Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeysby Mary Eberstadt
Political vicissitudes aside, with or without a conservative administration, whether or not America is engaged in war, or regardless of who next holds the majority either in Congress or the Court, the United States as a whole (as the infamous red and blue map made unforgettably clear) has boldly, unabashedly moved Right. But the question remains: Why? How did a movement that appeared so sidelined and embattled only a generation ago emerge as such a strong, influential, and enduring united front?
In Why I Turned Right, eminent and rising conservatives -- at odds themselves on a number of issues from religion, family, sex, to stem cell research, abortion, and war -- answer the question. And they answer it not through polemic, reactionary preaching, or rage, but in the most practical and sensible way possible: via the sharp, critical, and unfiltered voices and canny observations of uniquely positioned authors, editors, humorists, and political refugees inadvertently born of the sexual revolution and the PC movement, who ultimately landed on the conservative side of America's red-blue divide -- in some cases, much to their own surprise.
A fascinating intellectual journey, this "family of opinions," as contributor Peter Berkowitz terms it, represents the extraordinarily varied paths that have led these authors from the championed liberalism of their youth to eventually fuel the world of conservative think tanks, magazines, blogs, and book publishing.
Whether you are for the Right or against, guarded supporter or puzzled progressive, Why I Turned Right proves an entertaining, enlightening, and edifying read for anyone with an open mind -- both the red and the blue, and everyone in between.
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by Mary Eberstadt
This book is a unique attempt to answer a question that continues to confound many observers both American and otherwise: Why conservatism? It does so not through shrill polemic or high-decibel rage, but rather in the most practical and informative way possible: via the unfiltered voices of a dozen leading authors and editors of the contemporary right, including some of the best-known and most influential in the country. Peter Berkowitz, David Brooks, Joseph Bottum, Danielle Crittenden, Dinesh D'Souza, Stanley Kurtz, Tod Lindberg, Rich Lowry, Heather Mac Donald, P. J. O'Rourke, Sally Satel, and Richard Starr all tell their stories here. They explain how they came to reside on the conservative side of America's red-blue divide -- in some cases, to their own surprise.
The utility of such a volume in this particular political moment is evident. For one thing, following 9/11, two terms of George W. Bush, Democratic victories in fall 2006, and controversial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the mood on the right itself is one of introspection and soul-searching. For another, and despite significant disenchantment among some, the overall conservative realignment of the United States is still one of the biggest political stories of the past quarter century. It remains so with or without Bush in the White House, whether or not the American military continues its mission in Iraq, and regardless of who holds the next majority in Congress or on the Supreme Court. The November 2006 elections -- in which Democrats roundly prevailed by promising for the first time since Bill Clinton to govern from the center, and a handful of right-leaning Democratic candidates defeated Republicans unaccustomed to attack from that wing -- clinch the point about our political sea change. Whatever the particular fortunes of the Republican Party one year, two years, or five years hence, the United States as a whole has plainly moved right.
Yet even though many more Americans are now likely to self-identify as "conservative" rather than "liberal," the reasons for that transformation remain questions of enduring public wonder and scrutiny -- not least from Cambridge to San Francisco and everywhere blue in between. How did a movement that appeared sidelined and embattled only a generation ago come to exert such influence that even the Democratic Party now tacks starboard? What accounts for the unprecedented growth and reach of right-leaning think tanks, magazines, television, and radio? What, in short, has been happening out there such that so many Americans are now comfortable with the conservative label, or, conversely, so averse to contemporary liberalism?
During the last several years, any number of high-profile attempts to answer those questions have circulated from all political directions. Homegrown progressives have gone puzzling over their fellow citizens (Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, Jim Wallis's God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It), Englishmen have gone puzzling over Yanks (John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation), rank-breakers of all kinds have gone puzzling over everything from fellow conservatives to their former selves (Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, Francis Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads, Bruce Bartlett, Impostor). We have even seen one soi-disant latter-day Tocqueville (Bernard-Henri Lévy, American Vertigo) traverse the country and sally through its social classes from high to low, in part to divine the same political mystery. And still the question for many people -- especially, though not only, liberals -- remains: How can so many supposedly rational fellow citizens out there believe all that backward reactionary stuff?
That is exactly what our contributors, all leading lights in one way or another in the intellectual firmament of the current right, wish to explain here.
That such a book might make for interesting reading was a thought kindled in me some months back during a conversation with P. J. O'Rourke about the striking number of political conversion stories we each knew. We had in mind not the eminent converts of the preceding generation, many of whom had moved from youthful socialism through the liberalism of their time and on into neoconservatism -- Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and the rest -- but rather, the so-far-untold tales from those who came next. These "younger" writers like us, now roughly in middle age, had attended college in the postliberationist 1970s and 1980s, when liberal-left thinking was not the dominant game on campus, but in many places the only one. What had happened, we wondered, to push this new generation away from the "default" position embraced by so many of our campus peers?
This book is the result of pursuing that question, which I was particularly curious to see through for two reasons -- first, because the fact that I had also "traveled" in some political sense gave me a natural interest in it; second, because my past and present associations as editor or author at various journals and magazines (The Public Interest, The National Interest, the Weekly Standard, Policy Review, First Things) had given me some inkling already of how many more such stories might be out there.
