June 30th, 2005

A mind is a difficult thing to change: Part 5 (The quiet years: tanks vs. pears)

[For links to earlier posts in this series, please see the right sidebar under the heading, "A mind is a difficult thing to change."]

INTRODUCTION

I thought this post would be relatively easy to write. After all, the years between 1975 and September 10, 2001 were fairly quiet for me, at least politically speaking, especially compared to the bitter and personal struggles of the Vietnam era. But strangely, it’s that very quietness that has made this post harder to write than I ever thought it would be–in fact, far harder than the previous ones–because of the absence of such drama.

I don’t want to bore you all to tears. I could summarize the whole era by saying I was otherwise engaged. But, in the end, that would be too simplistic. After all, I’m writing this to try to understand and explain what was going on for me, and for others, in the psychological/political sense: what led to change, or failed to lead to change.

So, exactly what was I thinking about, politically, during those years? Was I even thinking at all, or was I more or less on automatic? And was my experience idiosyncratic, or was it typical, representing a general trend of the times?

In other words: was I like Karel’s mother? (And who, you might ask, is Karel’s mother?)

I confess that I have been an inveterate New Yorker reader for the last thirty-five years or so. I’ve even kept my subscription in the face of my neocon conversion and the resultant fact that I can no longer stomach their political articles. I recall that the New Yorker published excerpts from expatriate Czech author Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting shortly before the book came out in 1978. All I had to do was read the very first paragraph of the work and I knew I was in the presence of something extraordinary. I read with mounting excitement and total concentration, and when the book was available I immediately bought it and read it from cover to cover. It merged the political with the personal in a free-form style like no other–gripping, entertaining, profound, and totally idiosyncratic.

Certain images in that book made a deep impression on me. I’ve already discussed one of them here, in my post “Dancing in a ring.” The image of the circle dance was memorable, although it was only many years later that I even began to understand what Kundera was saying.

But the story of Karel’s elderly mother and the pears–that, I understood from the start. Here it is:

One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighboring country came and occupied their country [a reference to the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia]. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in their garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never even apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove Karel and Marketa crazy. Everybody’s thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled. And when shortly afterwards they moved away, they took the memory of her pettiness with them.

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother’s perspective–a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So Mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.

That’s an exaggerated version of what seemed to happen to me (and others) during those years: the tanks didn’t disappear, but they receded into the distant background; and the pears loomed, large and ripe, in the foreground. And who wouldn’t want that to happen? Who would choose to focus on tanks when they could think about pears instead? Most people seemed only too happy to throw themselves into life itself, and to leave the interminable political discussions to the politicians and the policy wonks.

LATE SEVENTIES

The military draft had ended in 1973, and Saigon had fallen in 1975. The men of my generation no longer had to face the possibility of putting their lives on the line in that difficult and ultimately tragic cause. The news from that part of the world no longer screamed in blaring headlines, but drifted in on the tide, like the boat people fleeing the Communist regime that had taken over South Vietnam. The news was not at all good. But it no longer had the personal immediacy it had had during the late 60s and early 70s, when the draft had forced us to confront it up close and very very personal. Terrible, wasn’t it, what was happening in Cambodia; and awful about the poor boat people, but what could you do at this point? The tragedies in Southeast Asia began to recede into the generalized din of human suffering all over the globe. It seemed it could not be helped; it was the human condition.

There was a general retreat from political activism. Of course, this was not true of everyone, but it certainly was true of a sizeable portion of the generation that had been so activist just a few short years before. Remember the catch-phrase “the ‘Me’ decade,” to refer to the 70s? There seems to have been a certain truth to it. With a sigh of relief, people concentrated on good times and on the self, not unlike the Roaring Twenties which had followed the horrors of World War I and the influenza pandemic that took so many lives at that war’s end.

I was only too happy to pull back from thinking about politics. I got married in the mid-1970s, and my husband and I were concerned with starting out in jobs and finding a place to live, making new friends and adjusting to life beyond college and graduate school. I remember the oil crisis mostly because it happened around the time of a trip I had planned, making it hard for me to travel by car. It was both a nuisance and a warning bell, but I was driving a small foreign car anyway, and the financial pinch wasn’t too hard, and then it was over almost as soon as it had begun. I remember the sickening feeling of watching the 444-day Iran hostage crisis, but my perception was filtered through the fact that I was very late in my first pregnancy when it began, and the mother of a barely-walking one-year old when it ended.

Starting a marriage and a family is an all-consuming period of life for most people, and it certainly was so for me, along with many of my friends. I was a stay-at-home mother for many years, devoted to the care of my child, and exhausted much of the time. I still managed to read the Boston Globe most days, and the New Yorker most weeks, and watched some TV news (I recall that Nightline got its start covering the hostage crisis). I had a vague sense that events in Iran boded no good, and watching the Iranian women don their chadors I wondered why they would be so eager to go back to what seemed to be medievalism. But what did it matter to me if they wanted to wear black robes and have a cleric for their leader? It seemed to be their choice; was it any of my business?

