The Off-Brand Conservative
By Susannah Black '99
I’ve been several different kinds of conservative since I entered Amherst—several kinds of liberal too, but that’s expected. It’s the conservative part that needs explaining, because it’s that part that kept me from being able to vote for Obama—as we say, “because of the Supreme Court,” which is code for “because of Roe v. Wade.”
Last spring I spoke at a Reunion panel about being a conservative, and afterward I got taken aside and told that I wasn’t one. This made me unaccountably happy; I am obviously conflicted about the whole thing. But the truth is that, except for being a little bit socialist, I really am a conservative. I’m just a sort of off-brand version of one.
I was raised by an Amherst graduate and a Smith graduate on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to believe that any flavors of bagel besides plain, poppy and sesame were a little culturally dicey. Not bad, necessarily, but you want to keep your eye on them. I was also raised to believe that the only conceivable thing that anyone decent would ever do to authority was question it and that Republican voters just didn’t understand what their own best interests were. I went to the pro-choice march on Washington in 1992 when I was 15, and I got huge chunks of my worldview from The Handmaid’s Tale, although on reflection I’m not totally sure I ever actually finished it.
I don’t know how much of this was directly from my parents and how much was just in the atmosphere—was what decent and sane people believed. My father has actually always skewed a little bit to the right, and both my parents are very thoughtful and nuanced people.
But for the most part my worldview was firmly liberal and also firmly secular. And there are many, many things that I was raised to value that I still deeply agree with: the principle that there is such a thing as social injustice and that combating it is everybody’s proper business; the idea that those in authority tend to abuse it; the belief that a pretty large social safety net is not actually a bad thing; the idea that, in the final analysis, all you need is love.
I also still believe that about the bagels. But I still didn’t vote for Obama.
Being a conservative as an Amherst graduate, and being a conservative now in the United States, are similar phenomena, because in both cases you are being a conservative as an outsider. I definitely have some contrarian tendencies, and when I was in my senior year of high school and fooling around for a brief period with being a libertarian, it was mostly to be annoying and feel like I was rebelling. I was a libertarian like most kids smoke weed. And then in college when I smoked weed it was mostly because I felt like that was upholding the great tradition.
But the hardcore libertarian phase didn’t last very long. I don’t think that the urge to rebel is the only reason that people are libertarians, but it’s why I was. It is, however, not the kind of conservative I am now.
At Amherst, what was good in my libertarianism got folded into a deep love of Enlightenment rationalism and John Locke-iness, that whole vision of being able to sit down in a coffeehouse with a huge stack of paper and a freshly sharpened goose quill and rewrite the world from the ground up. I loved that—the feeling of boundless and perhaps overcaffeinated energy that you get coming out of 17th- and 18th-century England and Scotland. I still love it. I just don’t buy it as much any more. Because that’s not the kind of conservative I am now, either.
I can remember the moment about five years ago when I realized that I had to kind of let go of that degree of antiauthoritarian energetic self-sufficiency. It was like breaking up with John Locke. And it was sad, because there’s something that’s so bracing and challenging about it. It is a political philosophy that believes in you and expects you to do well. The message of that style of conservatism is very similar to the message of Amherst: something like, “You have an immense amount of promise and you show early signs of success, so go out and do something really, really impressive. Ideally start a utopia, although NGO work would be acceptable as long as you are also traveling a great deal and getting paid for some kind of creative work as well and not neglecting your personal life, all of which must be able to be communicated in three lines or fewer for the alumni notes. And please be slightly ironic and self-effacing. And if you are not all these things, it is your own fault and you have failed us.”
The key question in this kind of conservatism, which is actually, of course, 18th-century liberalism, is whether obligations can only exist if they’re freely chosen, or whether you can be born into them. With the social-contract vision you couldn’t really be born into obligations or into relationships—you had to contract into them, at least in the Ur-myth part of the Lockean description of society. But if you can’t really be born into obligations, then what makes you think you can be born into rights?
The kind of conservative I am now is the social kind, the kind that thinks you can be born into obligations, relationships and rights—that’s the kind of conservative that has “Christian” after it, because in grad school I converted. Or at least I converted more—I was baptized when I was 16, after reading a batch of C.S. Lewis that, in fact, my dad had given me. While I was at Amherst and being all Enlightenment-liberal, I’m not sure how seriously I was taking what I claimed was my faith. There are certainly plenty of serious and intelligent Christians who have managed to fuse their faith with a robust affirmation of Enlightenment liberalism. But my Enlightenment liberalism happened when I was not thinking through the implications of my baptism, and while I was maintaining a shoulder-chip the size of the Campus Center regarding anything that smacked of the “Religious Right.”
