"The Conservative Gene" by Robin A. Dembroff

The writer is aggrieved. She is regularly engaged in good conversations that turn sour. Take a friendly dialogue she was having about the appropriate sex education curriculum in public schools. Everyone was behaving admirably, she says, until her interlocutors became privy to her secret: she never attended public school. “If I was home-schooled,” she writes, “I probably had conservative parents, so surely I grew up indoctrinated with Republican propaganda. Upon that logic, my opinion was flagged as the incurably biased but inevitable result of my upbringing.”

She goes on to acknowledge that her opinions were shaped by what she was taught growing up and closely resemble the opinions of her parents. “But if a belief were true, a discriminating person would maintain it,” she argues. In principle, she is absolutely right: It’s problematic to stereotype people based on the circumstances of their upbringing. And being raised with a belief or conviction doesn’t itself make it any less valid.

This is, however, a ten page essay, and certain of its assumptions kept raising my eyebrows. The author writes as if being prejudged, stereotyped, and treated dismissively in political sparring matches are unpleasant experiences that afflict conservatives alone, whereas actually they’re known to every American who ventures outside his or her own subculture. As a reader, I kept wanting to tell her, “Take heart, you aren’t nearly as put upon as you imagine!” Perhaps post-collegiate life will better expose her to this lesson. I am not sure whether she’ll feel better or worse when she discovers that whoever you are, political discourse in the United States is largely an endeavor where people with whom you disagree try to discredit your opinion by flagging it as incurably biased.

Innocence on that point is a great scourge of young conservative writers. Never in human history has a group so advantaged gone so far to cast itself as victim. Ms. Dembroff has a minor and entirely curable case of this affliction, or so it seems from the stories we’re offered — in personal essays, there is always the possibility that a false note is a problem of style rather than substance. Let us begin with her description of the environment where she was home-schooled.

It is said that some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth; I was born with Rush Limbaugh in my ear. I have conservative Christian parents, grew up in a conservative Christian town, and now attend a conservative Christian university.
My sister, Ellen, and I were home-schooled for almost the entirety of K-12. During that time, we followed curriculum that included Bible and—oh, the scandal!—creation science. To my retrospective amusement, we studied these subjects in a room where a framed photograph of Ronald Reagan hung on the wall… when Reagan wasn’t in office. Pro-life literature, World magazine, and Limbaugh’s bestsellers stood prominently on the shelves, and I even recall enjoying a children’s book titled Ump’s Fwat, which I now realize was an allegorical lesson in the values of free-market capitalism.
I have memories of my mother crying when Clinton was elected (both times)… Both of them seriously considered stocking up on canned goods and toilet paper when Obama clinched the presidency in 2008.

On reading that, I thought, If that’s how she describes home-schooling to people, no wonder they suspect that she’s been indoctrinated by the political beliefs of her parents! Isn’t it rational to mistrust an educational environment if all the information you’re given about it is ideological? And that its teacher cried over a presidential election? I’d ask the author to imagine meeting a 22 year old who described his home-schooling experience in Berkeley, California. If told only that his family’s bookshelves held The Communist Manifesto, The People’s History of the United States, pro-choice literature, The Nation magazine, an allegorical children’s book that taught socialism, and a framed Trotsky portrait — and that the teacher cried the day Ralph Nader lost in 2000 — would she wonder if the student emerged with an incomplete perspective?

Other times I wondered whether the author’s peers were even as antagonistic to home schooling as she believed them to be. Consider another scene. Dembroff is at a local community college, where she gets into a conversation about whether marijuana should be legalized. “You wouldn’t want the cops crashing your parties,” a fellow student said.

She replied that she didn’t care much, never having thrown or attended those kinds of parties.

“But you’ve smoked pot, right?” he demanded. “There’s no way you got through high school without trying pot.”

“I’m still in high school,” she said. “I’m home schooled — I’m taking community college classes for high school credit.”

His response: “Oh.”

She writes, “His tone had been tight and defensive, nearing an exasperated squeak. It instantly relaxed. ‘Oh.’ In that one sound echoed a lengthy verdict: Well it all makes sense now. You’re homeschooled. You don’t know how things are, and you probably parrot anything your parents tell you.”

I wasn’t there. Maybe I’m wrong. But I can’t help but wonder if just maybe the ‘oh’ had a different subtext, maybe something like, “Oh, you’re in high school! You’re younger than I thought. And I’m in college. Though I was in high school just a couple years ago myself, ever since I arrived here, I’ve felt so much older and more experienced than those high school kids. Funny how quickly we college kids feel superior, isn’t it? No wonder you don’t worry about your parties getting busted for weed. You still live with your parents!”

Of course, this example is also faulty on the merits. Much as home-schooled high school students from conservative religious families are entitled to their opinion of marijuana legalization, having smoked the substance oneself — or even being around a lot of other people doing so — is arguably relevant to the debate. Put on the show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, I’d definitely call a home-schooler for help on a question about Greek philosophy.

But a question about the social effects of smoking marijuana? I’ll take an audience full of secular public high school graduates, thanks!

The next example of anti-conservative animus occurs as the author attends an anti-abortion rally on a college campus. “Have you ever had sex?” a counter-protester asks. “After you’ve been a single mother on the street you can come back with your right wing religious trash.” On substance, I agree with the author: this is an unkind, wrongheaded thing to say. But come on. Abortion is the most fraught issue in American life. Few people on either side of the debate are cool-headed and rational when it’s being discussed. The sort of guy who picks abortion arguments with people protesting on the street is still less likely to engage in rational conversation. This doesn’t say something larger about prejudice against conservatives or religious people or pro-lifers or home schoolers. The lesson to take away here is about the contentious nature of the abortion debate.

In some circles, being a conservative has a stigma, as does being religious. I’ve heard people scoff at home-schooling too. It’s a shame. I’m against this sort of prejudging.
The author says that in her hometown, Visalia, California, there are more churches than cars (this is not literally true) and there are residents “who think that any Californian south of Bakersfield is a Los Angeles liberal, and anyone north of Fresno is a Bay Area hippie.” She attends a college whose Web site affirms that “all faculty, staff and students are professing Christians.” I happen to have visited Visalia, and I know several people whose alma mater is Biola. Like every other subculture in America, the people within them — many are conservative and Christian — prejudge people unlike them, and too easily dismiss political arguments contrary to their own.

I’d be very sympathetic to an essay complaining about these pathologies generally. I do not understand why such an essay should instead focus on the plight of home-schoolers from the right side of the ideological spectrum, especially if Dembroff’s victimhood is nothing more than what is described in the essay’s anecdotes.