Wednesday, November 08, 2006

My Political Development [Guest Post: Jeff Maynes]

In several recent posts (here, here, here, here) Aspazia has tackled a daunting topic – the mindset of her students. More specifically asking – why do they react to bleak assessments of the world in the way that they do? Each and every one of these posts has given me pause and helped focus my thoughts on my own political development. I am not going to bore all of you with the details of that personal change, but I do want to take a look at where I began. I was a student at Gettysburg, and I was one of the students Aspazia talks about in these recent posts. Thinking over my experience being “that guy” has helped me tease out several threads contributing to the mindset of Aspazia's students and reflect on the origins of these views from my own experience. (By “Aspazia’s students” I mean the ones referred to in recent posts, the not everyone who could be classified as a student of Aspazia).

I was the consummate Gettysburg student – upper middle class upbringing in a small New England town with a high school that measured diversity in shirt colors. I enrolled at Gettysburg in 2001, fresh off the Bush-Gore election. I considered myself politically conscious, but not politically active. If you had asked me for my political affiliation, I would have told you that I was a “libertarian, for the most part.” I was not active in gaining and scrutinizing political information, but I had determinate opinions on most matters political. In the experience of this formerly blog-worthy student, what were the major threads and influences that underscored these political views?

(1) Distractions from Pity: Growing up in the middle class can be quite an isolated experience. Real poverty simply did not exist in the town I grew up in; the people that I actually knew in disadvantaged circumstances drove used cars. Yet I still had the general human response of unbearable pity when confronted with true suffering and true tragedy. For a moment I might be motivated to thought or even action, but when the object of my pity vanished out of my life, the pity receded. Being able to keep the appreciation of the suffering of others in mind when the objects of pity are not present takes emotional maturity. It is a type of maturity that many fresh high school graduates, myself included, have or had not developed.

(2) Institutional Faith – Does this mean that I, or others like me, did not desire relief for the disadvantaged and a fair society? Not at all. What it meant was that I took my rock bottom faith in democratic and capitalist institutions as adequate. This faith came in two simple forms: (a) “capitalism will ultimately provide for the needs of the most people possible” and (b) “democracy will insure that society is fair.” The distractions that kept pity from driving my political views did not take away the pity entirely, but they made it much easier to accept these two propositions as self-evident truths. I could have this faith because it worked for me, and if it did not work for everyone then either we needed to try a little harder with what we've got or at least accept that this is the best we can do. High school history and political education emphasizes the truth of those two propositions, so I had never experienced either a powerful intellectual or emotional challenge to either of those propositions.

(3) Cynicism - While my faith was strong in the political and economic institutions I had a deep cynicism in politicians. I had faith because I thought that the system would get by despite individual corrupt politicians. As a result, political campaigns did not draw my interest because I was firmly convinced that it did not matter. The system would keep on operating in the same way it always had and thus even if I had an interest in real change, it was beyond the scope of my vote. This combination was particularly powerful as the resulting disenchantment prevented further interest in developing as a politically aware citizen.

(4) A Crook's a Crook - This could alternatively be phrased, “it can't be that bad.” I simply took it on unchallenged assumption that since all politicians were to some degree corrupt, they must all be equally corrupt. Yet, at the same time, I held an odd view that is prima facie at odds with this conviction – namely that politicians were not corrupt enough to subvert the institutions of the country. Each politician was equated with a certain degree of similarity on the issues, a certain degree to which I assumed they would act at odds with everyone's interest for their own good, but at the same time, that nothing they did was so corrupt that it could threaten either the country or its institutions. When I heard about accusations of truly dangerous corruption, or election scandal, I brushed it off as biased reports and conspiracy theory. This assumption takes it for granted that listening to either side yields an absolute minimum of truth. The hole I had found myself in was dug a bit deeper – because of this outlook I ruled out the evidence I needed in order to challenge the views from (2) and (3).

(5) Amoralistic Conception of Politics - This thread in my thought was rooted in relativism, but I think that it can easily exist without a fully relativistic outlook on ethics. I simply did not think it was the place for ethics in politics because even if there were objective standards that one could find, there was no agreement about them. I considered it an impingement on human liberty to enforce an ethical doctrine so I rejected ethical concerns entirely from my political outlook. This is part and parcel to the faith in capitalism – I was simply unwilling to ask the question, “even if it is efficient, is it ethical?” On this topic I lacked the intellectual maturity to distinguish between legislated morality and an ethical regard for the well being of every citizen.

(6) Negative Conception of Freedom - I do not mean this to be an assault on negative conceptions of liberty, or a defense of positive ones. The only conception of freedom that I had at this point in my life was a negative one, i.e., the only freedom is hands off freedom. Additionally, I gave freedom an intrinsic value, so any political view that increased government control in any facet of society was in error. I had never considered on my own accord or been presented with the idea that increased power of acting could be the result of a positive action by the powers that be, and not simply through a lack of limits. This unwarranted assumption on my part, like (4), decreased the availability of alternatives to my political outlook, and acted as a justification to my lack of empathy, noted in (1).

These six threads were dominant in the shaping of my world view as I exited high school and entered Gettysburg College. They were firm enough to give me confidence in my political views but without any serious reflection. Not only did they shape my political views they actually actively inhibited serious reflection. The changes in my views did not happen until I cast all six of these assumptions, as well as others, under the light of critical thinking and discursive reasoning (to which I owe much to the critical thinking skills imparted on me by SteveG and Aspazia). I intend this characterization to be an accurate portrayal of my own views, and a hypothesis for the views of the students that Aspazia is struggling to understand, and the views that I once lived myself. They might be motivated by different concerns than I was, but this might serve as a window into a foreign mode of thought.