How Twigs Get Bent: Conversion Narratives

Over at Ace’s place, a thread started yesterday on the topic of why/how various readers became conservative. As I said yesterday in the comments on the train thread, I tend to see myself as a libertarian rather than a conservative, but I’ll accept being seen as part of the Right, inasmuch as I think that freely chosen conservative policies are more likely to work in the world we have with the people who inhabit it.

In my case, I think there were several factors at work. I came from a family that esteemed and expected competence. If you weren’t an infant, you were expected to be able to manage much of your own daily business. I think the word helpless was the most pejorative, scornful word I ever heard my maternal grandmother say. Three of my four grandparents came from hardscrabble backgrounds and made their ways to the middle/working class — my mom’s folks left lives of dirt farming and sawmill work in Maury County, TN, behind to become a fire fighter and a cashier, and my dad’s dad was career military, moving from ninth-grade dropout to union brawler to the Army, where he served in WWII (Glider Infantry and Paratrooper) and Korea, retiring as a Major.

My mom started working at 13, and with the exception of a few years when my brother and I were young, worked at least part-time until she was disabled. Dad was able to parlay a high school education and his native (and multifarious) talents into a career in data processing, going from a “spool coolie” hanging tapes on mainframes in 1967 (the tests showed he was too smart for the gig on the loading dock for which he had applied) to a prominent information security pro by the time he retired. Meanwhile, he also helped customize vehicles, worked as a mechanic, wrote, built and repaired musical instruments, dug at least one grave that I know of, and did about a dozen other things as his time, our finances, or the needs of the community required it. By the way, he did all this while averaging a book a day, and finally got his B.A. in 1982, a year before I graduated from high school. Together, Mom and Dad paid their debts — not always quickly, but eventually. “Strategic default” would not have been in their vocabularies. They deserved better lives than they had, and they certainly deserved better than the ending they got, but they would have said that although life isn’t fair, it’s what you have and if you want something better, you need to work for it — yourself.

In short, I was taught that people were supposed to take care of themselves and their own, and to do what that took. Along the way, of course, they showed me that the American system of earned social mobility was not a myth; they were examples. Meanwhile, when I was a kid, my dad got hold of more than a decade’s worth of old Reader’s Digests, and I spent a summer reading and rereading them. This was the RD of the 60s, and for all the highbrow sneering at its middle-American audience, even Susan Sontag has had to acknowledge that the magazine had a much more accurate understanding of what collectivism did than the highbrows did.

And the stories I read reinforced all this as well. As I mentioned recently, stories are about characters, and characters are typically individuals. So I grew up believing in the agency of individuals, from Freddy the Pig to the redeeming Son of God. Ultimately, all these factors combined to teach me that while groups and ethnicities and political persuasions and classes are sometimes useful shorthands, they’re ultimately fictions for individual actors. To engage in a bit of psych-speak, there’s a reason we talk about self-actualization rather than group-actualization.

The flip side of this is accepting that individual actors think and act, and those thoughts and actions have consequences, both good and bad. I was taught to take responsibility for the consequences of those actions, and to expect others to take responsibility for theirs. One advantage that I see to more collectivist approaches to life is a certain comfort in the dilution of personal responsibility. If you see yourself as part of a group acted upon by relatively impersonal forces (class, history, social constructions), you can always feel innocent, swimming darkling down the currents of your fate. Abandoning individual agency either means never having to say you’re sorry, or constantly having to apologize for the action of your group, and paradoxically, I saw both in liberalism.

Ultimately (and unsurprisingly), I guess I wound up in a position not unlike Heinlein’s — I’m a freethinker, and I tend to support the people who want to stay out of my way. I’m not happy with either the Dems or the GOP in this regard (Indeed, this is a key factor in my scorn for Huckabee) — both parties seem to be quite happy to use the coercive power of the state to compel me to their visions. However, the Right at least seems to understand that my free use of the product of my labor will enable me to make my own choices, rather than those that experts elsewhere think I should make.

