The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Monday, January 31, 2005
THE POLITICS OF GROWING UP: I have two articles in the March Reason: a brief squib on the WIPO broadcasting treaty and a much meatier review of Tom Frank's
What's the Matter with Kansas? One topic I didn't have room for in the review was the book's entertaining -- and inadvertently revealing -- chapter on Frank's days as a teenage conservative. Influenced by his alienated middle-class neighbors, "self-made" men disgusted by the changes of the '60s and '70s, Teen Tom embraced Ronald Reagan, the ideal of rugged individualism, and nostalgia for pre-'60s America. He turned left when he got to college and discovered that the frat-boy Republican crowd was filled with spoiled snobs. (He also got his first real jobs, and learned how unpleasant low-paid work could be.)

As a smart, funny description of a particular time and place, this is excellent stuff. As an insight into the conservative experience, it's less impressive. Frank's days as a suburban Reaganite may reflect the lives of many middle-class kids, but they don't say much about why someone might find conservative ideas intellectually attractive, as opposed to emotionally rewarding. I suspect one reason Frank often has trouble distinguishing free markets from crony capitalism is the fact that he didn't pay much attention to the theoretical case for markets when he was on the right, and subconsciously assumes that no one else did either. "Here was I," he writes, "a Mission Hills lad, growing up in one of the perfect regional arcadias of American capitalism, a place more like the grounds of Versailles than the average postwar suburb, and what I had managed to do was invent a romantic justification for precisely the system of social arrangements that had made Mission Hills possible."

I can sympathize. While Frank's chapter reminded me very little of most conservatives I've known, it reminded me quite a bit of my own teenage days, even though I've never been a Republican in my life. Five years younger than Frank, growing up in a liberal college town, Teen Jesse looked back with nostalgia not at the lost days before the '60s but at the lost days of the '60s themselves. My politics were skeptical, humanist, and leftist, a combination I'd absorbed from the city's old hippies, young punks, and liberal professors. Here I was, a Chapel Hill lad, growing up in one of the perfect regional arcadias of American academia, and what I managed to do was invent a romantic justification for precisely the system of social arrangements that had made Chapel Hill possible.

And what changed my mind? Well, I was already a libertarian of sorts by the time I reached college, but what made me decide I wasn't a part of the left was watching the P.C. authoritarianism of so many university progressives, a group whose high-handed bullying had more than a little in common with the frat hounds Frank faced at the University of Kansas.

Tom Frank's memoir was supposed to describe a political type. Instead it reveals a personality type. Like so much of his book, that makes for better literature than sociology.


posted by Jesse 8:39 PM
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