Like me, the authors of the pages ahead know the right not only from the outside in, but also from the inside out. All represent in one form or another the venues through which many ideas are made and disseminated -- journals including National Review, City Journal, Commentary, and those others named above; think tanks, including the Hoover Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Manhattan Institute; "alternative" media like Fox News, nationalreview.com, and many other blogs and sites followed by conservatives. Thus, these contributors represent in miniature the generation now peopling the right-leaning think tanks and airwaves and internet and book and magazine publishing -- in a word, some of the human nuts and bolts of what Hillary Clinton once disparaged as the "vast right-wing conspiracy."
Of course "conservatism" in America is no monolith, and these pages reflect that reality, too. Their criterion for what is right is simply the obvious one: It's what those on the other side call you whenever you put your head up and they feel like taking a shot. As Irving Kristol observed two decades ago in Reflections of a Neoconservative:
The key ideological terms of modern political debate have all been either invented or popularized by the Left -- "liberal," "conservative," and "reactionary," "socialist" and "capitalist," "Left" and "Right" themselves -- so that it is extremely difficult for those on the non-Left to come up with an adequate self-definition....The sensible course, therefore, is to take your label, claim it as your own, and run with it.
And so we will do here. The practical fact is that if you are (for example) a fellow at the Hoover Institution, and write for the likes of Policy Review or any other journal that is not the New Yorker or the Nation, and publish anything at all, ever, that locates you to the right of, say, Michael Moore, then the New York Times will call you a "conservative" -- an "ultraconservative" if you really annoy them -- no matter what fine-tuned harrumphing variations with hyphens you yourself might prefer. "They" see "us" as a united front, and so for purposes of simplicity will we see ourselves here.
Naturally, reality on inspection could show otherwise. About any number of specific ideas -- the war in Iraq, immigration, gay marriage, stem cell research -- many conservatives, including those ahead, disagree. The perpetual tug of war between libertarianism and social conservatism, for example, runs firmly (if tacitly) between the lines of these pages, as could the tension between "democratism" and "realism" in foreign policy had these same authors been asked to debate the war in Iraq. Even so, one common denominator holds: These are not the only writers of their generation who could pen an essay explaining how they left the "default" position of left/liberalism behind to become something else. For every essay in these pages, any number by other authors with related con-version stories could have taken its place. That's how widespread the flight right has been. And that, in a way, is precisely the point of this book.
So what did happen to make the right the intellectual and political residence of these particular writers? Though their nuances and experiences differ, the tales told here do play variations on distinct themes.
For some, the answer begins in foreign policy -- or rather, in the excruciating national humiliation that they associate with the years 1976-80. "Jimmy Carter made me the conservative I am today, as I suspect he did many members of my generation." So summarizes Richard Starr, managing editor of the Weekly Standard, and so undoubtedly would many fellow travelers agree. Further specifying "a visceral reaction against the moral chaos and defeatism of the 1970s," Starr makes vivid this perhaps overlooked point about the reaction against the liberalism of that time: Something about a twenty-year-old, especially, does not love being told to suck it up and turn down the heat and blame yourself or America first -- and to put up with the hostage crisis because any proposed alternative to defeatism is bound to be worse.
In short, Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, as is widely held, may indeed have been unthinkable without Jimmy Carter, but Carter's influence in one perverse sense may have yet to be measured in full. For in the outcry against what he and his policies stood for, the American Spectator and any number of polemical imitators on campuses were born -- sharp, critical, and often shockingly funny vessels of the right that would go on to mock and deflate the worst of contemporary liberalism, and to influence and animate conservatism and create new converts, long after Carter and even Reagan himself had exited the scene.
A second factor making intermittent appearances in these journeys is the political fallout of plain old human experience -- including experience of some of the human wreckage brought on by the sexual revolution. Several years ago, in his novel A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe offered up a twentysomething character named Conrad Helmsley. The product of hippie parents and an adult world running pell-mell away from every convention, Conrad finds himself longing for exactly what the grown-ups have all so willfully abandoned: "He was not even eleven when he first began to entertain the subversive notion that 'bourgeois' might in fact be something he just might want to be when he grew up."
Order, convention, family life, religion, respectability, solidity: For some contributors, just seeing the postliberation scene up close and too personal was enough to cause them to think that Conrad Helmsley might be right -- including and perhaps especially those whose own stories owe more to St. Augustine, say, than to Cotton Mather.
Explains P. J. O'Rourke:
I was swept out to Marxist sea by a flood of sex.
I was trying to impress cute beatnik girls. Then, one day, I found myself washed up on the shore of jobs and responsibilities, and I was a Republican again....
Think of me as Michael Oakeshott without the brain.
The flip side of quotidian domestic experience is also cited by several writers: that is, the political effect of becoming a parent. "I became a conservative at 11:59 P.M. on December 4, 1997, the way many people become conservatives," reports O'Rourke again, now from the other side of the fence. "My wife gave birth." "As the parent of an eleven-year-old daughter," Dinesh D'Souza shares, "I am more socially conservative now than I ever have been. In fact, of late I've been thinking that I might need a gun." Further tying political evolution rightward not only to children but also to marriage, Danielle Crittenden writes, "We [modern humans] continue to maintain the illusion that we are entirely self-sufficient creatures whose destiny is fully in our own hands. That illusion doesn't hold up so well when you meet the man whose destiny you wish to share -- and shatters entirely when you become responsible for the destinies of new people whom you have given life."
