How Obama’s College Turned Me Into A Conservative

How Obama’s College Turned Me Into A Conservative

Discovering that much of what the Left proposes to aid poor and marginalized people ends up hurting them drove me away from leftist politics.
Ryan Hammill
By

During my sophomore year I argued with a friend in my dorm room about charter schools and private school vouchers. My private college had just hosted a prominent, left-wing educational activist, and after hearing him I set out to assail the evil, reactionary supporters of school choice. Yet for all my stated concern for the poor, why did I consider it such a threat for low-income families to have a choice about their children’s education?

Back in our posh suburbs, my parents had the means to enroll me in private school, but nevertheless chose to send me to local public schools—after all, they outperformed many local private schools. Meanwhile, my friend, a refugee from Eastern Europe (newly a U.S. citizen!) who suffered through mediocre public schools in Seattle, was too kind to rub my hypocrisy in my face.

This episode, which occurred back when I happily straddled that collegiate mish-mash of progressivism and radicalism—commonly expressed today in enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders—illustrates exactly what drove me away from leftist politics: Much of what the Left proposes to aid poor and marginalized people ends up hurting them.

At the time, however, the discourse fit the dorm room. That year, my roommates and I had unwittingly selected the room right next to Barack Obama’s old one. My leftist positions also fit Occidental College at large, where every school year brings a new protest movement as predictably as our picturesque Los Angeles campus brings film crews. Not only is our protest culture annually consistent; we also raise political correctness to astounding heights of inventiveness.

For example: while the name of the Arthur G. Coons administration building was not, in the end, actually changed, protests against the former college president’s last name resulted in the policy that college employees, including student tour guides, should refer to the administration building only by its initials. So I remain confused that protestors have yet to call for Occidental to change its own name, given its inherent, stigmatizing implication of the Oriental. I guess the undergraduates need to give Edward Said a closer read.

Indoctrination In Identity and Ideology

We at Occidental—or “Oxy,” as anyone who knows it calls it—are proud of having educated the 44th president of the United States. The shrine in the library is proof of this. That he left for the chillier climes of New York for the second half of his undergraduate career usually remains unspoken, although we do claim having hosted Obama’s political debut: a speech condemning South African apartheid, including a planned interruption by white “thugs” who hauled Obama off the stage in a bit of political theater.

Racial division has since become more complicated—there’s no longer a regime (in South Africa or America’s South) that explicitly affirms race-based discrimination. The sources of racial inequality are now more shadowy than Jim Crow’s intentionally discriminatory laws, and racism’s consequences more difficult to assess.

When I arrived at Oxy, I had accepted my overriding guilt from the “system,” but had not yet learned the intricacies of identity politics. Eventually, I learned I could be an “ally” in “the struggle” (although “accomplice” is now the term du jour). I especially learned that as a white, straight, cis-gendered Christian man I could never really understand the depth of the system’s oppressive nature, given my position of privilege.

More importantly, I learned the true task of the intellectual, although more from example than instruction. Our task as history majors—and in the humanities generally—consisted largely of pulling the veil of ideology off of a text, and exposing how that ideological veil disguised a text’s true intent to oppress, or conversely, to resist oppression (this method also applies to individuals, social movements, and more).

These two insights—oppressed people’s unique epistemological access into the nature of oppression along with defining the academic task as uncovering narratives of oppression and resistance—fused to impart a usually unspoken but often-felt authority to non-white, non-straight, non-male students to pronounce ultimately upon a text’s level of oppression. Numerous times a gay Latino student, say, would share his thoughts, and any student who had previously said something to the contrary would then reinterpret his argument to agree.

I more or less accepted all of this, although I tried to build a wall around my Christian faith to protect it from the winnowing fork of ideological criticism. Like maleness and whiteness, Christianity was definitively classed as an oppressive metanarrative, so I was never completely at ease. I had some limited evangelistic success in showing how Christianity could be a force of resistance to the system’s oppression, but in so doing, I inevitably accepted the other assumptions of identity politics and ideological criticism. Now I see this ontology and epistemology are incompatible with my faith.

Treating Minorities As Second-Class Academics

The first real cracks in my leftist commitment didn’t appear until a modern U.S. history course. Each student was required to discuss the reading before class in an online forum. As we read about Jane Addams and Jacob Riis, among others, a curious pattern emerged. Two students, one Latino and one black, seemed stuck. In every round of online class debate, they basically said the same thing: because Addams stripped immigrants of their ethnic identity, she was an assimilationist and therefore a white supremacist. Because Riis focused only on ethnic whites, he silenced the experience of people of color and was therefore a white supremacist.