I remember being annoyed by the Amherst Christian Fellowship, which, while it is definitely not the Religious Right, does in some sense smack of it, at least to the uncritical undergraduate. From what I knew of them, they believed in the resurrection. I sort of did, too—I had read all that C.S. Lewis, and I had been baptized. But I was believing on my own, so I could in some sense dial my faith up or down as needed. This was not, from what I could tell, the way the ACF approached belief. The interesting thing was that part of what had attracted me to Christianity was its lack of vagueness, its grounding in material reality. Either the resurrection had happened, or it hadn’t. If it hadn’t, then Christianity was bunk. But if it had... everything was different. That was the phrase—from some C.S. Lewis book, of course—that had echoed with me in high school, and now here in college were people who were at least trying to behave as though everything was, in fact, different. And that irritated me.
My opinion of them was based on no actual data. I did know one ACF member; she wasn’t at all scary or boring or brainwashed-seeming. But despite this complete absence of evidence, I thought they had somehow surrendered themselves to being boring and calling that boringness good, and I think I was worried that God wanted to make me boring, too. I’ve since learned that this is, in the words of Douglas Adams, “a load of dingo’s kidneys,” but I didn’t know that then. After moving back to the Pioneer Valley to help plant a church, I apologized to Director of Religious Life Paul Sorrentino for my pompous, judgmental attitude during college, which he was somehow not aware of, primarily because I don’t think we ever met and also because I mostly just muttered snotty comments to my friends who shared my opinion about the “fundamentalists.”
But then there was grad school. And in grad school, part of how I experienced the process of becoming more of a Christian was a worldview realignment. This basically happens to everyone who converts: you have all this new data about the world that, based on your understanding of how God works in the world, you now deem to be trustworthy—the Bible, Christian tradition to some degree, the assumptions of whatever church community in which you find yourself. Your understanding changes as you go along—you figure out that, hey, a lot of the things that one church community said were moral or spiritual non-negotiables were really just customary ways of behaving; or hey, the way I was understanding some aspect of how to live as a Christian was being influenced by other assumptions of mine.
For what it’s worth, the link between Christian conversion and moving to the right is absolutely not always there. An ex-roommate of mine actually became far more liberal when she became a Christian—she had been raised as an Army brat, and although her parents weren’t particularly religious, they were very Republican. She started following Jesus more seriously (part of her story involves a kind of dramatic healing: when I first met her she was in a wheelchair, and the year we lived together she ran the Boston Marathon) and she found that she couldn’t make Jesus’ teachings square with her parents’ brand of Republicanism, which was very hawkish and super-individualist. So she voted Democratic in 2006, which was quite difficult and a big deal for her.
But my worldview shift was different. And I didn’t know where it would end, and it was kind of uncomfortable. When your loyalty shifts (at least in theory, and that’s a huge caveat) to Jesus before anything or anyone else, that means that you need to be willing to put all your beliefs on the table and not know which of them you’re going to get to go home with.
I describe it as this terrifyingly heroic act of the will, but that’s not what it was. Some of the beliefs that are called conservative came as I felt God gently pushing my logic forward to a place where I would not necessarily have been comfortable taking that logic before. But it wasn’t just logic that He pushed forward—it was emotion too, so that, for the most part, I began to believe and to love what I believed at the same time. Sometimes the love came first, sometimes the belief came first; for some things I still don’t have the love, and for other things I still wrestle with the belief. In some cases I was literally praying, “God, if that’s true, help me believe that it’s true and help me to be able to handle believing that, because I don’t see how I can.” He answered those prayers, too.
Because I have, I think, been nudged firmly over to the conservative side of one social issue in particular, I felt unable to vote the way my family did in the last presidential election. My brother told me the summer before last that he wasn’t sure what to get me for my birthday, because for everybody else’s birthdays he had been making a contribution to the Obama campaign. “But you’re voting for McCain or Hitler or someone, so I figured I shouldn’t do that,” he said. (Actually, I couldn’t vote for McCain either, and I ended up in the voting booth in Northampton, Mass., becoming panicked and confused and writing in Huckabee in what turned out to be magic marker, thus, I am sure, elevating the polling place volunteer ladies’ opinion of the intelligence of conservatives.)
My family was all so happy when Obama won. It was like when the Sox won, finally. And I couldn’t join in. There was this feeling of not being part of the big, fun party, this huge national victory that felt—and it felt to me, even—like the final Union victory in the Civil War. And, dang it, I just felt left out. I was, on some level, tempted.
My mother assumes that at some point I will come to my senses and kick myself that I didn’t go to Washington for the inauguration with my little brother. But that’s not going to happen.
