What it’s Like to Grow up as — and Grow out of Being — a Conservative Republican

I’m writing this for the many friends I have, who’ve never considered themselves conservative, or Republican, and find themselves amazed at how absurd the Republican party acts acts these days.

I was interested in politics when I was very young. The first issue I remember caring about was abortion. My family went to a pro-life rally in Washington, DC, in the early 90’s — when I was 4. My family is German Catholic, and we prayed a rosary almost every night growing up. I believed in all those things (God, the father almighty, Creator of heaven and Earth, who was conceived…) the way children believe things their parents tell them. I also believed abortion was wrong because it didn’t make sense to me — it felt horrible to imagine people being OK with killing babies. “How could someone be OK with that?” It made no sense to me. A feeling of injustice welled up, and it felt strong, it felt right to be moved by this sense of injustice.

I understood that not everybody agreed on this. I could not understand why.

A Simple World

When I got to kindergarten, the boys all seemed to be playing one of those games involving “move an object that is not your body, in a predefined way.” This included throwing and catching balls, for the most part. I couldn’t do that. The girls were playing a game called “chase the boys and scream” — and I was pretty good at running and screaming, so that’s what I did.

Before I bought markpneyer.com, if you googled my name, the only thing that came up was a quote I’d left on a Rush Limbaugh fan site when I was in grade school. I read Rush Limbaugh books on the bus to school, and repeated the arguments he made in them, to defeat imagined opponents in intellectual combat. The arguments made sense to me. They were simple, they were easy to follow, and they presented a picture of a world where things were clear and direct — a world that made sense.

Go to school. Follow the law. Don’t do drugs. Get Married, Have Kids, repeat. These things are so simple to do, the 8 year old me thought — clearly the problem is with those groups that are saying not to do these things, or that it’s too hard. Everyone around me appears to be doing these things. My dad has 7 siblings. All of them were married with children when I was growing up, and not a single one has been divorced. That was something that ‘other people’ did, but not us.

I remember reading Rush Limbaugh claiming that “humans couldn’t destroy the environment if we wanted to”, that Mount Pinatubo would spew more chlorofluorocarbons in one eruption than all the stuff humans had ever emitted — and this was the voice I trusted on issues of science as they affected the public.

My dad was a Scientist. I wanted to be a scientist growing up. My aunt gave me birthday gifts including a blue Tupperware box labeled “Mark’s Science Box”, which had all kinds of cool stuff in it, like a diffraction grating, packets of agar gel to grow bacteria, and interesting bits of fact, such as “A scientist would call a hair dryer a laminar-flow, gas propulsion device.” I thought that was pretty cool.

I remembered hearing bible commentator Chuck Colson on the radio, mocking evolution, comparing it to a Tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling a fully functioning 747. That seemed ridiculous to me. The man said it with such authority. Of course that couldn’t have happened. I must have been in 5th grade.

I remember crying when Bill Clinton was re-elected. I was 11. A therapist once told me, “kids should not think about politics or money, any more than they should think about sex.” It would damage a child to explain sex to them when they were too young — I understand that. It’s hard to make sense of having a childhood where you weren’t thinking about why the adult world was the way it was, and why people did the things they did — without having any ability to understand those things.

Things Fall Apart

High School was right around the time of the first dot-com bubble. I spent a lot of time on a website called, “political wag”, which was a forum for people to argue politics with each other. I encountered lots of people who were pro choice, who believed it was a violation of a woman’s rights to prevent her from having an abortion. It bothered me, because I felt like a fetus was obviously a different person than the woman. At the time, I felt like I understood where they were coming from, but it seemed like the case against abortion was air tight:

  1. A fetus is a Human
  2. It is wrong to kill innocent humans
  3. Abortion is the killing of a fetus, which is the killing of an innocent human, and thus Abortion is wrong.

When other people said they disagreed, I could see that they were rejecting either 1) or 2). That actually did make sense to me. I was learning about proofs and axioms in school. I liked the rigor of axiomatic logic; the fact that you could start with a few basic truths and derive others from that. I knew if I was going to convince people, I had to get them to agree with me on something. And yet all of the “proofs” of objective moral truth that I read online were hand wavy, they had appeals that didn’t add up — I knew I believed in objective truth, but I had to convince other people, who I could see might disagree with any of these claims. Many of them dealt with infinity in some form — “Each action has causes, trace the causes back, there must be a first cause. Some people are more moral than others, trace that chain forward, there must be a supremely moral person.” I didn’t believe those. “You can see” doesn’t cut it in math class when dealing with boring things like lines and edges. Why would it work when dealing with something more important?

I started to doubt.

One day in the spring of 2001, I saw a friend with the book Gödel, Escher, Bach, and I knew I had to read it. That spring, one book destroyed my understanding of the world, and I loved it even though I was terrified. It set my mind on fire with questions. If axioms could be moved around, chosen arbitrarily, and any set of axioms produced a tree of “truths” and “falsehoods” — then what did the truth even mean? If my brain is made up of axons and dendrites responding to causes from the outside world — then I don’t even have free will. There is no meaning to life.