The thing is, our readings almost always addressed those issues—they pointed out that the subjects of our study missed certain things and excluded certain people. In other words, they had limits. Despite this, these two students of color seemed deaf to the ideological critique already present in the essays we were discussing. They just reiterated it, but online, with all caps and exclamation marks. Meanwhile, the other students in the class acknowledged these critiques, and were interested in discussing the broader arguments of the essays. These other two students occasionally engaged, but usually only to press their points. They didn’t discuss so much as give virtual speeches.

Identity politics, I began to realize, while advertised as a tool of empowerment for oppressed people, hamstrings its supposed beneficiaries. Identity politics circumscribes their academic role into classroom activists who denounce oppressive ideology. To wade into interpretive subtleties would betray their ethnic or sexual communities.

But that leaves the game to students like me: “the oppressors.” An ideology designed to mitigate the privilege of white males ended up placing those students right back at the head of the table. Under the identity politics regime, minority students’ speeches won’t change in substance, thus there’s no reason to expect them to closely read a text. All they are expected to do is find the plausible oppression in the text to which their identity offers them special epistemological access.

Meanwhile, a white male like myself is expected to puzzle out the implications of a text from multiple perspectives, since we don’t have any handholds of oppressed identity we can use for our analysis. Thus, white males are held to a higher standard of scholarship, while other students are offered this easier, personal avenue of critique, an avenue that, for all its clarity, is hard to resist. These students, by not being held to the same standard, are treated as second-class academics.

Dorothy Day Betrayed

This particular U.S. history course not only revealed the bait-and-switch that identity politics visited on students from historically oppressed communities, but it also pulled back the curtain on what I’ll call my “Christian accommodationism.” In college I had been making an effort to show how Jesus’ denunciations of Herod and the temple elite and Paul’s affirmation of Jesus as Lord instead of Caesar made Christians allies—sorry, accomplices—to leftist radicals. But a chance conversation I accidentally overheard after class changed that.

We had been discussing Michael Harrington and his 1962 book “The Other America,” that era’s deeply influential documentation of poverty in the United States. Born into a Catholic family and educated by Jesuits, Harrington eventually became an atheist and socialist, but not before joining the Catholic Worker movement. Due to my own experience living with Catholic Workers in California, I did then and continue to hold deep admiration for Dorothy Day and her movement.

The professor’s explanation of the Catholic Workers’ voluntary poverty, however, mystified my classmates. After class, one student walked out of the building with our professor. By chance, I was walking right behind them.

“I don’t get this voluntary poverty thing,” the student said.

“It’s pretty strange,” the professor replied.

“It’s like you’re playing at being poor.”

“Yeah, it’s really patronizing.”

A banal, inconsequential exchange. They have almost certainly forgotten it. But for me, that conversation was like a meteor that knocked me out of my usual orbit. If Day, a former Communist and lifelong pacifist who spent her adult life living alongside the poor and protesting war, cannot satisfy the critics on the Left, what Christian can? If her example of self-emptying discipleship is not politically correct enough, whose is?

I realized the answer is “no one.” The scales fell from my eyes.

“Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is,” C.S. Lewis wrote. “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

All along, I’d been earnestly trying to convince the enemy combatants we were on their side. Really, I needed to be convincing them to come join our side. To be sure, this single conversation hadn’t been the whole ballgame, so to speak. My sense that, no matter how much Christianity sidled up to left-wing politics it would remain a bastard stepchild in the eyes of other leftists, had probably been building up for a while. But that conversation was the moment I finally allowed myself to see what I had blinked at before. I couldn’t call myself a leftist anymore.

All the Old Things

My realization that identity politics actually hurt the oppressed, along with my disillusionment that Christianity could really maintain an easy alliance with leftist politics, did not automatically make me a conservative. In fact, it made me feel alienated: Why was I in college? What did Christianity have to do with the liberal arts? Am I wasting my time here? Luckily, there was still a heretic at Oxy, and I found him in my senior year.

For the first time, I had a class concerned with things like beauty, truth, feeling, and transcendence.

“What’s going on in this painting?” the professor asked in our first class, showing us Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” A female student raised her hand. She answered that the figure on the right, holding the red robe, was trying to cover up Venus’ body and repress her femininity.

I sighed. Here we go again, I thought to myself. I’d already spent three years locating sites of oppression and denouncing colonialist narratives. Did I have to do it all over again, this time with Renaissance art?

“I actually don’t think that’s it at all,” the professor replied. “Look at the robe. She’s actually adorning Venus.” What?

Almost as if he had been fishing for that answer, the professor began his first lecture of the semester arguing for a way of looking at art that, instead of the “Joe-college method” (his term) that criticized literature and art based on power, actually paid attention to style and how style expresses ontology. For the first time, I had a class concerned with things like beauty, truth, feeling, and transcendence. It was the class I hadn’t known I needed.

More than Just Some Pears

Then we got to St. Augustine’s “Confessions.” I had read the “Confessions” once before in a freshman seminar at Oxy. That professor was a well-respected political theorist, but why he believed himself qualified to lecture on the “Confessions” is still beyond me. When we were discussing young Augustine’s theft of the pears, he threw up his hands.

