When I was in college there was this guy 2 1/2 times larger than me… a philosophy major, as I recall… appropriately named ‘Animal.’ I remember having a debate about pain with him. I argued it was all in our minds- just a brain state- and not real. Animal said, “Come here, and I’ll show you unreal pain.”
While I was of the mindset that there were just “brain states” or just “subjective opinions” or just “one’s political views”, I was a liberal. When my mindset changed, so did my ‘political’ stance. This is a realization that congealed more than ten years after the change had happened. Was it just me? Correlation does not prove causation, and yet I see the same ingredients in the conservatives and liberals I meet. What made my mindset change?
I wouldn’t say it happened over night but there was a singular ‘event’ that proved the catalyst. One should understand that at the time, I was a Christian, an apologist, a Christian religion teacher. But I still entertained many viewpoints we’d call ‘liberal.’ The catalyst arose out of my never ending quest to make sure that when I talk about something, I actually know what I’m talking about. In the general course of that, I read a great many writings of Communists, Nazis, and to a lesser extent, the ‘fascists.’ Here I discovered something frightening: these people were advocating many of the same things I was advocating, and for the same reasons.
Of course, we know how their thinking ended up, don’t we?
Here was born the first of my persistent emphases: beliefs have consequences. They lead to things… if they don’t, you don’t actually believe them.
There was another very important thing that came out of this study: people are as people are- one cannot wish them differently… and people are not intrinsically good.
It is a generational chauvinism to look back on history and declare, “If I had been in Nazi Germany, I would never have gone along with things!” Richard Dawkins argues in his Delusion that if the great scientists (ie, Newton, etc) had been born today, they would be atheists. Surely it follows then that if Dawkins had grown up in Nazi Germany, he would have been one of the finest Nazi doctors, no?
You must understand that at the time I was working through this it was the mid to late 1990s and World War 2 was still something believed to be real, even if it was already beginning to be as hazy as the French Revolution or the Fall of Rome- ie, things that exist only in our mind and could never be repeated in modern day America. Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ was three whole decades in the past and Pol Pot’s Killing Fields a grainy memory of a movie I managed to watch on television without my parent’s permission. Today, these things are all in the distant past, as distant as King Arthur, and likely just as unreal.
But at the time, I was keenly aware of the fact that these things had actually happened. They had actually been carried out by real people. The divide between the ‘modern’ man and the ‘historic’ man was not the gaping chasm it is for many today. Indeed, it was still possible to find people- real people- who had lived through them.
This required explanation.
The explanation was not hard to find. One didn’t have to be a brain surgeon or a evolutionary biologist to see it. (In fact, one was more likely to see if it one was not an evolutionary biologist) It was the same realization arrived at by numerous liberal theologians coming out of World War 1 and World War 2, and was simply this: in point of fact, the one Christian doctrine that can be empirically proved was ‘original sin.’ G. K. Chesterton had already said as much as early as 1910, but Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr were liberals now reaching the same conclusion.
If the reader of this post is a liberal like I was, he will not understand the context of this realization because it happened so long ago and anything beyond 50 years is in the realm of mythology- if we are taught about it at all. At the close of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, there was unbridled optimism about the power of science, under the guiding hand of the enlightened State, to finally bring about a lasting utopia. Men like Niebuhr shared this optimism, and when the 20th century turned into a bloodbath beyond all comprehension, you can imagine his turmoil and the turmoil of the other ‘sincere dupes.’
He realized what I came to realize: people are what they are and no wishing can change that. We interact with real people, not the people we hope people are. People have been, are, and always will be, a mixed bag of self-interested individuals, many of whom would happily sell you out if they thought they can get away with it. This isn’t to say that ‘self-interest’ is inherently bad. If ‘self-interest’ is combined with nihilism (for example) who knows what can emerge?
When ‘self-interest’ is combined with ‘good intentions’ for humanity utilizing the best scientific principles in social engineering, we have a good idea what can emerge. As C. S. Lewis said,
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may sometimes be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
The realization that any one of us could become such a tyrant under the right conditions is a sobering realization, and one that few us are willing to admit. In short, this isn’t a ‘brain state’ or a ‘subjective view.’ This is an absolutely real characterization of the human being. Chalk it up to the Biblical Fall of Man- or not. It is, nonetheless, a simple fact. It is a fact that history proves over and over and over and over again.
I became a conservative when I determined that the bloody tyrannies of the 20th century were bad, were real, and could happen again.
As Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
And nothing about ‘man’ has changed. At the time, as a Christian, my thinking was divided into two basic parts. As a liberal, I perceived that all beliefs were subjective. None were better than any others. Reality was what we spun out of our own mind. This was how I lived out my politics. As a Christian, I believed that God was real and that Christianity was basically true- spiritually. I gave a little more than lip service to this in real life. That is to say, I believed that Jesus really rose from the dead and I accepted the doctrine of original sin, more or less. But I put these ‘facts’ in a box to be brought out in church. The facts I brought out for ‘politics’ were entirely negotiable.
In short, as a liberal I believed that if a person believed they could step in front of a bus moving 75 miles an hour and live, that belief was as valid as any other. If someone’s politics were informed by such a view, who was I to object? I became a conservative when I realized that if someone actually believed that, they would, really… or ‘unreally’ as Animal might have said, be squished. Furthermore, if someone believed this and didn’t step out in front of the bus, in reality, they really didn’t believe it.
Moderns are aware that in ancient times, in Germany of the 1930s or Russia of the 1950s or China in the 1960s or Cambodia in the 1970s, people tested their belief by stepping out in front of that bus.
I became a conservative when I saw that a novel approach was being tried… people were not stepping out in front of the bus anymore, rather, they were throwing others in front of that bus. You see, they think that one of these times- this time, maybe– the belief won’t lead to its inevitable consequence. Inevitable, that is, if they follow their thinking to its logical end.
I for one have decided that this isn’t the sort of thing one can hope for. Reality simply won’t allow for it.