I wrote an email to the author, Douglas Hofstadter to ask him about these questions that bothered me so much, and he didn’t respond. I’ve read the book multiple times since then, and I believe now that I actually took the complete opposite meaning out of the book that the author was trying to give people. He was trying to say “Look, we all know A, and B, and C — but that doesn’t mean ‘NOT D’ like we think it does. It actually is a pretty strong argument in favor of D.” Unfortunately, A, B, and C were all new to me, and my mind was so blown at learning these things, that the conclusion which made the most sense was “NOT D” — there is no God, there is no meaning, this is all an absurd dance of atoms in a void, following mathematical rules.

That sense of moral indignation I felt when talking about moral issues — it was just some survival instinct that was evolutionary advantageous. The love of friends and family — those are just survival and reproductive instincts. The things I find meaningful and passionate are not me — they’re just the motion of atoms — cold, lifeless entities with no intelligence, arranging themselves in a pattern that’s foolish enough to think it matters.

I stopped believing in Catholicism when I came up with the following proof:

  1. If someone dies in a state of grace, having been forgiven of all their sins, they go to Heaven.
  2. Heaven is a wonderful place that is perfect and you are with God.
  3. If you kill someone right after they pray for forgiveness to God, you kill them when they are in a state of grace — and they go to Heaven.
  4. Therefore, if you love someone, you should wait until they pray to God for forgiveness of their sins, and then kill them.

I knew this had to be wrong because I knew killing innocent people was wrong — the sense of injustice, the wave of anger that overpowers — that would come up right away at the thought of this proof. And yet I had constructed it using axioms that were accepted by the church. Since the conclusion was wrong, the axioms were wrong. Moral Truth stopped making sense to me. Right and wrong stopped making sense to me. They were just feelings, Arbitrary preferences. They were meaningless.

A Maze of Meaninglessness

I remember going into a labyrinth sophomore year of high school, no longer believing in God or Moral Truth, believing in evolution and materialism, but totally miserable for it. I went in, asking — if I am evolved to be the way i am, and i want to kill myself all the time — Why? Am I dangerous? Does the human race need me to kill myself? Or am I just broken?

I went to bed crying about the nature of reality, and I woke up feeling stupid for caring — a pattern that repeated itself throughout my adolescence.

I stopped believing almost all of the things I grew up believing, because I wanted to believe in them enough to convince others of the truth that I knew. The desire to communicate the truth I knew to others caused me to see the flaws in what I believed.

It was painful — the most difficult thing I’ve ever experienced. Over a period of 12 years (2000–2012) I saw everything I had firmly believed in break — one after another. They say when man has meaning, he can endure anything. I lost the meaning I had. I remember sobbing on the floor — I need a purpose. I need a reason to act. I was hospitalized once in 2005 for a suicide attempt. I went through medical diagnoses — you’re bipolar, you’re not bipolar, you are bipolar, you’re definitely bipolar, prescriptions — a mood stabilizer, a little bit of adderall, a lot of adderall, the legal limit of adderall plus a similar stimulant, and a drug addiction — weed on the weekends, weed every day, weed all day. I was hospitalized again, once in early 2012 as it all started coming down, once in late 2012 and twice in early 2013.

The Adversary

It is exhausting to justify your existence to someone that hates you. When that someone is outside of you — if they say “I am an open-minded liberal, and you are a bigot because you won’t change your belief about this thing that matters to you”, you can tell them to go fuck themselves, and they’ll generally leave you alone.

I couldn’t tell my adversary to go away, because they were stuck inside my head. The adversary — me — forced me to change the way I saw the world. It damn near destroyed my life, but I was privileged enough to be born into a huge family that loved me and gave me examples to follow when I was lost. I went to college on scholarships, and earned a BS and MS in computer science, which I think was my body’s way of trying to survive the world while my mind struggled for years to fix itself.

I would never insist that anyone must go through what I went through — and yet I do feel like it’s lead me to the truth. I now see the world very differently than I used to — and very differently from most republicans. The world changes rapidly. These changes are hard for a lot of folks to make sense of. I still identify with a lot of the rhetoric of the Republican party — about personal responsibility and limited government — but I reject all of their leadership, because they’re clueless assholes who’ve been pandering to the fears of their base, rather than trying to move the party forward to the future. These guys can’t imagine a world more than 50 years from now, and I don’t think you are qualified to lead unless you can think in chunks of at least a few centuries of time.

All of the problems I had, I caused. I’m lucky enough to be able to say that. There was no outside system hurting me — which isn’t true for many folks caught up in our broken criminal justice system. I want the Republicans to change, maybe more than anyone else who reads this — because I feel like the country needs an accepted voice on limited government, given the number of unaccountable killings by armed government agents that happen on a regular basis. Money in politics stops being such a problem if politics doesn’t matter as much as personal effort — which is a lot easier to accomplish when you have food in your stomach, a roof over your head, free education, and access to the social institutions that most white folks take for granted.

If you aren’t a Republican, and you don’t like the party because you feel like they’re a bunch of hateful assholes — you aren’t going to change anyone’s beliefs by attacking them. If you want them to remain hateful assholes, then sure, by all means, attack them. But if you actually want them to change — which I do think is possible — then please, see them as the wounded victims of living in an absurd world. Or at least, think of me when you think of the Republican party — someone who knows they’re messed up, and wants to change them because I stand for what they really do care about — consent.

Limited government and personal responsibility are just ways of living in a world based upon consent. I think that’s a wonderful world.

We are all children of the stars, and I would love to go out there and see them. We won’t get out there fighting each other.

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