Nothing in the text supports such vulgar reductionism, but many in the class took the professor at his word since he spoke from the chair of authority.

“I don’t really get why he’s so concerned about some pears,” the professor said. “Augustine seems really wracked by guilt, which is probably just him back-projecting his Christianity onto his childhood memories.” It probably had something to do with his mother.

Even as a freshman, that didn’t satisfy me. Nothing in the text supports such vulgar reductionism, but many in the class took the professor at his word since he spoke from the chair of authority. Although I wasn’t convinced of his neo-Freudian dismissal, I still didn’t know why Augustine spent six pages talking about some unripe pears. It is just as likely my professor was the one projecting.

Fast-forward to senior year. Once again, I was reading the “Confessions.” Once again, I was reading about the pears. But this time, instead of writing St. Augustine off as a self-involved, typically guilt-ridden Christian, our professor turned our eyes to the text. Doing so taught us that when you don’t understand a text—especially one regarded as classic—the problem might not be the text. The problem might be you.

“What was it, then, that pleased me in that act of theft?” Augustine asks. The pears were unripe and he had plenty good ones of his own. He and his friends just threw the pears to pigs right after they picked them. What was the point? Were they merely after destruction?

“Here was the slave,” Augustine says, writing about himself, “who ran away from his master and chased a shadow instead! What an abomination! What a parody of life! What abysmal death!”

When you don’t understand a text—especially one regarded as classic—the problem might not be the text. The problem might be you.

If God is the creator of all that is good, and if for God “evil does not exist,” then destruction for its own sake is monstrous because it is an attempt to undo, to negate creation itself. Evil, ultimately, is non-existence. The destroyer, of pears or dignity or life, effectively tells God: “I wish you had not created.”

At least other sins have the benefit of pointing, however tenuously, toward something good. Someone else might steal because gold and silver are beautiful—after all, God created precious metals. Covetous theft is a redeemable sin. It’s evidence that we need to get our loves in order. Love of destruction however, being a love of nothing, cannot be redeemed. There’s no life there—it is indeed an “abysmal death.”

In the “Confessions,” I encountered someone taking sin seriously. My freshman-year politics professor didn’t understand how a small sin could have cosmic significance—it had to be explained as sexual repression. But this time I saw Augustine’s guilt not as overwrought Christian shame-mongering, but as the proper response to the deadliness of sin.

People Who Really Experiment Find the Old Things Are True

By senior year, I had left Obama’s dorm for an off-campus house, where I lived with fellow members of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Around the same time I was reading the “Confessions,” I had the good fortune to find a friend’s copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book of letters, essays, and notes, “The Crack-Up,” left forgotten in my living room. Thumbing through it, I found this fragment: “You and Seth can be radicals and show your children how you look in the bathtub, because you’re both so good, but people who really experiment with themselves find out that all the old things are true.”

Perhaps the ‘sex-positive’ activists will one day, after having really experimented, come back around like Fitzgerald’s narrator: the pilgrim’s regress.

The fragment conveys so much: the utopian naiveté of radicals who trample on the good sense of tradition, and are convinced they are “so good” nothing bad could come of their experiments. It also expresses the hard-won realization of someone who has really experimented with herself, and found that the good sense of tradition, that old wisdom, was right all along.

It reminds me of the strident calls on Oxy’s campus to throw off the old constraints on sexuality and “really experiment” with yourself. We’re all so good. What could possibly go wrong? But Oxy has seen what goes wrong. The sexual assault charges, Justice Department lawsuits, news reports, and even a feature-length documentary have exposed it. So perhaps the “sex-positive” activists will one day, after having really experimented, come back around like Fitzgerald’s narrator: the pilgrim’s regress.

My long-suffering parents, who lived through my adolescent derision of their bourgeois lifestyles and conservative politics, managed to exasperate me in every political debate we had. I knew the argument was over when they said (and I would groan every time), “Well, Ryan, man is fallen.” For them, sin was (and is) the foundation of all sociology and politics. If you ignore man’s incorrigible sinfulness, your theory is worthless.

Coming across that Fitzgerald fragment summoned up all my memories of their stubborn insistence on original sin (though as Presbyterians they wouldn’t use the term). Augustine had revealed man’s fatal attraction to the metaphysical nothingness of evil 1,600 years ago, just as my parents had been telling me something even older: when God told Adam “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die,” God had been right—so don’t forget it.

Sin Means No Utopias This Side of Heaven

Edmund Burke praised his country’s “sullen resistance to innovation,” because it had helped Britons to remember that “no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born.” Pace Justice Kennedy, the mere passage of time does not confer upon us new dispensations to (re-)“define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era.”