Another factor cited in several essays is the sheer transformative power of conservative ideas -- past and present. "[Allan] Bloom framed the issues," writes former ACLU-style liberal Stanley Kurtz, "and in the process changed my life. The Closing of the American Mind gave voice to a thousand fugitive thoughts and feelings I'd only half-acknowledged for years." Similarly, Peter Berkowitz: "[Leo] Strauss's reconciliation of the critique of liberalism with the defense of liberal democracy left a lasting impression on me." Several writers share a streak of autodidactism made stronger by exposure via conservative journalism to persuasive, hitherto unknown texts. As Rich Lowry describes the process in his particular case:
I was led from references in National Review to certain books, which led in turn to more books. There were the basics, Barry Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative, Buckley's Up from Liberalism, Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind. But these were just an entrée. James Burnham's accessible polemic Suicide of the West -- a broad-gauged attack on liberalism, especially its foreign policy -- led me to his The Managerial Elite, a sophisticated work of sociology, and then on to The Machiavellians, a work of philosophy. Before I knew it, I was lounging away summer afternoons on the roof of my parents' back porch trying to follow Burnham's explications of the thought of Robert Michels and Vilfredo Pareto.
There is also the practical fact that some authors served apprenticeships at flagship journals including The Public Interest, American Spectator, The National Interest, and other publications of sufficiently high quality that their back issues are still livelier reading than most of what is published -- let alone blogged or posted -- today. Tod Lindberg, whose own editorial career has spanned numerous periodicals of the right, summarizes the excitement: "It's something entirely different to discover the world of the 'little' magazine, in which brilliant people bandied about ideas with robust incisiveness and great wit. This was news to me -- very good news."
If it is true, as many observers have remarked or complained depending on disposition, that conservatism has trumped liberalism in generating ideas these last few decades, the success of the right's nonconspiratorial apprentice system of the 1980s especially -- R. Emmett Tyrell's American Spectator in Indiana, Irving Kristol's tiny one-room Public Interest office in Manhattan, William F. Buckley's rather larger and also young and boisterous National Review quarters -- might be one overlooked reason why.
Similarly, and perhaps most dramatically, one other underacknowledged answer to "Why conservatism?" suggests itself repeatedly in the essays of Why I Turned Right: academia, or more properly the staggeringly uniform and unforgiving creed of ideological correctness against which almost every one of these writers sooner or later set his face.
In retrospect, that very kind of academy may turn out to be the real cradle of conservatism as we know it -- in a purely negative sense, that is. For one thing, and as psychiatrist Sally Satel's essay in particular makes clear, at least some baby boom/gen X writers turned right who might otherwise have stayed in the political middle -- because in elite academia from the late 1960s on, there was often no middle to be found. Just how monolithic those places were some twenty years ago -- or at least the chic precincts to which eager young generalists might be drawn -- can be seen in the pile-on of top-this academic anecdotes.
Heather Mac Donald's account of what deconstruction was perpetrating upon students at Yale during those years offers perhaps the most in-depth case study. With the literary treasures of Western civilization under attack by a host of European-inspired academic insurgents, she writes, "The university had abdicated its educational responsibility, leaving students to their worst instincts....Students rarely heard counterarguments to deconstruction's juvenile nihilism or learned why they would be better off sweating over Latin syntax and Gibbon than Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva." And Yale was far from alone in tenuring absurdity and ostracizing the sane. Elsewhere, Mac Donald summarizes:
Cringing administrators replaced the Western culture requirement with something suitably multicultural, and the criterion of excellence in the selection of academic material was forever abolished. Every other university, faced with copycat protests by barely literate teenagers, sacrificed its precious cargo of masterpieces with equally cowardly alacrity.
At Dartmouth, relates Dinesh D'Souza in one of the kinds of anecdotes that made the ground-breaking contrarian Dartmouth Review a cause célèbre, there was, among other problems:
....the radicalism of the feminist professors on campus. These women made statements to the effect that all males were potential rapists. One professor said she could barely walk around the Dartmouth campus because the tall tower of Baker Library upset her so deeply. To her, the tall buildings at Dartmouth were "phallic symbols." Apparently this woman's definition of a phallic symbol was anything that was longer than it was wide.
That kind of feminism so closely associated with the liberalism of the time -- that "spinsterish fear of the male sex drive," in Danielle Crittenden's phrase -- was naturally off-putting to some men, but not only to them. As Crittenden also writes of the then-dominant "difference feminists," "It's thanks to them that companies were forced to pay out millions of dollars in legal settlements because somebody made the wrong kind of joke over the water cooler. And it's thanks to them that so many young, confident women were put off by their wince-making brand of feminism." Like the political correctness to which it was aligned, extreme feminism appears to have had a jujitsu effect -- summoning by the sheer size and force of its wrongheadedness the very political reaction it sought to prevent.
In fact, so ideologically overboard was the overall American academic scene during the years in which most contributors passed through that one author, formerly apolitical science student Sally Satel, reports political awakening on account of something happening elsewhere:
There was one more formative event for me that had nothing whatever to do with me personally: the 1993 water buffalo case at the University of Pennsylvania. At the center of the incident was a hardworking freshman who was disturbed at night by rowdy African-American students outside his dorm room. He yelled at them to "shut up, you water buffalo" -- the student was Jewish and "water buffalo" was likely a loose translation of the word "fool" or "cow" in Hebrew or Yiddish. But many interpreted this unusual phrase as a racist slur of some sort. A politically correct conflagration ensued replete with toxic race politics, a show trial for the offending freshman, and enforcement of an Orwellian speech code that prohibited any behavior "that has the purpose or effect of...creat[ing] an intimidating...environment," according to university regulations.