I could go into detail writing about this or that event, and my reaction or non-reaction (or mild reaction) to it. But more important than all of that was the fact that I had come to accept a certain level of turmoil in the world. I felt bad about it, but I no longer thought there was much I could do about it, except give money to a cause such as Save the Children or Amnesty International (which I joined over twenty years ago, back when it actually did appear to be devoted to the cause of helping political prisoners around the world). It seemed as though human misery was in a sort of steady-state mode: about the same level existed from year to year, with a dramatic surge here and there in one third-world place or another, but the overall amount seemed stable.

Part of this attitude of mine (and so many others) was the phenomenon of growing older and seeing that problems were not going to be solved overnight, if at all. Part of it was the aforementioned attention deficit: for many years, the pressing demands of family left me little time for the leisurely study of world events, and when I did have a spare moment, I wanted to relax and enjoy myself. In this I think I was probably quite typical of everyone except political junkies.

This situation fostered maintaining the status quo. If I (and others) had little time to study events in any depth or detail, there was no way my political opinions and/or my interpretation of those events were likely to undergo any changes. How could they? As I moved through my thirties and forties, I considered my political opinions to be fully formed, anyway. It never occurred to me that they might change or might need to change, any more than the color of my eyes might change at that point. They were part of who I was. I was no child or teenager in a state of searching, no young adult solidifying my sense of self; I was middle-aged, and although I didn’t think I was stagnant, I was certainly set.

What’s more, I don’t think I had ever personally known anyone whose political opinions had changed after the age of thirty or so. My parents, and the parents of most of those around me, had reached adulthood during the Depression and the Presidency of FDR. They were liberal Democrats and proud of it, and nothing in the intervening years had caused even a glimmer of a change in their points of view. Nor did I see changes in my friends–not that we ever talked about politics much, because we did not.

THE EIGHTIES

Nevertheless, in retrospect, I felt certain stirrings. Maybe “stirrings” isn’t the right word, since it indicates too much motion and awareness. They were more like glimmerings, moments of slight dislocation and questioning so mild that they only disrupted the smooth surface of my thoughts for a short while. But they did occur every now and then when an event made a deep emotional impression on me, and especially when there was some sort of cognitive difficulty on my part in understanding the meaning and/or the cause of that event.

The greatest of these dislocations occurred with the fall of the Soviet Union. The USSR had been a constant for my entire life, and had loomed particularly large in my childhood. When I was born, the Soviet Union had already been in existence for over forty years, making it seem to me at the time as though it were as ancient and enduring as Greece or Egypt. Since WWII, it had been the principle threat to the US around the world.

When the Soviet system collapsed, it seemed to me that the end came very suddenly. Oh, there were rumbles during Gorbachev’s tenure– something was indeed happening–but in 1989 it seemed as though the entire Iron Curtain came down so precipitously you could almost say it evaporated.

My question was: how can an Iron Curtain evaporate? And, even more to the point, why didn’t any of the ‘experts” see it coming?

The latter question plagued me at the time. Perhaps I was able to give it more attention because the events were so very dramatic, and involved an issue that had been a constant for all of my life. Perhaps the fact that my child was older now and his needs not so labor- intensive gave me enough energy to actually do some thinking about it. I knew that I hadn’t paid proper attention to the news in recent years, so for a while I wondered whether I had missed something. But when I tried to read more about it, I couldn’t find anything that made sense to me; when I tried to ask other people whether anyone had seen this coming, I was met with resounding silence, indifference, shrugs.

Perhaps somewhere there had been some excellent analyses of the situation, even some that had predicted the events with some accuracy. Perhaps these brilliant and prescient articles had been published in a journal such as Foreign Affairs, or something of the sort. But I wasn’t reading journals then, nor were most of the electorate. The mainstream media (I didn’t know that term at the time) hadn’t demonstrated any foresight about these developments, nor even much of a grasp of why they might be occurring at this point. All they seemed to be able to do was to describe the events of the moment.

Surely, I asked friends and family, the Soviet experts at the NY Times or even in the State Department or at Harvard, surely they had seen this coming, right? If not, then why not?

It would be an overstatement to say I became obsessed with this question. But it certainly was the world event that engaged my interest more than anything since Vietnam, and my puzzlement about it was profound. If the experts–academic, governmental, and media–had been unable to foresee this, then how could I trust them to guide me in the future? In retrospect, it was probably the first time I began to distrust my usual sources of information, although I certainly didn’t see them as lying–I saw them as incompetent, really no better than bad fortunetellers.

