Confessions of a Recovering Ivy League Neocon

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The
Early Years

Five years
ago I was graduating high school in my hometown of Fort Collins,
Colorado. I was also getting ready to leave my hometown for my
freshman year at Princeton University. Although I had been to
New England to visit family on several occasions, I had lived
in the same house my entire life and wasn’t sure what to expect
from college life on the East Coast.

I had followed
politics pretty closely since I was young, and at the time I considered
myself to be somewhat of a libertarian. I liked Steve Forbes in
1996 and was again hoping that he might win the Republican nomination
even though I liked his 2000 incarnation less. While Princeton
had a reputation for being one of the more "conservative"
Ivy League campuses (whatever that meant), I entered college expecting
to find the political atmosphere dominated by liberal students
and professors. Nevertheless, I figured to find some people who
shared my dislike for Washington D.C. It wasn't to be. There were
other students who were Republicans and wanted nothing more than
to see the end of the Clinton/Gore era. The similarities stopped
there. The conservatives that I met were nothing like the conservatives
I had known out West.

An Engineer
vs. Policy Wonks

Not long
into my freshman year, I found a group of friends that enjoyed
talking politics. At first I treaded lightly in announcing my
views and tried to feel out potential allies. But it wasn't too
long before my belief in liberty was revealed and assaulted from
the left and right.

So-called
conservatives were as turned off by my libertarianism as were
the leftists, maybe more. Rudy Giuliani was their favorite conservative.
John McCain was their man for President. Naïve, silly, archaic,
and impractical were some of the words used to describe my uncomplicated
but steadfast belief in liberty. Being an engineering student
certainly didn't diminish the view that I was a simpleton. Most
of these political aficionados hoped that they would be accepted
into the Woodrow Wilson
School of Public and International Affairs
, a factory for
producing statist policy wonks.

A lack of
education in political science and economics was the diagnosis
for my deranged attachment to liberty. “The global economy requires
American troops to bring security and well-being to the World,”
I was told when critical of Bill Clinton’s use of force in the
Balkans. I would hear that “Alan Greenspan is an economic genius
and he has helped create the miraculous ‘New Economy'” when I
questioned why one man exerted so much influence over a “free
market." I was instructed to take an economics course. This would
explain everything to me.

My sympathy
for the victims of Waco and Ruby Ridge certainly wasn't shared
with anybody, liberal or conservative. Campaign finance reform,
however, was an important issue to everybody. Requiring political
ads to begin or end with, "I'm George Bush and I approved
this message," was far more important than the murder of
innocents by federal agents. So, not surprisingly, reactions to
my views on gun control ranged from dropped jaws to outright anger.
During one exchange on guns and self-defense, I infuriated a liberal
friend by telling him that I wouldn't feel bad about defending
my family or property with lethal force. In his rage he picked
up the TV remote control and flung it at me from across the room.
This reaction was no surprise coming from someone who opposed
the death penalty unless the victim was a politician or other
public official.

The 2000
Election and My Political Transformation

This type
of behavior and ideology was to be expected from liberals, I figured.
Similar viewpoints from conservatives were more troubling and
harder to explain. Although I didn’t really know the term at the
time, these conservatives were actually neocons. The differences
between these few “conservatives” and most liberals seemed nonexistent
to me. My opinions were scoffed at and I was labeled a redneck
and an extremist. By the time the Republican race got down to
two candidates, I was left supporting Bush. McCain and Gore seemed
like the same creature to me and both represented self-righteous
Yankees. While I had never liked Bush much before, at least he
wore a cowboy hat and was disliked by the Rockefeller Republicans
and Northeastern liberals that populated campus. That was enough
for me. I came to view the election as more of a culture war than
an event that would make any real difference in the nature of
the federal government. I took it way too personally. The feeling
that Bush was “my guy” eventually led to my support (or denial)
of so many policies that I never would have supported under Al
Gore. So in my revolt against the statism and elitism on campus,
I ended up supporting, at times blindly, a president who I didn't
even like as a candidate a year earlier. It was not a sign of
great reason on my part, although the insanity would get worse
before it got better.

