Thursday, October 05, 2006

Steve Beren, changer extraordinaire: from Socialist to Republican

When I read that ultraliberal Jim McDermott's eminently safe seat in the mostly-Seattle 7th District of Washington was being challenged by a Republican who was actually attempting to mount some sort of viable campaign, I was intrigued. And I was further intrigued when I learned that the challenger, Steve Beren, is no ordinary Republican.

McDermott, one of the most antiwar and far Left members of Congress, has got himself quite an opponent, one who is aware of the steeply uphill battle he faces and but is nonetheless uniquely equipped to fight it with vigor. And that is because Beren himself is no stranger to the far Left. In fact, he was a card-carrying member of it--and I mean that quite literally.

I wondered how this former Marxist, former atheist, and former antiwar activist ended up a hawkish Republican as well as a self-described patriot and Christian. I decided to interview Mr. Beren, who graciously consented to allow himself to be recorded. Here is an approximate transcript of the first portion of that interview (the second will follow tomorrow).

My emphasis was less on the Congressional campaign itself--although you can (and should! Beren for Congress!!!) follow the Beren link and read all about it--than on Beren's remarkable process of change, both political and personal.

NEO (N): What influenced the formation of your early political opinions?

BEREN (B): I was a high school junior and senior in 1967-1968, and the Vietnam War was the main political issue of the day, bar none. At that time I was--not unlike most members of my generation--near draft age, and vulnerable to pacifist arguments that war was unjustified. Around that time I also read Orwell's 1984—which of course is a critique of dictatorships, but also of any government, the false intentions of government, and the misuse of language by government.

Lyndon Johnson’s government was under a barrage of criticism for the war, and that book made me susceptible to arguments that our government had bad intent. I took part in demonstrations in high school, and I witnessed clashes with police. The demonstrators may have purposely clashed with them, but that wasn't apparent to me as a participant—-and so the accusations that fascism was around us seemed true. Then I got on a lot of committees, including the Peace and Freedom Party, and eventually I joined the Young Socialist Alliance in 1968, my freshman year at City College of New York. I was ready for far Left activity and I stayed committed to that for a goodly amount of time.

[N]: Do you think you were rebelling against your family? Or were you raised in this sort of political atmosphere?

[B]: My own family were Democrats; a little bit antiwar, but not activists of any sort. Initially, at 12 or 14 I'd supported the war, back when Johnson was first sending more troops. I remember having a discussion with my mother in the 1964 campaign--she supported Johnson because she thought Goldwater was going to send troops. But I told her Johnson was likely to do the same thing.

[N}: So it turned out you were a good prognosticator, even at that age. When did your change happen, and why?

[B]: Well, I was a Young Socialist, as I said—-obviously, I didn’t remain a young Socialist—but I joined the Socialist Party in 1970. And I was a supporter till early 1991. In December of 1990 I resigned, stating I hadn’t changed my mind--I was still a committed Socialist, I’ve been doing this 22 years. But now I’ll do it from the sidelines and be an active supporter, but not a member anymore.

[N]: So your fling with Socialism wasn't just a youthful flirtation--you were in for the long haul.

[B]: You know, when you go to college campuses these days, you'd think the Greens were the future of the electorate. Well, when I joined the Socialists, you’d think the same thing. It was the heyday of Cleaver and the Black Panthers and you'd wonder--is that the future of the country? The answer is yes, unless they change their minds and vote for Reagan twice. Most people change their minds.

A lot of people went from Socialism to left liberalism, and those people went into Hollywood, or teaching, or social work, for example. But some continued their activities. In my case, I had no other career. I didn’t do what normal people do---have a career, a family, establish oneself. Most people may have political views, but they’re a human being first. But I was a Socialist organizer first—

[N]: So you were a true believer--

[B]: Yes, an activist and a believer.

1990 was the year that Socialism was failing all over world. I didn’t think that way, but in retrospect it affected me, as great events do. So I finally did what most people do when they graduate college—-got a middle class job, saved money, and I found out I was good at it. I was making the transition most people make after college.

1n 1992 I still thought about voting Socialist—but I voted for Clinton. I became a Democrat almost out of reflex. Around 1993 I did another thing (at 40) that most people do when younger-—I examined spirituality, thought about religion, read about religion. 1993-1995 was a very heavy transition period for me, and in 1995 I became evangelical, and I started attending church.

My career advanced and my Christianity advanced. Over the next few years I considered myself no longer a Socialist, I was a patriot, pro-military. I considered this compatible with liberalism, and I described myself as a liberal Democrat. I was also a managerial worker. My ex-Socialist friends broke off relationships with me—-you didn’t get that sort of job unless you were undercover.

[N]: To your friends you’d already gone over to the dark side. But it seems your change process happened fairly slowly.

[B]: Yes. Some say it was like Paul on the road to Damascus, but it took much longer.

[N]: It was a long and winding road to Damascus.

[B]: When I speak from knowledge on my tour, as an insider, people say, "Oh great, 190-degree turn overnight." But it wasn’t; it was a slow and gradual turn. I didn’t become a Republican till the Bush reelection campaign in '04.

[N]: That turn--liberal Democrat to Republican Bush-supporter--was almost as big a turn as the other, Socialist to liberal Democrat. How did the recent one come about?

[B]: We all were traumatized by 9/11. I’m a native New Yorker who's lived in Seattle since 1987. I knew people who died at the WTC. It was impossible to believe, shocking. The difference between 9/11 and 12/7/41 [Pearl Harbor] is that with 9/11 some people went into denial, and therein lies our disunity.

After 9/11, I was thinking “I’m a patriot.” To me it was a December 7th moment. But I knew there was an antiwar movement waiting in the wings, who would seek to disrupt the unity. When I mentioned that fact back then, everyone was shocked. It was thought to be a quirky point of view. I called up Barry Farber, a New York talk show host from the past whose show I’d appeared on before. He'd been the voice of New York talk radio for conservatives in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

I called him--he was elderly now--and asked, “Do you remember me?” I'd been on his show a lot in the past as a Socialist, a union guy. I said I want to speak as a former antiwar person on why I support this war, and against disunity. That started to lead to my transition. At that time everyone was still agreeing. But soon the antiwar movement grew and disunity began.

I contacted every blogger and talk show I knew of, and Young Democrat and Young Republican chapters, saying, "Here’s my bio, here's my website, I want to come to your campus and speak." And already, at that early time, I got lots of hate mail from the Young Democrats: don’t send me that, you’re a traitor.

[In Part II, coming tomorrow, Beren describes his post-9/11 activities and further change experience, and how his knowledge of thinking and strategies on the Left-- gleaned from two decades of his own intense Leftist activism and study--gives him a special knowledge of the tactics, goals, and arguments on the Left.]

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