreigners.” That’s the difference. Neoconservatism is a culture of taking, not a culture of self-reliance. It’s a culture of vengeance, not one of confidence. It’s likely no accident that, as I’ve grown older and more self-reliant as well as more confident, I find more in common with classical conservatism and almost nothing in common with neoconservatives other than a predominantly European ancestry (as a high profile pollster — herself a sprinkle of nuts — recently pointed out).
I also find little in common with “progressives” which is the misnomer applied to neoliberalism. I’ve seen them get power, and it’s just as nutty as when the neocons do. The ideas change, but the methods don’t. And you ARE your methods, regardless of what justifications you prefer to apply to them. Tellingly, you ask a neocon or neoliberal what you call someone who isn’t either one, and you get the same answer — “a moderate” (or a ‘coward’ if they’re amped up at the moment). But “moderate” in that usage presumes someone thinks a smidgen of nonsense mixed with a dollop of crazy equals sound advice. You can’t be moderate when both sides are ripping us all apart. You can’t be a mix of the ‘best’ parts of that.
What used to be the ‘center’ in this country was actually classical liberalism and classical conservatism—as counterweights. Neither side threw bombs. Neither side claimed victory was an existential necessity and the other was an existential threat. That was for the bomb-throwing anarchists who, like neocons and neoliberals today, used methods that were decidedly at odds with the values they claimed to represent. The center was once all of us, more or less. We mucked it up — we know that — like a bad spouse. Look at our hands and we had subjugation and exploitation on them. But for all that we weren’t changing fast enough, neither the neocons nor the neoliberal has improved the quality of our political and cultural life in their quest to radically remake it autonomously, finally and faster.
I don’t blame myself for choosing a side in the divorce of America from America that was upon us at the time, the wreckage of which forms our common discourse. When someone says to a kid “which parent do you want to live with?” there isn’t a choice you can be proud of. After a while, you move out of the home you chose, and emancipation lends perspective. Living abroad for a long while lent me some. BOTH parents are problematic, to put it mildly. And it’s possible to love both, and sort of hate both, and firmly say no to both. I don’t need to swing from one side to the other. To quote Treebeard, in The Lord of the Rings, “I’m not on anybody’s side, because no one is on my side.”
The current political race seems to have become an argument between the cretinous and the shrill — the insecure blowhard ego vs. the outraged self-righteous ego. You take a Joe Biden, by contrast, and he gets slapped by both sides. Why? Because he’s the closest thing to centrist — to the people we used to be — to the possibility of a livable if imperfect unity we’ve seen. The utopianism of the left and the right — which would, for instance, deprive us of a public healthcare option or alternately deprive us of a private healthcare option, if not from spite then from the arrogance of knowing what’s best for us — can’t tolerate compromise. It can’t create a bridge, it can only create a lane going one direction.
If that’s not so, tell me which of those issues from 1991–96 is resolved? Guns? Please. Abortion? Of course not. The role of Faith in public life? Don’t get me started. We’re no closer — we’re farther apart. Frankly, we have to divorce our parents — from ourselves. We have to reject all the neo-isms. The United States wasn’t a sure thing, after all. It still isn’t. It was founded and cohered for as long as it has on the basis of a spectrum of conservatism and liberalism we now call ‘classical’ but which really just means disdainful of utopias, cooperative with the other end of the spectrum, and therefore open to compromise. The nation requires this to exist in any recognizable manner. It will continue disintegrating until we return to those values. If I’ve learned anything from watching a divorce, it’s that no one is perfectly right or entirely wrong. So that’s why I’m not a neocon or a progressive or a moderate, either, and yet I am deeply politically engaged. I am apolitically active.
I wasn’t “out of town” when the dam finally broke. I came back just in time for 9/11 and watched the country come apart at last. 9/11 incidentally marked a vast acceleration of the reach and autonomy of the U.S. intelligence community, giving rise to the theory of an autonomous “deep state” controlled by the left to compliment the “vast right-wing conspiracy”. And there rose our own “Berlin Wall” of epistemological and cosmological divide.
It wasn’t 2007—the financial crash—that did it. It wasn’t even 2009 and the simultaneous election of President Obama and creation of the Tea Party. Those were the aftershocks. 9/11 was the moment the divorce was final. We held hands and rode tanks into the wrong country together, for one last stupid, misguided battle. And then we turned to each other’s throats, and here we are, and there it is. And to keep it from being a forever-breaking, we have to become, simply put, different kinds of people. If we can do that, it can be our Return of the Jedi.
As it stands, the actual ‘deep state’ is less a conspiracy than an amorphous suspicion applied to the intentions of whoever happens to be one’s opponents and the conviction of each side that it needs to get control and impose its will—without the requirement of compromise.