In 1997 I had been back in American for 6 months. My year in Germany as an exchange student with the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program had kick started a personal inquiry into political affairs. Say what you will about social democrats, but when they are given the full reins of government they can give you a really warm, fuzzy feeling about creating a progressive, inclusive, proto-utopian society. It's no wonder that their ideology attracts youthful idealism, finding outlets for surplus angst in the latest government program or initiative. The idea that human nature can be fully and productively harnessed if we can just get the right planning in place is seductive.
My participation in a program of such breadth and variety - a year in a foreign country, paid in full! - convinced me that international relations and diplomacy were where the action was. I wanted to be a player in a system that, while it didn't make sense completely, could at least be made more humane and logical. And I don't deny that I was drawn to the glamor and bourgeois formality of the whole thing. Everybody wants to be upper middle class, liberal, and sophisticated, don't they?
So as I completed my senior year of American high school (another story of depressing institutional despair, having just come from an enlightened country where I could drink beer and go to town on my school lunch break) I was becoming more interested in intellectual endeavors. My high school was the only in Virginia that was offering a new philosophy course, taught by an English teacher I didn't know well but about whom I'd heard. My friends said they enjoyed the class, so I decided to sign up and expand my horizons.
The class was a great survey of philosophy - and funnily enough, I really loathed the time we spent on political philosophy. I was really interested in (what I would later come to see as) epistemology - the philosophy of what knowledge is and how things can be known, essentially. However, during the political philosophy class, I experienced a revelation as a direct result of the intellectual honesty, fearlessness, and forthrightness of my teacher. It would only be several years later that I'd come to really appreciate the impact.
The class engaged regularly in debates, and naturally I loved being able to argue my points. The teacher played moderator and made sure all points of view were discussed, cracking jokes but rarely offering direct criticism, letting students do that for him. We discussed aspects of political philosophy, policies of current and past governments, and the aspects of politics that the ancients saw as just or desirable. At some point - I don't know if we were discussing racial politics and it got heated or the conversation dissapated, or whatever - the teacher brought the conversation to a close by finally laying his cards on the table, asking us if we wanted to know why he was a Democrat.
He went on to explain that he believed that a certain class of people had to be held down in for society to function. While stipluating that there were less civil and more civil ways of doing this, he admitted frankly that many "liberal" government programs serve to program and maintain a society that, in many ways, was totally unjust. But in his view this was necessary: we can aspire to create a more just society, but justice is not the highest principle - order is. He admitted in front of the class that he was a certain type of racist because he knew these policies impacted minorities more than whites. The only caveat to that was that he admitted it while others denied it.
And you know what? I totally respected him for saying that. He was truly acting as a consumate philosopher: getting to the heart of the matter, instead of dressing up one's motivations to the point that they are complex for the sake of complexity. He wanted us to understand that politics is an exercise in tragedy, worthy of study and improvement, but nothing that should be engaged in while wearing blinders.
I realized right then what the social democrat experiment in government was: a joke. Sure, we could always try to manipulate the social order to obtain greater justice for the greater number. But if we can't pretend that our actions don't have massive unintended consequences for others - especially for the most disadvantaged - then how can we hope to engineer a just state? He illustrated the latent fear that lurks just below the surface of contemporary political debate. Is it all really just an exercise in holding the status quo line until the next revolution?
When I started taking political science courses in college, I was introduced to libertarianism, and for the first time saw a philosophy that recognized the state as a fundamentally flawed institution. As I read What it Means to be a Libertarian by Charles Murray (another racialist who provoked outrage by making verboten arguments in The Bell Curve) I started to see that if there was no way to help the underclass via the state, then there was no justification for the attempt! Furthermore, the massive inequities and expenses incurred constituted a massive crime that was simply not talked about in polite company.
So as I embraced libertarianism (and was chased out of any desire for a government position by the sickness of Lewinskygate) I was always motivated by this idea that the state was doing more harm than good. Now that leftism has become a central aspect of my politics, I realize that my libertarianism was never about cutting taxes or privatizing schools: instead, it was about recognizing the incredible power society has in shaping our individual and collective experiences. This power owes nothing to the interventionism of politicians - indeed, it thrives in spite of it somehow. While the true insight of the libertarian philosophy lies in fully empowering the society and the market by prohibiting coercion, there's more to it than that: there are problems, and they do need attention. They are not just situations to be managed through ordering society into a regimented, quasi-militaristic manner - they need to be solved, but by the market of individuals' interests, passions, and inherent humanity. No institution can be as fully human as can an individual.
Now that I begin this book by Chris Sciabarra on dialectical libertarianism, I salute my former philosophy teacher and the impact he had on me - not to mention the foundation he gave me in philosophy that will help me read this book by a philosophy professor! The honesty and rigor he demonstrated by fully admitting the dark side of his beliefs helped me to discover my own. And it made me respect Democrats more, because while they do advocate positions that are essentially racialist and demeaning, at least they acknowledge the problems of society, instead of trying to justify them as "the natural order" like Republicans do. As both parties bare their teeth in front of the electorate as our national experiment in fascism continues, I'm eternally grateful that this extraordinary man gave me a moment of insight that changed my life.Read this article