So it says on my Facebook profile, and it seems to be a good place to start as any with the PoliBlog and the LifeBlog — aim for a statement of purpose as such. That said I don’t think I have a coherent political philosophy as such, rather specific leanings and general beliefs — and frankly, I’m glad of that, and glad of being able to act upon that in a society which allows for it.
But this is not a place to hymn the American system of a democratic republic (a system loaded from the start and only rectified and improved with aching slowness at points, extreme violence at others). I’d rather go over where I stand as clearly as I can, with a large caveat at the start: much of my knowledge and many of my conclusions are conditional, rely on predetermined attitudes and can be governed by whim. Personally I think this drives the vast majority of people’s conclusions on anything political (and much else if not everything else besides it), and this is not to criticize — the divide in terms of ideals and realities is something so patently axiomatic that while it can and has been discussed to death that I do not choose to spend time on it at present. So with that said, some background:
I was, simply put, a child of privilege. I do not mean I was raised in upper-crust surroundings or nouveau riche ones either. But in the grand scheme of things, especially given how the vast majority of people in the world, in history, live lives of, at best, constant worries about how to at least get by, I did not want. I am the product of a combination of fortuitous circumstances — a loving family to start with (something I have always tried my best not to take for granted — the few problems or concerns of my youth were so utterly banal and typical in comparison to the horrors some friends of mine lived through that they’re not worth talking about), financial prudence on the part of my parents (a stable and high paying job on the part of my dad via a thirty year Navy career after graduating from Annapolis, wise investing, a good sense of how to build their overall worth, sound financial advice from a high school friend of my dad’s who still advises my folks — their own personal Warren Buffett! — and the example and eventual inheritance from my dad’s folks in particular, my grandpa being a guy who started off with very little in the Great Depression and ended up a well-established local businessman with many other interests in Carmel, California), and no heart-shattering tragedies or events to disturb this solid state of affairs (for instance, my dad’s Navy service in the sub fleet was a pretty darn secure job, and a comparatively safe one during the Vietnam era in particular, while my sister’s terrible plunge at Honolulu Airport when she was two that only resulted in a small bruise is, in retrospect, the luckiest break all of us ever had, and I am thankful of that to this day).
What this ultimately meant was a fairly stable cocoon to grow up in — moving around when growing up may have been destabilizing to others in my situation but I treated it as the norm rather than as the historical aberration it is (and to learn that home is not a specific place, but simply where you are at) — and at large I can only think this meant an initially unconscious vesting of myself in ‘the system,’ whatever it might be termed or considered to be. It was hardly Siddhartha shielded from the woes of the world but it might have been close to it — and I still remember in particular the sharp words from a history teacher of mine on Coronado near San Diego [Coronado being the 'ultimate suburb' as I still see it -- literally an island in San Diego Bay, but a million miles away in so many different senses] saying that, quite frankly, those of us who had had the fortune to grow up there for at least part of our lives did so likely unaware of just how good we really had it, and how our attitudes had been shaped as a result. And he was quite right, still.
So I benefited from that to start with, and then more so with the example of my parents in particular. It is wrong to say, simply, that my dad was to the right and my mom to the left, though that’s the easiest way to describe them if absolutely necessary. Cue all the sitcom-style jokes too if you like, and I’m sure there were plenty of them back in the sixties when they met (“he’s an ambitious young Naval lieutenant; she’s a liberal-arts college grad teaching grade school — can they get along in the SUBURBS?”). They were and are both thoughtful folks who follow the news and deeper discussions thereupon as they choose to — in a more mass media sense than, say, subscribing to magazines like Harper’s or the like, but this is no sin, I feel — and growing up I was regularly exposed to their sometimes intense discussions on the state of the world as a regular feature of dinner, especially since by the time I was really picking up on them all my dad had reached a state in his career where he was spending more time overseeing ships and squadrons rather than being out on a boat for long stretches of time.