What they seemed to lack was an overview, a sense of history and pattern. Newspapers could report on events, but those events seemed disconnected from each other: first this happened, then that happened, then the other thing happened, and then the next, and so on and so forth. In the titanic decades-long battle between the US and the USSR, there had been a certain underlying narrative (yes, sometimes that word is appropriate) that involved the threat of Armageddon, and the necessity to avoid it at almost all costs, while stopping the spread of Communism. Although T.S. Eliot had said the world would end “not with a bang but a whimper,” who ever thought the Soviet Union would end in such a whimpery way, and especially without much forewarning? It seemed preposterous, something like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy throws the bucket of water on the Wicked Witch, who dissolves into a steaming heap of clothing, crying “I’m melting, melting.”

But if the Soviet Union was the Wicked Witch, who was Dorothy? Reagan? The media acted as though he’d been as clueless as Dorothy had been when she threw that bucket, and at the time I knew of no reason to think otherwise.

At any rate, I was happy about the fall of the Soviet empire, very happy. I watched the joyous scenes of Eastern Europeans celebrating, and even bought a (supposedly authentic) chunk of the Berlin Wall. Was this indeed the end of history? In a way, yes; it felt as though the big questions had been settled; all that was left was ironing out the details. Some of the darkest forces of the 20th century seemed to have run their course, and what was left to think about, politically, were humanitarian concerns around the world, possible future energy and fuel shortages, the environment, and domestic policies such as health care, welfare, and taxes.

THE NINETIES

The Gulf War of early 1991 seemed to mark some sort of return to ‘history,” although I thought (and hoped) that perhaps it was an anomaly. But by that time certain other events had taken over in my life (as they so often do in people’s lives), that once again made it very difficult for me to pay much attention to anything except the general outline of events.

In December of 1990 I had sustained a series of nerve injuries that caused severe and unremitting pain. (For anyone who might still be concerned about me now, I’m tremendously better.) Neuropathic pain is of a type that is difficult to describe. Suffice to say that, for quite a long while, I could barely concentrate on anything–not my beloved books, not even television; each minute was very difficult to get through, and I was severely sleep-deprived. It was at this point that the Gulf War began.

I watched the bombing on TV, pacing and fretting, unable to get comfortable for a moment. The thought of the suffering I knew must be occurring as a result of those bombs seemed to intensify my own suffering. I could hardly look. I understood the rationale for the war, and the necessity of it, but watching it and thinking about it seemed more than I could bear.

Although the details of my situation were particular to me, I think the general principle is a universal one. Many people move from crisis to crisis in their lives–survival, whether it be financial, emotional, or physical, then takes the lead and shuts out other considerations to a great degree.

The next year, I was improved enough to begin part-time study for my Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. With my family obligations and the substantial demands of coursework and seeing clients, my attention was well occupied, and politics took a small role–although as a Democrat, I was happy that finally, for the first time in sixteen years, “my guy” had been elected (although, interestingly enough, I was never a Clinton fan–I voted for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 primaries).

But there were other distant warning bells sounding. Some were not so distant at all. The first World Trade Center bombing certainly grabbed my attention in 1993. It “only” killed six people, but it was different from previous Islamic terrorist attacks in two ways. The first was that it occurred on American soil and targeted civilians; the second was the scope of its ambition. I read about the attack in some depth, perhaps because it moved me as a native New Yorker who remembered the building of the Towers. I was stunned to discover that the intent of the bombers had been to topple the building and kill many thousands, and that it was only through chance and incompetence that they had failed to achieved their goals.

This sobered and frightened me–as did another article (again, I no longer recollect the periodical in which I read it, or the exact time of its publication), about a bunch of Middle Eastern terrorists (Osama?) whose stated aims were to launch a series of devastating attacks against the United States.

And these were not the only disturbing rumblings from the Middle East. I remember reading about changes in the Palestinian educational system after the implementation of the Oslo Accords (again, I recall that this article appeared in the New Yorker, of all places, although I’ve had some difficulty tracing it). I had originally thought that the Oslo Accords, of which I had only a glancing knowledge, were a hopeful sign. It seemed that now even the Palestinians and Israelis were starting down a path that would end up with, if not reconciliation, then a certain tolerance, a relatively benign and peaceful coexistence.

But this article chilled my blood when I read it. It detailed, for the first time as far as I knew, the intense and vicious hatred that was being inculcated in young Palestinians towards Israelis and even towards Jews in general. I did the calculations–the generation being carefully nurtured in this destructive propaganda were in the early primary grades now. They were due to come to maturity around the time of the millenium, and I felt a tremendous sense of foreboding. But what could be done about it? I couldn’t think of a thing, and the article had no suggestions, either.

What did I do with these fearful thoughts? I put them away, as I had so many years earlier tried to put away the fear of an impeding nuclear holocaust from my childhood mind. I had learned that most of the things I worried about never happened, and that much of what I read in the paper seemed exaggerated and calculated to alarm.

2000-2001

And so time passed. When the millenium came, people seemed much more worried about the threat of the millenium bug than the millenium bomber who was caught before he could carry out his plans to blow up LAX.