In a way it is easier to be a conservative now that Obama’s won. I would feel far more alienated from my family if McCain had won—they’d look on me as somehow linked to the successful oppressor, as opposed to somehow linked to a sad little crumbling coalition party. And as much as people love to talk about how much they love Obama, they don’t love it as much as they loved to talk about how much they hated Bush. So there are fewer words about politics now, and they’re not as bitter.
But on another level, especially with David Souter’s retirement from the Supreme Court, the real reason that I couldn’t join the fabulous, happy Obama fun time is looming. The ebbing of the probability of Roe v. Wade being overturned is this recurring grief and sorrow to me. And the brakes getting taken off of stem cell research also, when I heard about it, made me appreciate aspects of the previous administration in a way I hadn’t before. When the news came out that Obama was going to lift restrictions on stem cell research, I had recently been thinking about the implications of how the birth control pill works. I still don’t have a sense of how common this knowledge is: apparently, one of the three ways that the pill protects against childbearing is that it can prevent an embryo that’s been conceived from successfully implanting. Usually this mechanism doesn’t kick in, because usually the pill acts as a genuine contraceptive, but sometimes it does act as an abortifacient. I’d learned this a couple of years ago, but I was, right around the time that Obama reversed the stem cell legislation, finding out more about it, thinking it through more.
The way that I thought it through is very much influenced by Amherst—specifically, by Amherst’s decision to hire Edward N. Ney Professor in American Institutions Hadley Arkes, who, even before I started habitually thinking of human beings as being made in the image of God, convinced me that they are at the very least made in the image of other human beings, and that to deny humanity to one category of them is to threaten to deny humanity to all.
I don’t know whether or not personhood begins right at conception. I really don’t; it might not; I hope it doesn’t. It seems like a frighteningly huge question to be uncertain about, but I have gone back and forth on the issue, philosophically. My internal debate has revolved around whether personhood begins at conception or not many days afterward. What seems utterly absurd is to think that personhood—the quality that we acknowledge makes someone “someone”—begins at birth. Why then? What would make us say that that is the crucial point at which someone gets to join the human community, gets to matter in our eyes? Why not when the cord is cut, or when the kid is named, or when he’s weaned?
But I do know that the history of denying personhood when it is self-evidently there is not a pretty one.
It took us as a country 87 years to overturn the denial of personhood to one category of people. A huge part of what was so wonderfully celebratory about the Obama inauguration was our sense that that denial of personhood is now almost totally done for. So one thing that I did take out of all the happy-happy around the inauguration was the hope that that kind of a reversal is possible, that someday we really may be a country that sees value in the lives of all its people—not just those with white skin, and not just those who already happen to be born.
I’ve talked a lot about how my ideas have changed since college. Among the ideas that have changed the most are my ideas about what an Amherst education means. And this is one of the places where I had to completely leave Enlightenment liberalism behind and embrace something that is either so conservative it’s completely foreign or so obvious that it will sound totally trite.
Here it is: I no longer buy the idea that higher education is a kind of apotheosis—that you are supposed to justify your existence by getting a bachelor’s degree.
It is so great that Amherst offers opportunity to kids who are poor or from un-fancy high schools and un-fancy families but who have the potential to become this amazing cultural product—an Amherst graduate. It is so great that after this recent election, we can really say that skin color cannot bar you from becoming president. It is great that we are coming closer and closer, as a school and as a country, to being a genuine meritocracy. People should have the opportunity to fulfill their potential, whatever exactly that means.
But even if someone doesn’t have a lot of potential in the sense that we usually define it, and even if that person doesn’t make use of the potential that he has, he is still valuable, just as valuable as both a rich person born to privilege and a poor person who gets an Amherst degree. Even if someone is massively damaged by nature or nurture and never completely heals, that person is still infinitely valuable. If we don’t believe that, if we don’t believe that our value comes from being made in God’s image and being valued by Him, then our spiritual life is a meritocracy and all our moral argumentation revolves around meritocratic assumptions. Without this belief, a major argument against abortion might well be weakened. And to the degree that it is weakened, we also weaken any argument that would protect our own right to life if we don’t have a great potential or if we don’t live up to the potential that we have. And so we will spend our lives doing what Amherst students, conservative and liberal, are really, really good at doing: trying to prove, with our accomplishments, that we’re not phonies, while being deathly afraid that we are. Until we’re willing to see value in every human person, no matter that person’s race or intelligence or degree of development, we’ll never be able to leave that fear behind.
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Susannah Black (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Northampton, Mass., and works for an educational publishing company, writing teacher certification tests. This article is adapted from a talk she gave over Reunion weekend last spring.
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