Intense, often argumentative — but NOT, I should note, outraged or bitter or angry. And for this I am also very grateful, because while I have hardly always adhered to this style of discussion since those times, my parents set my sister and I an example of how intelligent, dedicated people can debate detailed questions on many subjects (politics to be sure, but religion, philosophy and more besides) without turning them into ad hominem attacks or using them as a vehicle for deeper antipathies. The full specifics of all those conversations are now lost in time for me — many of them were about issues of the moment long since settled or else were so abstract to me that I did not always notice them as they were discussed. But the example remains strong and I am reminded of it still whenever I go home to Carmel for a visit and similar discussion crops up again — not always as often, perhaps, but still often enough.
Also clear to me was how views can modify over time, or rather, how handy labels at one point in one’s life might not be so satisfying or accurate later on. So, again, using the oversimplistic example above, my dad can be seen as to the right — but it’s far more complex than that. My father was and as a strong patriot and always has been — as I have said many times before, I think it took a special kind of dedication and courage in the late fifties to consider the military as a course for future life, when the Cold War and nuclear paranoia was well entrenched and there was no sense of how the future would truly play out, and when World War II was just within my dad’s youngest memories. In the eighties, generally speaking, my father was a strong Republican — he felt Reagan and his team offered the best approach in terms of national security and the military, and has not changed his viewpoint on that.
At the same time, however, much of what went with the GOP at that time irritated him greatly. A strong environmentalist in a classic Sierra Club sense (he is still an active hiker and is working on a goal to have hiked the entire John Muir Trail while his health is good), he felt James Watt’s goals as Secretary of the Interior were often revolting, and was quite pleased when Watt’s bad attempt at a diversity joke led to his resignation. Meantime, the influence of the religious right also grew to irritate him the more open it became — an engineer by training at the Naval Academy, and later in life a teacher of math and science for high schoolers, he is also a man of deep and considered faith, but finds the know-nothing attitude of so many creationists and similarly minded obscurantists an absolute plague. I also remember towards the end of the eighties when he asked me once what I thought about the war on drugs, and while the exact parameters of our talk aren’t in my head, I recall being intrigued that my dad clearly was somewhat disenchanted with ‘just say no’ simplicities, which had never had much of an impact on me at all.
There are other examples, and time has shown me that a lot of what I thought were standard positions for a general political group to hold aren’t always what everyone thinks in them (Milton Friedman’s own stern rejection of the war on drugs as such being a classic example). But as well, I noticed my father’s own conclusions on what would be the best path for the country leading him to make decisions that sometimes surprised me, but only because I had been limited enough to expect him to always act to a predetermined type rather than understanding that he was an individual, not a stereotype. So for instance his voting for Perot in 1992 might be seen as slightly quixotic, but also a reflection of an accidental but striking personal connection — Admiral James Stockdale, Perot’s (very unfairly derided, I feel) running mate, was a neighbor of ours of long standing across the street in Coronado, a man who my father greatly respected and who I have only the fondest and best memories of in turn. And it wasn’t the first time either my parents had bucked a trend — my mom had voted for John Anderson back in 1980, for instance.
But my surprise was great when I discovered that both my dad and I had voted for the same person in 2000 — namely, Ralph Nader. Now, there are things about Nader’s positions that I’ve taken on board since which causes me to look at him a bit askance now, but such was my choice at the time — Bush was of utter disinterest to me as has been every GOP candidate since I could first vote, while I was generally disenchanted by Gore. But the idea that my dad voted for Nader was an utter surprise to me. However, as he said, “Well, I looked at Gore, liked some of his positions, looked at Bush, liked some of his positions, but found myself agreeing with Nader most of all. So I voted for him.” In that simple but to my mind essentially correct decision — vote for the person that you agree with the most, if you yourself are not a candidate — my dad was able to reconfirm an essential lesson I’d already learned from both my folks, in different ways and contexts.