Nor did matters necessarily look up if one were faculty rather than student. From Harvard, professor Peter Berkowitz reports:
I recall attending a faculty gathering shortly after I arrived in Cambridge in which [Harvey] Mansfield casually -- though with mischievous intent -- remarked that it was strange that liberals could not bring themselves to admit that the Cold War was a war and that the United States had won it. As if to confirm his point, the jaws of Mansfield's colleagues collectively crashed to the ground. And, as if on cue, they cast in his direction a collective dirty look, a mixture of fear and disgust, that I had seen before: in law school when I would ask about the holding of the case or the text of the Constitution as opposed to the desirable policy outcome we were debating; and in graduate school among faculty and students when I mentioned [Leo] Strauss.
To what do those common threads of disbelief and revulsion and subsequent political transformation amount? Simply this: The left/liberal monopoly on campus has had an unintended blowback indeed. It has inadvertently created some of the very political refugees whose work now fuels the world of conservative think tanks, journals, and ideas more broadly.
There is, finally, another factor mentioned by some contributors that is related to what drew them to the right, which is the relationship between contemporary conservatism and religious belief. Of course not all conservatives are religious, and not all religious people are conservative (as some on the left who want to harness that religiosity to Democrats are now spending a fair amount of time and money insisting). Yet as several essays in Why I Turned Right remind whether tacitly or otherwise, there is in fact something natural about that "fit" between the two.
There is, for one, the connection between conservatism's sense of human limitation and the similar understanding of religion. After all, the same "epistemological humility" cited by David Brooks as a pillar of his political views can be cast more widely than just the next appropriations bill. Or as P. J. O'Rourke makes the point rhetorically in discussing the largely unrecognized corollary arrogance of disbelief, "If I was so small that my comprehension was meaningless, what did that make my incomprehension?" Whether or not the case against God requires fewer prem-ises than the case for atheism, it certainly requires more chutzpah -- a kind of chutzpah of which many conservatives as such have learned to be suspicious.
A second reason for that fit is that religion requires something else which all nonlibertarian conservatism holds dear; it is, as Rich Lowry says, "the ultimate filial piety."
And of course a third reason for that "fit" -- as poet and First Things editor Joseph Bottum explains -- was and is abortion, and how the two political parties differ in viewing that subject. For though not all conservatives (including the contributors to this book) are pro-life, many are, and they are passionately so; and what is more important, between the silencing of pro-life governor Robert Casey in 1992 and the surprise election in November 2006 of his son, who also departs from the party line on abortion, the spectacle of a prolife Democrat was something like a celebrity sighting -- an event rarely occurring in the natural order, and typically to the embarrassment of the subject.
Moreover, for some contributors and also for many other conservative Americans, abortion on demand is not only wrong in itself but also linked to other dissolutions they identify with the left. "I also began to sense a deeper flight from responsibility in the boomers," writes Richard Starr. "Their precious 'right to choose,' for instance, more and more struck me as a right not to be weighed down by any obligation to another human being. It was as if life were a big game of Monopoly and abortion was their 'get out of jail free' card." It seems safe to say that just as some of today's conservatives appear to have been created because there was nowhere else to go intellectually, so will those who feel most powerfully about the "life" issue continue to tack right until the ideological near-monopoly on the left about abortion is broken once and for all.
To peruse these stories as editor is to hear any number of echoes of my own political journey, the same one that first led me to this book. Like most contributors, I headed off for elite education during the years when the very Western canon revered by this adolescent autodidact was being sacked by many in academic authority as purposefully (if perhaps less merrily) as Rome was by the barbarian hordes. Like contributor Heather Mac Donald, I knew enchantment and then disenchantment with the postmodernists in particular, driven sophisticates who apart from their own importance (and perhaps also the compulsive seduction of undergraduates) apparently believed in nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all. Like many contributors, too, I was protected by idiosyncratic factors against at least some of the ideological pathogens making the rounds. Catapaulted into the Ivy League by scholarships, I felt too privileged to join ranks with the permanently aggrieved. And toward radical feminism I proved especially immune. A sister outnumbered by brothers, I knew unshakably that men were more to be pitied than feared.
Most of all, however, like contributor Joseph Bottum and scores of millions of other people, what led once and for all and irretrievably away from the "default" zone of liberalism in my own case was that there was no getting around the fact of legal abortion. "Real conservatism," writes Bottum here, "usually begins when you find in yourself a limit, a place beyond which you will not go, and always for me it comes back to this touchstone." And always for me, too.
Though a lackadaisical apostate at the time, I read Roe v. Wade at the suggestion of Jeremy Rabkin (then one of Cornell's few conservative professors) and found myself thinking, This can't be right. I listened over the years as one hyphenated kind of feminist after another sounded weirdly full-throated cheers for the routine trashing of what was obviously some form of human life -- if not, why are we simultaneously having another national argument over using it for spare parts? -- and just as repeatedly I thought: This can't be right, either. And finally it became clear, one evening while watching a Stalinesque rigged "debate" on the subject in which a modest local Baptist preacher was put up against a Marcusian feminist and incessantly booed and jeered by a mob of hundreds even though he won every point, that my conviction had gone all the way over -- to Whatever else may be true or false, knowable or unknowable, this abortion thing just can't be right.
