Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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Jeremiah Goulka

Jeremiah Goulka writes about American politics and culture.

September 9th, 2012 9:17 PM

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

Crossposted from TomDispatch

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.

Left Behind By the Party

In January 2001, I was one of thousands of Americans who braved the cold rain to attend and cheer George W. Bush’s inauguration.  After eight years hating “Slick Willie,” it felt good to have a Republican back in the White House.  But I knew that he wasn’t one of our guys.  We had been McCain fans, and even if we liked the compassionate bit of Bush’s conservatism, we didn’t care for his religiosity or his social politics.

Bush won a lot of us over with his hawkish response to 9/11, but he lost me with the Iraq War.  Weren’t we still busy in Afghanistan?  I didn’t see the urgency.

By then, I was at the Justice Department, working in an office that handled litigation related to what was officially called the Global War on Terror (or GWOT).  My office was tasked with opposing petitions for habeas corpus brought by Guantánamo detainees who claimed that they were being held indefinitely without charge.  The government’s position struck me as an abdication of a core Republican value: protecting the “procedural” rights found in the Bill of Rights.  Sure, habeas corpus had been waived in wartime before, but it seemed to me that waiving it here reduced us to the terrorists’ level.  Besides, since acts of terrorism were crimes, why not prosecute them?  I refused to work on those cases.

With the Abu Ghraib pictures, my disappointment turned to rage.  The America I believed in didn’t torture people.

I couldn’t avoid GWOT work.  I was forced to read reams of allegations of torture, sexual abuse, and cover-ups in our war zones to give the White House a heads-up in case any of made it into the news cycle.

I was so mad that I voted for Kerry out of spite.

How I Learned to Start Worrying

I might still have stuck it out as a frustrated liberal Republican, knowing that the wealthy business core of the party still pulled a few strings and people like Richard Lugar and Olympia Snowe remained in the Senate -- if only because the idea of voting for Democrats by choice made me feel uncomfortable.  (It would have been so… gauche.)  Then came Hurricane Katrina.  In New Orleans, I learned that it wasn’t just the Bush administration that was flawed but my worldview itself.

I had fallen in love with New Orleans during a post-law-school year spent in Louisiana clerking for a federal judge, and the Bush administration’s callous (non-)response to the storm broke my heart.  I wanted to help out, but I didn’t fly helicopters or know how to do anything useful in a disaster, so just I sat glued to the coverage and fumed -- until FEMA asked federal employees to volunteer to help.  I jumped at the chance.

Soon, I was involved with a task force trying to rebuild (and reform) the city’s criminal justice system.  Growing up hating racism, I was appalled but not very surprised to find overt racism and the obvious use of racist code words by officials in the Deep South.

Then something tiny happened that pried open my eyes to the less obvious forms of racism and the hurdles the poor face when they try to climb the economic ladder.  It happened on an official visit to a school in a suburb of New Orleans that served kids who had gotten kicked out of every other school around.  I was investigating what types of services were available to the young people who were showing up in juvenile hall and seemed to be headed toward the proverbial life of crime.

My tour guide mentioned that parents were required to participate in some school programs.  One of these was a field trip to a sit-down restaurant.

This stopped me in my tracks.  I thought: What kind of a lame field trip is that?

It turned out that none of the families had ever been to a sit-down restaurant before.  The teachers had to instruct parents and students alike how to order off a menu, how to calculate the tip.

I was stunned.

Starting To See

That night, I told my roommates about the crazy thing I had heard that day.  Apparently there were people out there who had never been to something as basic as a real restaurant.  Who knew?

One of my roommates wasn’t surprised.  He worked at a local bank branch that required two forms of ID to open an account.  Lots of people came in who had only one or none at all.

I was flooded with questions: There are adults who have no ID?  And no bank accounts?  Who are these people?  How do they vote?  How do they live?  Is there an entire off-the-grid alternate universe out there?

From then on, I started to notice a lot more reality.  I noticed that the criminal justice system treats minorities differently in subtle as well as not-so-subtle ways, and that many of the people who were getting swept up by the system came from this underclass that I knew so little about.  Lingering for months in lock-up for misdemeanors, getting pressed against the hood and frisked during routine traffic stops, being pulled over in white neighborhoods for “driving while black”: these are things that never happen to people in my world.  Not having experienced it, I had always assumed that government force was only used against guilty people.  (Maybe that’s why we middle-class white people collectively freak out at TSA airport pat-downs.)

