The other day I received an e-mail from a stranger posing two questions that have been on my mind for some time; thus his message seemed uncannily personal.
"I was curious," the writer said, "if you have ever looked at your political 'apostasy' and wondered whether, if circumstances had been different -- if you had not been involved with the Panthers or if your friend had not been murdered by them -- you would still be a Marxist today. Was your apostasy a result of an inexorable intellectual development, or were you forced into your second thoughts?"
In one form or another, this is a question just about everyone gets around to asking. If circumstances had been different, would my life have turned out differently? It is a question as old as philosophy -- the puzzle of determinism and free will.
Not everyone, of course, experiences such a dramatic turning point in their lives as I did 25 years ago when the Black Panthers murdered Betty Van Patter. But we all can identify choices or decisions that changed our lives, moments when we suddenly set out on a new course. Each time these kinds of changes occur, they raise the question: Are they essential to our being, or only secondary to who and what we are?
In my case, I simply don't know whether the intensity of my ideological transformation would have been the same had it not been provoked by an act of criminal brutality committed by my political allies and friends.
But I am confident that the change would have come, in any case. I have many friends and acquaintances who had similar "second thoughts," in which they found themselves rejecting the ideas and understandings that motivated them when they were young, and I have no reason to suppose it would have been different for me.
In fact, one of the first pieces I wrote about the incident that changed my political life was an article called "Why I Am No Longer a Leftist" in 1986 in the Village Voice. It drew explicit parallels between the crime the Panthers had committed and the much larger, more famous crimes that the left itself had committed, and that had caused people like me to reconsider our beliefs.
As a leftist I had developed habits of mind that caused me to look at "classes" rather than individuals, at social structures and paradigms rather than events and personalities that could be viewed as incidental or unique. This outlook led me to analyze my own awakening to decide whether it was a characteristic or merely a contingent event before I could allow its lessons to affect my outlook as a whole. In the article I wrote for the Village Voice, as in my memoir, "Radical Son," I attempted to make that analysis.
The personal impacts in my case were extreme. Nobody who knew me then and knows me now has failed to notice the differences in my life. The trauma of this murder and betrayal it represented had a profound effect on me, and made me a different person than I otherwise might have been.
It was the pain that caused me to change. Every day, after Betty's murder, the pain spoke to me: "You cannot stay in this place. If you don't move, you will die." It's fear that normally keeps us in our personal grooves. But now I was caught between that fear and a force that proved greater than fear. It was pain that inspired me to overcome inertia and escape what I felt was spiritual death -- that caused me, in the end, to change.
My e-mail interlocutor's second question was unexpected, and even more perplexing than his first: "Do you ever feel that you are wasting your breath? Do you think that truth will ever matter? No matter what you prove or disprove, in the end the truth will remain in the shadows of what people want to hear and want to believe."
I agree more than I care to with this observation. It is the human wish to be told lies that keeps us as primitive morally and socially as we are. But stoic realism is, after all, what being a conservative is about. It is about accepting the absolute limits that life places on human hope.
One could define the left as just the opposite. The obstinate, compulsive, destructive belief in the fantasy of change in the hope of a human redemption.
I have watched my friends on the left, whose ideas created an empire of inhumanity, survive the catastrophe of their schemes and go on to unexpected triumph, ignoring the ashes of their ideological defeat. Forced to witness the collapse of everything they had once dreamed of and worked to achieve, they have emerged unchastened and unchanged in pursuit of their destructive illusions. And they have been rewarded for their misdeeds with a cultural cachet and unprecedented influence in the country most responsible for the worldwide defeat of their misguided hopes.
I cannot explain this dystopian paradox except by agreeing with my interlocutor that politics is indeed irrational; and that socialism is a wish as deep as any religious faith. I do not know that the truth must necessarily remain in the shadows, as he writes. But I am persuaded that a lie grounded in human desire is too powerful for mere reason to kill.