Creative Destruction

January 12, 2007

Semi-Open Thread: Where Did You Come From?

Filed under: Navel Gazing — Robert @ 5:09 pm

Dianne suggests an open thread to discuss where people’s political orientation and beliefs came from. So, here it is. Please feel free to tell us your origin story (“Bitten by a radioactive spider from Richard Nixon’s basement…”) whether you are a contributor, a regular commenter, or just some random freak off the street. I’m calling this a semi-open thread because I would like to limit the discussion to people’s histories and perspectives; if you want to argue with Dianne about why she’s wrong to be a hippie communist, do it somewhere else, please.


  1. My earliest memories of social conscience, which is where political conscience ought to stem from but often doesn’t, was in kindergarten and early grade school. That was my first real introduction to human cruelty and lack of understanding. The cruelty was mostly among peers, and the lack of understanding was mostly that of teachers and administrators. Few were tolerant of others who were somehow different. Well, I was different in a few fundamental ways, and the injustice of being victimized for no other reason than being different was enough for me to quickly develop a keen sense of justice (or injustice). I also developed an empathy for underdogs and for those who struggled in areas where I didn’t.

    Fast forward more than a few years, and what I believe is still based on stuff I learned in those early years. Some are cruel, others lack understanding, and when the two combine, whew boy. That’s neither blue nor red, neither liberal nor conservative, and it doesn’t have to be. Because both sides of the political fence can be both or either.

    In general, I find liberals to be good-hearted folks interesting in helping others but lacking in an understanding of human nature and the best mechanisms to provide help. I find conservatives to be cruel, abandoning people to their fates and turning their backs on suffering.

    That doesn’t mean I have things all figured out; I don’t. But that’s where I come from.

    Comment by Brutus — January 12, 2007 @ 6:04 pm | Reply

  2. I grew up in a small college town in Ohio, the son of two first generation college students who have gone from rural communities (both had high school graduating classes of about twelve kids), to college, to Washington D.C. where they met at an area Lutheran church while working in federal government jobs. My father is an emeritus university professor, my mother was a college administrator.

    I’ve loved science fiction and fantasy since seeing Star Wars in the theater. I like it because it is a good way to think about our own society.

    I picked up my strong support for civil liberties, as much as anything, from listening to NPR accounts of Supreme Court cases starting around the time I was in junior high school. This also, in part, drove my interest in law. I was a strong pacifist in junior high school, refusing even to raise a fist as I was being beaten up by a gang of bullies. (The lead bully later went to federal prison for a long time shortly after turning eighteen for stealing social security checks from mail boxes).

    In high school, I was an Eagle Scout, was active in community and high school theater, and was on the chess club. I was a bright kid who spent a year abroad as an exchange student in New Zealand, was a National Merit Scholar, informally taught myself essentially everything in the math curriculum from geometry to trig to three semesters worth of calculus to linear algebra and discrete mathematics, and also won awards taking the first year of calculus based physics for physics majors at the local college.

    I teetered between going to Pomona (a yuppie California institution) and Oberlin (in Ohio) for college, and ended up choosing Oberlin, a quirky, small liberal arts college with a long progressive history, where I was a math major. I was active in student government there, worked in the news department of the college radio station, and was president of the college chapter of the ACLU.

    I went to law school at the University of Michigan on a whim, as much because I wanted to understand how things worked, as anything, as was also active in student government there. Among my notable experiences were working on the Michigan Journal of International Law and helping to brief a child custody case a professor was litigating in the United States Supreme Court. Law school was a ball.

    After bouncing around a bit and getting married to a woman from my circle of friend in college, I ended up practicing law, getting involved in Democratic party politics, and participating in internet debates, from Colorado. I have always worked in small or medium sized law firms serving small businesses and affluent individuals, with the exception of a little more than a year spent as a full time associate professor of estate planning in a master’s degree program (it was a for profit sister college of the University of Phoenix, and I was laid off when faculty had to be cut in a wave of budget cuts when the college’s profit targets weren’t met).

    I was raised as a Lutheran (ELCA), although I started having serious doubts about the same time that I was confirmed in high school, mostly because I had, by then, developed a pretty thorough knowledge of the Bible and theology, and found them to be bunk.

    I picked up a lot of history, including a lot of history of the Christian church and of Islam, in college. This reinforced my religious views.

    While deep down I was a non-believer all through college, I did attend an Epsicopal Church all through my college years on a regular basis and was even a member of a group that had weekly lunches with the rector and pitched in to teach Sunday school for a class composed entirely of two very difficult rebellious junior high school kids with trouble at home for whom I served a a role model. The Sunday school lessons didn’t get much beyond “hitting is bad; ping pong is good.” As much as anything, I did it to confirm that it was Christianity in general, and not simply the Lutheran denomination, that was the issue. Habit is also a powerful force. Episcopalians have better music, are more creatively dressed and tolerant, have better liturgies, and eat better snacks after services, than Lutherans do. But, I largely stopped going to church after that and embraces a more secular lifestyle at that point, because that is a sensible and honest thing for someone who doesn’t believe in God to do.

    I maintain a membership in the American Humanist Association, although I don’t regularly attend Humanist functions, although I sometimes go to parties with other area atheists I’ve met over the Internet. My wife is loosely affiliated with a local Unitarian church (although she grew up in an evangelical leaning immigrant Presybetrian church), and she often takes the kids on her now and then visits. I’ve gone precisely once, when my family was in town and wanted to go somewhere, for a Christmas Eve service (which wasn’t half bad).

    I blog. A lot.

    Comment by ohwilleke — January 12, 2007 @ 10:36 pm | Reply

  3. After my mother ran off to find herself during the Back to the Land movement, taking me with her, I was raised by a pack of wild hippies. So, naturally, I grew up to be a conservative. A conservative who secretly loves the smell of patchouli. Be careful — I blend. You’ll see me shopping for organic mung beans and lavender oil in your local Whole Foods and think nothing of it, until it dawns on you…that’s an NRA t-shirt!

    Well, I’m not so much a conservative as a libertarian. A libertarian, not a Libertarian. The Libertarian Party is a silly party. I believe what the world needs now is a whole lot more minding-your-own-business.

    But conservatives aren’t cruel; they have a different idea of what’s good for people. How anyone can put up signs imploring park-goers not to feed the ducks because it makes them dependent and less able to care for themselves, but still think welfare and food stamps are a great idea…is a mystery to me.

    From the first I remember, I’ve thought the existence of God the most important question. By far. I mean, duh. My family wasn’t very religious, but I became that way. The more I read the Bible and thought about it, though, the more it struck me that it didn’t hang together and make sense. And the answers I was getting from religious people were exactly what you’d say if you had no freaking idea what was going on and were pulling platitudes out of your bottom. Little bits of my belief broke off until, one day, I woke up an atheist. When that happens, you realize how improbable your religious beliefs were all along, and what a gigantic effort you put into propping them up despite their absurdity. It would be easier for me to resurrect my belief in Santa Claus than Jesus.

    Well, I’m not entirely an atheist. There’s a sort of rump paganism that takes hold of you when you reject formal belief; a vague, instinctive superstitious pantheism. Unless you’re Stainless Steel Science Guy.

    I’ve been arguing politics on the internet a long, long time. I don’t think I’ve ever posted here before, but this site has been on my reading list for a while. I’ve forgotten how I got here. Probably tag-surfing WordPress. I have a voracious curiosity about what people have to say.

    So! To recap: extreme-right-wing anarcho-libertarian hippie atheist geek people-person.

    Thank you. That was fun.

    Comment by S. Weasel — January 13, 2007 @ 6:30 pm | Reply

  4. My first prominent memory is of an absolutely beautiful day in the suburbs of San Diego. Unfortunately, that was also the day my parents got divorced, so most of the memory consists of a bunch of yelling and crying and screaming, followed by me watching my childhood home recede into the horizon through a thick veil of tears and through the back windshield of my grandmother’s car.