I dove into the research literature to try to figure out what was going on.  It turned out that everything I was “discovering” had been hiding in plain sight and had been named: aversive racism, institutional racism, disparate impact and disparate treatment, structural poverty, neighborhood redlining, the “trial tax,” the “poverty tax,” and on and on.  Having grown up obsessed with race (welfare and affirmative action were our bêtes noirs), I wondered why I had never heard of any of these concepts.

Was it to protect our Republican version of “individual responsibility”?  That notion is fundamental to the liberal Republican worldview. “Bootstrapping” and “equality of opportunity, not outcomes” make perfect sense if you assume, as I did, that people who hadn’t risen into my world simply hadn’t worked hard enough, or wanted it badly enough, or had simply failed.  But I had assumed that bootstrapping required about as much as it took to get yourself promoted from junior varsity to varsity.  It turns out that it’s more like pulling yourself up from tee-ball to the World Series.  Sure, some people do it, but they’re the exceptions, the outliers, the Olympians.

The enormity of the advantages I had always enjoyed started to truly sink in.  Everyone begins life thinking that his or her normal is the normal.  For the first time, I found myself paying attention to broken eggs rather than making omelets.  Up until then, I hadn’t really seen most Americans as living, breathing, thinking, feeling, hoping, loving, dreaming, hurting people.  My values shifted -- from an individualistic celebration of success (that involved dividing the world into the morally deserving and the undeserving) to an interest in people as people.

How I Learned to Stop Loving the Bombs

In order to learn more -- and to secure my membership in what Karl Rove sneeringly called the “reality-based community” -- I joined a social science research institute.  There I was slowly disabused of layer after layer of myth and received wisdom, and it hurt.  Perhaps nothing hurt more than to see just how far my patriotic, Republican conception of U.S. martial power -- what it’s for, how it’s used -- diverged from the reality of our wars.

Lots of Republicans grow up hawks.  I certainly did.  My sense of what it meant to be an American was linked to my belief that from 1776 to WWII, and even from the 1991 Gulf War to Kosovo and Afghanistan, the American military had been dedicated to birthing freedom and democracy in the world, while dispensing a tough and precise global justice.

To me, military service represented the perfect combination of public service, honor, heroism, glory, promotion, meaning, and coolness.  As a child, I couldn’t get enough of the military: toys and models, movies and cartoons, fat books with technical pictures of manly fighter planes and ships and submarines.  We went to air shows whenever we could, and with the advent of cable, I begged my parents to sign up so that the Discovery Channel could bring those shows right into our den.  Just after we got it, the first Gulf War kicked off, and CNN provided my afterschool entertainment for weeks.

As I got older, I studied Civil War military history and memory.  (I would eventually edit a book of letters by Union Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.)  I thought I knew a lot about war; even if Sherman was right that “war is hell,” it was frequently necessary, we did it well, and -- whatever those misinformed peaceniks said -- we made the world a better place.

But then I went to a war zone.

I was deployed to Baghdad as part of a team of RAND Corporation researchers to help the detainee operations command figure out several thorny policy issues.  My task was to figure out why we were sort-of-protecting and sort-of-detaining an Iranian dissident group on Washington’s terrorist list.

It got ugly fast.  Just after my first meal on base, there was a rumble of explosions, and an alarm started screaming INCOMING! INCOMING! INCOMING!  Two people were killed and dozens injured, right outside the chow hall where I had been standing minutes earlier.

This was the “surge” period in 2007 when, I was told, insurgent attacks came less frequently than before, but the sounds of war seemed constant to me.  The rat-tat-tat of small arms fire just across the “wire.”  Controlled detonations of insurgent duds.  Dual patrolling Blackhawks overhead. And every few mornings, a fresh rain of insurgent rockets and mortars.

Always alert, always nervous, I was only in Iraq for three and a half weeks, and never close to actual combat; and yet the experience gave me many of the symptoms of PTSD.  It turns out that it doesn’t take much.

That made me wonder how the Iraqis took it.  From overhead I saw that the once teeming city of Baghdad was now a desert of desolate neighborhoods and empty shopping streets, bomb craters in the middle of soccer fields and in the roofs of schools.  Millions displaced.

