Saturday, November 29, 2014

My Attack of Neo-Conservatism and my Recovery

A few decades ago, I made a mistake. I went temporarily insane, politically speaking. I became a neo-conservative. I supported Ronald Reagan. I subscribed to and wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

As a professor of sociology, I had reached the point of nausea with academia’s group think and political correctness, most virulent in the social sciences. I was a liberal, of course, like everyone else. While hardly anyone in the academe is a conservative, neither were most of my colleagues anarchists, Trotskyites, Stalinists, Soviet apologists, anti-Semites or extremists in other ways. However, there were some, and they were intimidating. They were rarely challenged. Most of my colleagues settled into a lazy group think and dialogue ceased. THAT is what began to bother me.

My background:
I grew up as a member of a respectable left-liberal European family. My grandfather was a (Jewish) social-democratic history professor in Budapest. My mother was briefly in prison at age sixteen when she participated in Communist demonstrations against Hungary’s fascist regime. My father was a hero in the Hungarian resistance during World War Two.

At the same time, my family experienced the Communist rape of Hungary, the confiscation of our house, the death trials and mass executions of the late 1940s. We experienced first-hand the evils of Soviet imperialism and Stalinism.

In 1948, we fled to Western Europe, first spending eight years in Paris and then nine years in Amsterdam. As a teenager and young adult, I was always a Western European-style social democrat.

I then moved to America in my early twenties, just in time for the sixties counter cultural revolution. True to myself, I became very active in the anti-war movement and in the civil rights movement. I published many articles and I marched in Washington and elsewhere, along with Ralph Abernathy, Jessie Jackson and thousands of others.

I became a university professor at twenty-six and I got my PhD a year later.

Conflict and Error:
By the mid seventies, I was becoming uncomfortable with some of the excesses to which some university campuses were carrying the cultural revolution.

There were two  political phenomena which I had difficulty abiding: (1) anti-Semitism and (2) anti-Americanism. Without getting into the nitty-gritty of when legitimate criticism of Israel becomes blind anti-Semitism, and when justified criticism of US imperialism and militarism becomes vicious irrational hatred of Americans and their culture, let me say this: Anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism exist not only because Israel and America sometimes misbehave (which country or government never does?), but also as pathological psychological conditions that are widespread in many parts of the world.

(1) Currently, European anti-Semitism is on the rise again, as some parts of Europe are sliding back into their old racist habits. In my own neck of the woods, I increasingly disagreed with many of my colleagues due to my support of Israel during the Munich Olympics massacre (1972), the Yom Kippur War (1973), the Ma’alot massacre (1974), the Kampala rescue mission (1976) and other events.

(2) As to anti-Americanism, it fluctuates, depending on who symbolizes the country to the outside world. During the Bush years, things got so ugly in Europe that many American tourists - shamefully and cowardly - lied and told Europeans that they were Canadians. Reading the obscene and irrational utterances of vicious hate-mongers like the British playwright Harold Pinter made my blood boil.

On 9-11, I personally witnessed Europeans who were jubilant, danced in the streets and shouted “we finally won this time!” at the news that 3,000 innocent Americans had been incinerated, some jumping to their death from the 80th floor of the world trade center.

Anti-Americanism was also strong on the domestic front. Noam Chomsky has been Pinter’s American counterpart - irrational, vitriolic, over the top. I have known several homegrown America-haters. Some of them were downright Stalinists, brainwashing their students and lecturing about the greatness of the Soviet Union. But I could never forget that America had given me everything I have, that it had saved Europe, and that it remained a generous country. I knew better than my Stalinist colleagues.

During the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, all hell broke loose for me at the University. It began when I published an article urging President Carter to take a firm stand. The consequence for me personally was traumatic. Had I not had tenure, I would surely have lost my job. As it is, I was ostracized, threatened, called a McCarthyist, a racist and a fascist. Articles were published attacking me, petitions were circulated and signed by dozens of my colleagues, denouncing me and demanding that I be censored and punished. For a detailed account of this conflict, see my autobiography, A Tale of Survival.

I got angrier and I reacted by moving politically rightward, in part perhaps to aggravate my obnoxious colleagues. I began to support Ronald Reagan.

Of course this was a mistake. Yet, there was also some DISTINCTION in what I was doing. “Distinction” means not only “difference,” but also something that EXCELS. For one thing, it takes courage to swim upstream, to demur from widespread group think.

Furthermore, the climate was radically different from what it is today. Misguided as I was, there was some justification in questioning the indolent, left-wing conformity, the clich├ęs, and the extreme political correctness that increasingly dominated the social sciences, the humanities and much of the rest of academia.

Even though Ronald Reagan was sowing the seeds of a nefarious economic revolution whose terrible consequences are becoming clearer every day at this time, his rise back then seemed like a breath of fresh air, something new, a wholesome resurgence of American self-confidence after the Vietnam doldrums.

But I was wrong. I know.

Recovery: I have changed my mind a couple of times in my life. Toying with neo-conservatism was one of them. Recognizing my error and returning to my progressive roots was another.

To those who feel that inconsistency and changing one’s mind are signs of weakness or confusion, I say: Quite the opposite. Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. To change one’s mind indicates open-mindedness and maturity.

How wrong I was, has become clearer and clearer as we move further into the 21st century. By now, the country has returned to the way it was in the 1920s or the 1950s. During the presidencies of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover(1921-1933), the country became profoundly conservative, pro-business, retrograde, materialistic, selfish and unjust. This culminated in the Great Depression. During the McCarthy era (1950-1956), the country once again moved sharply to the right, gripped by anti-communist paranoia. Today, we are experiencing a similar rightward drift. The Republican party is dominated by the wacko Tea Party, fear of Muslim terrorism dictates our foreign policy, and the concentration of wealth has created a plutocracy reminiscent of the 1920s.

Whether it was ever so or not, calling oneself conservative today can hardly be seen as a mark of “distinction. ” It is neither distinct, nor different, nor unique, nor rare, nor superior.

It’s the opposite. It is being a LIBERAL which is now a mark of distinction, for the simple reason that avowed liberals have become rare. The Right has managed to soil that label, to make it something pejorative.

If you don’t agree, just tell me: how many of us dare to call ourselves unequivocally liberal anymore? Some of us now contort ourselves, preferring to say that we are “centrists,” that we don’t believe in labels, that we favor bipartisan cooperation, that we are against all bias, be it conservative bias or liberal bias. Fewer among us are now likely to simply say: sure, I am a liberal. Period. This is testimony to the great success of America’s conservative counter-revolution.

Don’t misunderstand me: I am fully aware that being a liberal or a conservative must be based on substantive issues and not on which position is more “distinguished.” I have published hundreds of articles on my blog and elsewhere showing the substantive reasons why I am a liberal.

I’ll just conclude with a witticism by a former Marxist economics professor of mine at the University of Amsterdam: “In the end,” Dr. S. Kleerekoper said, “the Left is where the heart is.”

 © Tom Kando 2014

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