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Radical Son

From the socialist hell of Greece to the socialist hell of Eugene, Oregon, here is the story of one man who converted to conservatism - and lived to tell about it.

By Napoleon Linadatos

In "American Beauty," Kevin Spacey plays a middle-aged man who is fed up with his middle-class life. His wife is a greedy woman occupied with the lesser, material things; his neighbor is a repressive (and repressed) religious right-wing military man. While an excellent movie, it nonetheless plays on common stereotypes about conservatives. It is also far from alone.

In "JFK," a president is murdered because he wanted to "change things." In "Philadelphia," a gay man infected with AIDS confronts the corporate fat cats that fired him. If you want more of the same, read mainstream newspapers, watch mainstream television, and since you are a college student, you can always attend your professors' lectures. Bottom line: In this world it is not hard to be a liberal. The liberal mindset is pervasive, persuasive, and most students opt for the political path of least resistance.

I was one, once, and I was very proud of it. To me, the world could be easily separated into the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good was us, the liberals: sensitive, benevolent, informed, open-minded, caring, intelligent and compassionate.

The bad was them, the conservatives: sexist, homophobic, greedy, short-sighted, racist, narrow-minded, philistine, egotistical, warmonger plutocrats.

The ugly were all of those poor souls who didn't know any better and many times thought the same way the "bad" did: children of a lesser God who didn't recognize or understand their class interests. Probably they would go to church (an opium derivative, as Marx tells us), vote Republican, own guns, or all of the above. All in all, very unfortunate.

I grew up in Greece. When I left, the first place I stayed was in New York City. For every American liberal, New York is the ideal city, or at least the best possible. It taxes everything, and it has intellectuals, minorities, artists, politicians, activists and commentators galore. After seven months I had to move west, and at first, I was hesitant. I was afraid that Oregon might be a conservative state. Soon after I arrived, the fear started to fade, and was in fact completely eradicated when I enrolled at Portland State University. In class after class, my politics were repeatedly validated. Back then, I thought, "How open-minded and outspoken these people are."

At PSU I met Richard Brinkman, an Economics professor who specialized in evolutionary economics. What's the definition of evolutionary economics? Capitalism is too "conspicuous," therefore we need social democracy: everybody votes on what everybody else does. Professor Brinkman believed that the United States economy had stagnated in the past thirty years; she should reform herself and copy France, the nation of thoughtful indecision. And why not go a little further? She should copy Sweden, the nation of socialism with results.

I went to various lectures around town, most notably one given by Noam Chomsky, hero of the disaffected left. However, it was Chomsky as usual: corporate conspiracy this and military conspiracy that. I learned nothing new or interesting from this or any other speech I attended. No matter how hard I sought new ideas, the professors and activists sounded all too predictable, uniform, and tedious. I was so desperate that I once attended a meeting of the Socialist Workers. This meeting had all of the usual suspects: the odorous student activists, minimum wage laborers, and of course, female sociology professors.

When they had nothing new to say, it was time to visit the library. I read works by thinkers of the left like Michael Sandel, Richard Rorty, Cornelius Castoriadis, Stephen Toulmin, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer. Fatefully, I once picked up a copy of libertarian F.A. von Hayek's Mirage of Social Justice. This was a great mistake: the seeds of doubt were planted in my mind. I could live with it so long as I didn't pay much serious attention to my doubts and instead concentrated on my beliefs.

After two years at PSU, I transferred to the University of Oregon, for no reason apparent to me. Nothing special happened during the winter of 1998, and lucky for me, because I was still trying to find my way around campus. If it were the right building, it would be the wrong time. If it were the right floor, it would be the wrong room.

Eventually, I actually started attending the classes I'd registered for, and by spring term, the weather had become very much unlike Oregon. That term I signed on as an Economics peer advisor. Other than random students asking for directions (the same buildings, times, floors and rooms, which I now "knew" so well), peer advising proved a rather harmless duty.

There I met Jonathan Collegio, now late of the Oregon Commentator. Our political differences revealed themselves quickly, and we started calling each other the appropriate names: he called me a "commie," and I called him a "fascist." At the time, Collegio was busy with his mini-war against OSPIRG, the Honesty campaign. Back then, nobody thought that he stood much of a chance. A solitary Collegio shouting his brains out through a megaphone hardly seemed a threat to the dozens of colorful OSPIRG supporters parading up and down 13th Avenue for their cause. When the polls closed and the results came out and OSPIRG fell, no one was more surprised than I. It was a classic David-and-Goliath story: a tiny group of conservative-minded students trumped the UO's best-organized and best-funded student group.

How could it happen? Probably because many students like me voted against OSPIRG. I wasn't against them per se - I agreed with the purpose of the organization - but the Honesty campaign had successfully made the case that OSPIRG was corrupt, and so I voted against them.

I felt guilty for doing so. Thus, I sought redemption. I considered joining the Student Insurgent, but after reading a couple of issues, I decided this was a bad idea. The Insurgent's most distinguishing characteristic was its commonness, as if the articles had been copied directly from USSR textbooks. Each issue was identical to the previous. The only difference would be that the articles appearing in the back were now in the front, and those at the bottom of the page were now at the top. Dry, monotonous, pedantic, humorless and rigid, it clearly represented the tendencies of contemporary critical thinking.

For a very long time, my leftist beliefs had been in decline. As time progressed, I found myself defending not coherent arguments, but nostalgia for an earlier era: I remembered remnants of those days in the eighties when I believed that the socialists who gained power in Greece would work for justice, and for progress. Today I cannot forget the pathos that reigned in the streets back then. I was five when the new leader, Papandreou, promised a "third way" between capitalism and communism.

Eight years later, everything would go wrong in the worst possible way. Was the system wrong, or were the people? The convenient answer was the people. A failure here or there was the result of a few irresponsible individuals. The system was perfect. The only complication? Its utter failure.

Though my leftist impulses were now fading fast, I did my best to remain a liberal. When Collegio recommended to me Barry Siegel's Economics 494, Issues in Modern Economic Thought, I understood that this would be a holy war. We would read "The Constitution of Liberty" by Hayek, the patriarch of laissez-faire who had first upset my ideals in Portland few years earlier. To prepare myself, I revisited books by Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor. I would be ready. Barry Siegel turned out to be an awfully kind and knowledgeable man who welcomed students' arguments. After awhile there was practically no lecture: just open debate.

For the first time in my life we were not instructed, but debating with the professor, and in some respects, with the author. Every phrase and every word coming out of Siegel's mouth was examined and re-examined. Nothing went unchallenged. Some students were angered because we argued so often, but it was a learning experience. After the course's end, I gradually came to terms with the fact that I was a liberal no more.

It was a painful process, since I still had feelings for the nobler liberal causes. With the more I read, the more comfortable I became, and after awhile I felt that I had reached an internal balance. For the first time, my politics and my personal life were guided by the same principle: do nothing.

From a philosophical point of view, I am no longer a social animal. I am a libertarian, or perhaps a conservative with strong libertarian leanings. Whatever my exact ideological disposition, things had fallen apart. The communitarian statues within me were seized and torn apart by an unruly populace who would not be deluded any longer.

Five years ago on a summer night in Greece, a family friend was talking to me about my pilgrimage to America. A leftist activist for the last thirty years, he told me in a tone full of certainty and melancholy, that "Greeks who go to America become right-wing." Silly nonsense, an impossibility, I thought.

Stubbornly I replied, "Not me."

Napoleon Linardatos, who holds an utterly degree in Economics, is a staff writer for the Oregon Commentator