For me political choice is generally negative; prolonged exposure to the proponents of one set of dogmas tends to drive me into the arms of that dogma’s opponents. By the logic of this unpleasant via negativa, my upbringing in Utah County made me liberal; recent years in the ivory tower, on the other hand, have driven me right, although I’d continue to describe myself as a liberal-leaning moderate of the most unfashionable possible variety. Just a couple of my quarrels with the left: I think much of the sexual revolution was a misstep that has resulted in the widespread masculinization of sexuality–not a liberatory move for women, nor even for men–and I find our culture’s adolescent, pornographic view of sex both boring and exhausting. I also have reservations about a certain wholesale uncritical veneration of nature, ongoing now at least since that old wide-eyed hippie rake Rousseau. Sad though some of its consequences have certainly been, we as a species left nature behind about 10,000 years ago with the neolithic revolution, and I for one have no desire to go back. When well-meaning people earnestly inform me of the virtues of natural foods, natural fibers, and natural sources of energy, all I can think is that there’s nothing more natural than losing all of one’s teeth to chronic malnutrition, dying in agonizing childbirth approximately nine months after achieving puberty, or losing multiple family members to epidemics of cholera or the plague. Hooray for the thoroughly artificial health technologies of our culture. Not so interested in subsisting for long periods of time on berries and bark scrapings, myself.
But to get more to the point: one afternoon last year I was hanging out in the T.A. office pretending to read Slavoj Zizek (emphatically not my choice–I was then stuck in a seminar so dogmatically radical I liked to refer to it as Marxist Sunday school) but basically goofing off in anticipation of spring break when I couldn’t help but overhear a loud conversation between an earnest young undergraduate and a fellow T.A. The undergraduate was in full rant mode: I was treated to an overview of the horrors of the meat industry, the moral imperative of vegetarianism, the evils of legislation defining marriage as exclusively heterosexual, the sexist media campaign directed against then-Senator Hilary Clinton, the absolute necessity of ending the war in Iraq. I myself am sympathetic to many of these causes, but I felt almost physically assaulted by the force of this young woman’s vitriol against “them”–the intellectually unwashed rural inhabitants of the state in which I live. I’m occasionally amazed at (and, to be brutally honest, often contemptuous of) the depth of a liberal hypocrisy that falls all over itself to tolerate and embrace all Others–Muslims, Palestinians, gays, people of color, to name a few–except for the inconveniently conservative evangelical Christian Others who live in our university’s very own backyard.
Since I was then suffering through large doses of forcibly administered Marxist propaganda, I decided I might as well take Marxism at its word, ignore all the highfalutin ideology and consider the economic dynamics of liberal contempt. Liberal contempt is, I’m convinced, a matter of class. High-school educated working class Christian conservatives are uncouth; college-educated liberals are sophisticated and urbane. At my husband’s workplace, a community mental health center, the class-religious divide is particularly telling: the janitors and office support staff tend to be Pentecostals, sadly out of touch with modernity in their fundamentalism and Biblical literalism and embarrassing displays of emotion, while the therapists and other professionals tend to be Buddhists or atheists, politically enlightened and unencumbered by the need for dogma. Similarly, awhile ago I was at a gathering of liberals in which conservative women were excoriated not for their views on abortion, illegal immigration, or the tax code but for the sin for which there can be no forgiveness in this life or the life to come…wearing outdated and insufficiently fashionable clothing. Ye gods, I never thought I’d miss the good old days when feminists were ugly.
The other realization I had, listening to my fellow T.A. and her student discuss the necessity of “raising awareness” and “educating” the public was that whether they recognize it or not, these liberals are proselytizing, and therefore courting all the dangers of proselytizing which have made it so unfashionable on the culturally sensitive left: paternalism, self-righteousness, piety. (A couple of years ago I was proselytized by a Unitarian whose pitch essentially consisted of a somewhat dogmatic, intolerant insistence that Unitarians have no dogma and therefore no intolerance.) Moving as I do between the leftish world of the academy and the rightish world of the North American Mormon church, I’ve been struck over and over by the way the sins of the left are the sins of the right, by the way the left and the right ape and mirror each other in their mutual demonization. It’s massively and rightly unfashionable to tell someone he’s going to hell or to trash someone’s animist beliefs in an effort to make him into a contemporary Western Christian. It’s a grave social faux pas in the university to ask someone if she has accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior. But can we academic liberals (among whom I must reluctantly count myself) recognize the equally contemptuous, overbearing attempts to “educate” meat-eaters about vegetarianism and to “raise consciousness” among war supporters about the evils of the military-industrial complex as the attempts to convert that they are?