My Escape From The Zabar’s Left

Adam Bellow, alone on the Upper West Side.Photo: Michele Abeles

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.

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 terriblyimpressed 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.

My Escape From The Zabar’s Left