My dad now describes himself as much more to the left — or probably more accurately, to the center — than ever before. Carmel’s congressional district has regularly returned Democrats for many years; both my folks were very impressed with Leon Panetta while the current representative, Sam Farr, is as my mom says ‘one of the good guys,’ and my dad supports him no less strongly. When we talked over the state of things in 2004, my dad felt that Kerry talked far more sense than Bush on Iraq and the military, and time has only reconfirmed that horrific fact. Other instances could be brought to bear, and as he’s said a few times, he feels that having left the military did have a quiet impact on how he judged certain issues, not an automatic trade but one that did lead to various clear changes in his thinking.
But perhaps the most dramatic illustration of how my dad’s viewpoints have changed, and how others regarded it, came with a visit from the guy who inspired my name. A fellow named Ned was one of my dad’s best high school friends, who in much later years eventually settled in South Africa, married a woman there and has since thrived. A couple of years back he was visiting his hometown with his wife (a very cool person, it must be said) around Christmas, and so I had the chance to meet him for the first time as he and his wife visited for dinner. As the evening went on, it became clear to me that Ned was, not to put too fine a point on it, very much to the right — almost uncomfortably so at points, where it was less a question of what political side he was on as it was simply something more than a little extreme. Now, I don’t want to completely demonize him — he’s a friendly enough fellow, and the ties with my dad in particular are deep ones now decades old. Still, it was a bit disconcerting, and perhaps we all have our own examples to draw on.
So it was with (hopefully only) internal delight to notice something later on that evening that completely flabbergasted Ned. I forget how it came up, but somehow discussion turned to questions of local politics and the like, and so Sam Farr’s name was mentioned. The exact exchange escapes me, but my dad mentioned about how he was a strong Farr fan, that he felt Farr had the best interests of the district as a whole in mind, and that he had found him a very personable sort as well the times they’d met. The look on Ned’s face when he took on board that my dad had not only voted for a Democrat but had happily done so a number of times can only be described as total shock — I’ve rarely seen someone look so utterly sick at heart, confused and horrified at the same time.
On the one hand I had to feel sorry for Ned a bit — as I’ve just noted, schadenfreude is an admitted and unfortunate pleasure of mine but it’s easier to deal with in the abstract rather than face to face, and I’ve no doubt I wouldn’t want to be gloated at if the roles were reversed. (And I should say my dad wasn’t gloating at all — he was perfectly composed and explanatory, the gentleman he always has been in life, and was not trying to score any points; if anything, if he thought of it as some sort of game to be played, he would immediately refuse to play it.) On the other hand, though, it was clear that Ned had let his viewpoints overwhelm the core of friendship, at least on this particular point at that point in time — it was a lesson that, I think, had to be learned, should be learned. I would hope for myself that my own friendship with someone else who made what might to me seem a radical or horrifying change would still ring true — an easy wish when it has been so rarely tested so far, I should note. But it was the lack of something radical or horrifying in my dad’s decision and explanation thereof which was clearest to me, and so Ned’s shock was all the more striking to me, and perhaps, more than anything else, meant I had the greater shock in the end — that such utter seriousness in Ned’s face, with the hint of the depths beneath, if only a hint.
And I could go on, but what has been the upshot of it all in my own political decisions and philosophy, with this backstory and history? Well, as noted, I am invested in the system, and that includes the political system — a regular, constant voter, I have to my knowledge never missed an election, even a special one on one issue or office, since I was first able to regularly vote after 1989. My own consideration of all the civics lessons and sense of being a citizen and more means that my view of the system is, ultimately, more positive than not — that there is something precious to be had in the act of voting, that to surrender it is to surrender some part of oneself, and that some level of awareness and commitment to issues and things greater than oneself is necessary. It is a perhaps dangerous complacency I have encouraged in myself as a result, as my life goes on and examples of abuse or undermining of this system move more into play, but it is still core.