Just as an architect ought to repair a Gothic church in keeping with its style, so every community should reform itself in keeping with its own tradition and history.

If sin is the most basic fact of social science, then utopia will never come, and no amount of “sex-positive” sexual education will get us there, no matter what Comedy Central’s John Oliver thinks. Wealth, knowledge, and freedom are good, but we are always, always capable of misusing them—and we always will.

Sure, we will gradually come to see certain things in a better light, at a different angle, but not in a new light. The light remains the same. Thus, Burke advises, “I would make the reparation as nearly as possible in the style of the building.” Just as an architect ought to repair a Gothic church in keeping with its style, and not with a modern steel and glass addition, so every community should reform itself in keeping with its own tradition and history.

That is, partly, what made Martin Luther King Jr. successful. He didn’t advocate a revolution that would tear up the Constitution—he appealed to it, as well as, crucially, to the biblical values of justice and destiny present in our national psyche since long before the American Revolution. In “The Abolition of Man,” C.S. Lewis makes a similar provision for reform: “From within the Tao [the ultimate good] itself comes the only authority to modify the Tao.” Merely sitting in the chair of authority, while holding no respect for the Tao, is dangerous, which my professor’s pronouncement on Augustine’s repressed sexuality amply demonstrates.

I wanted to see the past as clearly as possible; my professors and fellow students wanted to see through it.

During senior year, as I pored over the “Confessions” in class and chanced upon Fitzgerald at home, I began to understand why I felt so alienated from my readings and my classes. I had begun my history degree in order to understand the world by examining its past. I wanted to see the past as clearly as possible; my professors and fellow students wanted to see through it:

“Augustine was just repressed and in love with his mother.”

“‘The Birth of Venus’ is just a repression of femininity.”

I heard a story about a student sitting through a lecture on Wordsworth’s chauvinism. In the middle of the lecture, she raised her hand and asked, “Wouldn’t it be better if Wordsworth had never been born?” In reply, the lecturer just shrugged. They want to kill Wordsworth!

In the “Analects,” Confucius expresses precisely my own motivation for studying history, but in pithier terms than I could manage: “I am simply one who loves the past and is diligent in investigating it.” I felt so alienated at Oxy, I realized, because I loved the past. I didn’t want to kill it. I was, I realized, a conservative.

Two Views of the Root Causes

Radicals and conservatives agree on one thing: the solution to misery requires getting to the root of things. For radicals, this means overturning the institutions that uphold society’s most fundamental form(s) of oppression. For a Marxist, capitalism. For a feminist, patriarchy.

When the rule of law is paired with representative government, we’re protected from two tyrants: the dictatorship of absolute power and the dictatorship of absolute desire.

For conservatives, however, addressing the root means finding ways to constrain sin and cultivate virtue. That’s why conservatism can find an ally in republican government—no prince is immune to the temptations of power, although neither are the masses. Thus, when the rule of law is paired with representative government, we’re protected from two tyrants: the dictatorship of absolute power and the dictatorship of absolute desire. At the same time, we are free to form voluntary associations—synagogues, churches, and mosques, most notably—where we practice virtue together.

I do not mean to deny social sin. Taken together, we perpetrate evils that are uniquely structural and social. For example, lots of white people with no feelings of particular racial animus can still create and acquiesce to systems of administration and sociality that exclude and oppress minorities. But I am convinced that sin is nevertheless a personal problem. Race, actually, serves as an illustrative example.

In a world of mostly benign white people unintentionally excluding and even exploiting minorities (let’s call our example “the United States”), the white people are probably unaware of their implicit biases against black people. Whites in the United States—and I include myself—more quickly associate blackness with criminality, poverty, and lower education, if only on an unconscious level.

But even when we acknowledge our implicit biases (I recommend the Implicit Association Test on this score), we are largely incapable of rooting those biases out. It’s not so different, as Jim Wallis has suggested, from original sin: we can see it, we can acknowledge it, we can struggle against it, but left to our own devices, we’ll never actually get rid of it. So while we should certainly repair our institutions in order to diminish the aggregate effects of implicit bias, those reforms will never be enough.

Reform, progress, revolution—none of it will ever be enough. Perhaps I’m wrong about the implacability of racism in the United States (although I doubt it). About the implacability of sin, however, I’m as certain as I am about anything. G.K. Chesterton called it “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”

Until we are all united around the banquet table of eternity, we “groan inwardly” just as creation itself “has been groaning in labor pains until now.” Despite our groaning, despite the agony of a broken world, we should not strive for utopia. After all, Someone has already striven—for something much better. When He returns in glory, it will be far more radical than any Marxist could imagine. Until that time comes, we set about the task of repair, as nearly as possible in the style of the building.

That is why I am a conservative.

Ryan Hammill is a writer who hails from the San Francisco Bay area. He likes to find points of agreement in surprising places. Follow him on Twitter @RyanAHammill.

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