Abandoning Utopia

The Education of an Overeducated Liberal

Here is a brief story about me: I should be a liberal. Really, it’s my birthright. I live in Massachusetts. I have two college degrees. My grandparents, my father, even me, were union members. There is a large and thriving Unitarian Church around the corner from my house. I have a peace sticker on my car. I once lived across the street from Ed Markey. When you look at me on paper, you’d say, “Yeah, liberal. Probably voted for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) 16%. I bet he eats organic kale and listens to NPR.” The thing is, some of that is right.

That I’m not a liberal; or rather, that the better angels of my nature are in a constant state of struggle with the goblins of liberalism over the possession of my political soul, has a lot to do with Rush Limbaugh.

I was in college in the early 90s, happily ingesting every -ist and -ism my professors could throw at me. Racist, sexist, socialism, communism, classist, homophobic, multiculturalism, global citizenry, nonviolence…the list is endless, and I just lapped it all up because that was normal to me. I didn’t know much about politics or history then (read: nothing at all), and I assumed that everyone was a Democrat like the people in my family. My grandparents talked about Roosevelt and Kennedy like they were gods, and while I sort-of-kind-of liked Ronald Reagan, I couldn’t have told you one real difference between George W. Bush and Michael Dukakis when they were battling for the Presidency in 1987. Stupid kid, pot smoke, keg parties, tie-dye. I was 20 years old and growing dumber by the day.

Then, this new guy showed up at my fraternity house. He was a few years older than I was, and had returned to school to finish his degree after a four year stint in the Navy. I told him he was a cog in the military-industrial complex’s killing machine; a thoughtless automaton who couldn’t think for himself. He told me I was a moron who didn’t know jack about shit. One of us was right.

During one of our heated debates–it is a testimony to the spirit of brotherhood that he didn’t hit me over the head with a shovel and bury me out behind our house–he said to me, “You know, you should listen to Rush Limbaugh. You might learn something.” I had a job as a prep cook at a restaurant on campus, and I used to spend hours chopping roast beef and onions, all while listening to the sonorous tones of Maine Public Radio on a small portable set that one of the janitors kindly let me borrow. For the rest of that semester, I’d listen to Rush’s show for an hour–bracing and funny; challenging and infuriating–then to NPR’s All Things Considered for another hour. My weed-addled, beer-saturated mind was blown. It was like hearing radio broadcasts from two different planets.

See, the thing is, I never knew there was such as thing as conservatism. I had no idea who Pat Buchanan or William F. Buckley or Robert Bork were. No one ever told me that the Constitution was more than the “We the People” song on Schoolhouse Rock, or that there were people in the Middle East who wanted very much to kill me. I had no idea about any of it, none at all. It was like taking the red pill in The Matrix and opening my eyes up in a room with Rush Limbaugh saying, “Wake up, kid, this is for real.” I thought that the point of life, politically speaking, was to create a Utopia in place of the nasty old Indian killin’, slave havin’, abortion denyin’ US of A that I had the misfortune to live in.

Of course, looking back, I know now that none of that is entirely true. My grandfathers were good, decent men who fought in the War, raised their children with morals, worked hard, and loved their country. My dad did a tour in Viet Nam and never talked about it. We saluted the flag, celebrated Independence Day, and loved America but no one every really told me why. No one explained the alternatives to me. No one showed me that what I had was pretty damn good, not something I was entitled to, and could go away if it wasn’t defended.

It all sounds so stupid now, but that’s how it was. I thought everything just was, and that it just was because good Democrats made it that way.  What a fool I was.

So I should be a liberal–I certainly have the pedigree–but I am not, nor have I been for a very long time, going way back to a patient fraternity brother who introduced me to a world view I may not have ever discovered on my own. I admit that I still sometimes hear the Siren’s Song of the Left, calling me to crash on the rocks of their imagined Utopia, but for the most part, I resist. Not long after I graduated from college I joined the Navy myself.

But that’s a story for another day.

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