A big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight.

Except in this case, instead of taking wing, the tank crept towards us silently and stealthily, getting closer and closer, until its guns were pointed at our backs.

And then it fired.

[ADDENDUM: For the next post in the series, Part 6A, go here.]

30 Responses to “A mind is a difficult thing to change: Part 5 (The quiet years: tanks vs. pears)”

  1. still realizing Says:

    The Fall of the Soviet Union was indeed puzzling. I am puzzled to this day. I expected the USSR to fade slowly over the next 100 years, unless something terrible and unexpected happened to the US.

    Maybe the secret of the whole thing is that the US bribed Gorbachov with a billion dollars to shut it down.

    The importance of 9/11 isn’t the people killed, so to speak. The US loses more people each year to traffic accidents than were lost that one day. It’s that the war with the Islamists has the potential to go on and kill a lot more. And to destroy important parts of Western Civilization. The US is very strong.

    Still, we must remember the US would win over al-Queda even if the US did nothing for 10 years after 9/11. Not that that would be the best plan…

  2. Mike's America Says:

    The pear and the tank, sort of a variation on “can’t see the forest for the trees.”

    Regarding prognostications about the fall of the Soviet Union. I recall articles in US News and World Report in the early 80′s suggesting severe calamity in the Soviet Union due to economic collapse, but dismissed them.

    When I was at Columbia University near the end of the decade studying national security topics the Soviet specialists like Legvold were all in thrall of the charm of Gorbachev and perestroika. I don’t recall any of the discussions taking place at that time hinting at the complete dissolution of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.

    I would say that Reagan was like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz in only one sense. He DID throw the bucket of water. But unlike Dorothy, Reagan knew that his policy of throwing cold water on the cold war was the only way to bring about a more positive outcome.

  3. Dennis Says:

    Whitaker Chambers spelled it out beautifully in his book titled, Witness. I had never given him to much thought till I read this quote, that I did not know at the time I first read the quote, was taken from an introductory letter in his book Witness.

    The quote from the book first published over fifty years ago, “Man without God is a beast, and never more beastly than when he is most intelligent about his beastliness.” –Whittaker Chambers

  4. Karensky Says:

    Great post NeoNeo,
    Having grown up post Boomer, born in 58, my backyard neighbor was a reclusive old coot, he and his wife. I was afraid of him even though he never did anything threatening. Roumer had it he was from a country then called Czechslovakia and had been a POW. Well, one day he stopped me offering a lemonade. Putting down my fear I accepted.
    It turned out that Mr. Kovac had been a POW but not captured by the Americans but by the Soviets. Over time I learned of his trial in life. He had been trained to the east in a cattle car to Kazakstan, it took him over two years to learn where he actually was as his train never stopped and was completely enclosed. When they arrived they took out those who survived the ordeal, gave them their first water and then had them immediatly bury those who died on the trip. Tough learning for a tike of 10 years.
    From tht I took up Ellie Wiesel’s works and learned more. During this era my older sibs took off to University. Growing up in Michigan at the time we had a wonderful group of future LIBERALS with the SDS, Port Huron accord etc. Lots of campus demos and riots, the burning of Detroit (I remember my father taking me out to the front yard and pointing to the glow on the clouds at night which was the reflected light of the riots) and big brother coming home telling of anti-war demonstrations. heady times. Then the S*^% hit the fan. The draft lottery for Vietnam. My big brother won. His birthdate was number 5 and he would go.
    Dad, a Repulican told the family that he would support big bro should he choose to go across the border to Canada. It was the hardest thing my father ever did. We all supported father. Big bro it turns out was red/green color blind and had a heart murmur that precluded his inclusion in the military. He lucked out in a way.
    Where is this going? Toward the fact that despite living in a big L liberal (Adam Smith et al) family and having older small l (Chomsky et al) siblings that I looked up to I was a Conservative going into college.
    College was Jeeemy. College was Iran hostage crisis. College was politicized Iranians protesting the Shah and Savak. Speaking to the Iranians on campus they were also Socialists, Communists, Religous Koran quoters and all of their ilk. Hirsi Alis book was a big huge letdown for me, she was and is a committed soicalist. You know the type, they always have an opinion on how to correct my life if only I will give up part of my freedom for the greater good. Or as Derbyshire would say “For the Children….and then grab your wallet and run”.
    During the 80′s I took to studying the USSR, how could so few people control so many in such a evil way for such evil results? In NY at that time there was a great scholar of the Soviets, Stephen Cohen of Princeton. It turned out he was a hack and apologist for anything Communist, but every utterance was reprinted with great praise in the NYT. that was my first inkling that the Media was not to be trusted.
    I learned the Russian language enough to go see for myself. What I found was a country that made Mexico look wealthy and efficient.
    In the end, I guess I never got my Liberal stage, robbed by history.

