"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 22, 2013

Why Liberals Become Conservatives

I grew up in the Fifties in a family of Republicans. My parents were actually Republicans in name only – not the modern RINO version, but simply apolitical.  Although my father voted for Eisenhower, I never heard any angry screeds about Stevenson, socialism, the threat to family values, the image of America in the post-War world, inflation, labor unions, nuclear disarmament, or racial enmity. He wore his Republicanism like a comfortable coat.  It was what you slipped on in the morning to look good, respectable, and successful.  New Brighton, Connecticut, a moderate-sized city was really three small towns.  There was the West End where the retired captains of industry lived – the old WASPs whose families had founded the city and helped it thrive a hundred years ago.  The new professionals like my father, doctors, dentists, and lawyers, filled in the gaps as the old guard died off.  All the factory workers lived in the East End, and the  tradesmen, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers in the South End.

Most of the factory workers were polacks who had just gotten off the boat so they didn’t know Republican from Democrat, were happy just to be in America, and were concerned more with what was happening in the Old Country than what was happening here.  The South End always voted Democratic. “Stevenson is for the little man”, Needles Engleman told us, obviously echoing his father, a haberdasher who ran a cheap clothing store on Main Street. The rest of us had no idea at all what he meant, and Needles probably didn’t either; but I had to give him credit for holding his own in Republicanville.

Maybe dinner table discussions at the Englemans were fiery socialist affairs, Jews arguing about Samuel Gompers, the ILGWU, the Rosenbergs, The Daily Worker, and the Soviet Union, but politics never came up at ours.  My father told us stories about the horrible diseases his patients had, how the fatties would keep gaining weight no matter how often he warned them, how the paisans still believed in malocchio and mal aria, and how half the women who came into his office had imaginary, hysterical symptoms.  He occasionally railed at the famously high marginal tax rate of the era, but went no further.

I caddied at our country club and often hung around the 19th hole while my father and his buddies played poker and drank.  They talked about sports, ribbed each other about their golf games, poked fun at their wives, and shared medical horror stories.  The talk was mainly about putting, gall bladders, femurs, and my favorite, thoracic surgery.  Andy Lacava was the heart man in the group and his stories were gruesome.  “The blood was pouring out of the chest cavity”, he recounted, “and we couldn’t stop it.  I was stapling arteries like a roofer and had stuffed enough gauze in there to mop up a backed-up toilet. Janie Garuffa – you know, the surgical nurse with big tits – even offered me her Kotex.  Is it clean, I asked?  ‘What difference does it make’, she said. ‘Blood’s blood’.

No politics.  Occasional references to the War, but most of these dufffers had been in the Medical Corps, so their stories were pretty much the same but even more gruesome.  They talked of amputations, decapitations, sucking chest wounds, and disembowelments as casually as they chatted about three-woods; but nothing about interest rates, political appointments, relationships with Russia.  Nothing at all.

In retrospect, this was probably due to the lingering euphoria of the post-War era.  Republican, Democrat?  Didn’t really matter because America was on a roll, the social order was intact and still far removed from the paroxysms of the Sixties, there were no black people within 100 miles, and although this was the ‘duck-and-cover’, bomb shelter age, no one in my father’s group ever assumed that the Russkies were up to it.  Perhaps class warfare, nuclear conflagration were talked about, and the Internationale sung at the Englemans’, nothing of the kind was heard in the West End.

Yale in the early Sixties was a politically calm and peaceful place.  It was still a school for the Old Blue who took their wealth, privilege, and social status for granted.  There were no challenges yet from smart, pushy nerds from the Bronx, no issues of ethnic, religious, or racial integration.  It was a homogenous community of like-minded people who got their ‘Gentleman’s C’, summered at the Vineyard, and went on to Wall Street.  I cruised through my four years like everyone else – dating at Smith and Vassar, a little townie nookie on the side, beer and tailgate parties, Fence Club and The Game, and little else.  Graduate school was more of the same.

The shit hit the fan a few years after I graduated, but by that time I was in India smoking dope, hanging out with stone hippies in Rishikesh, and sleeping in ashrams, doing pujas, and meditating in the Himalayas. There was no Vietnam, Bull Connor, George Wallace, or Detroit in India.

I think my first twinge of political ire came after I returned from overseas.  I was walking down the aisles of a large Washington supermarket looking for a bar of soap.  There was soap, soap products, soap dispensers, soap dishes; bath soap, hand soap, scented soap, non-allergenic soap; Dial soap, Ivory, Dove; regular size, large size, economy size, family size. The store lights were super-bright and fluorescent, music tinkled overhead, the colors were kaleidoscopic and hallucinogenic.  I felt disoriented, confused, and panicked. 

In India there was soap, period.  In those days of import substitution when consumer products were limited, there was no choice and whatever you bought was of low quality.  You made do.  Knives rusted, food was adulterated, car mirrors fell off in the first pothole; and the only place where there was a choice was in the sari shop where there were acres of flowing, brilliantly colored silk.  Otherwise, one and done.

The overwhelming excess of America was staggering.  I had returned to Las Vegas and Disneyland. Everywhere I turned there was an amusement park. Gadgets, wigs, and make up. Palatial knock-off tract houses. Chrome, gleam, and garish paint.  It was disgusting, appalling, and revolting.

I listened to Pacifica Radio, celebrated anti-Fourth of July, railed on about oppression, the coming anarchy, the establishment of society of equals, and an end to crass materialism. 

This phase lasted exactly one year until I was able to launch my consulting career.  My life became one of adventure, love affairs, fine food, excitement, new languages, and a happy liberation from home, country, family, and responsibility.  I had hit my stride, found my place, sailed smoothly from one country to the next, and saw ahead of me a freeway trajectory of limitless possibility.  Politics, worries about other people’s problems, and most of all angst, concern, and commitment were as far from me as the moon.  I was on my own.

