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My Escape From The Zabar's Left

Glikes had made a name for himself as the publisher of older conservatives like George Will and Robert Bork, and it would be my job to find and publish the best of the younger conservatives. I got my chance soon enough when I met a bright and ambitious young man named Dinesh D’Souza. Illiberal Education, D’Souza’s contentious 1991 report on the politicization of the American campus, became the object of furious controversy. But in the looking-glass world of the culture war, “bad” was really good. Attacks by the Times and the Washington Post provided proof that the liberal media were trying to strangle the book in its cradle, and this fueled sales among conservatives, driving it onto the New York Times best-seller list, where it stayed for fifteen weeks.

As D’Souza’s editor, I was forced to defend the book personally in a way that other editors were never expected to do. I did so willingly, arguing about it with everyone and conducting impromptu debates at my family’s Thanksgiving table. I got letters from perplexed and angry friends (what is Adam doing?) and even heard from some of their parents. As my liberal cocoon began to fray, I learned what it meant to be considered an apostate, a turncoat, a traitor. I strained my marriage, mortified my in-laws, and made enemies over this book. But as my in-box filled up with reviews, opinion columns, editorials, news articles, and letters to the editor, I felt that we had done something important.

Soon after this, David Brock published an incendiary attack on Anita Hill in the American Spectator, and his agent called to ask if we would be interested in signing him up. To be honest, I wasn’t terribly impressed by Clarence Thomas; I was certainly not deceived by the Bush administration’s assurances that he was the best man for the job. Yet I was less offended by this conservative hypocrisy than by the strident attacks on Thomas by liberal interest groups, whose obvious subtext was that a black man who did not see himself primarily as a victim of white racism was not “really” black. I saw an opportunity to take simultaneous aim at feminist orthodoxy and left-wing identity politics.

Brock’s book was even more explosive than D’Souza’s. The New York Times went into a paroxysm, firing salvos from every deck like an eighteenth-century frigate. Once again, I found myself on the front lines. At a children’s birthday party on the Upper West Side, I ran into Nation columnist Katha Pollitt. If I thought that she would spare me out of deference to the hostess, I was wrong. She challenged me over plates of half-eaten birthday cake to defend the book. After a few thrusts and parries, she remembered where she was and relented, closing with the comment “Well, I think the interesting question is, Who’s the real David Brock?” As Brock himself would later admit, she turned out to be right about that.

But all this uproar was clearly a great victory, the hysteria surrounding the book a testament to the damage it was doing. Even more than with Illiberal Education, I felt we had published a “dangerous” book—dangerous, that is, to the smug liberal worldview of the Zabar’s Left.

With Illiberal Education, I had been engaged in a form of cultural guerrilla warfare. With The Real Anita Hill, I had violated a moral and political taboo for which I knew that I could never be forgiven. But with The Bell Curve, I went beyond the pale.

Ironically, The Bell Curve had not really been my book. Glikes had quietly signed it without letting anyone know. But after he left the Free Press (and then suddenly died) in early 1994, it was my job to publish and defend it, and I thus became identified with a book that many people regarded as evil incarnate. One of my oldest friends started referring to me in e-mails as a Nazi. Another wrote a letter to a major publication exposing me as a hypocrite who used to smoke dope in the seventies. A session I conducted for the Radcliffe Publishing Institute degenerated into gladiatorial combat with a hundred angry students.

This exposure to liberal opprobrium and moralism confirmed for me the rightness of my judgment. If I hadn’t started out as a committed conservative, my years on the barricades defending the books I had published—and observing up close the dishonest tactics used by their liberal adversaries to marginalize and discredit them—moved me the rest of the way.

Finally, the liberal elite in New York woke up to the fact that there were conservatives in their midst. After the success of The Bell Curve, I was widely interviewed in the press, written up in The New Yorker, and even appeared with a group of other young conservatives on the cover of the Times Magazine. The story (written by James Atlas in a curious tone of anthropological detachment) instantly became a legend among New York conservatives, mainly for its weirdly lit inside portraits that made us look like alien invaders.

The Times story, of course, reflected the cognitive dissonance involved for liberals in the very idea of a young conservative. How could there be such a thing? Young people were supposed to be passionate leftists. Only in middle age were they expected to become more sober and moderate. The only possible explanations were psychological—we were rebelling against our parents—or pecuniary—we were unprincipled careerists selling out to the Republican ascendancy. No suggestion was ever made that we might actually be passionate about conservative ideas, or that our liberal teachers, through their dogmatism and stridency, had called their own views into question.

In the beginning, it was exciting to be part of a revolt against this authoritarian strain of modern liberalism. It was a great countercultural movement—fun, irreverent, and pure. Ideas mattered, and for a while conservatism served as a magnet for the numerous cranks, eccentrics, autodidacts, and unaffiliated scholars who always arise in times of ideological crisis.

But as the Republicans gained traction in the nineties, and especially during the Clinton years, people of this type either conformed to the new ideological discipline or were drummed out of the corps. The incisive counternarrative of twentieth-century liberalism that we constructed in the eighties and nineties devolved into a litany of mindless clichés, and the rise of right-wing media has further corrupted the movement’s integrity. Today the main conservative spokesmen are not serious intellectuals like Irving Kristol and William F. Buckley, whose aim was always to persuade a fair-minded opponent, but abrasive personalities like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity, whose aim is to whip the Republican base into a froth, and get rich in the process.

In short, the conservative intellectual movement has gone off the rails. Politics has trumped ideas, scholars have been displaced by hired gladiators, and people like me—whose views are a patchwork of left and right—are left feeling increasingly alienated. Put another way, the gap between a Republican and a conservative that was closed by Ronald Reagan has reopened under George W. Bush.

When I started my journey away from liberalism, there was nowhere to go but the right. So I embraced the conservative label and happily played my part in the culture wars. I don’t regret a single book I published—not even Brock’s; howls of outrage from the Zabar’s Left have always been, to me, the sweetest music. Privately, however, I considered myself a disaffected liberal attacking liberalism from the right to preserve it from its own dogmatic tendencies.

But the liberalism of today is even more bullying and conformist than it was in my youth. And if there is one thing my experience shows, it’s that bullying conformism breeds rebellion in earnest young people, like my daughter and her friends. A new generation is rising, and while they may eschew the conservative label, they will undoubtedly challenge the stridency and dogmatism of their liberal parents and teachers. In the end, for all their alarm over the Republican invasion, the city’s liberals might do better to address the flowering of conservatism closer to home. We are your bastard children, and as long as you deny us, you will continue to spawn rebels who reject you.