This can't be right: an intuitionist phrase does not a political philosophy make. But what started for me and, I believe, many other people weighing the real legacy of Roe went on to become something more -- a ground-up rethinking of many other political facts that supposedly enlightened people regarded as similarly self-evident, and that turned out on inspection to be anything but. And so I moved figuratively and literally. The Public Interest became my surrogate graduate school and Irving Kristol, my inadvertent substitute thesis advisor -- as he and other conservative and neoconservative thinkers of his generation have been for so many of the young people they hired, including some of the other writers in this book. There we imbibed what Richard Starr dubs the "parallel curriculum" that has proven to be modern conservatism's strongest asset: the essays and books of transformational thinkers such as Peter Bauer, Walter Berns, Allan Bloom, Whittaker Chambers, Robert Conquest, Midge Decter, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Sidney Hook, Paul Johnson, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Charles Murray, Michael Novak, Norman Podhoretz, Tom Wolfe, and others. To these I would add Hannah Arendt, Christopher Lasch, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Philip Rieff, and other iconoclasts more closely read on the right than on the left from which they hailed.
Just as reading the stories in this book as editor summons such past moments in my own parallel travels, so, too, I suspect, will many readers of Why I Turned Right experience similar moments of resonance. In the end, it is our collective hope that whether they are for the right or against it, enthusiastic supporters or disgusted critics, readers from all points of the spectrum will find items of interest in the pages ahead. After all, as numerous authors report, what drew them in the first place to the likes of Commentary and National Review and the American Spectator and The Public Interest and the alternative rest of the higher journalism was just that -- the writing.
And so we see here, I hope. Against the dour fanaticism and calculated malice of much current commentary, this volume is intended as a modest antidote, and its pages as entertainment and perhaps even illumination for readers both red and blue.
Copyright © 2007 by Mary Eberstadt
The Unthinking Man's
Guide to Conservatism
P. J. O'Rourke is a correspondent for the Weekly Standard, Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of a dozen books, including Republican Party Reptile, Parliament of Whores, Eat the Rich, and a forthcoming commentary on The Wealth of Nations for Grove/Atlantic Press.
Some people arrive at their political convictions through experience, some through study, some through thought. My political convictions are a result of thinking or, to be specific, lack thereof.
I was brought up in Republican circumstances, firmly grounded in convention. I was swept out to Marxist sea by a flood of sex. I was trying to impress cute beatnik girls. Then, one day, I found myself washed up on the shore of jobs and responsibilities, and I was a Republican again. No cognition, cogitation, or will seems to have been involved in my ideological spindrift. As both a radical and a reactionary I was moved by the forces of history and institutions. All those beatnik girls had a history. And many of them wound up institutionalized.
Think of me as Michael Oakeshott without a brain.
My maternal great-grandfather owned a farm in downstate Illinois. He was a county sheriff, a stalwart of the GOP, a friend of President McKinley's, and a breeder of harness racing horses. His dying words summarize my family's attitude toward the great sociopolitical issues that would shake the twentieth century: "How did Shorty do at the track today?"
His daughter, my grandmother, was ten when she began accompanying her father to Republican conventions. She never got over the shock of that blowhard easterner, Teddy Roosevelt, splitting the party and allowing such a man as Woodrow Wilson -- from a Confederate state! -- to become chief executive. As far as my grandmother was concerned, William Howard Taft was the last real Republican. In a moment of childish innocence I once asked her what the difference was between Republicans and Democrats. She said, "Democrats rent."
My father's family was, if anything, more Republican. My paternal grandfather was widowed and left with a business to run and six small children on his hands. He remarried more in haste than wisdom. The stepmother was insane. She left Uncle Joe out on the back steps until his diapers froze. Grandpa divorced her. Then as now there was a political aspect to getting an annulment. (The Kennedys seem to have a vending machine that dispenses them.) According to family lore, Grandpa and the local bishop clashed, and Grandpa went out and, in one day, joined the Methodist church, the Freemasons, and the Republican Party. He had a heart attack just before the 1960 election. At the funeral his sister, my great- aunt Helen, said, "It's a good thing your grandfather died when he did. It would have killed him anyway to see John Kennedy president."
Thus my life would have gone along perfectly well, politically speaking, if it hadn't been for girls. I found them interesting. They found me less so. On my first weekend at college I was walking down an alley that had a bar on either side. Each bar had a patio full of students. The girls on one patio were very attractive, their sweaters well-filled, their pleated skirts worn daringly above the knee, their blond hair styled in what was called a "sorority flip." They sipped demurely from beer mugs decorated with Greek letters.
But I wasn't athletic or handsome or a Sigma Chi legacy. And I had a feeling that, even if I were, getting such girls into bed would involve attendance at mixers and dances, romantic chat-up, fumbling under coats in the shrubbery while a house mother tsked out a window, bestowal of one's fraternity "pin" or even an engagement ring, and lots of talk about "our future."
The girls on the other patio were fetching as well, in their black leotards and peasant blouses, denim skirts and sandals. Their long, dark hair was ironed straight. They strummed guitars, smoked unfiltered cigarettes, and drank beer straight from the bottle. I thought, "I'll bet those girls do it."
They did. I went home at Christmas break with my hair grown long, wearing a blue-jean jacket with a big red fi st emblazoned on the back. My grandmother said, "Pat, I'm worried about you. Are you becoming a Democrat?"
