As a rule, I don’t post images of my family members on this blog, so I’ve blacked out my son Matthew’s face. Here he is coming out of the voting booth yesterday after voting in his first-ever election. He’s 19. I voted in my first national election in 1988. My choice for president that year? Michael Dukakis. Can I pick ’em, or what?
I recently re-read Cambridge social anthropologist Paul Connerton’s great 1989 book How Societies Remember. In it, Connerton talks about how the “mental map” laid down in childhood stays with us for the rest of our lives, and that this is determined by class. That’s true, but it’s also determined by other factors. I’d like to start a thread about how the mental map we — that is, you readers and me — had laid down for us in childhood (up to age 21, let’s say) affected the way we see the world.
I’m 51 years old, born in 1967. Generation X. The most formative political events of my youth were:
1. The Iranian hostage crisis
2. The Cold War
4. John Paul II
These three events are inseparable, in fact. I won’t bore you by going into too much detail here, but I’ll give you a sketch. The idea is not to argue that the conclusions that I drew from these things were correct, but only to indicate how formative they were to my worldview.
I was too young to have any visceral sense of Watergate or the Vietnam War, but I do recall the second half of the 1970s being a time of anxiety and malaise. The Iranian hostage crisis was such a humiliating thing for the country. If you didn’t live through it, it’s hard to express how agonizing it was. President Jimmy Carter was widely loathed for being weak and ineffectual in general, but most especially over the way he handled Iran. Looking back on it, he deserved more credit than he got at the time, but man, were we all ever ready for Ronald Reagan. I remember lying in bed on election night 1980, watching Reagan give his victory speech on the little black and white TV on the shelf, and falling asleep thinking, “The country is saved.”
Carter’s weakness was also manifest in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It felt to many of us that the Russians could do whatever they liked, and the US couldn’t do a thing about it. America was a weak and humiliated country. The Democrats were the party of weakness and appeasement. (Again, I’m not arguing facts here; I’m explaining the narrative that formed me politically.) “Morning in America” was a real thing!
The thing is, I was a liberal Democrat for most of the 1980s. Around 1982 or so, I decided Reagan was a bad man. I can look back on it now and understand that my political thinking (“thinking”) was mostly driven by teenage rebellion against my father and what he stood for. I began my rightward shift at some point in college, when I started following the liberal pieties I professed to their logical conclusions. I never did become a full-on Reaganaut, but at some point I began to identify as a conservative, because the conservative account of the world — economic, moral, foreign policy — started to make more sense to me. The thing I realize now is that Reagan so dominated American politics in the 1980s — this, even though Democrats were still the main Congressional party — that liberal politics then were entirely a reaction to him.
The Republican Party was the party that could be trusted on national security, and on the economy. The 1970s had been a terrible time for both the economy and national security — and Reagan really had turned it all around. My conversion to Catholicism in 1992-93 solidified the social-conservative views emerging out of my own experiences. By then, my political worldview was pretty much set, so it was easy to graft Pope John Paul II onto it. He, like Reagan, stood firm against communism, and he also, in my mind, stood for moral order, even more than Reagan did. I believed that the Catholic Church and the Republican Party were two institutions that could be trusted — and I voted that way.
Events from the years 2001-2008 completely shattered that worldview. The abuse scandal, the Iraq War, the Bush administration’s conduct in general, then the financial crash — all of that left me reeling. I still have a morally and socially conservative view of the world, but I find it very, very hard to have faith in institutions. The break was so deep within me that I honestly don’t know to what extent the events and conclusions that formed my political mental map as a youth still matter. There was a series of earthquakes, and the map is now out of date.
The model of the world that I absorbed as a young man in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s proved to be unreliable. I think I’m too old now ever to believe again that there is a politically reliable model. I do know that it is almost impossible for me to trust the US government on matters of war and peace again, not after Iraq. And knowing how hard I fell for the Iraq war argument, it is, to be honest, hard for me to trust my own ability to judge truth from lies.
I don’t really know what I believe in, politically; I only know what I don’t believe in. It feels sometimes like I’ve gone full circle, and I’m back to the late ’70s, only we’re all richer, and the air is not so smoky. But the sense of cynicism, malaise, and drift is very real.
I’m not sure what the major events are that formed the political mental map of my 19-year-old son. I plan to talk to him about it next time we get together.
What about you? Again, I’m not asking you to attack or defend my 1980s worldview, and to keep the thread from going off-kilter, I’m not going to publish comments that try to support or criticize it (or anybody’s worldview) in depth. What I’m interested in is your reflections on the events and personalities of your youth that gave you your own political orientation, whether it’s on the left, right, or center. This is not going to be an argumentative thread. Rather, I’m only interested in hearing people tell their stories.
