It’s who you meet while you’re there.
I love that moment, when everything you know is turned on its head and suddenly you realize everything you thought you understood wasn’t wrong, but oh so wholly incomplete. You sit, not daring to speak, just listening to ideas expressed so articulately that it simultaneously fortifies and challenges the foundation of your every conception of the topic at hand.
With a blank expression, you sit as someone else explains everything you ever tried to say, but shorter and clearer than you could ever imagine.
And then, you speak. And in doing so, you engage in the most mentally stimulating conversation you ever dared to enter. It’s more than just academic wonder. One can learn things anywhere, but there is some kind of excited, accelerating learning process that engages when someone who thinks just similarly enough to you to make the nuanced arguments lively and divisive.
It’s the most invigorating and safest place to ask new questions, because you can’t get away with anything, but the other person really isn’t interested in destroying the base of your thesis, just the structure your argument.
This kind of setting is almost surreal. I don’t often get to spend much time with people who think like me, and even less who can truly understand how my experiences as a conservative at Wes have created a deep craving for this kind of company.
Thursday night, I went to a meeting and ate dinner with several economists and what my friends only half-jokingly called the entire French (classical) liberal movement. It’s hard to think of a country that could produce an author with such clarity as Frederick Bastiat could be what it is today, but as I sat and looked around the room during their meeting (I had nothing else to do, since I don’t speak French) I noticed a few things.
The framed photo of Milton Friedman on the fireplace mantle gave me the assurance that while I really had no idea what they were talking about, I really was at a gathering of classical liberals in France (something which I was would not have believed existed if I wasn’t friends with several of them).
I’ve had a lot of ugly thrown at me and dealt with even more stomach flipping anger and frustration, but these people deal with more on a daily basis than I have ever faced. France is about the size of a million Wesleyans.
On the way home my friend’s husband explained to me how he’s able to communicate his classical liberal message in a way that people can begin to understand. He does it through his work on France’s national security and emergency preparedness. I didn’t initially get the connection he was making, but as he it explained it, it blew my mind.
The greatest obstacle in trying to explain why I think as I do to someone with an entirely different opinion is getting them to follow an argument argued from an entirely different perspective. With different frames of mind, it’s hard to understand where someone is coming from.
I’ve worked hard to enter the (American version of the) liberal frame of mind, and while I have had many a eye rolling experience, I can respect it, however vehemently I disagree with it.
But getting people to follow where I’m coming from, that is so much harder. To do so, you have to start where their thinking is at and succinctly work your way back to the conclusions you were making in the first place.
But that’s what everyone was doing that night. Talking about who they should endorse for president, if anyone. Discussing how to get their message across. Listening to Jean-Baptiste explain how he is able to put his libertarian chalkboard economics into practice and communicate it in such a way that it can begin to be accepted by the non-Hayek loving French population made me smile inside.
It was like observing all the activism I learned at LI and the intellectualism I was exposed to at ISI working together, perfectly.
Though I doubt I would have fully understood the conversations, even if they had been in entirely in English, the topics discussed, questions posed, and problems addressed that night made me feel more at home than I’ve been in such a long time.
I always counted myself among the big dreamers, but hanging out with these guys made me think that just maybe my little five-point plan for my life might be selling myself short. Because however far I might have already come means nothing in comparison to where I can go from here.
While reflecting on all I had done that day, an after dinner, midnight walk down the Champs Elysee with Coralie, Jean-Baptiste, and one of the guys I met that night made me realize whether it’s Wesleyan, New York, Madrid, or Paris, it really doesn’t matter how you go; just who you meet while you’re there.