Somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, or at least their formal boundaries, I became something of a proto-SJW, railing against sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and various other things that bore the suffixes “ism” and “obia”. (Not transphobia, as I recall. That wasn’t such a thing back then.) Frankly, I was a little twerp, but if there was one thing slightly unusual about my case it was that I was a convert. Before, I had been an obnoxious Christopher Hitchens fanboy – the kind of “contrarian” who shared all of his opinions – but this phase had spluttered to half after I had belatedly grappled with the monumental horrors of Iraq. Reevaluating my opinions was important. Unfortunately, I endured a bout of Convert’s Syndrome.
Convert’s Syndrome is a curious affliction. It comes in different forms but typical symptoms include rapid, unstable changes of opinion, overcompensation, sanctimoniousness and memory loss. “One cannot see Convert’s Syndrome in isolation,” said Doctor Reese O’Nable of the Maydup Clinic, “In most cases it is the result of sufferers trying to treat the symptoms rather than the causes of an underlying condition.” People who accept that there are problems with their perspectives change object-level beliefs without interrogating their disordered premises. Thus, an attention-seeker switches from one extreme belief system to another without addressing their desire to be sensational. Conformists reject low-status beliefs for more fashionable views without evaluating their desire to fit in. This problem is exacerbated by the complacence that comes from the assumption of one’s newfound righteousness, as well as the desire to assert it to one’s newfound friends.
Take the talkshow host Dave Rubin. Once a bland left-liberal on the roster of The Young Turks, he soon became a bland classical liberal on the payroll of the Kochs. Rubin’s ideological superficiality has become a running joke, with the comedian and Mixed Martial Arts commentator Joe Rogan exposing his anti-regulatory fundamentalism with such ease that it makes the classic Johnny Rhodes versus Fred Ettish UFC beatdown look hard-fought. Whereas Rubin might have once admired smooth talking leftist blowhards like Cenk Uyger, host of The Young Turks, he now admires smooth talking right-wing blowhards like Candace Owens. Rubin’s object-level opinions might have changed, but his philosophical vacuity endures.
Take Max Boot, the war enthusiast and headwear model who rejected conservatism over the failure of conservatives to oppose President Donald Trump. One can understand opposing Donald Trump, of course. What is beyond understanding is how Mr Boot ignores the question of whether the populism he despises might have been enabled by the neoconservative policies that he promoted. It is like Dr Frankenstein joining an anti-monster NGO without considering his role in its creation.
Take Arthur Koestler. The author of Darkness At Noon was as enthusiastic in his communism as he was enthusiastic in his anti-communism, and as energetic in his Zionism as he was eccentric in his anti-Zionism. Compared to him, famous contrarians like Christopher Hitchens were models of consistency. It is not surprising that he was a promiscuous cad in his private life, as he was, in the words of his biographer Michael Scammell, a “Casanova of causes”. The causes changed but what never eased was Koestler’s “thirst for the absolute,” which he ultimately quenched with fond belief in ESP and levitation.
In my article “What Conservatism Isn’t” I explained that in my early twenties I had moved to the right but that a conversion story would be self-indulgent. It would be also be dull. There was no Damascene moment in which Russell Kirk stuck his head out of the clouds and called me to conservatism. There was just a lot of reading, and writing, and thinking, and a slow and painful process which will never really finish.
God knows, it would be hubristic for me to insist that I have settled on the wisest, cleverest opinions but I did at least avoid another fit of Convert’s Syndrome, and the main reason for that was the laboriousness of the progress. If there is a God, He might reveal himself in a moment of profound enlightenment but there is no one realisation to be made that should transform a political perspective. Belief systems are not built on clear truths that might hit one like an snowball to the skull but deep layers of premises that take time and effort to understand, evaluate and, perhaps, rebuild.
The most essential advice that I could give to someone who believes that their political opinions have been wrong, then, is not to embrace a new set of them too soon; not to ingratiate oneself with another in-group just because they seem appreciative and welcoming. There is a lot of value in being a convert. While it might take some courage to reject old friends and allegiances, one is almost certain to find an audience among people who dislike the opinions we once held. We enjoy being told that we were right along, and people being convinced of this assures us that the winds of change are in our favour. This is not, of course, to say that converts need to be cynical but the promise of a platform and a sympathetic hearing introduces a niggling bias into the equation. It can be courageous to say that one has been wrong, but it can be even more courageous to admit that one is unsure of what is right.