Not everyone’s political choices are going to make sense to those around them, and it is easy to vilify others for making decisions with which you do not agree. As an unapologetically staunch Democrat at a largely liberal institution, I find myself surrounded by people who think like myself. It is quite easy for me to fall prey to making such assumptions about those who place themselves across the aisle, often essentializing them in my mind into this singular, unfavorable conglomerate. Here’s one person whose story challenges that conception.
Best known for his scathing op-eds breaking down the Washington, D.C. political scene, Jeffery McNeil has never been one to keep his opinions to himself. A self-reliant individual and dedicated columnist for Street Sense, a multimedia news outlet covering issues surrounding homelessness, McNeil pours himself into his pieces, working tirelessly on each one and expounding his beliefs even if they may be unpopular with his peers. But McNeil was not always so disciplined, and he was not always a writer.
At the age of 40, McNeil left New Jersey and came to D.C. with $30 in his pocket. Jobless, alone, barely literate, and plagued by addictions to drugs, alcohol, and gambling, McNeil found himself attracted to sheltered locations that gave him a place to go during the day; the district’s seemingly-ubiquitous libraries fit that description perfectly.
“When I was sleeping near Franklin Square, the Martin Luther King library was down the street, and the George Washington library was right by Miriam’s Kitchen,” McNeil explains. “I also went to the Library of Congress where you can get any book you want.”
Surrounding himself each day with more literature than he could ever hope to read, McNeil took advantage of this unlimited access to periodicals, reference texts, novels, and works of political theory to give himself the education he never got in high school. Ironically, although he had just moved to a city full of liberals, it was the conservative works that peaked his interest.
“When I first came down here, I was this bleeding heart, far-left progressive, but then I started reading up on economics — Milton Friedman, the Wall Street Journal. I started reading a lot of the Black conservatives like Thomas Sowell and Walter E. Williams, but I think the book that really changed me the most was the biography of Malcolm X.”
“I had always thought of Malcolm as a liberal, but he’s really a conservative. And it was the same type of philosophy about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps — like not wanting to be on welfare or on food stamps — that had a great influence on me.”
After seeing what he has seen, clawing his way back from poverty, fighting addictions, battling depression, and single-handedly educating himself, McNeil has become a strong proponent of organizations like Street Sense, liberal leaning as it may appear, that allow the homeless to help themselves.
“Either you give a man a fish, or you teach the man how to fish,” McNeil asserts. “I want to get people out of poverty instead of them being dependent on the government.”
This belief is one McNeil frequently incorporates into his biweekly column. Upon becoming a vendor in 2007, his newfound literacy granted him the opportunity to contribute to the paper, where his love for reading quickly transformed into a voracious appetite for writing. Building upon the theories of Freeman, Sowell, Williams, and X to tear fearlessly into various aspects of Washington politics, writing a regular column granted McNeil the discipline his life was missing; two years later, he was able to quit drinking for good.
During his 10-year tenure at Street Sense, McNeil has become an important voice for numerous D.C. news outlets. He writes regularly for Street Sense, and has been featured in smaller local publications whose coverage spans across the aisle including The Washingtonian and The Daily Independent Reader. Currently residing in his own apartment on Franklin Square, McNeil is now promoting himself as a freelance author and has just started working on his second book. He is an avid and active conservative. He has been sober for eight years.
I neither agree with nor support the vast majority of McNeil’s political views, but after hearing his story, his opinions are ones I respect. His story is one that stays with me when confronted with world views opposing my own, and his face is one I will always remember when considering perspectives that do not necessarily make sense in my own head. His beliefs are derived from experience, research, and intellectualism; who am I or anyone else to regard them as invalid? As Swatties, we formulate our own ideologies in the same way. Conversing with Jeffery was one of the most interesting and unexpectedly enjoyable experiences I have had discussing politics. Although it is far easier to surround yourself with people who think and vote exactly like yourself, you aren’t going to broaden your knowledge or that of anyone around you, by remaining inside what many of us affectionately refer to the “Swat bubble.”
At the same time, I know conservatives at this school who feel pressure to keep their opinions to themselves because they are regarded as an unpopular and unacceptable minority. This is not productive. Discourse across any spectrum, political or otherwise, is necessary for progress of any kind. In a country as polarized as ours, it disgusts me that informed, intellectual Swatties contribute to creating such a close-minded attitude. Refusing to interact with or getting angry at those who think differently will only make things worse. Instead, we could all benefit by seeking out more Jeffery McNeils; perhaps we can start with those who reside in our own community, those who feel their voices are unwelcome in Swat’s sea of blue.