I often get asked by friends which writers and news sources I read and trust. That’s part of the reason I’m writing this two-part post – to share those sources and why I like them. The other reason, which I have to admit is probably more compelling, is that I have had to defend or justify myself to people who have said, in one form or another, that I am wishy-washy, a Republican, and even a conspiracy theorist in the last few years and that I should stop consuming far-right media. I just don’t think those charges are fair or accurate.
I want to be clear that I don’t there is anything inherently wrong with being a Republican, but I want to distinguish between Republicans and Democrats and Conservatives and Liberals. The former are political parties. The latter are ways of thinking. Conservatives play an important role in our political and social structure, just as Liberals do. At different points of my life, I have leaned more towards one direction or the other. I think that’s a good thing. Conservatism and Liberalism, and the different ways each way of thinking contributes to a healthy society, actually requires most honest people to be Conservative in some ways and Liberal in others. Republicans and Democrats are another story, and we’ll have to save that for another time.
So before I get to the good stuff, I want to offer a brief definition of Conservatism and Liberalism, as I see them, and how I have moved between them throughout my life. First, there is no question that whether someone tends to be more Conservative or more Liberal has a lot to do with personality. That’s interesting and ultimately probably a good thing; it ensures a static balance of diversity of thought. But when you pick apart what it really means to be a Conservative or a Liberal, it has less to do with personal preferences and more to do with First Principles. First Principles are the foundations on which our other assumptions are based, and, until fairly recently in America, Conservatives and Liberals shared a lot of them. Freedom of speech, the idea that you can choose what is good for you better than anyone else can, etc. – the oldies but goodies.
Where Conservatives and Liberals part ways is how cautious they are about seeking and driving substantial societal changes, and how willing they are to use government to implement those changes. Conservatives, of course, tend to see the way things are working and are hesitant to introduce any major changes without knowing what the side effects are likely to be. They are wary of governmental ineptitude. Liberals, on the other hand, are very good at identifying problems and are motivated to find solutions. They tend to believe power and funding in the hands of the government will fix problems, and are less worried about the downstream consequences of solutions in favor of addressing the big problems now. Naturally, both sides are equally convinced that they are made up of good people who care about humanity and that they alone have viable solutions to the problems communities, cities, and states have to deal with.
Growing up, I was a very conservative Mormon. I didn’t know much about much; I was homeschooled, protected, and mostly influenced only by the people around me, who were all Conservatives. Once I turned 18 and left Mormonism, I sought an immediate change of nearly everything in my life – location, friends, ways of thinking. I met more people than I had ever been exposed to and the way I saw the world changed significantly in a short time.
It is no surprise that I turned towards Liberalism for many years. Pushing out of the stifling confines of my religious childhood, and armed with the sincere desire to do good that so many young people have, it was a time for change when I needed it most. Things weren’t working for me; I needed to find new and better solutions.
During this time, social Liberals and Democrats combined to create a movement that accomplished what I think is one of progressivism’s most significant and positive achievements, ever: The broad societal acceptance of gay people. This happened so fast that it’s still hard to believe. When I was 17, I fell in love with a girl and, needless to say, experienced a severe shock to the system – when I “came out,” I had an almost complete falling out with my conservative religious community and most of my family. Some of that was self-inflicted in anticipation of taking shit from everybody, but I took some really major shit. Old friends wrote me emails telling me my children needed a father or they wouldn’t go to heaven; I got books in the mail about conversion therapy.
(This kind of reaction is almost unimaginable today. Just 10 years later, teaching high school in Utah – the same state where I had my own painful coming out – I saw gay couples all over the school, engaging in the same sloppy and awkward public displays of affection as the straight couples. Young gay men are now funny and fabulous – which they have always been – but the difference is that nearly everybody sees them that way, and those who don’t stay quiet or get shamed.)
I finished my undergraduate degree in Utah and moved to Chicago. For years, I was awash in the glory of an unrestricted and unjudged lifestyle. I goofed off, drank way too much, and often drove under the influence. It didn’t seem like a big deal because the adults around me – including those who were well into their 40s and 50s – were all doing the same thing. People in Chicago had fewer kids later in their lives than they did (and still do) in Utah. I thought that was great. I spent many of these years gleefully hating on Republicans and the stupid religious Neanderthals back in Utah. I was an avowed atheist and briefly the editor of the Richard Dawkins newsletter.
The reason my tenure at the RD newsletter was so brief was because I quickly learned an important lesson: Non-religious people could be just as cruel, self-righteous, and evangelical about their beliefs as religious people are. They can also believe some really silly shit. I found out then, and believe to this day, that the primary difference between non-religious and religious people is that non-religious people are significantly less organized. The RD newsletter was an administrative mess, and a large number of the people who worked there were jerks.