So that’s how I got here. How about you?

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Faith, Family, Literature, Politics, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How Twigs Get Bent: Conversion Narratives

  1. Alpheus says:

    My story is pretty simple. I think I came to conservatism because of Ronald Reagan. I grew up surrounded by Reagan Democrats — industrial workers, children or grandchildren of immigrant farmers, reasonably religious folk who didn’t like the way America seemed to be going under Jimmy Carter. My own family was a little less keen on Reagan than most due to strong union sympathies, and my mother actually disliked him and never voted for him, but in general I was raised in a conservative time and place, amid what are now thought of as conservative values.

    The thing that really turned me conservative, though, was the hostility toward Reagan that I saw from the media and the Left. It was obvious to me even as a kid that, for some reason I didn’t understand, the network news shows weren’t being fair to Reagan; that they were skewing their stories to present him and his presidency in a bad light. This automatically made me like him more. And when I read the few conservative columnists who appeared in local newspapers — George Will in particular — I noticed that they often cited important facts or made interesting arguments that hadn’t made it into the news stories. As I got older and encountered committed leftists, I had the same experience of feeling like their versions of reality depended on not acknowledging certain facts or ideas, or on unfairly imputing bad motives to Republicans. The thing I found hardest to swallow was the liberal predisposition to see Reagan as stupid and mean-spirited when he obviously wasn’t, and to regard the Soviet regime as misunderstood when it was obviously malevolent. I came to think of conservatives as the side from which I would hear a truer account of the world. I guess I’ve held to some version of that view ever since.

  2. Tim Kowal says:

    I started working on my own “conversion story” some months back, but never finished. My parents were and still are hard for me to understand politically. Even spiritually, they’re pretty non-committal. They sent my brother and me to Christian schools, but I gather it was because of the educational content and the values more than a desire that we be spiritually “saved.” They sent me to a Catholic high school, for instance — they just seem to appreciate religion, and probably favor western/Christian religions, but I’ve never heard them make a specific defense of any particular religion.

    And I think they were the same with politics. They were always Democrats, but eventually I found it very hard to predict their views about any particular issue. Though, we rarely talked politics. They both came from blue collar upbringings — my mom on the poorer side — so I assume that’s probably where their default Democrat affiliation came from. But they worked hard and pulled themselves to the upper middle class by the time my brother and I reached adolescence, so that probably helps explain the Alex P. Keaton phenomenon there.

    I always tended toward conservatism, both socially and economically. I always hated the idea of abortion, and I always hated the idea of loafers taking money for doing nothing. And while I’ve learned a lot about law and theory and nuance and political reality, I still hate those same two things.

  3. Withywindle says:

    I have a bunch of overlapping conversion narratives–how I ceased to be a Democrat, how I ceased to be liberal, how I became a Republican, how I became a conservative. I had a great many conservative elements in my beliefs long before I became a Conservative–but these were consonant with being an old-fashioned liberal, a conservative Democrat, what have you. (Anti-communism first, then hostility to affirmative action, then opposition to abortion; economic conservatism came to me last and lightest.) Abandoning a self-identification as a Democrat, as a liberal, was necessary to begin listening to Republicans & conservatives, to begin taking their ideas seriously, and as a coherent whole. After that, to some extent I simply slid farther to the right. I would say that I have for a long time been hostile to the philosophical presuppositions of libertarianism, atomizing liberalism writ large, so that once I abandoned the left, I went in a conservative direction rather than a libertarian one. At this point, I’m not entirely sure where that older hostility came from. I read enough SF that I echoed a certain amount of libertarian attitudes when I was a teenager and beyond (Heinlein, Anderson, etc.), but somehow that didn’t stick.

  4. dave schutz says:

    A big moment for me was in Cambridge Mass, when a landlord told me of the advice some of his rent-controlled tenants had given him on how to make money investing in Krugerrands. Not quite Road to Damascus, but it did set me to thinking.

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