I cannot recommend highly enough this piece in The Nation (also at Tomdispatch) by Jeremiah Goulka, in which he documents his arduous journey from die-hard Republicanism to the reality-based community. (Readers familiar with my CPD hypothesis will note some of its manifestations in Goulka along the road to his awakening—and observe how intractable they can be.) He doesn’t use the word “privilege.” But as the wool begins to fall from his eyes and he becomes more and more aware of his own unearned privilege, he becomes acutely aware of the flip side: the undeserved poverty, racism and other structural limitations affecting those whose “normal” is nothing like his own.
Goulka’s experiences at the Bush Justice Department, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and as a RAND Corporation researcher in Iraq in 2007 shape the broadest strokes of his narrative, but it’s the smaller insights and “aha” moments along the way that give the piece its authenticity and depth. For instance, when FEMA asked federal employees to help in the reconstruction of New Orleans after Katrina Goulka eagerly volunteered, and was put to work on a task force charged with rebuilding the city’s criminal justice system:
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.
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.
Perhaps because Goulka experienced a profound shift in his worldview, he is able to clearly spell out some of the contrasts in the ideological and factual underpinnings of liberalism that often go unstated, especially in media narratives:
“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.
It’s quite inspiring. As I noted in comments over at The Nation, I could not help but notice the striking parallels in his story to those of people who have shed their religion; it would be interesting to know whether Mr. Goulka has taken any steps in that direction himself.
On a related note, I personally know two lifelong Republicans — both professionally successful, white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, middle-aged family men — who have recently said that although they are staunch fiscal conservatives, they can no longer bring themselves to vote for Republicans because of their social positions. I had the good sense refrain from regaling either of them with a passionate discourse on fiscal conservatism being antithetical to progressive social policy, or even directing them to my blog. Not yet, anyway. Hey, baby steps.