How to Radicalize a Nice White Southern Boy

I had a notoriously polarizing teacher for my ninth grade History and Social Studies class.  I thought she was awesome but she rubbed some people the wrong way.  She was extremely progressive and was (in hindsight) surprisingly open about that in what was an extremely conservative school district.  Perhaps the reason she got away with it is because she was (also in hindsight) surprisingly tolerant of the views that the students in her class expressed.

Everything in her class seemed to come back around to arguing about controversial issues.  Hers was the only class in which I could imagine having a class-time debate about abortion or same-sex marriage.  And we did.  It made for a few exceedingly uncomfortable classes.  The upside of which was that I have an uncommonly clear picture of the state of my political views (or at least what passed for political views) when I was fourteen or fifteen years old.

I remember being tentatively in favor of same sex marriage.  I distinctly remember abstaining from the abortion debate.  When a senior came into the class to survey us on our political views for a project in her government class, my scores were fairly unsurprising.  In a series of sixteen yes or no questions with a zero (all “no-s”) being extremely conservative and a sixteen (all “yes-s”) being extremely liberal, I scored an eight.

My dad was a reluctant and eventually remorseful Bush voter who converted during Bush’s second term.  My mom was a fairly mainstream liberal.  Both went to church regularly and I did too; they still do but I don’t really.  Shit changes.

I spend my nights now in my apartment in Queens.  I read James Baldwin and George Orwell and Tony Judt and Angela Y. Davis on the train I take each morning to work.  I read Ta-Nehisi Coates and the rest of The Atlantic staff religiously.  I broke away from Bernie Sanders (and for Hillary Clinton) in last year’s Democratic Primary in places where Sanders wasn’t progressive enough.  Shit changes.

I’m sure at least a portion of the “shit” that has changed in the last twelve years resides in my own mind and heart.  No twenty-six year old is the same person they were when they were twenty-one, let alone when they were were fourteen (thank the blessed lord and savior).  But I’m not sure that’s all.

Sometimes I think about how a nice moderate southern boy ends up with his head buried in scathing indictments of the criminal justice system, vaguely marxist interpretations of European history, studies of the radical reconstruction, and autobiographies of leaders in the black power movement.  How does one go about transforming a church-going Virginia kid into a rabid leftist radical (rolls eyes a little)?

Some of the change is incremental and internal.  You put books in his hand.  Initiate a slow and deliberate tinkering with the machinery of the mind.  There’s no doubt that part of the change I’ve undergone is a function of maturity and curiosity and gradual accumulation of knowledge that I simply didn’t possess all those years ago.  But in some ways I feel the same.  I still remember bible verses and keep the NRSV book my grandparents gave me on my bookshelf.  I still listen to the Allman Brothers and hate unsweetened iced tea and hold doors open for people when I enter rooms.

In a lot of ways the change feels seismic and environmental instead.  Like something else has changed.  Something outside of myself and independent of myself.  Like I’ve been putting one foot into the sand ahead of the other, slowly and deliberately, as the tide changes the entire landscape upon which I walk.  It’s like everything else has changed.

I’ve always been a compassionate person.  I don’t think that’s changed and it probably (hopefully) never will.  Church was important to me when I was in high school.  Volunteering to work on houses was one of my favorite things to do each summer.  The first election season I remember following with my dad was Bush/Gore in 2000.  The year that George W. Bush rode his “compassionate conservatism” to (narrow and disputed) victory.

For most of my life the idea of compassion has been central to how I organize the world.  For a long time I experienced little friction when I organized my understanding of politics around the same.  It was only as I left high school that I started to notice that the pieces no longer fit smoothly together.

Leaving care for the poor and sick to state and local governments was abandoned in favor of leaving care for the poor and the sick to the charity of private citizens.  That in turn was abandoned for the notion that the poor and sick are undeserving of assistance; public, private, or otherwise.

I slowly trod around obstacles.  Navigating carefully through a world that shifted dramatically around me, like sand under waves, changing the pathways even as I walked them.  It became a world I barely recognized – though perhaps the appearance of change was a product of being insulated from its reality.  My attempts to argue from a sense of compassion, from right or wrong, morality, or shared responsibility ran into the soggy morass of theoretical economic viability.  Unyielding and invalidating.

In his essay “What Is Living and What is Dead?” from his collection When the Facts Change, historian Tony Judt argues that this obstinate obsession with reducing all problems to their supposed hard economic components grips only a small portion of the world and only recently:

For the last thirty years, in much of the English-speaking world (though less so in continental Europe and elsewhere), when asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad?  Instead we inquire:  Is it efficient?  Is it productive?  Would it benefit gross domestic product?  Will it contribute to growth?  The propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss– economic questions in the narrowest sense – is not an instinctive human condition.  It is an acquired taste (321).

Judt argues that this concept would be foreign even to the classical economists like Adam Smith that are revered in the hardline right wing of conservative politics, but in the years since the essay was written (2009) the landscape has shifted yet further.  

All pretense of even that economic pragmatism has been abandoned.  We argue against providing for oral contraceptives in subsidized health care not because we harbor differing notions of the responsibilities of the state but because women should control themselves.  We dismantle the fragile welfare state, not because such things are better handled at the state level, but because what little safety net we have is a subsidy on supposed laziness and irresponsibility.  Immigration is not an issue intimately tied to job markets and economic growth but one that revolves around protecting women from “rapists and murderers.”

It’s true that we don’t frame debates in moral terms anymore, but we’ve even shed the veneer of economic efficiency and “objective” benefit.  All issues are tribal.  We frame debates as zero sum melees where women are berated by Rush Limbaugh as “sluts” and “prostitutes,” not terrorism but Islam itself is an existential threat undeserving of constitutional protections, and an Iowa congressman takes to the cable news circuit to defend his “culture” from pollution by “someone else’s babies.

I read more now than I used to and have spent years slowly absorbing the ideas of radical and liberal thinkers (as well as a great many conservatives and libertarians).  I have collected personal experiences that have nudged my politics leftward.  But in more important ways, I’m the same as I ever was.  I try to organize my world around compassion.  I try, fail, and try again to understand people.  I feel a sense of shared responsibility for my community.

And perhaps the best way to corrupt a nice well-mannered rural kid is to make that understanding and sense of responsibility, on their own, into something outside of the norm; something political; something partisan; something extreme.  Perhaps the reason I’ve become a somewhat radical progressive is because in the years that I have observed my world, that world has become a place where compassion itself is a form of radicalism.  Shit changes.

With all that said, I am familiar with people who advocate truly radical and revolutionary politics and I very seriously doubt they would consider me one of them.  I am extremely progressive, but I probably wouldn’t consider myself one of them either.  I have all the makings of a moderate.  A pragmatic guy skeptical of supposed “revolution” from a politically balanced household in a working class rural town with moderate church-going parents.

But I know how to radicalize a nice white southern boy.  One way would be to change him, certainly; but another would be to change the world around him.  Put a book in his hands.  Raise him to be curious and care about others and to try to understand them.  Then build around him a world where that compassion, curiosity, and empathy are mocked as naive, ridiculous, and irrelevant.  Create a world where caring about others places him outside the mainstream.  Nurture his compassion even when simply extending that compassion to others is an act of extremism.  Shit changes, but that doesn't always mean it should.