    Something like that really does tend to screw a kid up internally. And I really was screwed up for a long time, using that as a crutch to explain my delayed emotional and intellectual development. Now I just tell myself I was a damn idiot for not pulling my head out of my ass sooner.

    So instead of a nuclear family, I was raised by my grandparents in the exact same way they raised my dad, only without updating anything to adjust for the advancement of 28 years. Even my allowance was the same as my dad got when he was my age.

    Now, this was just on the outside edge of a complete hellhole of a gang-zone, one of San Bernardino’s most violent areas in a city once named as the Murder Capital of the United States (minimum population: 25,000), called Arden-Guthrie. Therefore, I grew up having to fall asleep to the melodious chatter of automatic weapons fire every night of the week throughout both junior high and high school. Not to mention having to walk through said gang-zone in order to get to school, which event would start the weekly game of “Catch Whitey” until I got too fast for them to actually catch me. After all, not many high school sophomores can run a mile in 5:20 flat, especially not with 35 pounds of school books on their backs. I was a fast little bastard, which was one of the few reasons why I survived the cultural Darwinian system known as an inner-city high school.

    And yes. Without the books, I was well under five minutes for the mile. At least until my ACL and MCL decided to sever themselves. At the same time. Which hurt. A lot. In the middle of trying to break the 4:30 mark. Five yards from the finish line. Which made me actually roll across the finish line at 4:31 with my lower leg flopping around like a headless chicken on meth. Which further dislocated my patella. To the back of my leg. Causing major ligament damage throughout the joint. Which hurt. A lot. Which ended up taking me off the track team exactly one meet before I qualified to letter in the sport. Again, which hurt. A lot. Which also meant that I couldn’t participate in the twice-monthly backpacking trips with my Scout troop that summer. Which, yet again, hurt. A lot.

    After that, I pretty much gave up on high school, barely graduating with a 2.02 GPA, plus a full load at summer school. Which caused my grandparents to kick me out of the house at the physical age of 17. Emotionally, I was still about 13 or so. I drifted around from place to place, staying with friends and family of friends, getting kicked out of each and every single one of them after a maximum of 3 months. This went on for a couple of years until I finally pulled my head out and started up at a local community college.

    That didn’t last long. After a year, I ended up having my mid-20’s breakdown a few years early, losing my job, my girlfriend, my apartment, and my academic standing. In that order. If I had enough money, things probably would have gone pharmaceutical. At the same time, my grandparents’ health had deteriorated to the point where they needed someone there full-time to help them out. So I, being the only one in the family without pressing commitments (Read: careers and lives.) elsewhere, boomeranged back to their home.

    This one did last a while. My grandfather died of plain-old old age in ’97 and my grandmother needed hospitalization for kidney failure in ’01, as I was very ill-equipped to take care of that kind of problem myself. In the meantime, I had gone back to school, competed on the school’s Model United Nations team (And at the National competition in New York, at that.), earned my Associates Degree, plus met a wonderful woman over these here Intarwebs. So, without anything holding me in ol’ St. Bernard Doo-doo, I moved to the outskirts of Denver, fully intending to marry this woman. Start a family. Start a new life. Start the fsck OVER.

    (Can you tell what’s coming next? Go ahead and start a pool. Whoops. Too late. Betting is closed.)

    Unfortunately, she ended up becoming a raving psychotic, purposefully sabotaging the relationship for some God-awful reason that not even God could figure out. And I, being one extraordinarily stubborn bastard, refused to give up on her, subjecting myself to further untold emotional horrors and countless schemes of chthonic complexity, all in the name of not wanting to give up on something I once cherished with all my body and soul. Alas, eventually things got through my skull, which has charitably been compared with two feet of solid depleted uranium, and allowed my reason for moving to this city to disappear, like a cow fart in a hurricane.

    So why am I still here, far from the vale of my childhood dreams? Because while I lost a love, I fell in love with Denver. I love it here. At least, I love it when it’s not snowed under for weeks at a time. The people. The nightlife. The possibilities. The everything. I’ve carved out a niche here and, by God and one stubborn bastage, I’m going to hold onto it with both hands and make myself a life where there was only an endless sea of misery.