  5. Kobayashi Maru Says:

    Great essay! I always enjoy finding others who’ve taken a similar intellectual/emotional journey, especially fellow New Englanders, for whom declaring that one is a leper or pedophile is likely to garner more sympathy. I think as much has been going on externally, (e.g., Zell Miller’s point – that the Democratic Party left him while he stayed in place. ) But like two trains on opposite tracks, the internal sense of motion and dislocation is the same whether one or both are moving relative to one another.

  6. Joseph Says:

    Jamie

    My sympathies, I truly understand your situation. I am not a psychiatrist though I have seen one… :^)

    neo-neocon

    Sounds like you were less political than I but growing up “inside the beltway” does have it’s own effects. Great posting and glad you are paying attention these days.

    By the way Reagan was definately not Dorothy but rather more the like the apparent bumbling Wizard who really was all powerful in that he ended up displaying more wisdom and ability to effect outcomes more then most could have imagined at the time. I’ll repeat it one more time, not supporting Reagan is my greatest political regret.

  7. Jamie Irons Says:

    Great article, Neo.

    We must be exact contemporaries, we are in roughly the same field (I am a psychiatrist), and our political paths have followed the same trajectory.

    Thank you for doing the work of figuring all of this out for me!

    ;-)

    The most painful thing you have touched on is the isolation from former friends. Last Sunday I was invited to a poetry reading of a couple of friends at Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley; one of the friends I hadn’t seeen since the late eighties.

    I knew that at the reading there would be some demeaning reference to the “stupid” Bush, to the “evil” Republicans, and some blather about how going into Iraq was based on a lie, and so on…

    I decided not to go so I could remember my friends as they were, and still love them.

    Jamie Irons

  8. Brian H Says:

    Thanks for the Dutton link on Posner. I deflected from your post to Read The Whole Thing.

    Your series is gripping and fascinating; as a first-year Boomer (’46), I shared most of your timeline. But I never drank all that deeply of either flavor of KoolAid.

    So it will be very interesting to see how you deal with some of the issues that also moved me off center.

  9. John Moreschi Says:

    I had decided in my late teens that almost every grown up had stopped thinking around the age of 25 – all their opinions were formed for life. I did not want that to happen to me, and indeed, I switched from Democrat to Independent in my 30s and voted for Reagan (I couldn’t explain away Carter’s failings or the Boat People, so I went through the agony of rethinking my politics).

    I even voted for Clinton in ’92 because I thought he could take the Dems out of the lunacy of the hard left and put them more in the center.

    But, I see no redeeming values in any on the left today. Their focus is on defeating Bush and the Reps, not on protecting America and Western civilization. They may have won their last presidential election and be on a pretty steep slope to oblivion.

  10. cloneprone Says:

    Those that think for themselves are not that common these days. The pressure to divest yourself of reason in order to fit more comfortably in the modern mozaic of American culture results in a form of self censorship for the sake of sameness.
    It hasn’t always been this way and many Democrats in the past have understood the dangers America faced and accepted the responsability of acting to thwart our enemies.

    It’s a shame we have enemies, it’s a shame we can’t all think alike and it’s a shame we have to get up and take action every once in a while that will certainly result in human suffering for the survival of certain ideals like freedom and choice and liberty.

    Good job, thanks.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    I too am about a decade behind you, Neo-Neo, but what you say (and the way you say it) certainly strike chord. Had I been old enough to be aware of the sixities I grew up in, I may have had a more difficult time in my conversion from knee-jerk liberalism to independent introspectionist/realist. I too was mugged by reality on 9/11, as were many of those that helped put and keep GW in office.

    I find it particularly interesting and satisfying that the shots fired by The Tank on that clear September day will go down in history as the “beginning of the end” of the Islamo-fascist scourge, and that the reason for that being so is that it permanently shook the West (or enough of it in any case) out of its slumber.

    Also, as I read your description of the 70′s attitude I couldn’t help but think that it was well summed up by the line from Jesus Christ Superstar (written in 1969 no less), where Judas chastizes Jesus for “wasting” money on material comforts and Jesus responds: “There will be poor always, pathetically struggling….Look at the GOOD things you’ve got!”

    I look forward to your book.

    Happy INDEPENDENCE Day to all,
    Bruce Wechsler

  12. an unrepentant kulak Says:

    The quarter-century you just summed up seems in hindsight a relatively undramatic one to me as well (though I was a child, and thus relatively unaware of political events, for the first decade or so). Other than the ever-present background danger of a nuclear exchange with the Soviets, it seems there weren’t many imminent threats we faced during that span of time, at least not on our own soil.