"Grandma!" I said. "Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are both fascist pigs! Of course I'm not a Democrat! I'm a communist!"
"At least you're not a Democrat," said Grandma.
Having donned the clown costume, I found it easy to honk my dogma nose, squirt the progressive seltzer, and pile into tiny cars (VW bugs). Soon I really was a communist, unless I really was an anarchist or an anarcho-syndicalist or a Trotskyite or a Maoist. I never read any work of political ideology unless by accident, if it was assigned in class. And then I studied it as perfunctorily as any Sigma Chi in the lecture hall. Nothing ensures an obliviousness to theory like the need to get a passing grade on a quiz about it.
I have ex-leftist friends who recall long, intense, fractious political arguments from their university years. But I was at Miami of Ohio, not Berkeley or Columbia. My college friends and I may have begun such discussions, but then the rolling papers were brought out and the debate became over where to get Mallomars.
However, inchoate ideas are often more deeply held than any others. Emerson, for instance, was fanatical about his conception of metaphysics even though, on inspection, he didn't have one. And it's often forgotten what instinctive communal levelers and utopians kids are. After all, they're raised in the one economic organization, the family, that actually adheres to the credo of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." They spend their formative years under authoritarian, antimaterialist regimes at school, catechism, summer camp, and Little League. They're taught sharing and caring and fairness and a kind of toadying social equality ("...it's how you play the game"). They're given employment consisting of involuntary volunteer work to fulfill their Boy Scout or Girl Scout or church or school community service requirement. Maybe they get a job doing some mindless sorting at Dad's friend's Kinko's. They are "part of the solution" and/or they experience proletarian alienation. Then they're sent off to college to learn about freedom and responsibility -- freedom to get naked and stoned and responsibility to turn down their stereo after 1:00 A.M. It's a wonder that anybody under twenty-five is even a Mikhail Gorbachev.
And in my day there was also the war in Vietnam. Proponents of the present war in Iraq (myself included) should consider the effect that certain armed conflicts can have on the ideologically impressionable (whether at Berkeley or the University of Tehran). Wars need clear arguments of justification, clear strategies of execution, clear objectives. PS, they need to be won. And the impressionable can't be left wondering just who the winners are. World War I was a dilly in all these respects, with ideological consequences less trivial than the 1960s.
The Vietnam War's draft lent solipsism to the melodrama of being an adolescent radical. The government was intent on interrupting my fun to send me to some distant place with a noxious climate to shoot people I didn't know, and, what was worse, they'd shoot back. I had a stepfather at home whom I was perfectly willing to shoot while he snored on the couch. But the government was insensitive to my needs.
I stayed a left-winger for more than a decade. This despite at least three Road to Damascus moments when I should have been converted to better views.
Moment One: During graduate school in Baltimore I worked on an "underground" newspaper. We shrilly denounced war, injustice, and this and that. One evening our office was invaded by a group of young people more radical than ourselves who felt that our denunciations weren't shrill enough. They called themselves, and I am not kidding, the "Balto-Cong." They accused us of being capitalist tools and said they were liberating the oppressor's private property in the name of the people. We explained that they were welcome to it, the private property consisting of about ten thousand dollars in debt, three typewriters, and an old row house from which we were about to be evicted. (Radicals not only rent but are in arrears on it.) We were held at knuckle-point and made to undergo a consciousness raising session that might have gone on who-knows-how-long if a couple of "the people" hadn't stopped by. These were two teenage black kids from the neighborhood. They asked, "What the hell's going on here?" and scared the Balto-Cong away. The neighborhood kids were honors English students who hoped the underground newspaper would provide a venue for their poetry. And I'm glad to say that, thereafter, it did.
A fellow ex-staffer at the newspaper (now also a Republican) tells me that I spent the rest of that night slamming my fist on things and saying, "Spiro Agnew was right!" But I got over it. I had realized there were bad people on the left, but I hadn't realized I was one of them.
Moment Two: Then my student deferment ran out, and I was drafted. Standing in my underwear at the draft physical I noticed that I and all the other hirsute children of privilege were clutching thick folders of doctors' letters about asthma, neurosis, back problems, and allergies to camouflage colors. The poor kids with their normal haircuts and their discount-store Y-front briefs that came up over their navels were empty-handed and about to be marched off to war. This told me something about what my radicalism was doing to unchain the masses. But I forget what, because the army doctor told me something more interesting. He told me to get out of there. The army had no use for drug-addled hippies.
Moment Three: I remained determined that wealth should be shared with everyone, especially me. But the silent majority tacitly refused to agree, and I had to get a job. The pay was $150 a week. I was to be paid every two weeks. I eagerly looked forward to my check for three hundred dollars (as did my landlord). But when payday came I found that, after withholdings for federal, state, and city income tax, Social Security, health insurance payments, and pension plan contributions, I netted about $160. Here I'd been struggling for years to achieve socialism in America only to discover that we had it already.
Usually when I'm asked what made me a Republican I tell that story. But it isn't true. I mean the story is true, but it didn't really change my mind. I went on for years considering myself to be at least nominally a leftist.
But I was too busy to be involved in left-wing causes anymore. I had that job. And, truthfully, all causes are boring. They are a way of making yourself part of something bigger and more exciting, which guarantees that small, tedious selves are what a cause will attract. Plus I was finding my work to be about as big and exciting a thing as my own small, tedious self could handle.
