Every day I wake up with the same thought: "I used to be such a goddamned idiot."
I am a former Republican. And I wasn't merely the libertarian, live-and-let-live, fun-at-parties kind of conservative whose primary concern is balancing the budget; I was a spiteful, narrow-minded, fire-breathing paranoid lunatic who questioned the patriotism and morality of my liberal fellow citizens. Recognizing the error of my ways has done wonders for my mental health but left me with constant, unremitting remorse; I really want to go back in time and kick my own ass.
Surely I am not alone: Earlier this year independents sympathized with Democrats two-to-one over Republicans, whereas they were evenly split five years ago; a slim majority of young voters voted for Sen. John Kerry in 2004, but nearly 70 percent chose Barack Obama in 2008, the widest margin in electoral history. Traditionally people shift rightward as their bank accounts expand and their flesh wrinkles, but my generation is seemingly the first to move leftward with age.
Actually, I was a passionate liberal when I entered college in September 2001, and I initially resisted the GOP's post-9/11 fury and propaganda. I decried the suspension of habeas corpus and the 2003 Iraq invasion and feared for our country when dissent was equated with treason in the popular imagination. And then a few things happened:
• A handful of my friends joined the College Republicans. As our drunken nights accumulated -- with Fox News always in the background and a stack of vitriolic books cracked open -- I found myself questioning my assumptions. Craving the acceptance of my peers like any other insecure college kid, I gradually accepted their self-reinforcing groupthink, slowly but surely inching toward the Dark Side.
• A handful of my fellow campus left-wingers appeared to excessively sympathize with right-wing Islamists, rationalizing the violence of suicide bombers, for example, but refusing to criticize (on multicultural grounds) heinous civil rights abuses across the globe. The starry-eyed George W. Bush acolytes who called for the expansion-by-explosion of worldwide freedom -- despite opposing countless domestic liberties -- seemed righteous in comparison.
• A handful of my professors injected their utopian and hypersensitive politics into the classroom, calling for a "socialist revolution" and grading me poorly for using "heteronormative" language. Rebelling against their authority, as they had rebelled against conservative professorial authority in their student days, felt as natural as doing a keg stand at a fraternity party.
• A super liberal girlfriend dumped me, sparking my testosterone-fueled bitterness toward everything that reminded me of her, such as left-wing politics and basically all human females.
Very few people in their late teens and early twenties seek justice in moderation. The hormone-soaked college years are a time of extremes, our changing identities often defined by dissent-quashing affiliations, leaving us to later cringe at our frenzied "Goldfish Liberation phase," "Castrate the Phallusocracy phase," "Noam Chomsky phase" or "Ayn Rand phase." (Yes, I spent a summer vacation trying to finish reading "Atlas Shrugged," ultimately throwing in the towel around page 75,000.)
Much like our previous chief executive, I should have seen the danger of sealing myself in an echo chamber to prevent contamination from outside viewpoints; I began only hanging out with conservative true believers, only reading conservative books, only getting my news from conservative media outlets. In order to avoid journalistic "left-wing bias," I embraced right-wing bias, foolishly confusing sensationalist entertainment with debate and truth-telling. Outrage became my drug of choice.
There was no single moment when I transformed into an unhinged, raving authoritarian; propaganda works in repetition -- in accumulation -- and worldviews rarely change overnight. However, as your skepticism weakens, a new understanding of history develops. Whereas Liberal Me viewed America improving over time with the progression of civil rights and sexual liberation, Conservative Me viewed history as an unfolding catastrophe: In my mind, "socialist" handouts threatened our laissez-faire way of life, as if public roads/schools/libraries were no different than Stalin's gulags, and hedonistic decadence -- facilitated and encouraged by scheming left-wing nihilists -- threatened individual self-control. I mistakenly came to believe that America had not progressed toward justice but fallen from grace.
I railed in conversation and on my website against "freedom-hating hippies," "activist judges who overturn the will of the people," "pro-abortion feminazis," "Marxist Democrats," "elitist, so-called intellectuals," "greedy welfare queens," "environmental whack jobs" and other perceived bogeymen. I lost sight of grayscale and instead saw the world in black and white; I labeled Terri Schiavo's husband a money-hungry murderer for pulling the plug on his comatose wife, lumped all Palestinians together with the few terrorists among their population, uttered racial/sexual/ethnic slurs with a little too much enthusiasm for simple prurience and approvingly repeated Michael Savage's book title "Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder." I even argued that women belong in the home, not the workplace! (Now a self-employed author, I cook dinner for my girlfriend nightly and perform household chores -- groceries, laundry, dishes -- when she heads to the office. Truly I am a domestic goddess.)
My sudden transformation mystified my friends and family, many of whom tried to talk sense into me when they didn't outright disown me. Even my conservative father said I was going overboard. For example: wondering if my 90-year-old grandmother was a Commie for cashing her Social Security checks. In order to heed your inner Joe McCarthy, you must first squelch your inner conscience.
Strangest of all, I developed a finger-wagging puritan bent, which made absolutely no sense for a 20-year-old guy who was getting laid and intoxicated on a steady basis. I blamed "the anti-family Left" for encouraging couples to divorce and youngsters to fornicate, as if liberals were all conspiring together to destroy the traditional family, as if liberal states do not have lower rates of divorce and teen pregnancy than their conservative counterparts. My hypocrisy is mystifying in retrospect -- why would I bash sexual liberation while having sloppy drunken unmarried sex whenever possible? -- but perhaps conservative politicians such as John Ensign, Mark Sanford, David Vitter, Larry Craig and Newt Gingrich can explain.
