Wednesday, April 01, 2015

How I Stopped Being a Libertarian

My kid loves this story, and it occurs to me that I've never told it on the blog.

I grew up ignorant, y'all.

I don't mean just a little ignorant.  I mean, like, amazingly ignorant.  Louisiana ignorant.

As I often tell my students when I am teaching and we hit some huge gape in my knowledge-base (like the fact I didn't whether the Suez Canal was in Latin America or where the hell it was), "Hey, I was educated in Louisiana -- y'all are lucky I can read and write."

This is all by way of preface to explain how I happened to grow up both anti-feminist and Libertarian.

It's because I was, for so long, an autodidact.  My schools did not educate me.  They either tormented me with entirely useless knowledge -- trying to force me to memorize by rote data I had utterly no interest in (dates and facts about Louisiana history; how to spell various foreign capitols; the structure of a five-point essay, oh my hell, I get sleepy just thinking about it); or they shouted at me for sins I could not help (I was poor and badly dressed and badly socialized); or they ignored me.

When they left me alone, I retreated to the world that comforted me: books and writing.  I started reading very early.

One of my early memories: my first grade teacher mocking me when I wanted to check a copy of Farmer Boy out of the school library.  She insisted that I didn't know how to read yet.  I insisted I did. Just read it to me then, she said.  I opened it and read the first page.  And then next.  And then next.  "All right, all right," she said angrily.

"Shall I let her check it out?" the librarian asked sweetly.

This is the same first grade teacher who smacked me in the head with my math book for reading a book during her math lesson, BTW.

ANYWAY: I spent much of my young years, in school and out, reading and writing.  But all this reading was entirely self-directed, because almost all of my teachers were just awful.  (I had a really good American History teacher.  And a really good French teacher.  And a semi-good Latin teacher.  But that's it.)  So I ended up reading just a boat-load of Conservative/Libertarian SF, because that's pretty much what was available in my sad little public library / school library. Lots of Heinlein.  Lots of Niven.  Lots of Pournelle.  Lots of Asimov.  Lots of Bradbury.  Lots of Henderson.

I also read Joanna Russ' The Female Man, mind you, and Ursula LeGuin and John Varley -- but overwhelmingly, I was being overwhelmed with Far-Right Libertarian fiction.

Though I managed somehow to avoid reading Ayn Rand (I do remember picking up her books and looking at them, especially that giant door-stopper Atlas Shrugged; I would say it was the awful writing that saved me, except, well, I read Pournelle, didn't I?  And Asimov is no fucking stylist, say what you will about him otherwise) I emerged at twenty years old an actual, yes, a really truly capital L-Libertarian.

One of those who, if there had been an internet then, would have been arguing with people on the internet about how obviously Libertarianism was the OBVIOUS best way for us to go!  How Voting Only Encourages THEM.  How Taxation is Theft.

All of it.

Oh, the arguments I made to (and at) my Liberal and Conservative friends.

Oh, how certain I was in my Virtue and purity.

Also, I read a lot of Libertarian tracts.  I mean books.

Left-leaning Libertarian, mostly.  I was steadily moving away from the Right all through this time.

I was also reading many more books, though, because I had gone on with my actual education.  I was finishing my BA, and then -- after that -- going on to graduate school.  I had good teachers, not the terrible ones I had had as a kid.  My reading was being directed, by professors who knew how to assign excellent texts.  My mind was being engaged by people and classmates who knew how to think and how to argue.  I was reading Octavia Butler; I was reading Jane Austen; I was reading George Orwell; I was reading George Eliot, and Plato, Tolstoy and Catullus, Tiptree and C.J. Cherryh and Virginia Woolf.

Then -- this is the part of the story my kid loves -- one day I was on a holiday trip with my family.  This was back when I still did that, went on vacations with my family.  We all rented a houseboat.  Uncles, cousins, nephews, me and my brothers, my parents, drifting around on the Buffalo Lake in Northern Arkansas.

And I'm standing on the porch of this houseboat, eating BBQ'd ribs, explaining Libertarianism to one of my uncles.  Telling him about being a Libertarian.  Because he'd asked, you know, so I have to give him the sermon: Why Being a Libertarian is Great.  Why EVERYONE should be a Libertarian.  Why Politics is a Lie.  THROW OFF YOUR CHAINS.

And so on.

Only, about two minutes into this speech, while I'm licking BBQ sauce off my fingers, thinking about the next sentence, it comes to me that I don't believe a thing I'm saying.  Good God, this is all bullshit, I remember thinking.  Why did I ever believe any of this?

I stood with the BBQ'd rib in my hand, staring out at the lake.  The sun was setting over it.  My old, grey uncle waited politely for me to finish.

"Oh, well," I told him.  "It's not really that interesting."

"Okay," he said.

"I'm going for a swim," I said.

"That sounds nice," he said, and I wandered away.

That's how I stopped being a libertarian.  I was 26 years old.

A little later -- maybe three years later? -- I started becoming a liberal.  And a feminist!

Never looked back.


jo(e) said...

Wow. What a story. I love that you had such a capacity to learn and change.

Anonymous said...

I adore how this story ends. Would that all our youthful ignorances could end with polite bbq and a swim!

delagar said...

It's why I have such enduring faith in my students, even when they seem so obdurate. I remember how young and ignorant I was, and how stubbornly I persisted in that ignorance -- and YET.

Change was happening, all along, underneath that hard little skull of mine. Theirs too, we can hope.

Anonymous said...

"dates and facts about Louisiana history; how to spell various foreign capitAls; the structure of a five-point essay"

Dude, I can imagine why anyone wouldn't be interested in history and stuff,
but knowing how to properly spell the names of foreign countries and their capitals, and knowing a few dates of your country's history is the minimum.

If one doesn't even know that, if one is that ignorant, then how can one be open-minded?

delagar said...

"Dude," if you can't understand why being forced to memorize dates without any context, the spelling of the names of countries and their capitals*, was pointless, then I can't help you.

As for the five-point essay, please. Someone should kill that motherfucker in a fire.

*Again, without any context -- what use was it to make me learn to spell Australia, when no one had bothered to teach me where Australia was, much less anything about it?