Perhaps I should institute a “political changer of the day” feature. Today’s is that of Spiegel editor Jan Fleischhauer.
It’s pretty funny—although very sobering as well—to read of Fleischhauer’s childhood indoctrination in what one can only call the cult of liberalism, and his astonishment at discovering he wasn’t part of the circle dance anymore:
I tried to suppress my conservative tendencies at first. I convinced myself that they would eventually pass, like adolescent hot flashes. The next time I heard a joke about Kohl, I laughed more loudly than usual, hoping not to be noticed. In other words, I behaved like a 40-year-old married father who suddenly realizes that he’s gay, and doesn’t know what to do.
Fleischhauer finally embraced his inner conservative and came out of the closest without any sense of lingering shame. In his essay, he makes an observation about liberalism and its pervasiveness that has also occurred to me lately:
I would hazard to guess that many are to the left because others are.
Man’s tendency to assimilate, though well-documented in experimental psychology, is a trait routinely underestimated in everyday life. What we call conviction is often nothing but adaptation in an environment of opinions…No one wants to be the only person in an office who isn’t asked to join the group for lunch.
As more and more people around a person are liberals, the movement reaches a critical and self-sustaining mass because it requires stronger and stronger motivation and more and more bravery to break off and differ from the group. Fleischhauer doesn’t really answer the interesting question of why liberals, who so pride themselves on open-minded tolerance, are so passionately intolerant of opinions that differ from theirs, or why they prefer to consider those on the other side to be evil rather than merely well-meaning folks who happen to disagree with them.
The closest he comes is to compare liberalism to Christianity; the implication is that liberalism acts more as a religion than a political party. But in my experience, Christians are far more tolerant of nonbelievers than most liberals are of conservatives.
Liberals see the world as a Manichean struggle between the forces of good and those of evil rather than one of ideas in which reasonable people can differ. Liberals are the good, of course, and conservatives the bad; this is what leads to the strength of the intolerance. Fleischhauer describes it this way:
In my family, the SPD [Social Democrat Party, the party of the Left] was far more than a collection of like-minded people. Instead, it was seen as a sort of political Salvation Army, which would purge Germany of the remnants of fascism and lead it to a better, more just and democratic future. It stood for everything that was good about the country and, in a sense, represented, in the totality of its members and supporters, the wealth of kindheartedness that existed in Germany…The way we were supposed to feel about conservatives was obvious. They were either deeply reactionary, because they refused to accept progress, or dangerously narrow-minded. In other words, they were either despicable or pitiful characters.
The following description of Fleischhauer’s mother captures it exactly—no denizen of Berkeley could be any more passionate about politics:
My first political memory from childhood was the vote of no confidence against Willy Brandt in our national parliament, the Bundestag. I was nine, and the radio was on in the kitchen. I was waiting for lunch, but my mother stood at the stove, motionless and with her eyes closed, listening to the votes being counted in the broadcast. The tension in the room couldn’t have been greater if the outbreak of another war depended on the outcome — or the relief when, quite unexpectedly, the chancellor was saved from the CDU’s cowardly attack, almost as if a miracle had taken place. I understood early on that in politics, two eternal powers are struggling against one another, the power of light and the power of darkness.
In the face of all of this it’s amazing that Fleischhauer ended up a conservative at all—or whatever passes for one in Germany’s politically skewed-to-the-Left landscape. He doesn’t really describe that process in the essay. But he seems at peace with it now.
And fortunately, his mother is still talking to him, although that fact seems more of a testament to the power of maternal love than to her political open-mindedness.