    After all. Third time’s a charm. Right?

    Comment by Off Colfax — January 14, 2007 @ 7:11 am | Reply

  5. Raised by committed Atheists in the rural Midwest, I had a pretty quiet childhood. I vaguely remember the very end of Watergate (“why can’t I watch a monster movie?”). When I was 14 I lost my dad and things got tough for my siblings and my medically-disabled mother. My high school essentially graduated me for sticking with it despite the full time job after-school and the second job on the weekends that allowed me to support my mother and sisters. I still remember two things that began my political socialization; wondering why the heck the government needed so much of the check of a 16 year old and watching a friend of my mother have her children taken away by Social Services after she had applied for welfare. My Mom’s friend was tired of her kids being beaten up in school and was teaching them at home!! (this was before homeschooling was widespread). Social Services placed the kids in foster homes where the son (I think he was 12) soon broke his arm ‘in an accident’ and the 15 year old daughter was raped by her foster father.

    At least they we going to public school, huh? My Mom’s friend never got back her kids, either, until they were grown.

    Anyway, I enlisted at 17 and spent 8 years in the Army studying foreign language, Islam, Middle Eastern culture and history, and being a geek for the Military. I traveled all over and eventually met a wonderful (non-military) woman to whom I am still married.

    I had become fairly liberal in the army, like most people in my unit.Afterwards I went to a Really Big Midwestern University and studied Middle Eastern history, foreign language, and Judaism, planning for a career in Intelligence or the State Dept. or some such. After that I moved Up North to continue my studies and started a family. I was still vaguely Liberal and mostly Atheist when we moved.

    My real change in political outlook started with the School of the Americas. I knew a lot of guys who had taught there and had met some of the people who had attended as I traveled all over. One day on campus I bumped into a bunch of undergrads with signs asking that the ‘School of Assassins’ be closed. I spoke to them a little, explaining what I knew of the school. They were fiercely antagonistic, so I went to the faculty advisor for the student group. He invited me to a debate between an ex-military guy and the professor who wrote a book called ‘School of Assassins’. The debate was terribly one-sided, with the ex-soldier reciting facts, numbers, and making comparisons with graduates of the SOA and graduates of Yale and talking about military and government oversight. The Professor just talked about North America making South America poor, hegemony, and ‘soldiers are bad’. In the exchange I remember best, the pro-school debater said ‘what you and other protestors really want is to change American foreign policy, right? Why don’t you go to the State Department and protest policy there, where it is written?’ and the professor said ‘Well, that is a very complicated issue and most protestors have an attention span of 3 or 4 years at most, because they graduate. We need to keep them energized by focusing on a simple symbol of why we hate America that doesn’t require a lot of thought’. I was in the front row and saw the shocked look on his face as he realized what had slipped out under the pressure of the debate. He had essentially called his supporters simple-minded and easily led while admitting that the SOA had darn little to do with any of the goals he or the other protestors really held. The crowd essentially ignored what he said, though.

    The next week I got a copy of the debate on video tape from that same student group. The little exchange I found so interesting had been edited out.

    About a year later, as I was still becoming Conservative I took a mandatory class in Catholic religion. I had already studied Islam, Christianity and Judaism for years for my job, was well-read in Buddhism, Paganism, the occult, etc. so I really expected a snoozer of a class with an auto-magic A. I got the A, and then signed up for 2 more theology classes. Then 3 more for the next term while meeting with a priest weekly. Then I switched my major to Theology while going through the conversion process. My wife, a lapsed Catholic when I met her, started amused and ended up devout again, herself.

    These days I am an odd-duck. I am socially Conservative (very!) and yet not so much economically. I am a big supporter of Distributism and was against the war in Iraq (although I am of the ‘we invaded, now we are morally obligated to finish’ school). Indeed, most big-L Libertarians think I am wrong about everything.

