Recently Cornel West and I visited Swarthmore College, where I received my undergraduate education, for a day of conversations on the theme “The Bond of Truth-Seeking.” Following our visit, I was interviewed by Victor Gomes, a student at the college, for the campus newspaper The Phoenix. The interview has now been published under the title “Swarthmore at Its Best.”
In case the interview might be of some interest to our readers, here are some excerpts. Victor began by asking about my background and beliefs when I arrived at the college in the mid-1970s, and how they changed. Here are some bits of my reply:
Like my peers, I wanted to be sophisticated and enlightenedand to be regarded by others as sophisticated and enlightened. So a lot of what I believed simply as a matter of tribal loyalty was reinforced by a tendency to adopt views that conformed to the beliefs of what the late Irving Kristol dubbed “the knowledge class”professors, elite journalists, and the like. With the exception of abortion, which I had thought about a lot, I hadn’t really thought myself into the positions I held. Rather, I had taken the short cut: I was content to believe what I thought sophisticated and enlightened people believed, or at least were supposed to believe. I simply, and rather unselfconsciously, assumed that an approach of that sort would reliably place me on the correct side of the issues. And, of course, it would give me access to a world I wanted to enter more fullythe elite world of important people who really counted and made a difference. If I got the right credentials, beginning with a Swarthmore degree, and held the right views, I could be someone who mattered. It was then, as it is now, a common motivation for students at elite colleges and universities.
I wasn’t completely blind, though, to problems on the left. I saw casesthey could scarcely be missedof self-indulgence masquerading as principle or courageous defiance of social norms. And I was not entirely comfortable with the harder leftward turn being taken by the liberal movement and the Democratic Party in the 1970s, especially on what we now call “social issues.” The movement and the Party were becoming quite unlike what they were when their leaders were people like Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, and Hubert Humphrey. Still, I was a partisan Democrat and a loyal center-left liberal. I attended the 1976 Democratic National Convention as an alternate delegate and was happy with the nomination of the moderate Jimmy Carter and the liberal Walter Mondale as the Party’s national ticket. But even then, I was in the midst of a major rethinking of, well, everything. The triggering event was one I mentioned at the Collection with Professor West. I had encountered Plato’s dialogue Gorgias in a political theory course taught by Professor Sharpe. It made me realize that I hadn’t actually been thinking much at all. I had views, but I was scarcely entitled to them. I was a skilled debater, but skilled in talking for victory, not for truth. I regarded my interlocutors, especially those with whom I had partisan or ideological differences, as adversaries, not as partners in the quest for knowledge and wisdom. My arguments did not reflect any actual thinking that had gotten me to where I stood on this issue or that; rather, they were offered as justifications for positions I held for all sorts of questionable reasons: tribal loyalty, personal preference, applause, the wish to be and be seen to be sophisticated, the desire to fit in with others at the College and in elite sectors of the culture generally.
My views did not change overnightthough my attitude did. But they did change. At least they changed on some pretty important issues. By 1980, five or so years after my encounter with Plato, people to my left started describing me as a “conservative.” It took me another decade to accept the labeland even then I accepted it only grudgingly. Tribal loyalties (and labels) are even less easily abandoned than they are acknowledged. In some cases, what changed was not my view of the ends that ought to be pursued, but rather the best means for pursuing them. Observing, first with concern and then with anxiety, what was happening in my native Appalachia, I grew skeptical of the general approach to fighting poverty that had traditionally been favored by the Democratic Party. It became clear to me that what were needed were fewer direct government anti-poverty initiatives and greater efforts to support and rebuild institutions of civil society. I saw happening in the hills and hollows of central and southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky what had been happening in places like inner city Detroit. And well-intentioned policies seemed to be making the situations worse rather than better. Trying honestly and dispassionately to think my way through things, I found myself increasingly impressed by what I was reading by “conservative” writers such as Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who, when he wasn’t holding a pen in his hand, remained a liberal Democrat), and James Q. Wilson. To my surprise, I found greater insight and wisdom in The Public Interest than in the New York Times or Dissent. It was a bit unnervingsince I did not know where this train was taking mebut also exhilarating. I was being persuaded by arguments, and I was beginning to think critically and for myself. The desire to “be sophisticated” and to “fit in” with my peers and other “enlightened” people no longer mattered to me. I was free.
On reflection, my religious beliefs strengthened and became both more orthodox and more ecumenical. That might seem paradoxical from a liberal secularist viewpoint, but won’t seem at all odd to people who know what the Catholic Church actually teaches in, for example, the documents on religious liberty, ecumenism, and the world’s religions of the Second Vatican Council. My pro-life convictions also strengthened, as my understanding of the arguments on competing sides deepened, and I found myself embracing a more conservative set of ideas on other moral and social issues, as well. Thinking about abortion and infanticide (Michael Tooley had published his famous article linking and defending the two practices just before I arrived at Swarthmore), I eventually came also to reject euthanasia and the death penalty. The last of these positions did not endear me to my new conservative allies, but I had long since stopped caring about anything other than whether the weight of reason and argument supported a position or failed to support it. The idea that one would hold a belief, or not consider changing a belief, out of partisan or tribal loyalty no longer had purchase with me.