Generally speaking, meanwhile, I lean left. My reasons for doing so are not always well-articulated, but I think they rely on certain core beliefs that the left as a general, amorphous term in the past few decades are more invested in — an attack on institutionalized racism and (hetero)sexism (and therefore support for everything from legal abortion to gay marriage and much more besides), a bulwark against theocratic impulses on the part of a religious right that finds its heretofore privileged position threatened, a feeling that unrestrained capitalism is a serious mistake and that the overt or covert embrace of libertarian stances is an attitude of utter, horrifying selfishness, a criticism of the military-industrial complex as tool to be wielded at the sole discretion of the Executive Branch, a rejection of ‘law and order’ attitudes in favor of addressing root causes (part and parcel in my case with a rejection of the death penalty, full stop) and so forth. More could be added, and much more could be said about caveats, examples of failings on the part of the establishment left to work on these goals as clearly as they could, and much more besides. I am well aware of all these considerations; nonetheless, given the current historical circumstances and the way that these issues have generally been addressed between points on the political spectrum, it is clear to me that I favor the left. Most of my voting has reflected this.
I am not, however, a member of the Democratic Party. I am not a member of any political party, I never have been. I refuse to join one. I do not wish to be identified specifically and solely as a party line candidate, I have a horror of doing so. In my choices and decisions, I consider conclusions that do not always match with the supposed profile generated with the descriptions above. I do happen to support a ‘strong military,’ though obviously I have certain personal reasons for doing so; I do not however regard the military as above criticism in the slightest and find the overt worship of it among many not in it as galling, a hyperpatriotism that acts as guilt complex from those who will not or dare not serve. In various local elections, given where I live in Orange County, I sometimes have to choice between candidates who differ very little on certain points that are many ways quite opposed to mine; this being the case, I do not withhold my vote but select who I feel would bring the most professional ability to the job as I have been able to determine it. The endorsement of a particular local initiative or statewide proposition by members of either party is not an immediate signal for me to support or reject — I can, and have, put much thought into particularly divisive ones in the past.
And so forth. Ultimately lurking behind this is a point of view that comes not from my dad but from my mom — what I consider to be a healthy, necessary cynicism. This post is long enough as it stands so I’ll spare you a full breakdown of her stances, but I would say I have gained from her a suspicion of claims, a desire to read and consider and reflect on who supports something and, more to the point, why. To my mind this has translated into the other half of the equation — if I unconsciously venerate the democratic republic that the US government has put into play as a model, I unconsciously suspect nearly every politician, every pressure group, of an agenda that isn’t always clear, of a desire for power that could turn very ugly. And power for its own sake is a disturbing thing no matter the context — it takes a certain mindset to confront its implications on all levels, from the personal to the vastly impersonal. And the mere act of saying or recognizing it, as I do here, does not elevate one out of the potential trap, nor excuse one’s actions down the line.
In that sense, if, as I’ve said before, the American experience is an experiment that has never been guaranteed of success, then my feeling at heart is that I vote and act to ensure that the least possible damage is done on the widest possible scale, no matter how many decades certain standards have been in play (and often precisely because those standards have been in play — it is still less than a hundred years since something seemingly so patently obvious now, the right for women to vote, was confirmed nationwide). Things must be done to improve the general lot, of that I have a firm belief — even as I feel one must be rigorous in ensuring those actions done to improve it are carried out to the best possibility there is. Resting on laurels is a poor state of affairs — one should be clear, as much as time and desire and commitment allow it, to be honest about what could be addressed, whether one is a youth or in old age. The experiment is ongoing, so should one’s commitment to participating in it.
And with this rushed conclusion I end this particular statement of my stance at this point in time. I have not said all I could and find more than a few things said in it too simplistic, too obvious. But they are the best that I could hope for, for now. I hope it captures where I am now, at 36 years of age, having seen much already in life and with strong concerns about the future. We will all see what collectively happens next.