And I had begun to notice something about left-wing causes. Radicals claim to seek what no one claims to want. The collective has been tried in every conceivable form from the primitively tribal to the powerfully Soviet, and "the people" who are thus collectivized immediately choose any available alternative, whether it's getting drunk on the Indian reservation or getting shot climbing the Berlin Wall.
I'd enjoyed all the left-wing rioting. Better yet had been the aftermath back at the crash pad. "We've got to get this tear gas off us. So we'd better double up in the shower, Sunshine, to conserve earth's resources." But the rioting, along with the Vietnam War, was petering out. Still, I was a man of the left. That was the sort of person I admired. Rick, in Casablanca, was a man of the left, and, uh, Rick in Casablanca.... Anyway, nobody gets misty-eyed singing "I dreamt I saw Bill Taft last night/As fat as he could be..."
I suppose a certain notion of "fairness" also continued to bother me. Now that I'm a father I try to nip that in the bud. My eight-year-old daughter is, of course, much inclined to make the statement "That's not fair!" Whenever she does, I tell her, "Honey, you're cute. That's not fair. You're smart. That's not fair. Your parents are pretty well-off. That's not fair. You were born in America. That's not fair. You had better pray to God that things don't start getting fair for you."
In the end it was boredom and silliness, not reason, that turned me back into a Republican. One day in the middle 1970s I was walking along a street and my reflection was caught at an odd angle in a store window so that I saw myself without realizing who I was looking at. I was wearing jeans and a work shirt with mystic chick embroidery on it and a thrift-shop military jacket and my hair was all over the place. I thought, "That guy's looking pretty silly for somebody his age."
And my friends were boring. They continued to be convinced that everything was going to be shared soon, so they hadn't gotten jobs. They hadn't gotten married either, although wives were the one thing that did seem to be getting shared. Occasionally they had a kid. They didn't let the diapers freeze. There weren't any. These children, though provided with remarkable freedom from discipline and conformity, didn't seem to give much thanks for it -- or ever say thanks, or please, or even "How are you?" My friends were leading the lives of unfettered bohemian artists. Except the lack of fetters seemed to tie them to dumps on the Lower East Side (rented, not owned). And where was the art?
These people not only had a great capacity to be boring, they had a great capacity to be bored. Imagine a talent for ennui so well developed that you could be bored by God. It's a redundancy for a political radical to believe in God because politics has all of God's power to shape life and then some. God recused himself in the matter of free will. Radicals do not. Then there's the egotism of the ideal. If the problems of the world can be intellectually solved by me, what's the intellectual need for Him? Furthermore, the wicked world is so full of wrongs, which radicals need to right, making radicals better than that no-good God who created the wicked world. Or would have if He existed. God's like, you know, a square.
My own lack of religious faith persisted even after I'd renewed my faith in other things such as buying instead of renting. If I could summon enough faith to vote for the average Republican -- which, by the early 1980s, I was doing -- I certainly should have been able to summon enough faith for the Apostles' Creed. But the selfish leftist habit of doubt stayed with me. In 1984 I was in Lebanon writing an article about the civil war. My friend, Charlie Glass, ABC's Middle East correspondent, dragged me out into the Bekaa Valley to interview a terrifying man named Hussein Mussawi, head of a fundamentalist Shiite militia called Islamic Amal. Mussawi looked at me and asked, "Do you believe in God?" I remember wondering if I was fibbing when I very quickly said yes.
Then one day it seemed silly not to believe in God. Maybe existence was pointless, though it did have its points for me -- writing books, fixing up the house I'd bought in New Hampshire. I'd started hunting again. I'd learned to ski. Maybe I was just too small a part of creation to understand what the larger point was. But if I was so small that my comprehension was meaningless, what did that make my incomprehension? Also, although I could imagine that existence was pointless, I couldn't imagine that it was accidental. Existence seemed too intricately organized. Having led an accidental existence for years I knew that such an existence was not very. (How often leftists need to admonish themselves with the slogan "Organize!") If the random forces of quantum physics were all that were in play then these forces had dropped butter and eggs and mushrooms and cheese and a lit match on the kitchen floor and gotten an omelet. Whether I liked omelets was neither here nor there.
On the other hand, it was just such an incredulity about things somehow organizing themselves that kept me from embracing all the implications of the free market. "Laissez faire" was a personal attitude long before I gave it larger significance. Then I remembered the lesson of my leftist days, "The personal is the political." And I began leaving other people alone not only in my life but in my mind.
By the early 1990s my political philosophy was completely elaborated. I didn't have one. I think it is the duty of every politically informed and engaged person to do everything he or she can to prevent politics.
But I was not yet a conservative. I was a Republican and a libertarian. The mutual exclusivity of those two political positions was, I thought, one more proof of the self-negating nature of politics, which should be allowed to take its course until politics is regarded as such a nugatory enterprise that people have to be chased through the streets and tackled and forced to serve as senators, representatives, presidents, and Supreme Court justices. Or maybe, I thought, there should be a game of governance tag where someone has to stay a congressman until he's able to catch someone else and make him "it." If this means legislative halls filled with the helpless and crippled, so much the better.