You might imagine my moralizing stemmed from our cultural anxiety about sexuality, but it actually came from a longstanding need to position myself as superior to others; I got off on presenting my fellow millennials as pleasure-seeking, unthinking/unfeeling animals while my life had Truth and Meaning. It was incredibly self-righteous and self-congratulatory, and it was only about 50 percent accurate.
None of this would haunt me so deeply if I did not have a national platform to air my histrionic, uninformed opinions. However, I was uncommonly lucky for my age. In 2004 MTV/Pocket Books published my book "Generation S.L.U.T.," which described the anonymous hook-up culture among contemporary American youth and unleashed a storm of publicity. Although I am proud of the book's emotional nakedness (apart from its amateurish didacticism), the book's promotion is another story: In Salon, the New York Times, and countless other interviews (newspaper, radio, TV, blogs) I blamed the psychological turbulence of modern teenagers -- from wrist-cutting to school shootings -- on the 1960s feminist revolution. I sounded like a bitter middle-aged man; I even flattered the ultimate bitter middle-aged man, Bill O'Reilly, whom I asked to "be my friend" during a Fox News Channel appearance. (O'Reilly appeared confused by the request. For the record: I am friends with every Irish person, minus the nondrinkers, who do not exist.)
I completely understand why conservatives-turned-liberals such as Arianna Huffington and David Brock and liberals-turned-conservatives such as P.J. O'Rourke and David Horowitz spend decades walking back their youthful ramblings. When millions upon millions of people remember you for something that you no longer represent -- if you think they remember you anyway, which they probably do not -- the shame is unbearable, the desire for a time machine pathological. The temptation is to become an extremist in the opposite direction -- LOOK how much I've changed, everybody! -- which is hardly an act of maturity. The dilemma remains: You have evolved, yet the perception of you remains stuck in a misguided past. (At a recent literary event someone asked me, "Aren't you the guy who thinks women shouldn't have sex?" I'm misanthropic, yes, but willing to concede that humanity should probably reproduce.)
However, I might have never recovered from my right-wing fever if not for the controversy I caused. Readers sent me hate mail following a Salon interview with Rebecca Traister, in which I bashed feminism and articulated such thoughts as: "Men don't see women as clean and pure but as a means to an end, a nice little fuck-hole." One Salon reader even threatened my physical safety.
But middle-aged liberal psychologist Steve Edgell took another approach: calmly and gently talking me back to earth. Over the course of many e-mails and phone conversations, Dr. Edgell -- who had been an Ayn Rand junkie at my age -- explained the reasons for his own political evolution and guided me through the myriad inconsistencies of my rabid philosophy. Just as I was beginning to understand how unbalanced I had become, Edgell died of a heart attack. He did not live to see me completely return to planet Earth but must have known he had planted the seeds of doubt. I never met the man, and I don't necessarily agree with everything he believed, but I owe him my sanity. (He was an atheist, but I hope he is looking down from the cosmic void with amused satisfaction.)
Just as morphing into an extremist took a couple years, un-becoming an extremist happened over time. One by one I saw the flaws in conservative orthodoxy: attempting to fight terrorism with torture, which only aided our enemies' propaganda efforts and thus created more terrorists; seeking to liberalize the Muslim world while curtailing rights for gay people at home; criticizing public schools for lackluster results and therefore cutting funds further; disdaining the weak while never analyzing why they are weak; always seeing the effect but never the cause, which on a mass scale perpetuates the effect.
The 2008 financial crash further proved to me the necessity of an economic safety net within the market system; tying health insurance to employment suddenly made no sense, for example, when millions of people lost their jobs due to conditions beyond their control. Capitalism with a few safety pads -- or a condom, I suppose, since the recession has fucked us all -- is a far cry from a Marxian worker's paradise.
I am not an extreme leftist by any means -- I still dream of swimming in a vault of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, I would die to protect the First Amendment from censorial progressive overreach (the same goes for theocratic conservative overreach), and I would consider voting for moderate Republicans if any still existed -- but I've learned to see the big picture. It doesn't matter whether you are liberal or conservative, but it's dangerous to always think with exclamation points instead of question marks. Your stance on any particular issue is far less important than whether your worldview is a product of inquiry or incuriosity, whether you feel more comfortable questioning the crowd or blindly marching with it. No ideology has a monopoly on reality -- including my rediscovered left-wing politics.
No longer drunk on jingoism and bloodlust, I feel like a German in 1946, wondering what the hell happened to me, what the hell I supported when I harbored no doubt that we should "nuke 'em all" and measured people by standards other than their character. The years pass, but I cannot reconcile my former and present selves; in my early 20s I made the worst mistake of my life --injecting poison into a world that desperately needed the antidote -- and while it's impossible to undo that error, perhaps my penance is remembering and therefore not repeating it. Just as Dr. Edgell steered me back to the shores of lucidity, I can encourage mellowness in others -- no matter their cause -- and discourage the inevitable craziness that resentment and overgeneralization breed.
Paul of Tarsus, the most famous convert in history, commented long ago: "Even though I was once … a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief." I don't know if anyone, deity or human, will show mercy on me, but I will try to have mercy on myself, and -- even if I continue to fail -- maybe that's enough.