I submitted three articles to RewireMe.com as a series on conversion. “Rewired by Faith” and “When Gender is Rewired” both ran; I don’t believe this post on political apostasy, a subject that is dear to my heart, ever did. I am posting it here for your reading pleasure.
In politics as in religion, few are as zealous as converts. Whether it’s because they feel they have to prove themselves to their new comrades or because they have first-hand knowledge of the depravities that their ex-comrades were capable of, the grandest of Grand Inquisitors often turn out to be apostates.
Ex-leftists like Irving Kristol and Sydney Hook were at the vanguard of the so-called Neo-conservative movement in the 1960s. David Horowitz was a red diaper baby who once edited the New Left magazine Ramparts; today he shares podiums with Phyllis Schlafly, accuses Obama of being an extreme radical with an anti-American agenda, and has even called the anti-tax stalwart Grover Norquist a secret Muslim who has “infiltrated” the Republican Party.
Michael Alan Weiner earned his PhD in nutritional ethnomedicine from the University of California, Berkeley, named his son Goldencloud, and swam naked with Allen Ginsberg before he changed his name to Michael Savage and became a firebrand on right wing talk radio.
It goes the other way too. Former Nixon counsel John Dean, who served prison time for Watergate, would call for George W. Bush’s impeachment in 2004 and pen such books as Conservatives Without Conscience and Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches. David Brock, the creator of the press watchdog group Media Matters for America, began his political career as a right wing propagandist, breaking the “Troopergate” story in The American Spectator that inspired Paula Jones to file a sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton, and penning the book The Real Anita Hill, which slimed Clarence Thomas’s accuser as “a little bit slutty, a little bit nutty.” Brock would publically recant, first in an Esquire magazine article entitled “Confessions of a Right Wing Hit Man” and then at greater length in his book Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative.
Ariana Huffington campaigned assiduously for Michael Huffington, a Republican congressman and her then-husband, when he ran for the US Senate in 1994; by the early 2000s, she was an avowed progressive. Andrew Sullivan still calls himself a conservative, but he has been a strong supporter of Barack Obama and has become a relentless critic of the Republican Party. The jazz guitarist and software developer Charles Johnson ran a much-trafficked right wing blog called Little Green Footballs; in November, 2009, he announced that he’d “parted ways with the right” because of its “support for fascism,” “support for bigotry,” “support for throwing women back into the Dark Ages,” “support for anti-science bad craziness,” “support for homophobic bigotry,” “support for anti-government lunacy,” and more. Bruce Bartlett is an economic historian who served in the Reagan and Bush I administrations; after he wrote a coruscating book called Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy he was effectively blackballed from the conservative movement. Today he Tweets relentlessly about the obscurantism and racism of the “wankers” that have hijacked his old party.
I could go on pretty much indefinitely, but I think I’ve made my point. The kinds of apostasies that I’m talking about aren’t gradual and subtle, in the manner of a slow turning from the opinions and values received unquestioningly from one’s parents. Nor are they precipitated by a particular disagreement over policy or philosophy. It is almost as if each of these writers blew their circuits, and when the electrician came in to rewire them, he restored everything in reverse—what used to be the off position now turns the power on and vice versa.
When a person falls out of love, the former beloved becomes an object of disgust. When political activists join the other team, they tend to see their former comrades—their former selves—as irredeemably stupid and obdurate. The guilty knowledge that they themselves are being regarded in a similar light only intensifies their abhorrence.
But political conversions turn less on affections than values. Politics is not only like religion, for many people it is religion, or at least how they enact their spiritual values in the world. When those values are upended, it is a literally shattering experience for them. Whittaker Chambers’ Witness is no less anguished than the novels of Dostoevsky.
In 1949, Louis Fischer, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright contributed essays to a volume entitled The God That Failed, in which they recounted their disillusion with and rejection of Communism. Koestler’s description of his initial infatuation with Marxism makes the relationship between religious and political faith explicit:
To say that one had ‘seen the light’ is a poor description of the mental rapture which only the convert knows (regardless of what faith he has been converted to). The new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull, the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puzzle assembled by magic at one stroke. There is now an answer to every question, doubts and conflicts are a matter of the tortured past—a past already remote, when one had lived in dismal ignorance in the tasteless, colorless world of those who don’t know. Nothing henceforth can disturb the convert’s inner peace and serenity, losing thereby what alone makes life worth living, and falling back into the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.
For apostasy to not be a falling back, one must be convinced that that light one formerly experienced was really darkness—and that the angels with whom one previously soared were demons. But people who are inclined to couch things in absolutes, who believe that every question can be answered completely, may not need any convincing at all.
In the first article in this series, on religious conversion, I mentioned Dean Hamer’s idea that religious feeling was partially attributable to the action of monoamine neurotransmitters, which are involved in feelings of “self-transcendence.” Hamer defines self-transcendence as people’s capacity “to reach out beyond themselves—to see everything in the world as part of one great totality. If I were to describe it in a single word,” he adds, “it might be “at-one-ness.” “At-one-ness” is a concept that we associate with spirituality and mysticism, but it can also reflect a world-view that is monomaniacally dogmatic and judgmental–or at a paranoid extreme, that believes the world is ruled by secret powers. An affinity for singular explanations can be reflective of a susceptibility to totalism.
People of lukewarm sensibilities are more apt to fall away from their beliefs than shift them. Zealous converts were zealous before they were converted; along with their heat they had a certain volatility.