    The event that loomed largest for me was the collapse of the USSR and concommitant liberation of its satellite republics. Having been aware of the repression that existed within the Soviet Union (c.f. Solzhenitsyn et. al.), and having seen firsthand the suffocating real-world effects of Soviet communism during a 1986 visit with relatives in then-Czechoslovakia, I greeted this as generally good news for everyone (though certainly there would be real challenges ahead). The consensus around me seemed to be that this was in fact a good thing that had happened — a condition that left me completely unprepared for the shock I was to receive years later, on learning that Marxism and its derivatives were alive and well in American academia.

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about your experiences adjusting in the post-9/11 present, and the challenges you’ve faced as you’ve found yourself diverging from the dominant ways of thinking that surround you. (Assuming you feel inclined to write about that next!) I know from my experience (which I hope to get around to blogging about in the near future) that having such political differences has the potential to be very isolating, particularly when those around you feel free to express their convictions in social settings based on the seeming assumption that everyone else must naturally think as they do. It takes a determined effort sometimes, for me at least, to overcome the frequently-reinforced fear of discomfort and go out and meet people and socialize anyway!

    Thanks, Neo, for sharing another fine and thoughtful piece of work. As “snedwords” said so fittingly, this is good therapy for us, and I hope it is for you too! Best wishes.

  13. TmjUtah Says:

    Someone at 1:51 p.m. -

    If Neo was getting her external political input from TV, the NY Times, and the New Yorker, just what kind of perceptions could she have had of Reagan?

    Amiable, homophobic, trigger happy, washed up actor managed by dark cabals of corporate masters and Jesus freaks might come pretty close to the mark – but I may be presuming too much here.

    On “tribalism” -

    I think there is another explanation for passionate involvement in politics by citizens – especially of the conservative stripe, like me.

    It’s THE way that problems are solved. Merely winning elections in no way confers legitimacy on my personal political goals; winning is necessary to see the solutions I support implemented.

    If the problems I seek to address are adequately dealt with (economy, environment, education, security, entitlements, etc, etc,) by the candidates I supported, partisan affiliations are reduced to organizational constructs.

    It so happens that of the two major national parties I have to pick from, only one retains a vestige of commitment to the higher duty to the nation than to itself.

    Note I said “vestige”. Appartchiks like the McCains, Harkins, Snows, and Voinavichs are as fully involved with their own self-aggrandaizment and nest-feathering exclusive of external obligations as are any of the Pelosis, Clintons, Rangels, and Conyers of the Left. The issue is that nakedly seeking personal power among Republicans is celebrated as ‘moderation’ and is NEVER even raised where Democrats are concerned.

    The operative media template for covering politics denies duty, honor, or commitment to constitutional principles as primary motivations for any government service. Those old-fashioned, hackneyed terms are for Boy Scouts, not for the bad boys of the Beltway.

    Thus are conservatives with any vestigal religious/spiritual credentials, or publicly avowed intentions to govern within literal constitutional limits dismissed out of hand, while ridiculous labels like “reality based” are accepted without a blink, even when applied to a party that has consistently failed to remedy any “cause” it has purported to embrace, from racial tension to economic disparity to national security.

    Politics in a democracy should be a tool to achieve practical solutions within a community. It is not a process by which truth or right is measured; not nearly. The rise of the professional political class is always an unavoidable result of people gravitating to what they are good at doing. The key is to remember that at least in this country idealogues and agendas face constitutional limits within the halls of government, and citizens can act via elections to curb excesses, too.

    Claiming the high ground based on good intentions , demanding respect for ideas that consistently fail to work, and reflexively falling back on ad hominem attacks when questioned are the hallmarks of our remaining liberal tribe. People who point that out become the targets of the full force of media outrage and establishment disdain…

    which is exactly why Rush Limbaugh is labeled a kook on Monday and granted the mantle of Controller of the VRWC on Tuesday, over and over and over again.

    The liberals presume to speak for the majority of Americans. Funny thing, that; they can’t seem to win national elections or even run a profitable radio show with that kind of support.

    People are trying to kill my family. The enemy has published his grievances (barbarism leavened with theocratic fanaticism), his intentions (the end of Western secular civilization), and acted forcefully to enact his agenda.

    Which of our parties is more concerned with confronting and defeating the threat? Which is transparently trying to use the risks and costs of confrontation for their own political ends?

    I won’t even go into which party is demonstrating faith in individual liberty and rule of law as valid strategies against tyranny.

    The decline of Democrat/liberal/progressive fortunes has not been the result of chessboard manuevering between patricians. It is the objective result of individuals weighing in on the effectiveness of the parties involved to address the issues important to them.

    I predict that the 2006 elections will go even worse for the Democrats than did the 2002 midterms. And the media and pop elite will be just as surprised as they were in 1989.

  14. WichitaBoy Says:

    Thanks Neo for another wonderful post.

    Anonymous 11:05 AM,

    Thank you for a matching post.