Looking back on my growing up years, my parents’ political indifference, my father’s bonhomie and bella figura, and the zeitgeist of the Fifties were probably responsible for my disassociation from any social commitment.  Life was to be lived, not worried about. If the Jews said ‘Too soon old, too late schmart’, the Italians said, ‘Too soon old’.  Period.

At the same time, in this dolce vita were planted the seeds of my conservatism. After all, hedonists are individualists, and individualists are conservatives.  India was a very felicitous choice of countries in which to live. Indians are the most individualistic people on earth, for their belief in karma, reincarnation, and progressive spiritual development based on individual reform and enlightenment resonated perfectly with my awakening sense of self.  Of course hedonism and ascetic Hinduism are diametrically opposed, but an outsider can pick and choose.

My serious political conservatism came only after my many decades of work in international ‘development’.  I always put the word ‘development’ in quotes because the foreign assistance program never developed anything; and because it is a reminder to me of how government programs are often doomed to failure because of misplaced idealism, a distorted sense of public stewardship, and an inbred political culture of entitlement.  Year after year I witnessed the arrogance of American aid officials, suffered their patronizing programs of ‘collaboration’, community ‘participation’, and ‘inclusivity’. The private sector was always closed out, excluded from consideration.  Local government ineptitude was overlooked as the spigots were turned on and off in Washington depending on the geopolitical demand.  It was a colossal waste of money.  I, still in my political indifference phase, simply ignored the incompetence on both sides of the donor table and went on carousing my way through the bars and brothels of the Third World.

The consolidation of my conservatism came only later, near the end of my travels and my career.  I had begun to see a familiar repetition of situations, events, and movements.  Whether in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, the social configurations were the same, the motivations of both leaders and followers, rich and poor were the same, and the political machinations dully repetitive.  Human nature, it seemed, was behind it all.  Chadians, Nigerians, Bangladeshis, and Bolivians were all the same grasping, self-centered, self-protective, aggressive, and infinitely expansionist people.  There would never be progress, a better world, or a happier one.

Just before retirement I returned to my first love, Shakespeare, in whose Histories I thought I would gain some insights into the mechanisms of world events.  I was not disappointed.  Laid down end to end, said Jan Kott, the Shakespeare critic, Shakespeare’s Histories would be one repetitive cycle.  All kings and commoners played familiar roles in the Grand Mechanism of history.  There were no winners or losers, just strugglers for wealth, position, and survival.  Christopher Marlowe and Nietzsche had it exactly right – individualism and the celebration of the Will were all that distinguished anyone from the herd. 

I woke up one day and was a convinced and committed individualist.  Social progress was a fiction, the idealistic dream of Needles Engleman and his lot. Society, let alone the human race, was not going anywhere but running in place, and the only validation to life was individual expression.

Why didn’t all people of a certain age come to this same conclusion?  How could anyone read history and not see the recurrent cycles, the endless replaying of the same intrigues, coups, ambitions, and defeats?  How could anyone read Shakespeare, O’Neill, Miller, Albee, Faulkner or a thousand other authors and not come to the conclusion that all family dramas are acted out in the same, predictable ways?  How can anyone read Darwin, study evolutionary history; or follow genetics, DNA research, and brain imaging and not come up with the same conclusion that we are immutably, ineluctably, the same as our caveman ancestors?

In other words, I can understand how young people may be liberal and community-minded.  They have too little experience to see the patterns that recur in life, whether horizontally across cultures or vertically down time.  Their personal optimism and idealism is easily conferred on larger groups and society as a whole.  But older, mature, supposedly wiser adults?

Many of my friends and colleagues of my age remain adamantly and fiercely wedded to their ‘progressivism’. They haven’t budged out of the Sixties. Fifty years of experience, exposure, and penetration haven’t made a whit of difference.  They are as innocently idealistic about the nature of man and the future of society as they were when they were young adults. If anything, they are more passionately liberal than when they were young; and it is though they have become case-hardened.  Liberalism has become a badge of honor in a world which has passed them by. 

There should be but one trajectory – from idealism to realism; which is why I am happy that I see American society gradually expunging moral rectitude from its social politics.  It is the very crass materialism which tipped me into dark hole of sensitive liberalism for a year which I now celebrate.  In materialism there is no idealism.  By reducing life to buying and selling, seeing all interaction as economic, we have finally thrown off our idealism and returned to our primitive and essential roots. ‘Progressives’ fail to see this inevitability; but they are a dwindling breed.


  1. Your view of progressivism is not my view of progressivism. I'm a 71-year-old progressive, and haven't changed my political views since I first realized I was centre-left since the - yes! - the sixties! It also means I'm no liberal, for liberals are often what you said they are: idealists who can't, or won't, run a mom-n-pop store responsibly where revenues should exceed expenses, and one has to work hard to ensure that. So they can't be trusted spending the taxpayers' money, since they have nothing to fear from a screw-up, except losing the next election. But, as you can tell, I also am in that category of "early" seniors who refuse to become conservatives, at least not the self-described pseudo-cons we have today.

  2. I'm read some terrible blogs, but I've never read one with so few spelling errors. You must be one entitled prick and I don't even think you get it. Oh, born in the Fifties? You are one of those useless Baby Boomers. Your generation invented the system of takers and you think everyone else should be weaned off the government teat, except yourselves. The youth can't wait for your generation to just fuck off and die and stop ruining the country with your selfish shit. The only thing you know about personal responsibility is how to spell it.


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