Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Jeremiah Goulka's Conversion Story: From GOP to Reality-Based World

Speaking of the imprisoning effect of being on top (as I just did in my remarks about Hanna Rosin's end-of-men thesis as summarized by David Brooks): I find Jeremiah Goulka's description of his movement from youthful Republicanism to adult reality a fascinating conversion story.  Goulka entitles his essay "Joining the Reality-Based Community: Or How I Learned to Stop Loving the Bombs and Start Worrying."  He employs familiar tropes of classic conversion stories like that of Saul-Paul in the Christian scriptures or of St. Augustine in his Confessions: once I was blind, and then I could see.  Once my eyes had scales across them; then the scales fell off and I recovered my sight.

Goulka begins his conversion saga by noting that he grew up "in a rich, white suburb north of Chicago populated by moderate, business-oriented Republicans."  These were good Republicans, you understand.  He and his family were good people.  They "hated racism and loved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," while they simultaneously "assumed that society’s 'losers' had somehow earned their desserts."  They themselves and the other rich white people with whom they were surrounded had made it on their own without handouts, by dint of their hard work and virtuous living:

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.

And then this happened: Goulka had spent a post-law school year clerking for a federal judge in Louisiana, and when Katrina came along and it seemed his GOP president Bush was doing precious little to aid the people of New Orleans following the disaster, Goulka joined a task force seeking to rebuild the city's criminal justice system.  And as he engaged in this work, Goulka met for the first time real African Americans and real poor people--people who challenged, corrected, and ultimately demolished the sanitized and self-serving story about racial injustice he'd learned at a safe distance through MLK Day celebrations in his childhood.

He learned, for instance, that a school in a suburb of New Orleans dealing with problem youth required the young people and their parents to go on field trips where they ate in sit-down restaurants.  This baffled him: who doesn't know how to eat in a restaurant?  Why field trips for something so trivial?

He learned that there were people in the community with whom he was working who had never eaten in a sit-down restaurant, who didn't know how to order from a menu or calculate a tip.  (Footnote: at one of the three HBCUs at which I taught, a graduate of the college who now holds a distinguished chair at an east-coast university, a powerfully intelligent African-American scholar, advised us, as we built our honors program, to offer a not-for-credit course teaching our honors students, all of them, African American, how to eat in restaurants.  She told us that when she herself first came to this college from a tiny town in the Arkansas Delta, she had never in her life gone to a restaurant.

She hadn't done so because there were no restaurants in her small town that permitted black patrons to sit down and eat in them.  And so one of the first things a professor did for her and her classmates when they came to the big city and enrolled in college was to take them to a restaurant, and show them how to 1) ask a maitre d' for a table, 2) how to sit down and unfold their napkins, 3) how to order from the menu, 4) how to hold their knives and forks, 5) how to interact with the serving staff, 6) how to pay and calculate a tip.

This advisor strongly encouraged us to offer similar learning units for our honors students, since the chances that many of these students had never gone to sit-down restaurants even in the latter part of the 20th century were very high.  And because these were talented students whom we were grooming for graduate schools and, we hoped, leadership positions in their fields after graduate school, someone needed to teach them social skills on which entrée depends.  Skills that young people growing up in rich white suburbs north of Chicago presumably learn at home and through many restaurant visits beginning when they're children . . . .)

And I'll let you read the rest of Goulka's valuable conversion story for yourself.  His point: growing up privileged blinded him.  Though he thought he saw (the Goulkas and their friends were good people, after all!), he saw almost nothing.  Not until the scales began to fall from his eyes as he began to interact with real poor people and real African Americans in New Orleans.

And now he's involved in the painful journey towards seeing: towards seeing what's really there.  Towards seeing the far bigger picture than he ever saw when he was ensconced in the tiny and comfortable world of privilege in which he grew up.  Goulka observes,

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.

And as a complement to Goulka's autobiographical statement, I recommend Melissa Harris-Perry's recent MSNBC roundtable discussion on why both U.S. political parties ignore the poor these days.

The graphic, Edy Legrand's "Jesus Healing the Blind Man," is by way of Phil Ewing's marvelous Blue Eyed Ennis site.

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