    I agree with your perception of the political intellectuals, but I would couch the story in different language. Most people are searching for meaning in their lives, it’s a fundamental human need. Many intellectuals, particularly of the Sixties generation, came to find meaning through the particular lens of political action. They were going to “reform the system” or “change the world”. Somehow that seemed to make sense during the Sixties. The Sixties seemed so wonderful and everything seemed to be going so well. We solved the civil rights problem. We made big money. We even put men on the moon. Rockets were blazing, skirts were rising, and it seemed that nothing could stop the steady rise of American progress and liberalism.

    Our ignominious retreat from Vietnam and the deadly consequences for the people of SE Asia changed that perception.

    It’s ultimately an unfixable world, and those who sought meaning through political action alone have come to learn that the political soup is pretty thin spiritual gruel. The gradual but unavoidable sellouts necessary eat away the soul till there is nothing left and only the raw quest for power remains. Those who retain any integrity will leave before they sink to that level.

    The crisis of our times is a religious crisis. The 9/11 attacks have starkly highlighted the emptiness of the religion of the New Left. It has left many of its believers in such an awkward position that they are now opposed to the very things they originally set out to create. How very pathetic. It must be humiliating for many of them to have to look in the mirror these days.

    I’m a great fan of Nietzsche, but he was wrong about God. God was never dead; we just have to look elsewhere to find Him.
    Personally I find bits of God all over the place. On this blog for example.

    Ruth H.,

    I am proud to remain a liberal. Being from Kansas, I have no trouble being a liberal while voting for a Republican and being pro-American. I continue to believe the United States is the last best hope for mankind and for liberalism.

    But I refuse to join either political party.

    One thing that fascinates me in the post-Vietnam demise of this country is the way in which “liberalism” gradually slid into the new religion of anti-Americanism. Been there done that, but now I’ve moved beyond it. What’s more liberal I ask, Zimbabwe under Mugabe? Corrupt Canada? I’m eagerly awaiting some posts on this transition from Neo.

  15. terryt Says:

    Thanks neo, for another excellent piece. I feel the need these days for constant historical reference, both generally and personally.
    Past events keeps spinning around, diminishing or increasing in relevance. Certainly we can’t change the past, but we can enhance our perception of it. Thanks for sharing some insight into your evolving self.

  16. Anonymous Says:

    May I just say that you are a fresh breath of air?

    As we age, life provides numerous wake-up calls– and some have the wisdom to stop, reflect, and reassess what they “know” to be true. Is it wisdom or mere exhaustion to arrive at the place where you know nothing?

  17. slickdpdx Says:

    Beautifully written. I liked your use of the Pears/Tanks from Kundera.

    I reread Esmay’s post, and I’m missing the perceived outrageous slight to anonymous, but I probably need to be spoon fed too.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    Dean Esmay:

    I’m the “Anonymous” you responded to so rudely and with so little understanding of me or of what my previous post was arguing for. Your attitude is a case in point of the kind of thoughtlessness I was talking about.

    For your information, I am far from a sociopath, being as I am a member of many social spheres, though none that takes partisan politics as holy writ.

    I regard Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and their apologists on the left as exemplars of the precisely the sort of radicalism I most detest.

    Your inference that I want anything other than slow, painful death to bin Laden and Saddam shows how little comprehension you have of thoughts that don’t come already cut up for your into little pieces.

  19. Dean Esmay Says:

    Anonymous: Most of the so-called “Neocons” (or “Neoliberals,” which would describe us every bit as well) are in fact fiercely non-partisan, but we are tribal. We simply don’t see tribalism as a bad thing. Osama represents one tribe. Saddam another, closely related, tribe. Our tribe represents liberal values, theirs is inimically hostile to those values–they embrace fascism, and fascism is our greatest enemy. Thus we are willing to subsume some of what we believe for what we think of as the greater good.

    There are many things I disagree with George W. Bush on–but I voted for him without hesitation and was enormously relieved when he won.

    In a way, rejecting “tribalism” is a way of simply cutting yourself off from the human race. Tribalism is a fundamental human instinct and anyone who says he isn’t part of any tribe is essentially saying he’s a sociopath who holds the human animal in contempt. He’s also pretty much full of it; he’s just joined a cliquish little tribe that holds itself apart from the greater mass of humanity.

  20. someone Says:

    Interesting post… But what -did- you think of Reagan at the time?

  21. Ruth H Says:

    I have read your posts with great interest. At 68 I remember WWII, the Korean War, And all the ones later than those. I was raised in an extremely liberal, union home and absorbed all of it’s theology. (that is what it is)
    My conversion came during the term of Jimmy Carter. I had such hopes in him, a good man. But he was so ineffectual it was scary. I could not bring myself to vote Republican, for Reagan, but I could not vote for Carter again. I sat it out and secretly cheered when he was not reelected. I started reading conservative weeklies, books and listening to the outrageous Rush Limbaugh, and you know what? He said what I felt. That is the secret of his following. Anyway, out of seven liberal siblings, five of us have turned, one is still turning, and one hangs on to liberalism. The youngest of us is 58. Maybe it is true you are liberal when young and conservative when you finally grow up.
    You have said so clearly and succinctly what I suppose most of us who became conservative went through.
    Thanks, I WILL buy the book.