    Comment by Deep Thought — January 15, 2007 @ 8:10 am | Reply

  6. Ok, I started it, in a sense, so I suppose I ought to add my contribution…

    It wasn’t all that hard. I’m a mixed race female atheist who finds the whole history and concept of marriage a little frightening. Conservatives told me that the only thing I should want as a woman was to get married and raise tons of children. Liberals told me that I could choose whatever career I wanted, subject only to my abilities, could control whether or not I had children by methods ranging from abstinence to surgical destruction (or enhancement) of my fertility, and that I could choose what cultural format my bond with my partner should take. Conservatives told me that my family was a bunch of race traitors who ought to be euthanized (I feel compelled to point out here that most conservatives are NOT racists, at least not these days…but the racists I’ve met were also deeply conservative so the association stands, at least in my limbic system) and, anyway, were basically lazy and undeserving of any type of aid. Liberals pointed out the King speech about “content of your character” and offered financial aid so I could go to a college several tiers above what I otherwise could have afforded. Conservatives tend to try to convert me to Christianity–which is actually ok because I enjoy playing with ideas and so usually have fun in the debate–more fun than they usually do, in fact–or tell me I’m going to Hell for not believing, which is annoying. Liberal believers usually just say that God will understand my reasons for not believing and show me the light when it suits Her. Which is the sort of diety I would want to believe in. In summary, it was a no brainer in the enlightened self interest catagory.

    Oh, and incidently, I’m not a communist. I’m more the market socialist type. The free market is best for some things whereas others require more central and long term planning and organization. Plus not everything is immediately profitable even though it profits the society in the long run to have these things. Universal education is a money loser in the short term, but having a highly educated population is extremely useful for the society and businesses in the long term. So these costs are best spread out over the whole of society since it is the whole of society that benefits from them. Or so I think anyway. Capitalism bad, socialism bad, mixed economy better than anything else so far invented, tree pretty/renewable cash crop/carbon sink/medication source/intregal part of the ecosystem.

    Comment by Dianne — January 15, 2007 @ 12:30 pm | Reply

  7. There’s a sort of rump paganism that takes hold of you when you reject formal belief; a vague, instinctive superstitious pantheism. Unless you’re Stainless Steel Science Guy.

    My atheism is sort of the Oliver Wendell Jones* variety. Once in a while I say, “But where did all the stuff come from and how could it have ordered itself without violating thermodynamics?” and collapse in a heap. Then I get up and go back to worrying about whether people with cryptogenic stroke really have more monocyte derived microparticles than normal controls or not. It’s a much less profound question but it’s one I have a decend chance of being able to answer.

    *The character from the old Bloom County.

    Comment by Dianne — January 15, 2007 @ 12:46 pm | Reply

  8. What lovely stories folks have been sharing. Thanks. (But Dianne is secretly a communist, don’t let her fool you. I’ve seen photos of her hugging Hugo Chavez and feeding white orphans to Maoists.)

    My folks were political moderates, who have over time moved right in response to the Democratic Party’s embrace of abortion as a defining issue. As children, my sister and I were raised to believe in racial and sexual equality. I have always had conservative instincts, however, and even when I was a leftie in my college days and afterwards, I believed in mixed markets and individualism, not collectivism.

    After those college days, I swung very hard right, in response, basically, to Bill Clinton. I voted for him the first time, but then came to believe that his moral corruption was systemic on the left, not an individual failure. I still do believe that, basically; collectivism is a morally enervating philosophy that ends in nihilism and social failure. But my early liberal upbringing reasserted myself; I simply can’t accept that all the good values of racial and religious tolerance, women’s rights as full human beings, etc. are permanently tainted by some peoples’ use of those values for cynical or evil purposes.

