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Jeremiah Goulka: Confessions of a Former Republican

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Here, to my mind, was one strange aspect of the political convention season just past: since the great meltdown of 2008, brilliantly engineered by various giant financial institutions gone wild, we've seen a collapse in the wealth of middle-class African Americans and Hispanics, and a significant drop in the wealth of middle-class whites.  Only the rich have benefitted.  Though the draining of wealth from the middle and its fortification at the top have been a long time coming, the near collapse of the economy four years ago was a disaster whether you look at the rise in unemployment figures, poverty, the use of food stamps, gauges of upward mobility, or just about any other grim measure you'd care to employ.

All this suggests that the twenty-first century has largely been an American riches-to-rags story.  It was this that gave both political conventions an almost fairy-tale-like quality, since the single life trajectory featured prominently at each of them by just about every speaker you'd want to cite was the opposite.  Everybody, even Mitt Romney ("My dad never made it through college and apprenticed as a lath and plaster carpenter..."), was obliged to offer a wrenching, heartwarming tale of rags (or relative rags) to riches (no relative about it).  The theme, heavily emphasized at the Republican convention and an undercurrent at the Democratic one, wasn't I feel your pain, but I celebrate my gain.

There are, in our world, so many journeys of every sort.  It's strange to see only one of them emphasized and celebrated, the one that, at the moment, is perhaps the least likely to speak to the actual experience of most Americans.  With this in mind, TomDispatch today offers quite a different journey -- not economic, but political, and of a sort no one usually thinks to write about.  It's Jeremiah Goulka's trip out of a particular kind of fantasy world and into what, in 2004, Karl Rove (then an unnamed source for journalist Ron Suskind) pejoratively called ""the reality-based community' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'"  Rove added -- that moment being the highpoint of Bush-era imperial self-celebration -- "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

Goulka's is a tale of how one man left a party that, in recent years, has had, in Jonathan Schell's pungent phrase, "a will to fantasy," and embarked on a hard-won trip into reality. There are so many more such stories in our country.  Maybe someday some political convention will have the nerve to celebrate some of them.  (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Goulka discusses his political journey, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Joining the Reality-Based Community
Or How I Learned to Stop Loving the Bombs and Start Worrying
By Jeremiah Goulka

I used to be a serious Republican, moderate and business-oriented, who planned for a public-service career in Republican politics.  But I am a Republican no longer.

There's an old joke we Republicans used to tell that goes something like this: "If you're young and not a Democrat, you're heartless. If you grow up and you're not a Republican, you're stupid." These days, my old friends and associates no doubt consider me the butt of that joke. But I look on my "stupidity" somewhat differently.  After all, my real education only began when I was 30 years old.

This is the story of how in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and later in Iraq, I discovered that what I believed to be the full spectrum of reality was just a small slice of it and how that discovery knocked down my Republican worldview.

I always imagined that I was full of heart, but it turned out that I was oblivious.  Like so many Republicans, I had assumed that society's "losers" had somehow earned their desserts.  As I came to recognize that poverty is not earned or chosen or deserved, and that our use of force is far less precise than I had believed, I realized with a shock that I had effectively viewed whole swaths of the country and the world as second-class people.

No longer oblivious, I couldn't remain in today's Republican Party, not unless I embraced an individualism that was even more heartless than the one I had previously accepted.  The more I learned about reality, the more I started to care about people as people, and my values shifted.  Had I always known what I know today, it would have been clear that there hasn't been a place for me in the Republican Party since the Free Soil days of Abe Lincoln.

Where I Came From

I grew up in a rich, white suburb north of Chicago populated by moderate, business-oriented Republicans.  Once upon a time, we would have been called Rockefeller Republicans.  Today we would be called liberal Republicans or slurred by the Right as "Republicans In Name Only" (RINOs).

We believed in competition and the free market, in bootstraps and personal responsibility, in equality of opportunity, not outcomes.  We were financial conservatives who wanted less government. We believed in noblesse oblige, for we saw ourselves as part of a natural aristocracy, even if we hadn't been born into it.  We sided with management over labor and saw unions as a scourge.  We hated racism and loved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., particularly his dream that his children would "live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  We worried about the rise of the Religious Right and its social-conservative litmus tests. We were tough on crime, tough on national enemies. We believed in business, full stop.

I intended to run for office on just such a platform someday.  In the meantime, I founded the Republican club at my high school, knocked on doors and collected signatures with my father, volunteered on campaigns, socialized at fundraisers, and interned for Senator John McCain and Congressman Denny Hastert when he was House Majority Whip Tom DeLay's chief deputy.

We went to mainstream colleges -- the more elite the better -- but lamented their domination by liberal professors, and I did my best to tune out their liberal views.  I joined the Republican clubs and the Federalist Society, and I read the Wall Street Journal and the Economist rather the New York Times.  George Will was a voice in the wilderness, Rush Limbaugh an occasional (sometimes guilty) pleasure.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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