Our nation-building efforts reeked of post-Katrina organizational incompetence.  People were assigned the wrong roles -- “Why am I building a radio station?  This isn’t what I do.  I blow things up…” -- and given no advance training or guidance.  Outgoing leaders didn’t overlap with their successors, so what they had learned would be lost, leaving each wheel to be partially reinvented again.  Precious few contracts went to Iraqis.  It was driving people out of our military.

This incompetence had profound human costs.  Of the 26,000 people we were detaining in Iraq, as many as two-thirds were innocent -- wrong place, wrong time -- or, poor and desperate, had worked with insurgent groups for cash, not out of an ideological commitment.  Aware of this, the military wanted to release thousands of them, but they didn't know who was who; they only knew that being detained and interrogated made even the innocents dangerously angry.  That anger trickled down to family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.  It was about as good an in-kind donation as the U.S. could have made to insurgent recruitment -- aside from invading in the first place.

So much for surgical precision and winning hearts and minds.  I had grown up believing that we were more careful in our use of force, that we only punished those who deserved punishment.  But in just a few weeks in Iraq, it became apparent that what we were doing to the Iraqis, as well as to our own people, was inexcusable.

Today, I wonder if Mitt Romney drones on about not apologizing for America because he, like the former version of me, simply isn’t aware of the U.S. ever doing anything that might demand an apology.  Then again, no one wants to feel like a bad person, and there's no need to apologize if you are oblivious to the harms done in your name -- calling the occasional ones you notice collateral damage (“stuff happens”) -- or if you believe that American force is always applied righteously in a world that is justly divided into winners and losers.

A Painful Transition

An old saw has it that no one profits from talking about politics or religion.  I think I finally understand what it means.  We see different realities, different worlds.  If you and I take in different slices of reality, chances are that we aren’t talking about the same things.  I think this explains much of modern American political dialogue.

My old Republican worldview was flawed because it was based upon a small and particularly rosy sliver of reality.  To preserve that worldview, I had to believe that people had morally earned their “just” desserts, and I had to ignore those whining liberals who tried to point out that the world didn’t actually work that way.  I think this shows why Republicans put so much effort into “creat[ing] our own reality,” into fostering distrust of liberals, experts, scientists, and academics, and why they won’t let a campaign “be dictated by fact-checkers” (as a Romney pollster put it).  It explains why study after study shows -- examples here, here, and here -- that avid consumers of Republican-oriented media are more poorly informed than people who use other news sources or don’t bother to follow the news at all.

Waking up to a fuller spectrum of reality has proved long and painful.  I had to question all my assumptions, unlearn so much of what I had learned.  I came to understand why we Republicans thought people on the Left always seemed to be screeching angrily (because we refused to open our eyes to the damage we caused or blamed the victims) and why they never seemed to have any solutions to offer (because those weren’t mentioned in the media we read or watched).

My transition has significantly strained my relationships with family, friends, and former colleagues.  It is deeply upsetting to walk on thin ice where there used to be solid, common ground.  I wish they, too, would come to see a fuller spectrum of reality, but I know from experience how hard that can be when your worldview won’t let you.

No one wants to feel like a dupe.  It is embarrassing to come out in public and admit that I was so miseducated when so much reality is out there in plain sight in neighborhoods I avoided, in journals I hadn’t heard of, in books by authors I had refused to read.  (So I take courage from the people who have done so before me like Andrew Bacevich.)

Many people see the wider spectrum of reality because they grew up on the receiving end.  As a retired African-American general in the Marine Corps said to me after I told him my story, “No one has to explain institutional racism to a black man.”

Others do because they grew up in families that simply got it.  I married a woman who grew up in such a family, for whom all of my hard-earned, painful “discoveries” are old news.  Each time I pull another layer of wool off my eyes and feel another surge of anger, she gives me a predictable series of looks.  The first one more or less says, “Duh, obviously.”  The second is sympathetic, a recognition of the pain that comes with dismantling my flawed worldview.  The third is concerned: “Do people actually think that?”

Yes, they do.

Jeremiah Goulka writes about American politics and culture.  His most recent work has been published in the American Prospect and Salon.  He was formerly an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a recovery worker in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice.  He lives in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremiahgoulka or contact him at jeremiah@jeremiahgoulka.com.  His website is jeremiahgoulka.com. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Goulka discusses his political journey, click here or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2012 Jeremiah Goulka

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