September
11th came while I was beginning my junior year. Driving along
an abandoned New Jersey Turnpike a few hours after the attacks
was a spooky experience. I was completely transformed, along with
so many other conservatives, into a full-fledged neocon hawk.
Sadly, emotions began to guide my thoughts about government thereafter.
Along with the rest of “Jacksonian America,” I was united behind
the president and everything he was trying to do to protect us
including the Patriot Act, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Deep down, I
was always suspicious of the Patriot Act and any move toward a
police state, but I had been filled with a dull trust in government.
I continued to stand behind everything that Bush was doing for
national security. I might not have been thrilled about the rapid
growth of domestic spending, but that seemed like small potatoes
compared to providing for national security.

The Bright
Side of my Princeton Years

Fortunately
there was a lot more to my college years than despairing over
statist politics and elitist culture before capitulating to government
worship. Outside of engineering labs and politics, I had mostly
enjoyable times. The most enjoyable times were traveling to the
South every spring break to play baseball. Escaping the frigid
and socialist Northeast for a week of sun and top-notch competition
in the Carolinas was usually the highlight of each year. My visits
to Dixie were especially enjoyable because the weather and the
people always reminded me of home. The temperate winter weather
(contrary to popular belief) and amiable people in Colorado have
a lot in common with the South.

Finally getting
around to taking the economics classes that I had been instructed
to take was another positive part of my college career. While
I'm trying to forget some nebulous concepts like externalities,
market failure, velocity of money, and public goods, as well as
Keynesian monetary and fiscal policy, I was able to come away
with a serious interest in economics. Soon enough I became a student
of Austrian economics.

In general,
Princeton was probably less political than some of its peer institutions,
especially Yale and Harvard. To its credit, Princeton hasn't spawned
a President of the United States since Woodrow Wilson. Meanwhile
Yale has the dubious honor of having controlled the White House
for the past 16 years, with at least four more to come. It seems
that Princeton graduates are more likely to be found on Wall Street
than inside the beltway, although one could argue that this
is worse
.

This Side
of Paradise

A little
over a year ago my four-year journey up and down the East Coast
and across the political spectrum came to an end and I returned
home to Colorado. Living outside of a socialist incubator, working
full time, and reading Austrian economics was sure to doom the
newfound neoconservatism of my late college years. Such a contradiction
couldn't live forever, and was bound to go the way of the Soviet
Union. The implosion began as it become increasingly obvious that
Iraq didn't have stockpiles of WMD ready to destroy Denver. As
a conservative, it became impossible to justify a war that was
never about self-defense. Still, I tried to reassure myself that
I had not been misled, looking for justification in Charles Krauthammer's
Democratic
Realism
." However, there was no reassurance to be found, just
as there was no “realism” involved in his Wilsonian plan to bring
democracy to the world. Pat Buchanan's, “No
End to War
” seemed like a much more realistic assessment of
the neoconservative vision. So I had come full circle, and more,
from my early college days. I had been “bureaucratized” and converted
into a neocon while in school. Thankfully, returning to Colorado
and having to pay taxes woke me up to an enormous government deficit
and an overstretched empire.

What's
to Come?

Early in
my college years I was always amazed that people, especially conservatives,
could be so dismissive of the liberty and freedom that our country
was founded on. In my neocon phase, I wondered why privileged
liberals seemed to hate America when they were so much better
off here than almost anywhere else in the world. I still believe
this, but my idea of what it means to love America has changed.
I love the idea of liberty in which our republic was conceived,
my grandfather who came to this country looking for opportunity
and my own father who helped provide me with so many of those
opportunities. I love the entrepreneurial spirit that lives in
this country and continues to provide such a wonderful standard
of living. For me, loving America means loving all of the things
that make it great, not the central state that drives it toward
the abyss. I can only hope that other conservatives will come
to feel the same way.

July
1, 2004

Mark Siano
[send him mail] is a
graduate of Princeton University and is currently working as an
electrical engineer in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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