I still think it's a good idea. But that is not conservatism. I became a conservative at 11:59 P.M. on December 4, 1997, the way many people become conservatives. My wife gave birth. Suddenly all the ideal went out of any idealism for change. Every change reeked of danger or, in the case of diaper changes, just reeked. If the temperature in the nursery changed, I worried. If the temperature in the infant changed, I agonized. Changing my shoes became a point of anxiety. Better go to work in my slippers -- any noise could wake the baby. I was tortured by the change from a child who sat up to a child who crawled. Was her speed of development too slow? Was her speed headfirst into the table leg too fast? The change from crawling to toddling was purgatory. I wanted to stand with Bill Buckley athwart the tide of history shouting, "Don't swallow the refrigerator magnet!"
Things that once were a matter of indifference became ominous threats -- refrigerator magnets and gay marriage. I used to consider erotic preferences a matter of laissez faire. Then I realized, if my children think homosexuality is acceptable, it could lead them to think something really troubling -- that sex is acceptable. Daddy has been down that alley. It took me years to figure out how to be a Republican again. There will be time enough for my kids to learn the facts of life from the priest during pre-Cana counseling. As for public education's "tolerance" curriculum, the heck with Heather Has Two Mommies. How about Heather Has Two Nannies -- there's a book that could teach children something worthwhile in the way of values.
I have lost all my First Amendment principles about rap song lyrics. I am infuriated by them. I cannot understand a word that hip-hop musicians say. For all I know what's spewing out of their mouths is, "We need a single-payer national health care system," or, "Home mortgage interest tax deductions subsidize suburban sprawl, increasing the burden on transportation infrastructure and leading to greater production of greenhouse gases."
I am appalled by violence on TV, specifically the absence of it on PBS. "Which perfectly harmless thing is Caillou terrified of today?" I always ask my younger daughter. Why isn't he ever terrified of something sensible like a pit bull? Why don't his parents just give him a whack when he whines?
And what if a purple Tyrannosaurus rex shows up in my backyard? The kids will run outside expecting to play games and sing songs, and they'll be eaten. What kind of life lessons is PBS teaching our children?
Being a parent means suddenly agreeing with Pat Buchanan about everything except immigration. For Pete's sake, Pat, nannies are hard enough to find. Not that I want to do away with Barney, Snoop Dogg, or love (whether it can't speak its name or can't shut up). I am a true conservative. I hate all change.
Conservatives want things to remain exactly the way they are, not because these things are good but because these things are there. If I have to deal with them I know where they live. Conservatives are opposed to change not because change is bad but because change is new. It's modern and confusing. I don't know how to work the remote. And I can't find the off button.
Change is different. No one without children knows how fraught the word "different" is. When used about your child it's never good news. When used by your child it isn't either. If a kid says, "You're different," he means you're crazy. If he says, "I don't want to be different," he means he's going to skip school and shoplift. And when "the spaghetti tastes different," he's about to throw up.
Radicals seek to make a difference. To the born-of-parenting conservative this sounds like as much fun as seeking head lice.
And the conservative parent feels the same way about those small, itchy things called ideas. Radicalism is the pursuit of ideas (a pursuit that, for me, was made all the more tantalizing by the fact that I never came close to grasping one). Any conservative can tell you that ideas have consequences. Who wants consequences? Conservatism is a flight from ideas. As in, "Don't get any ideas," "What's the big idea?" and "Whose idea was that?"
A flight from ideas might sound like Philistinism, but think how valuable those phrases are when used on children. Or politicians. And what's so bad about being a Philistine? Putting religious prejudice aside, the Philistines seem to have been respectable people who did well in business. For all we know, the reporting on the David-Goliath battle comes down to us from some Old Testament version of NPR. And David, what with the poems, the messy love life, the increased centralization of government, was too liberal for my taste.
Furthermore, ideas are not to be confused with facts. One of the great things about being a conservative is that when a decision has to be made -- for example, is hiding your spinach under your dinner plate and then trying to feed it to the dog right or wrong? -- facts can be consulted. Does it violate the Ten Commandments? Is it a cardinal sin? A venial sin? Against the law? Or you can just ask Mom. A radical can't do this, no matter how many moms are extant. Radicals have to work everything through de novo. Radicals have ideas about sin, law, and motherhood. And the more obscure the ideas, the more difficulty in feeding them to the dog.
The great moral principles of conservatism, if not self-evident, have at least been entered into evidence by thousands of years of human experience. And the great political principles of conservatism are simple. I call them "The Clinton Principles" after those two simple souls who once occupied the White House and may yet again: "Mind your own business and keep your hands to yourself." (As Bill tells Hillary, "Mind your own business." As Hillary tells Bill, "Keep your hands to yourself.") Then there are the great intellectual principles of conservatism, which are, mmm...
Several years ago I was enjoying the conservative pleasures of a driven pheasant shoot in Ireland. Among my hunting companions was a wonderful old fellow named Preston Mann, now pursuing game in paradise. Preston was one of the world's great dog trainers, the proprietor of a splendid hunting club in Michigan, and a crack shotgunner. I'm none of those, particularly the last. I kept missing the pheasants with my first barrel. I generally picked them up with a second shot, but bird after bird escaped my initial blast. Preston was shooting from the next butt and, midst the flap and cackle of pheasants winging toward us, he turned to me and shouted, "P.J., you're thinking about it. It ain't a thinking man's game."
Copyright 2007 © P.J. O'Rourke
Meet the Author
Editor Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Contributing Editor to Policy Review, and author of Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes. She is former managing editor of the Public Interest and former executive editor of the National Interest.
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