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The Books that Change Us
Posted By David Swindle On March 30, 2010 @ 12:05 am In FrontPage | 51 Comments
Yesterday, in Part 1 of this article, I explained the difference between hard and soft indoctrination and expressed a hope that the latter could be combated if students had the knowledge and the courage to bring non-Marxist texts into their classroom discussions.
Any journey from Left to Right is going to follow two related, parallel paths. One is based on experiences and life events which challenge the “progressive” world view. The second is formed by way of an intellectual journey through key texts which provide for more accurate explanations of reality.
Reading through David Horowitz’s autobiography Radical Son we can see this both in his personal experiences with the Black Panthers, the AIDS crisis, and the Vietnam War and his engagement with books by thinkers like Leszek Kolakowski and Friedrich Hayek.
My own journey follows a similar dual path of experiences and books though is not as dramatic as Horowitz’s.
Many of the texts which would be instrumental in changing me I encountered while in college in my political science classrooms, English courses, and independently. Most of these books could hardly be accurately described as “conservative” yet neither were they Marxist. In my defense policy course taught by Dr. Dan Reagan we analyzed and debated The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas P.M. Barnett. It was with Barnett’s book that I first began to doubt my anti-globalization dogmas. The Pentagon’s New Map makes a compelling case that as countries are knit together economically war will be decreased. Global Capitalism is a force for peacemaking, greater prosperity, and increased human rights.
I took deeply seriously my father’s suggestion to “take the professor, not the course” — sound advice for any college student. In my literary courses I made a conscious decision to take every class I could taught by Dr. Pat Collier, a specialist in British Modernism — the works of T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and other authors from 1890-1940. The principle lesson that I formulated from my engagement with this literature was this: life is complicated, multiple perspectives on the world are vital, no one knows everything. Joyce’s Ulysses, the magnum opus of Modernism, is written not with a single all-knowing narrator but with dozens (hundreds?) of voices. We see how overwhelmingly complex just a single day in Dublin on June 16, 1904 can be. The universe is too big for us to truly grasp. In Woolf’s novels the view peered inward into the infinity of individual minds. Yet we think we can effectively legislate a better world into existence? We think we’re able to plan utopia in a world of limitless variables?
On my own I discovered the novels and stories of gay Cuban dissident Reinaldo Arenas. In his memoir Before Night Falls, filmed in 2000, the Castro brothers and Che Guevara‘s crimes against humanity are laid out beyond dispute. I could never forgive Castro for the tortures inflicted on an artist as brilliant and sensitive as Arenas. Arenas was amazingly prolific for having to live in a police state. Imagine how great he could have been if he could have spent his entire career in a capitalist country that rewarded and nourished his literary genius. And so even as a leftist I could never have any sympathy for Stalinism.
It was when I emerged from college and began living in the “Real World” that the life events kicked in. After graduating in the summer of 2006 I gradually sought to disengage from politics. I’d grown weary of the “nasty tone” whose purpose I could never grasp. The only political job I ever applied for was as a researcher for “progressive” media “watchdog” Media Matters. I never heard back from them after submitting my resume and cover letter bragging about my 90-page Horowitz take-down thesis. So I resigned myself to call center jobs to pay the bills, freelance journalism on the side, and the hope of a novel.
My first call center position was setting up repairs of cell phones and computers. After a year of this I had grown disgusted with the corporations for which I worked. Products were shoddy and poorly serviced. Customers received inadequate care. Government intervention was necessary to step in and correct big business’s excesses. Or was it? I tried to figure out how some legislation or government agency could fix things. And the conclusion I came to was that any government solution would be endlessly byzantine and in the end probably wouldn’t work. I also stumbled up against the idea of economic freedom. As a social libertarian I loathed the idea of government trying to impose the right way to live morally. Why then would I tolerate government dictating ethical business practices to a company? I did not have an answer. Perhaps a better solution might be another company doing a better job?
My second call center position was as a debt collector — and later assistant manager — for federally-insured student loans. It was here where my love affair with capitalism began. What is the primary factor in getting people to work? Paying them. The collecting call center is a microcosm of the economy. And I could see how those who worked hard and developed their skills could succeed and earn enormous bonuses while those who were lazy would fail.
In other words, capitalism works. Those who work hard and develop themselves have the potential to succeed. And history demonstrated this on a massive scale time and again. One of the essays form Horowitz’s Hating Whitey drew on the research of Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom’s America in Black and White to demonstrate that from 1940 to the present poverty in the African-American community fell more than 50 percent — and mostly before and in spite of Great Society and affirmative action programs.
