[Guest post by Leviticus]
To everyone who donated his or her hard-earned money to our daughter Shirley – Patterico, Simon Jester, nk, aphrael, Colonel Haiku, felipe, kishnevi, Jeff Lebowski, and a number of anonymous donors – my wife and I would like to thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Your donations are the beginnings of her 529 college fund. I find it a surreal and profound honor that so many of you have invested your money in the education of my daughter, after investing nearly twelve years of your time in educating me.
To thank Patterico for organizing this collection for my daughter, I asked that he give me the opportunity to write a post describing what this site has meant to me over the years. He was gracious enough to oblige.
I am twenty-eight years old, now. When I first stumbled across Patterico’s Pontifications, in September of 2006, I was seventeen – surfing the web from a computer lab at the University of New Mexico. In December of 2005, I had dropped out of high school. I then spent a semester at a local community college while I studied for my SATs, and began at the University in August of 2006.
In his post, Patterico recalled me being “precocious” and “feisty.” This is a nice way of saying that I was a brat. I was self-conscious in the extreme, a crystalized percolation of moral anxiety and self-doubt, masked with a sheen of bravado and liberal politics. I knew little about the world, and less about myself, and as a result I was desperately invested in the idea of being the smartest guy in the world. This was obviously a wobbly peg on which to hang something so heavy as an identity. But I will say one thing in defense of my insecure, smarmy seventeen-year-old self: I had the instinct to engage, and an intuitive belief in the notion that “iron sharpens iron.”
I waded into the comments of this blog, with my untested boilerplate political beliefs, and I got schooled a lot. I still remember exchanges with a commenter named Pablo, who schooled me harshly and repeatedly. I also remember many exchanges with DRJ, who schooled me more graciously – frequently reminding me that I would “catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
Those sorts of exchanges, with Pablo and DRJ and Patterico and nk and Eric Blair and many others, quickly and effectively stripped me of the last vestiges of the idea that I was the smartest guy in the world – or even the room, for that matter. At that stage of my life, that was absolutely the most valuable lesson that I could learn. I have come to believe that humility – what James Baldwin called “the Descent” or “paying one’s dues” – is the necessary precursor to the development of mature identity, and I learned my first lessons in humility here. I also saw a sort of operational humility exemplified in the commenting styles of people like aphrael and DRJ and Machinist.
With the help of Patterico and this group, I began to deconstruct and reconstruct many of my political beliefs. I struggled deeply with questions that deserved deep struggle – justice and war, the rule of law, moral absolutism and moral relativism, checks and balances, the separation of powers, taxation, the police power, the death penalty, textual interpretation, the value of human life, and (perhaps most concretely) the value of human discourse. I did not discover many answers, but I discovered the inestimable value of asking genuine questions. I carried my newfound uncertainties into my classrooms, and profited immensely from them.
I got a little older. I was exposed to Discourse Ethics and communitarianism, which made more sense to me than any other ethical systems I had previously contemplated, and cast my appreciation for this community and its moderators in a new and theoretically grounded light. I graduated and went to law school, where I was encouraged to question everything but the legal system itself. I developed bad habits that led to good friendships. I expanded my understanding of myself by beginning to learn about relationships. I made my first serious life choices, and many mistakes as a result of accepting that challenge. I witnessed and analyzed so much government misconduct and hypocrisy that I began to see the State as the great enemy of human freedom. Throughout all of it, I continued to participate in the discourses of this community – less frequently, perhaps, but no less intently.
One of the things I always appreciated most about Patterico’s blog was its emphasis on process over outcome. In all of my years here – even in the beginning, where I was most intent on being a liberal amongst conservatives – I never viewed it as a place where discussions were driven by any particular substantive agenda, so much as a devotion to principles of consistency, patience, and reciprocal good-faith amongst participants. I always appreciated that my dissenting views were actively engaged, rather than arbitrarily silenced. I witnessed the development of customs that were indicative of that collective mindset: the notion of restating another’s position to his or her satisfaction, for instance, before proceeding to address it. I have come to recognize that as a rarity. There are not many forums remaining, online or offline, for good-faith disagreements or devotion to process over outcome. Most communities pursue an end, by any process; frequently, I witnessed this community defend a process, to any end.
It has been disheartening, if not downright terrifying, to witness the speed and enthusiasm with which America has cast aside the values of discourse and reciprocal good-faith in the past two years. Those values must, in my estimation, be the cornerstone values of any self-governing group of human beings – who must self-govern by some form of legitimate consensus if they are to self-govern at all. Perhaps it was always inevitable, given my relatively short life and my relatively long history here, that I would come to see this place (of all places) as a microcosm of political America, and a small but important arena in which one little skirmish in the battle for America’s soul could be fought. And perhaps it is fitting, then, that I should be writing this letter to all of you at this moment, where that battle has reached the doorstep of our community and singed some of its inhabitants.
I have a wife and a daughter, now, and my personal stake in the outcome of that battle for America’s soul is exponentially magnified. I can no longer afford to take a hands-off approach to the wellbeing of America’s soul. As such, the arenas in which that battle will be fought – like this one – take on a new and intense importance for me, and I will endeavor to honor them as forums in which the high ideals of discourse must be mindfully applied. I have not always adhered to the ethics of discourse these past months, due to frustration and confusion, but I hereby recommit myself to them.
It has been a true privilege to participate in discourses with so many of you over the past twelve years, and it is important for me to acknowledge that engagement in political discourse is not a privilege that all Americans are lucky enough to have. I want to ensure that my daughter has this privilege, when she is old enough to exercise it and appreciate. If we want to expand the circle of American discourse as widely as possible, to extend this privilege to as many of our fellow citizens as possible, then we should renew our vows here, in this forum, and then carry them outward.
A few years ago, I stumbled across a quote from Emerson that has articulated and informed my ends and means ever since: “I grasp the hands of those next to me, and take my place in the ring to suffer and to work, taught by an instinct, that so shall the dumb abyss be vocal with speech.” This community taught me many of my earliest lessons in that ethos, and I hope to pass those same lessons along to my daughter.
Again, I extend my sincerest thanks, and the sincerest thanks of my wife, to all of you who have invested in our child’s future. It takes a village, and I’m glad we have one, here and beyond.
UPDATE BY PATTERICO: I thank Leviticus for this wonderful post and for his years of readership and commentary. It’s very touching on a personal level to read about the effect that the site has had on the development of a younger person. I’d like to thank once again the people who contributed to the future of young Shirley. And in the spirit of the post, I’d like to admit my own sins in failing at times to adhere to the ideals Leviticus here describes, and join hands with him in recommitting to my very best effort to adhere to them going forward.
Leviticus also sent pictures of Shirley (including one with Leviticus himself). Here they are:
She is adorable!
[Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.]