  22. Richard Aubrey Says:

    This explains neo’s stagnation–sorry–since Viet Nam.

    She, presumably, didn’t participate in the abuse of those who thought the tank merited some attention, whether Warsaw Pact, or some other specific threat, or the general view that history is not over.

    What, neo, do you think differentiated the thought processes of those who stagnated from those who saw?

  23. Anonymous Says:

    Bravissima. Very moving: easily the best writing on this subject I have seen. I intend to share it with others. Thank you for writing it.

  24. Independent George Says:

    Not a comment, but I do have (yet another) book recommendation for you: Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. It’s about her experiences teaching English literature in post-revolutionary Iran, and at least partly explains how so many women went back to the chador.

  25. Anonymous Says:

    Thanks, Neo-Neocon, for another wonderfully perceptive post.

    After thinking long and hard about the issues addressed in this series of posts, the conclusion I’ve come to is that most people — or at least most of those who fancy themselves as intellectual — find it hard to change their minds about politics because they are no criteria other than political ones by which to evaluate the policies put forward by different political factions.

    These people are trapped in a kind of ideological tautology. They are Democrats because they are Democrats or they are Republicans because they are Republicans, with those affiliations based not on a set of moral ideals that those political parties embody, but rather on a kind of tribal identification based on class or region or race.

    To put it in terms of Kundera’s image from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, people habitually dance the way the others in their circle are dancing, rather than listening to the beat of a personal drum of individual conscience or rationality.

    What many lack today — and intellectuals most of all — is some source of moral values besides the tribal idenfications offered by partisan politics.

    Friedrich Nietzsche declared God to be dead in the nineteenth century, thereby denying many intellectuals a source of moral orientation in religion. Roland Barthes declared the death of the author in the twentieth century, thereby devaluaing art as a means of moral reflection in the absence of orthodox religion.

    Despite the fact that political radicalisms have done more harm to the world in the past hundred years than any prior ideologies in history, most intellectuals are still committed to the notion that politics, not art or religion or anything else, is the fundamental basis of such meaning as existence holds for them.

    For someone whose fundamental values are not political, for someone for whom politics is merely a means to pre-political ends, political changes of hear are welcome because they bring about a strengthening of personal integrity. For those for whom politics is their deepest or indeed their only source of existential values, such a change of heart may be frightening, since the loss of a former political belief may mean the loss of belief altogether and the total collapse of a sense of existential integrity. This trauma is intensified by the ugly ostracism that occurs when a member of a given political tribe breaks free from the circle of dancers.

    After 9/11, I had thught that those events would bring about a questioning of political orthodoxies as people fell back on more substantial resources in the face of a crisis that called for intelligent reflection. My great disappointment in the last few years has been to see how many people have failed to do that, lacking any resources at all besides a brutal and vulgar political partisanship.

    2004 was the first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote when I declined to vote. I made that decision regretfully, but ultimately I felt that it was morally more defensible to make the sort of argument I’ve made against political partisanship than to acquiesce as I had in the past to the pressure to conform to one tribe or another. There was simply no candidate on offer in 2004 whose policies conformed sufficiently enough with my fundamental values that I could justify casting a vote for him. “My side” had already lost even before the election was held.

    I would fall in a group even smaller than the neo-neocons: the “neo-nonpartisans.”

  26. the Ol' Sheepdog Says:

    Absorbing…worth waiting for. I suspect that a buncha readers are going to identify with your journey.

    I hope this is good therapy for you; I know it is for me.

  27. Goesh Says:

    How’s the book progressing?? Your blog is certainly a meaningful part of my day.

  28. Waylon Preli Says:

    Avoid sitting on soft cushions, change position from time to time and sleep on a firm mattress on your sides along with your knees bent at correct angles. Activate your joints freely by doing a whole lot of stretching, just endure the discomfort and soon you might encounter relief. You need medication, homeopathy, herbs and supplements. Doctors claimed that a lot of of their patients complained of this disorder and consequently missing a day’s function.

  29. Bobbi Says:

    I know, I know..a petty thing here especially since the article was written 8 years ago.

    but in your section “The Nineties”, Paragraph 4 (Although the details)

    “Many people move from crisis to crisis in their lives–survival, whether it be financial, emotional, of physical, then takes the lead and shuts out other considerations to a great degree.”

    of physical should be ‘or’ physical..

    please feel free to delete this comment.

    But I am enjoying reading your blog, I just stumbled upon it today.

  30. neo-neocon Says:

    Bobbi:

    Ah, but I thank you for helping me correct a typo, even if it is an 8-year-old one. Good eye!

    Fixed.

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About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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