It was also as a collector that I began to seriously understand the single most important difference between leftists and conservatives: the reality of human nature. Through my interactions with both those on the other side of the phone and my colleagues and bosses within the call center I realized the reality of how people actually are: we are evil, lazy, cruel, self-interested, and stupid. In other words we are broken. And we — people with our human nature — are the root cause of all social problems. It doesn’t matter if you pass laws, elect new politicians, or change to a new system of government. Our problems will still remain because we will still be here.
This grasp of human nature has a corresponding economic philosophy: free market capitalism. Understand human nature in this fashion and it immediately becomes apparent why socialist policies fail. Create a system where people can take out more than they have to put in and the government will go bankrupt. (For a more sophisticated take on the folly of socialism read Horowitz’s The Politics of Bad Faith, his single most important book.)
Understand human nature and capitalism’s intrinsic worth and an individual can succeed — and so can a country. These were the founding fathers’ ideas. And they based our government on them.
W. Cleon Skousen’s The 5000 Year Leap, while somewhat hokey in its tone, is an effective summary of the founders’ philosophy which was institutionalized in our founding documents. (And when you get it on Kindle it comes with free copies of Alexis de Tocqueville and the Federalist Papers.) Horowitz’s Uncivil Wars: The Controversy Over Reparations for Slavery also focuses on the American Idea and articulates a compelling argument on its behalf.
Driving toward this understanding of human nature (and the great value of the sole country on the planet that is built on this intellectual foundation) the emotional turning point on foreign policy could come. In the fall of 2008 Horowitz was staging another Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week at colleges across the country. At this point he and I had been dialoguing and debating about politics and Academic Freedom for about six months but I was not yet a genuine supporter of his work. As the promotions of the week came and Horowitz flew off to give his speeches I had a realization: it was not out of the realm of possibility that my friend could be killed for what he was doing. Theo Van Gogh. Salman Rushdie. It struck me at an emotional level and I called David to urge him to be careful. It was that emotional kick that could shatter my progressive illusions about the nature of Islamo-fascism.
And so I began a study of the nature of the enemy facing us. I read Robert Spencer’s books on Islam, specifically The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran (see my review here) and Stealth Jihad. I learned about Sharia law. I read what the great Dr. Phyllis Chesler had to say about Islamic misogyny. I watched the rise of Islam in Europe and the folly of the continent’s multicultural tolerance. I studied what Horowitz and Dr. Jamie Glazov had to say about the Left’s embrace of Islamists. (See Unholy Alliance and United in Hate.) And it became clear that the threat was not just a few “extremists” “misinterpreting Islam” in some caves in Afghanistan while righteously responding to American “imperialism.” Islamo-fascism is far bigger and more dangerous as a problem than the vast majority of Americans are prepared to face.
Throughout much of my leftist period I had cowardly avoided the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now, though, I investigated further — Natan Sharansky’s Defending Identity was a crucial text — and came to understood how Israel was the victim and had reached out for peace only to be rebuffed many times. They were under assault by a totalitarian enemy. And I came to see that the reason to support Israel was this: it was a nation that shared our values of freedom, capitalism, and individual rights. Supporting Israel in its battle with Islamofascism was essential. As goes Israel so goes the Middle East so goes the world.
And there you have it. A peace-loving, “progressive” college student is corrupted into a cynical, warmongering, “corporatist,” racist Neo-Con. He’s brainwashed by some evil books. And he’s more than happy to sell out his principles and “flip-flop” in exchange for a career in professional red-baiting. He is an intellectual whore for sale to the highest bidder. So many of my college fellow travellers are forced to conclude (so as not to have to challenge their own political faith.)
Maybe with this new political understanding I just want to fix the world differently. Maybe I remain every bit as radical and committed to a better, more prosperous, more peaceful, more just civilization. From Horowitz’s Cracking of the Heart I’ve imbibed the spirit of his daughter Sarah Horowitz. (Read my review here.) The lesson of her life was that we must fix the world one person at a time. From Howard Bloom’s The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism I understand the boom and bust cycle of economics as an expression of nature going back to the formation of the universe. And capitalism reveals itself as a system which results in continual improvement to the human condition, both increasing the quality and the quantity of our lives. And from Douglas Rushkoff’s Life, Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back (see my review here) I can see the shortcomings of the corporate order — which I witnessed firsthand in my own 3 year employment odyssey — but seek to improve it not through a change in government and a restriction of freedom, but in a transition of culture to rebalance economies so that both local and international commerce can thrive.
And that’s how you fix the world: shift the culture, protect freedom, help the individual, focus on your own community. And it’s with that attitude that Academia too can be restored to what it once was and will be again.
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