I haven’t always been a liberal, but I have always been a person who thinks deeply. To be honest, I never even realized until well after high school that I was a deep thinker. I just assumed that everyone thinks this way.
My need to think deeply started when I was still a kid. My childhood friends can attest that, in long phone conversations with them (back before social media and texting!), I had a way of both cutting to the chase on issues in their lives, and at the same time, seeing far more deeply into those issues than perhaps they were interested in really talking about.
I was raised in a conservative home and church. My church would probably be considered fundamentalist nowadays, but I didn’t see it that way then. My parents were both conservative but we never really talked about politics. Despite the fundamentalist leanings of my church, my parents were pretty open in the way they raised my brother and me. We were allowed to listen to rock music (anathema for many of my friends at the time) — I chose mostly Christian rock music, and my brother went with AC/DC, Ozzy, Dio, and other rock gods of the day. We were never required to dress any certain way, and my brother and I both went to public schools.
My church heavily discouraged dancing. We used to joke: “Why should you avoid premarital sex? Because it could lead to dancing.”
Despite the church’s view, our parents allowed us to go to the prom, and I ended up going my sophomore, junior, and senior years. Then as now, I wasn’t one to dress up often, so I wanted to wear my prom tux to church the day after prom, partly because I thought I looked sharp, and I’m sure because there has always been something in me that just likes being provocative and pushing people past their normal limits of thinking.
So I did. I wore my tux to church, probably all three proms. When I caught the stink-eye from the parents of my friends, I just ignored it, but secretly relished how much they hated what I was doing. And judged them for it.
I think I was a freshman in high school when it became popular for boys to wear an earring. Only in the left ear, of course, because when a boy wore an earring in his right ear, it was supposed to be a statement that he was gay, and in the 80’s this was still one of the last things most high school boys would ever want to be.
One day, out of curiosity, just to see how my mostly female friends would respond, I wore a clip-on earring to school all day, and I let people think it was real. People were shocked. Outraged. Scandalized. They kept wanting to know “the point” of this madness. That was all I needed. I went home that afternoon and pierced my own ear with a sewing needle and decided this would be who I was. My dad took it in stride. Mom didn’t talk to me for a few days, but she got over it, and I always knew she would. If I hadn’t known that, I probably would never have done it. There was always a certain safety there that I just knew I could count on.
The point I’m trying to make with all of this is that I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t enjoy being provocative. I would ask questions in church about whether God was real, and if God was real, why was there so much evil in the world. One time I said, “Why can’t we have sex” and an adult said, “The Bible says not to,” and I said, “But why?” A few adults took their stab, and I kept asking questions, and we just eventually moved on. I felt like my question hadn’t been taken seriously but now I realize it was probably taken very seriously, I was simply insatiable when it came to my desire for reasons and for knowledge.
People thought I was a troublemaker which, let’s face it, I often was. But I was desperately curious more than anything. I wanted to KNOW things, and if I didn’t know them, I wanted to learn them. Not math or anything, mind you, just stuff about people, why we are the way we are, why we think the way we think, mostly why we’re so scared to ask certain questions, so threatened by things we don’t understand. At a time when the kids around me were learning that all the answers we’d ever need were in the Bible, I was reading about Buddhism and other religions. The more afraid church people seemed of something, the more curious I was about it. I was never the kid who wanted to go out and drink or smoke pot. I was the kid who wanted to know things that scared the hell out of most people. I’m still that person. My favorite show as a kid was “In Search Of…” It scared me half to death sometimes, and I absolutely loved it. One of my favorite shows today is Forensic Files. It’s scary, and it makes me want to puke sometimes, and I absolutely love it.
In my early 20’s I had a job as a pool attendant. Not a lifeguard. A pool attendant. I didn’t have to actually watch the pool. I just made sure people signed in and out, and so that summer I read a 516 page book called Understanding the Times. It was a book that contrasted the worldviews of Christianity with Islam, Marxism, Cosmic Humanism, and Post-Modernism. I was, and am, voraciously curious about the way other people think and I am, to the chagrin of many I suspect, entirely unthreatened by differences between my way of thinking and that of any other person or group. (This was cultivated, not innate. Other world views used to scare me half to death, but I found them too interesting not to read. I’m over the fear now and am back, on my blog and on Facebook, to report to the world that there is nothing to fear.)
Given the conservative environment in which I grew up, and my desire to ask questions and learn about the world and about people, it’s in some ways natural that I ended up cutting my teeth on Rush Limbaugh. My friend Jeff turned me on to him in my early 20’s and I’d listen to him sitting at the pool, in my car, everywhere I went. I thought Rush had the answers to the most important questions of life. I believed him when he said liberals were stupid, and that only conservatives really understood what was happening in the world. I relished his insults like when he called women “feminazis.” I felt like I was on the inside of a club, and only we knew what was going on. Kind of like how I felt about the church — all this amazing information about God and the world, and I’m just blessed enough to be one of the people who has heard it and who really knows what’s happening.
My love for Rush deepened. I literally bought the t-shirt, a picture of a brain with ropes around half of it, and text that said, “With one side of my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair.” I subscribed to the Limbaugh letter and read it cover to cover every month. I had a Rush coffee mug. And I flipped out when I read in the letter that soon Rush would be coming to television, and watched Rush’s TV show faithfully until it went off the air.
I was hard core. If you didn’t agree with me, you were stupid. That was obvious to me. You simply had no clue about the world or what was really happening, but since Rush was on all over the country, you were deliberately blinding your eyes to the truth, and I felt sorry for you, while also feeling a fair amount of contempt.
I constantly tried to argue with my wife. Not discuss, argue. I felt a mission to convert her, to make sure she knew the truth. (See any comparison between that and the missionary zeal I was raised with in the church?) After all, I loved her. Also, I didn’t want to be married to someone who was stupid. (I never said this would be pretty, or easy to read.)
I subscribed to the National Review and fell in love with William F. Buckley, Jr., who appealed so deeply to my intellect. Then, when that wasn’t far right enough, I subscribed to The American Spectator after hearing an ad for it on Rush’s radio show. I even began drinking Snapple because I heard about it on Rush.
I added other conservative radio hosts to my diet. G. Gordon Liddy. Michael Reagan. Tons of others whose names escape me. All of them confirmed the same ideas, none of them challenged me in any way, and all of them built in my young mind an increasing fear of government and a sense that we were on the precipice of doom. The message was increasingly urgent with each passing day, and so my evangelism kept getting more and more fervent. Add to this an anxiety disorder that was beginning to ramp up, and I was ready to argue, to convert, to challenge anyone at any time.
In graduate school I was paranoid about my liberal instructors. I made a comment once about spanking children (how it’s a great idea and down with this PC crap about not hitting little kids) and when my professor diplomatically challenged it, I asked her why. She said, “Because I don’t think we own our children…” Her answer went on, but that’s all I heard. I interrupted her. “Don’t misrepresent me. That’s just what I’d expect from you.” I humiliated her. In front of the class. My favorite instructor. It permanently damaged my relationship with her.
During that time in graduate school, two things were going to happen, neither of them having anything to do with my education itself, that were eventually going to change my life, perspective, and politics forever. I’ll tell you about that in my next post.