    So over time, I’ve become a cafeteria conservative. My underlying philosophy is classical liberalism, which today would be (mis)labeled as conservatism. Overlaid on that are a belief in formal equality, and a disinterest in the types of meddling social engineering which attempt to produce equal outcomes. I hold the constrained view of human nature and potentiality; we can do tremendous things, but those things will come as the result of rational understanding of our natures, not a radical redevelopment of humanity. I have zero faith in the ability of people to adequately predict and control the behavior of other humans, and believe that decision-making should always occur at the lowest possible level. I find myself sympathetic with pretty much everybody’s desire to live their own lives in ways of their choosing; I am not distressed by other people embracing values different than my own, with the exception of values which I perceive as being incompatible with a humane, enlightened, and decent society. (And even there, I think the people have the right to hold their own values; I just think that perhaps they should find a different and more compatible society in which to live. Talking to you, Sharia-seekers.)

    Probably the most significant event in my political life was reading Robert Anton Wilson, and coming to the realization that pretty much everybody who seeks power is doing so for selfish reasons. Some of those selfish reasons are relatively unobjectionable; “I like to run things and make speeches and go to conferences” is less likely to lead to disaster than “I will show all of those Jews who is boss”. I’ve also derived a considerable amount of my understanding of the world from Thomas Sowell’s books on decisionmaking and worldviews, particularly his development of the idea that intentionality and outcomes do not automatically correlate; the systems of decision that we employ and the organizations that we build impose their own logic on events. To reify it, it doesn’t matter a damn that the people who designed welfare systems in the 1940s and 1950s didn’t want to break up families or increase dependency; it only matters that the systems that were deployed contained certain sets of incentives and disincentives, and people behaved accordingly. A more historically distant, but extremely relevant, example is what happened after the Russian Revolution. We think of the Russian communists as having been evil totalitarians from the beginning, but that simply isn’t so; most of the original revolutionaries were men and women of genuine good will. It’s just that they created a system where ruthless bastards would have incentives to kill them and take their power, and surprise – guess what happened.

    I could keep going like this for another fifty pages, but I think I’ll let someone else have a turn.

    Comment by Robert — January 15, 2007 @ 2:44 pm | Reply

  9. What about the possibility of pulling out of Iraq, letting Iran invade and lose resources fighting their own kind,
    and then come in and mop up the dregs?

    Comment by nemoforone — March 29, 2007 @ 2:37 pm | Reply

  10. We broke it, we bought it. We’re in for the duration on this one.

    Comment by Robert — March 29, 2007 @ 3:46 pm | Reply

  11. We broke it

    The most sensible thing you ever said about Iraq.

    Comment by Daran — March 29, 2007 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

  12. How did this remark end up in this discussion?

    What about the possibility of pulling out of Iraq, letting Iran invade and lose resources fighting their own kind,
    and then come in and mop up the dregs?

    Anyway, it wouldn’t work, because Iran would win. Iranians outnumber Iraqis 3-1 or so. The only reason Iran didn’t beat Iraq during their many wars was due to Iraqi’s superior army and chemical weapons. Iraq has neither now.

    Moreover, Iraq would put up a fight. The Shia of Iran and the majority Shia in Iraq would simply band together to squish the remaining Sunnis.

    Alas, this is the likely outcome in any event. So let’s make a virtue of necessity: We’ll SELL Iraq to Iran. Not explicitly, of course. Through installing leaders of Iran’s choosing, the bulk of Iraq will become like Lebanon under the control of Syria, or like Poland under the control of the Soviets.

    In return, Iran agrees to surrender its nuclear program, release some British hostage, contract with US oil firms to promote production, normalize relations with us, cooperate in clamping down on Al Quaida, let the Kurds have their own state, etc. (Turkey will be pissed, but that bridge is burned anyway.) And after a brief, intense bloodletting, the people of Iraq will return to their familiar state of stability, security and safe drinking water – if not freedom.

    Ok, it’s not exactly happily ever after, but at least we get to salvage something. And, because the people of Iran have already grown weary of the Iranian revolution, in the long run this strategy will win us alliances with both a pro-US Iraq and the pro-US Iran. No, it’s not a strategy that Bush will get to pontificate about. On the up side, it has a chance of working while getting us out of Iraq during our lifetimes.

    Comment by nobody.really — March 29, 2007 @ 6:04 pm | Reply

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