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Jewish World Review June 6, 2000 /3 Sivan, 5760

John Leo

John Leo
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Consumer Reports

Accidental conspirator

The new liberalism creates a new conservative -- SOMETHING HAPPENED to my friend Harry Stein in the mid-1980s. He awoke one morning and realized he was no longer a liberal, a story he tells in his new book, How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace).

Stein, a veteran New York journalist and novelist, is amazed to find himself a right-wing conspirator of the sort Hillary Clinton so helpfully alerted us about. But he knows the early warning signs and is eager to share them. He says you are in danger of joining the vast conspiracy if:

You hear someone talking about morality and you no longer instantly assume he must be a sexually repressed religious nut.

You sit all the way through Dead Man Walking and at the end you still want the guy to be executed.

Christmas season rolls around and it hits you that there may be a religious connection.

Try as you might, you just can't get yourself to believe that cheating on your mate qualifies as an addiction.

At your kids' back-to-school night, you are shocked to discover that the only dead white male on your 10th grader's reading list is Oscar Wilde. And by the end of the night you realize that the only teacher who shares your values teaches phys ed.

As late as 1984, Stein still considered himself a liberal Democrat, though one who thought Ronald Reagan had won re-election in part because the left had handed the "values issue" to the right by default. He thought that Democrats had lost millions of possible allies by imposing litmus tests on so many issues, from abortion to bilingualism. Little by little, mandatory orthodoxy began to weigh on Stein. He noticed that the Hollywood establishment savaged Tipper Gore for her rather mild suggestion of a rating system to warn parents about obscene and violent song lyrics.

Breaking the rules. Stein wrote an article for Esquire posing the question of whether day care met the needs of children. It brought an "avalanche of denunciations." He had violated an unspoken rule: No doubts can be voiced on the left about day care. In TV Guide, another Stein piece challenged another dogma, that AIDS is just as much a threat to heterosexuals as it is to homosexuals. More outrage, particularly for quoting an AIDS researcher who said, "By and large, people who are responsible will not get AIDS."

Liberals seemed to be defecting on most values issues. "Something odd began to happen–mainly to the country, and incidentally to people like me," Stein writes. "As feminism and multiculturalism more and more sought to remake society, attacking much that had served humanity well as narrow or even antique, we concluded we could no longer in good conscience remain on that side. There was both too little respect for the accumulated wisdom of the ages and too much playing havoc with truth and common sense."

Purchasing this book --
linked in 1st paragraph --
helps fund JWR.

Stein is still no great fan of the Republican establishment and some of the religious right. "Extreme right-wing zealots are the second-scariest thing out there," he says. "Extreme left-wing zealots, who would impose their view of what's appropriate thought, scare me more, because they have a hell of a lot more institutional power, mainly through the media and the universities." He was relieved to discover that the world of social conservatives "was a world less of yahoos than of humane and principled souls, fighting against the junk values that pervade the culture, and perhaps even more so, against the dumbed-down thinking that allows them to flourish." And he knows what drives social conservatives: "the gut-wrenching sense that, when no one was looking, the social norms and shared understandings–the very moral order that for so long gave life a semblance of coherence and sanity–were ripped asunder." Listening to liberal friends struggling to defend Bill Clinton, Stein says: "That used to be me! If not for a few happy twists of fortune, it could still be me!"

When liberals turn conservative, the media normally chalk it up to fear of change or hardening arteries. But there's another way of looking at it. Traditional liberals like Stein have the same principles they had 20 years ago. They haven't changed, but American liberalism has, mutating into something they no longer accept or even recognize. New York Post columnist Rod Dreher sounded this note when he called Stein "an old-fashioned New York liberal who got dumped when the race, gender and sexuality brigades hijacked the Democratic Party."

Post-1960s liberalism has lost its communal sensibility and now talks almost exclusively of autonomy and rights, not obligation or moral accountability. As Stein points out, it has aggressively labored to devalue society by trying to banish moral and religious discourse from the public arena. Values are viewed as matters of personal taste. Even the famous liberal belief in openness, tolerance, and free speech now looks like a discarded tenet. Witness all the disinvited speakers, stolen newspapers, and current not-very-liberal efforts to silence Laura Schlessinger and derecognize campus Christian groups. What passes for liberalism now, Stein says, is often an attempt to impose rectitude, "usually with the active cooperation of the news media, government agencies, and Hollywood, all of which somehow get to call their own agenda 'inclusive' instead of 'narrow.' "

Amen, Harry, and welcome to the vast conspiracy.

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police. Send your comments by clicking here.


05/30/00: Faking the hate
05/23/00: Was it law or poetry?
05/16/00: Here, there and everywhere, people have gone bonkers
05/09/00: Tufts evangelicals are punished for acting on their beliefs
05/02/00: Elian's opera isn't over until nearly everyone sings
04/25/00: All the news that fits: The media serve up many stories from a standard script
04/19/00: Those darned readers: The gap between reporters and the general public is huge
04/05/00: Census sense and nonsense
03/29/00: Hollywood message films leave no room for other views
03/22/00: The Vatican confesses, but is it enough?
03/14/00: Watch what you say: The left can no longer be counted on to defend free speech
03/07/00: McCain's malleable messages
03/01/00: Bush's appearance at Bob Jones U. will dog him all the way
02/23/00: 'Multi-millionaire' show is new evidence we're insane

© 2000, John Leo