UPDATE: By the way, readers, I want to thank you for helping make this site such a success. Last month, this blog tallied 1.7 million page views, from 1.4 million unique visitors. This is the ninth month in a row we’ve had over a million visitors here. I appreciate it!
UPDATE.2: I’m breaking out some of the answers in the comments into a separate series. Please feel free to comment on the substance of those posts in their comment threads. This post’s comment thread will be reserved strictly for people telling their own stories of how their political mental map was formed. Reader RBH’s comment below — which will have its own post shortly — inspired this further set of thoughts from me about my political mental map. (You will be able to comment on these remarks in the separate post, if you like):
This brought to mind a formative experience I had, that I had forgotten about. I can’t believe this slipped my mind. This is probably the MOST politically formative experience for me!
Longtime readers know that I went through a period in my life — ninth and tenth grade, which I guess is ages 14 and 15 — in which I was bullied in school. What made it especially painful was that the bullies included guys who had been my best friends throughout elementary school. They wanted to be part of the cool older crowd once we got to ninth grade, and for whatever reason, that meant throwing me over the side, and joining my tormentors. The initiating event for that, as I’ve written before, was a group of the cool kids — boys — holding me down in a hotel room on a beach trip, and trying to pants me to impress their girlfriends, who were looking on. There I was, pinned to the floor, begging the two adult chaperones in the room to help me, and they literally stepped over me to get out of the room. They wanted to be cool parents, and that meant not saying no to the cool kids.
In the two years I spent in that school after that event, I learned that the people you thought were your best friends will turn on you just like that, when they perceive their self-interest requires it. I learned that people, when they mob up, are horrible, and only strong authority can protect vulnerable individuals from the mob. But I also learned that authority cannot be trusted — that those in authority will look for every reason they can to avoid exercising it when it would involve punishing those they favor.
To see that lesson play itself out decades later, in the Catholic abuse scandal — well, suffice it to say that that confirmed my priors with the force of an asteroid strike. I believe that writing about the scandal twenty years later as a journalist reactivated a lot of ugly crap that I had buried, and led to my loss of Catholic faith.
A much more minor, but still interesting lesson that formed my political mental map — this, related to RBH’s story.
I left home to start my junior year in high school at a publicly-funded boarding school for gifted kids in Louisiana. After the first six weeks, we were sent home for a long weekend break, and I visited my favorite teacher in my old school. I sat in on one of her classes. I was shocked to see how much time she had to spend disciplining the class. It had been invisible to me before, because I had never known classrooms to be different. In the first six weeks at my new public school, teachers never had to discipline their students. Everybody was quiet, well-behaved, and wanted to learn. Because teachers didn’t have to spend so much time and effort disciplining classes, we were able to cover so much more ground, and the classroom process was much less stressful.
Like RBH, from that I learned that most people lack self-discipline. In most cases, the lack of strong home training will show itself. The point of government is to protect those who want to do the right thing, and build up the community, from the jackasses who want to ruin it for everybody else.
I have a complicated and contradictory political view. I do not trust the People, but I don’t trust Authority either. The paradox here, as I wrote about in my book The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming , is that the same tight communal bonds that made small-town life very hard for outsiders and marginalized people like me were what made things so beautiful and loving for my late sister as she suffered from cancer. That is, the things that held me down when I was a teenager living there were not all that different from the things that held her up when she was terminally ill. I don’t know what to do with that. Still don’t.
I tend to have a mildly authoritarian personality, because I fear chaos (which empowers bullies), but I also do not trust authority to do the right thing. If it does, I’m pleasantly surprised. As I wrote in that first post, I came to trust conservative government and the Roman Catholic Church to be sources of authority, and good exercisers of it. The abuse scandal and the Iraq War (as well as Bush administration cronyism) destroyed that.
I hadn’t thought about it till now, but one reason I push the Benedict Option  is because I have no faith in the leadership of our large institutions to address effectively the crisis in which we all find ourselves.
Oh, one more thing: watching the 1978 TV miniseries Holocaust. I was 12 years old, and interested in World War II. I had a vague knowledge about the Holocaust, and wanted to watch the show because I was interested in the war. I recall watching with mounting horror as things turned for the German Jews. On the second or the third night of the week-long broadcast, there was a scene in which the Germans lined a bunch of naked Jews up beside a trench, and shot them en masse. I was lying on my left side on the green shag carpet floor in our living room watching that — and I started to sob. I began convulsing. My father rose from his chair and carried me to my bed. That was the end of Holocaust for me.
That right there was the beginning of my fear and loathing of the mob.