At the personal request of one of the gallery’s staff a Yale senior came to meet me in my “office.” He had been very involved with the political culture at Yale and stood up for the solid history of conservative intellectuals who have studied and taught at Yale throughout this last century. He grew up in a deeply conservative family in the Midwest. Recently, one of his 4 cousins has become a Democrat because of her feelings about healthcare issues and her belief that people in difficult circumstances should have support accessing healthcare. I asked if his family talks about these subjects or if it just passes unspoken. He emphatically replied that everything gets argued and debated in his family. He has one brother who has become a Ron Paul supporter and noted how intense the family debates have been around that difference of opinions. He says that while he supports many Libertarian stances he calls himself a conservative instead because it communicates his political ethos more accurately since the term conservative conveys an emphasis on traditions and morals. He explained that being Libertarian is about how to organize a government, but being conservative implies also a way to live well – and a particular vision of how to do that, which includes family, Judeo-Christian traditions and moral certainty.
He said that through being involved in the extra curricular political culture at his school he had been able to clarify his own political beliefs, which has included returning to being a practicing Christian. I asked him what had compelled him to turn to religion. He said that through political discussion he had noticed that his own metaphysical systems of belief presupposed a god. He then realized that to be Christian did not require a felt presence of god. Returning to Christianity he believes gives him “a leg up” through the conscious inheritance of its long intellectual and practical history and traditions.
He sees it as important to acknowledge that in everything we do, we are “standing on the shoulders of giants,” meaning that the people who have come before us make what we do possible, and they they too have thought-through many of the same quandaries we wrestle with in the present. He says the most important political question is, “how do I live rightly?” He considers the political structure of a country to be a way to create a context in which the most possible people can have their own responses to that question. He perceives the Left’s way of answering questions about how we make a life worth living to be based on the existentialist path: reject any pre-established meaning to life and attempt to start all over again from scratch based on one’s own intuitions. I thought that seemed fairly accurate to me, and proposed that maybe this is because it is important for people who are liberal to live a life according to their own conscience instead of always in relation to some historical precedent, whether that be religious or legal codes, or simply cultural conventions. He rebutted me by saying that from the Right’s perspective, “we know that our conscience doesn’t come into the world fully formed, but instead is constructed through the context of people being products of traditions. The very sensibilities that give us our intuitions about how to act come from centuries of thought.” I totally agreed, but was also a bit confused since his argument about our individual intuitions being the product of shared cultural traditions is an argument that I use myself to advocate for a more collective vision of identity, which is a Leftist model of personhood. I tried to ask him more about this, describing the divide I have noticed between a sociological understanding of identity held by people on the left – which for instance makes us see poverty and crime as functions of the conditions of society – and an individualistic understanding of identity on the right – which sees crime as being the personal responsibility of the perpetrator. He responded by saying that he would hope that, when pressed, people on the Right would acknowledge the importance of the community as an entity, but said that in each decision we get to either re-affirm or reject the larger narrative of the community and insisted that the bottom line is fundamentally personal choice.