As I got more and more excruciatingly expensive parking tickets in a failing effort to understand Chicago’s labyrinthine parking laws, my opinion of the RD newsletter expanded to cover Chicago’s corrupt, often cruel, and entirely Democratic administrative system. For a city so full of people who hold themselves in high regard for their humanism and intellectualism, the city was a bureaucratic and humanistic mess. Anyone who has had to get a driver’s license knows what I’m talking about. Anyone who has had to get a copy of public legal documents from the Richard Daley center really knows what I’m talking about. The South Side of Chicago is in a constant humanitarian crisis. As my car banged over massive potholes and people got shot across the street from me, I began to reconsider whether doing everything in the Liberal, Democratic way was always best.
Then, I started working for an Orthodox Jewish family. I was immediately reminded of some of the good parts of Conservativism I had lost touch with. Not that this family was Conservative – they consider themselves liberal – but their lifestyle was essentially Conservative. They and their friends, by and large, remained married; consumed very little alcohol; went to synagogue on Saturdays; made food to welcome in new families and families who just had babies; their children were well-educated and were expected to amount to something. I remembered how meaningful weekly and yearly religious traditions are, especially for children, and how important it is to have a network of people held together by similar beliefs.
Then, I moved back to Utah for graduate school. I could now deeply appreciate the Republican-led efforts to keep Utah clean, budgeted, and safe. At times it felt stifling, no doubt – but wow, was Utah a better place to live than Chicago. Safer, more affordable, and where parking tickets are a slap on the wrist, rather than a month’s worth of groceries. Salt Lake City has a very cool burgeoning art, music, and LGBT scene and that’s where I went when I needed a dose of liberality.
Graduate school at a small private college was the final nail in the coffin for my period of staunch Liberalism. They things they taught in my Masters in Teaching program had very little to do with teaching and everything to do with lecturing constantly about white supremacy and how the Mayans were better because they used a circular calendar, the human sacrifice apparently notwithstanding. Everything – and I’m not using that word hyperbolically – my teachers taught us about racism in education was unsupported by rigorous evidence, to say nothing of the total lack of balance from different viewpoints, and much of it was just plain wrong. I felt like I was in church more often than I felt I was in class. By the end of the program, I was arguing constantly with my teachers, refusing to do assignments based on the assumption that I was was a privileged white racist, and was utterly convinced that the emperor of Liberal educational principles had very little clothes. I left with almost $50k in additional student debt and not much in the way of teaching pedagogy. What I did learn, I learned from my student teaching, an outstanding teacher-trainer, and one great teacher at the graduate school. I loved teaching, but I was pissed.
Halfway through my first year of teaching, I moved back to my Jewish community in Chicago for a brief period and Covid struck. Over the next year, the almost complete closure of the Chicago Public School System and the total disdain the Teacher’s Union had for the people who suffered most because of the closure – young minority kids – cemented my opinion that the sanctimonious liturgies about the education gap, repeated over and over by public school advocates whose kids are all in private schools, were complete bullshit. Then the post-George Floyd rioting started. The mayor let significant portions of the city get destroyed before taking it seriously, closing the bridges to downtown, and calling in the National Guard. I had to leave work early so I wasn’t driving home at night.
At the same time, a nasty dramatic spat erupted between several families of the tight Jewish community, and once again I got the flip side of Conservatism and close communities. People judged each other, gossiped, and gleefully called for accountability (read: public flagellation) for those they thought had done wrong. It was a community pile-on of a few specific families, and it was ugly.
All of this is to say that, having been around the block a few times, I know firsthand the benefits and drawbacks of both Liberalism and Conservatism. Conservatism is organized, stable, and better at giving people the deeply-needed sense of community, shared history, and tradition. Liberalism is better at caring for the people who don’t quite fit into that, for pushing new horizons of human rights, and, until recently, calling out abuses of authority. Both sides have wonderful people. Both sides have unrelenting assholes.
As for me, I am a happy Liberal in some ways and a solid Conservative in others. I look forward to raising my children traditionally Jewish and giving them a childhood firmly rooted in community, great stories, and millennia of history. What they do with their lives after that is entirely up to them. I am so happy gay marriage is legal, and I although I think abortion is a much more complex issue than either side makes it out to be, I believe abortion access is necessary, full stop. I don’t like Mitch McConnell; I don’t like Nancy Pelosi. I think Donald Trump and his family are corrupt; Joe Biden and his family are corrupt, too. Vaccines are great, and people have good reasons to be hesitant about taking them. (And it turns out my conspiracy theories about the virus coming from a lab were not so crazy after all.)
Alright. I hope I’ve made a case for myself as someone with eyes wide open, who does her sincere best to navigate complex issues with the nuance they deserve. In the next post, I’ll talk about the writers and thinkers who have influenced me the most. Yalla!