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My Escape From The Zabar's Left

How a pedigreed upper west side liberal came out as a conservative warrior.


Adam Bellow, alone on the Upper West Side.  

Dad?!” my teenage daughter’s face reflected a queasy mixture of surprise and instinctive revulsion. “Is it true? Are you really a . . . Republican?”

She uttered the word as if it were a deadly disease that she could catch just by naming it. “I’m a conservative,” I corrected her.

“But are you really going to vote for . . . George Bush?”

I had never spoken to Lily about my politics—nor about my strange and eventful journey from Upper West Side liberal to neoconservative culture warrior. For a long time she was simply too young, and when she got older I hadn’t wanted to impose my views on her. Soon enough, I figured, she would realize that my ideas were out of step with those of her friends and her friends’ parents, and she would come to me on her own.

Of course, this had meant standing by while she was indoctrinated into the politically correct outlook that prevailed in her tony private school. Ironically, she was in the same position I had been in at her age: an earnest young person, raised in an atmosphere of unconscious liberal conformity, who had just begun to realize that not all the vital questions have been settled.

Now at last I would have to explain how I had become a conservative, the role I had played in the conservative intellectual revolt, and what it was like to be a conservative in a city (New York) and a profession (publishing) that were known for their liberalism.

It’s certainly true that I have long been associated with conservatives, and have published many books by right-wing authors—from Cold Warriors like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, to midlife converts like David Horowitz and Victor Davis Hanson, to rising Young Turks like David Frum and Jonah Goldberg. My circle of acquaintances includes the editors of every right-wing magazine, as well as the staffs of major think tanks and foundations, and dozens of academics, columnists, radio hosts, and bloggers. The books I have published include some of the most notorious tomes of the past decade, including Illiberal Education, by Dinesh D’Souza; The Real Anita Hill, by David Brock; and The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein.

In short, I have a well-earned reputation as a right-wing controversialist and hell-raiser. Yet I never considered myself a Republican and have always been somewhat vague about my politics. Even David Brock, with whom I worked closely on two books, couldn’t quite figure me out. “I was never certain about Adam’s commitment to conservatism,” he wrote in Blinded by the Right, concluding, “Whether I detected . . . a lack of sincerity, or whether he was more subtle in expressing his views than my friends in Washington, didn’t really matter to me because I had enough fire in the belly for us both.”

Brock had actually put his finger on something here, something that distinguished me and other New York conservatives from the zealous “movement” types down in Washington. New York conservatives—especially the branch called “neocons,” to which I belong—are a particularly diffident bunch. We instinctively hold the zealots at arm’s length, regarding them as not just a different branch of the movement but a different species altogether. And for those liberals who are dreading the descent of thousands of Republicans this week, it may be comforting to know that we conservatives are dreading it, too.

No doubt, New York conservatives are different. For one thing, we are very much aware of being in the minority. We have grown used to sitting with a quiet smile while someone goes off on a tirade about Reagan or Bush and heads around the table nod in vigorous approval. I remember watching the 1994 election returns with a group of screaming liberals thunderstruck by the Republican takeover of Congress. Not once did it occur to them that there might be someone in the room who didn’t share their anguish.

Our lack of zealotry springs from another source as well. It’s not just that we live in a liberal city, but that most of us grew up liberal ourselves. Although we gradually became disillusioned with the direction that liberalism had taken, we still retain a lively sympathy for its ideals. Even the original neoconservatives were Democratic defectors, people who felt that liberalism had abandoned them, not the other way around.

But there is yet another reason for our reluctance to embrace the assumed equivalence of “conservative” and “Republican”—one that’s firmly rooted in our identity as New Yorkers, and that has to do with our dislike of intellectual conformity and with our emphasis on ideas over politics.

Here my own story may be of interest. If nothing else, it might help to answer the nagging question, How did one of Us become one of Them?

I grew up on the Upper West Side as a card-carrying member of what I call the Zabar’s Left—a state of mind that assumes unquestioning agreement with its views and is completely blind to its own prejudices. The son of a famous writer, I attended an exclusive private school along with the children of other distinguished people: writers and actors, musicians, politicians, art dealers, and editors of the New York Times. My classmates and I were the younger brothers and sisters of the sixties generation. We marched against the war, campaigned for Lindsay, and smoked dope in Central Park. Politics was everywhere, but in a sense there were no politics, because everyone I knew agreed about everything.

The first blow to my unconscious liberalism came after college, when I worked as a copyboy at the New York Daily News. The News was a bastion of outer-borough Irish, Italian, and East European ethnicity—the paper of Archie Bunker. While the retrograde attitudes on display there frequently shocked and offended the Upper West Sider in me, I couldn’t help but admire the pressmen’s unvarnished humanity. I learned that in the real world you had to take people as they were, not as you thought they should be. The experience also made me see how much of my own liberalism was a narrow tribal outlook largely founded on class prejudice.

My education in liberal parochialism continued during the Reagan years. Reagan’s election in 1980 was a seismic shock to liberals, and for a long time I shared the prevailing view that the president was a dolt and a simpleton. But I found the vituperation directed at him excessive and off-putting. Besides, I shared his anti-communism and approved of his opposition to Soviet moves in Central America.

Although I had grown up in the liberal counterculture, I was increasingly uncomfortable with the way that it was hardening into a rigid and intolerant orthodoxy. I resented the fact that there were ideas you couldn’t discuss and opinions that were considered immoral. Nor did I share the existential panic of most liberals over the emergence of conservative Christians as a political force.

Finally, in 1987, Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom was a friend of my father’s, and I had spent the previous year at the University of Chicago taking courses with him on Plato, Machiavelli, and Rousseau. Bloom’s attack on relativism and multiculturalism and his defense of the Great Books were bitterly condemned as racist, sexist, Eurocentric, and elitist. Many who denounced the book clearly had not bothered to read it, relying instead on hostile reviews that distorted it beyond recognition. This was a fatal blow to my esteem for the Zabar’s Left. For an earlier generation, it was the excesses of the antiwar and Free Speech movements that had pushed them into the conservative camp. For me, it was the intellectual dishonesty of the debate about Bloom’s book.

In 1987, I was 30 years old, out of work, and with a new baby at home. So I went to see Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of the neoconservative movement. Kristol was a crusty, avuncular type who specialized in straightening out directionless young men, and he sent me to Erwin Glikes, then-publisher of the Free Press.

Glikes was a major force in American publishing and a four-star general in the culture war. A short, bald, aggressive man, he had a hard, protruding belly and a head like a battering ram. Glikes had been brought into publishing in 1969 by Kristol himself, when the latter was running Basic Books. There he had also worked with Midge Decter, who’s married to Norman Podhoretz. In short, Glikes was a member of that group of New York Jewish intellectuals who used to be known as “The Family.” These were the people I had long admired as the very models of independent, politically engaged, literary-minded intellectuals. Their long, tormented journey from committed Trotskyites to liberal Cold Warriors to Reaganite neoconservatives—breaking along the way with almost everyone, including one another—had earned them the suspicion of both the left and the right. But their primary loyalty was to ideas, not parties, and though I had never met them, I considered them my honorary uncles and aunts. When I began to make the rounds as Glikes’s protégé, I felt like a returning long-lost relative.

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