I was seventeen when Ayn Rand captured the hearts of my best friend, Sven and his other male friend. “We’re libertarians,” they proclaimed proudly, though I had no idea what that meant. When I asked, they responded that I ought to read Atlas Shrugged, because it would open my eyes to the Way Politics Really Were. They also told me that it was a philosophy based on individual liberty and reduced government interference. I said I supposed I was a libertarian, too, then. But I never read the book.
I didn’t think I was interested in politics at all. After all, watching C-SPAN was not the highlight of my afternoon, the way it was for them. In the no man’s land that is trying to find a job before turning 18, taxes were the furthest thing from my mind. I knew that the government was an evil, parasitic entity that would eventually sell itself to the Pope and commission the army to exterminate True Believers just before the Rapture. But I didn’t seek out that knowledge, or any other knowledge. Somewhere along the way, I’d picked up the idea that politics were a male game that could not possibly be interesting to me, a girl. I also heeded my pastor’s repeated warnings not to get involved in politics, because the secular realm was “Satan’s kingdom” and there was no point trying to change the system.
We were not dominionists. We were premillennialists of the most extreme sort: “The world is going to hell, so let it. We’ll be gone soon enough anyway, and then it will all burn up.”
Despite this, and despite my constant attempts to change the subject, I ended up in lots of conversations with my libertarian friends. And this was how I learned that I wasn’t actually a libertarian or apathetic. The conversations below are paraphrased, because it’s been too long for me to remember them word for word:
On affirmative action:
- Sven: We should repeal affirmative action. I got turned down for a prestigious scholarship because they needed more black people for their quota. It’s not fair. It rewards people who don’t work as hard just because they’re minorities.
- Me: But if two people are equally qualified and there are already lots of white guys in the program, doesn’t it make sense to offer the spot to the one whose background made it less likely for him to achieve as much as he already has?
- Sven (impatient) : But that’s not what happens. They need to meet racial quotas so they just let in whoever applies. Meanwhile, guys like me work our butts off for nothing.
- Me: Do you need the scholarship, though? Aren’t your parents paying for college? If no one in my family could afford college and I was passed over for a guy who really didn’t need it, even though we had the same scores, wouldn’t that be worse?
- Sven: It should be about merit, not need.
- Me: But what if you’re poor and you had to work second shift while making sure you have good grades in school? What if you had to take care of your brothers and sisters because your parents were sick? If someone like that has a 3.95 grade point average and the white guy who never had to do any of that has a 4.0, I would think the first guy had more merit than the other one. Part of affirmative action is to help minority children get into college despite having statistically poorer parents.
- Sven: Anybody could make up a story like that. We need concrete proof like GPA because otherwise anyone could tell a sob story about their dying father and get a scholarship, even if they were lazy. Everyone needs to compete on a level playing field.
- Me: But not everybody gets to start on a level playing field.
- Sven changes the subject.
- Sven: People on welfare are just lazy and don’t want to get a job. If we got rid of welfare, they would have to take personal responsibility.
- Me: Welfare doesn’t pay very much. Why would they do that?
- Sven: Because they feel entitled and just want a hand out. And they scam the system so they can get more money than they’re supposed to.
- Me: What if they can’t get a job, or they’re sick, or they’re a stay-at-home-mom whose husband left her, like mine?
- Sven (uncomfortable): Well, I don’t mean people like you. The church should take care of people who really need help.
On gender equality:
- Sven: Straight white men are the most discriminated against group in America. (He would absolutely have agreed with this opinion piece on Yahoo arguing that “straight white men are the new minority.” In fact, he pretty much said everything in that article to me privately.)
- Me: (Too speechless to express my disagreement.)
On the purpose of government:
- Sven and his friend: Government should be pared down to just the military and basic things like drivers’ licenses and birth certificates.
- Me (very naively, I know): I think the government has three responsibilities: providing basic infrastructure, health care and education.
- The guys: Not defense?
- Me (having never seriously thought about the military at this point): I’m a pacifist. (Which I’m not, really. But I do still stand by those three things: I believe that patriotism means looking out for our fellow Americans’ wellbeing, not popping missiles at whoever steps on our lawn.)
Sven, a libertarian, believed in equality of opportunity. For him, this meant getting rid of laws that discriminate based on race and sex. That was the beginning and end of it, because, for Sven, the government had no business meddling in employment or education decisions as long as it wasn’t openly discriminating. Sven believed that all services should be privatized and that charities would pick up the slack of welfare for the worthy poor.
I, thinking I was a libertarian, readily agreed with him on the premise of equality of opportunity, but had strong reservations about the simplicity of his solution. I knew that I was starting out in life at a disadvantage. When Sven bought a car (his parents matched the money he saved), I was contributing to our rent and our shared car was repossessed. When Sven decided to go to our state college, he knew that his parents would help cover the gaps in his scholarships. They would also pay for him to rent an apartment off campus so he wouldn’t have to have a worldly roommate. I entered college knowing that I had two considerations to balance: the cost of loans over time (there was no way my parents could cover the gaps), and the tuition-quality ratio of the school I went to. I needed enough academic quality to have a good shot at grad school, and enough student aid to cover the expense. In the end, I went to a small liberal arts college, which got me into two prestigious graduate schools but left me with massive debt.
When Sven went to work, he found himself promoted to front-end manager of his retail store within a year. I elbowed my way into the customer service desk position (of the same chain), a slight raise. Although customers could be jerks to both of us, I am pretty sure that nobody publicly masturbated to Sven at the register. Although I wouldn’t have called myself a feminist at the time (for fear of being burned at the stake!), I was aware of the way that people looked up to Sven everywhere, while they looked down at my tits.
When I’d been in college for a few years and found my voice, I began to articulate better the ideas I had already hashed out in my arguments with Sven. I never self-consciously changed my voter registration or thought in party terms, though I did try to help vote out Bush in ’04, my first presidential election. Yet when I came home on break to have dinner with my parents, I was thrown by a comment by my father:
“You’ve been brainwashed by those bleeding heart liberal college professors of yours.”
I stared at him. I hadn’t changed my position on issues of poverty and structural inequality at all. I had simply learned to talk about them using the appropriate terms.
“You’re a feminazi now,” he joked. And then he proceeded to lecture me on free-market economics… as though I hadn’t spent my whole youth listening to conservative Christian radio, watching the conservative news with him, debating with my libertarian friends, or hearing periodic rants from him and from the pulpit about the Democrats being salivating sex fiends addicted to abortion who want to set up a nanny state and turn the whole world gay, then urinate on the cross and shoot Christians.
It was surreal.
College didn’t “make me a liberal.”
I didn’t even know I was one until other people vindictively attached that label to me. Lived experience of poverty and sexism, and empathy with racial minorities (and, eventually LGBTQ people) had made me “liberal.” All along, though, I just thought I was being a good Republican! I thought that we were the party that believed in equality of opportunity, and I just wanted to help make that imaginary level playing field become reality. I wanted to fix the problem of unequal starting points – children born into situations that work against their advancement – before I started even thinking about taxes.
But hell, maybe I don’t even remember this properly after all my brainwashing. 😉
Happy Independence Day!
Check out these related posts by Libby Anne: