Titanic

By

I am standing waist-deep in the Pacific Ocean, indulging in the polite chit-chat beloved by vacationing Americans. A sweet elderly lady from Los Angeles is sitting on the rocks nearby, telling me dreamily about her son. "Is he your only child?" I ask. "Yes," she answers. "Do you have a child back in England?" she asks me. No, I say. Her face darkens. "You'd better start," she says. "The Muslims are breeding. Soon, they'll have the whole of Europe."

I am getting used to such moments, when holiday geniality bleeds into--well, I'm not sure exactly what. I am traveling on a bright-white cruise ship with two restaurants, five bars, and 500 readers of National Review. Here, the Iraq war has been "an amazing success." Global warming is not happening. Europe is becoming a new Caliphate. And I have nowhere to run.

From time to time, National Review--the bible of American conservatism-- organizes a cruise for its readers. Last November, I paid $1,200 to join them. The rules I imposed on myself were simple: If any of the conservative cruisers asked who I was, I answered honestly, telling them I was a journalist. But, mostly, I just tried to blend in--and find out what conservatives say when they think the rest of us aren't listening.

I arrive at the dockside in San Diego on a Saturday afternoon and stare up at the Oosterdam, our home for the next seven days. We guests have been told to gather for a cocktail reception on a deck near the top of the ship. There are no big hugs or warm kisses at this gathering. This is a place of starchy introductions. Men approach one another with puffed-out chests and sturdy handshakes. Women are greeted with a single kiss on the cheek. Anything more, of course, would be French.

I adjust and stiffly greet the first man I see. He is a judge, he tells me, with the craggy self-important charm that slowly consumes any judge. He is from Canada, he declares (a little more apologetically), and is the founding president of "Canadians Against Suicide Bombing." Would there be many members of "Canadians for Suicide Bombing?" I ask. Dismayed, he suggests that yes, yes there would.

A bell rings somewhere, and we are all beckoned to dinner. We have been assigned random seats, which will change each night. We will, the publicity pack promises, each dine with at least one National Review speaker during our trip.

To my left, I find a middle-aged Floridian with a neat beard. To my right are two elderly New Yorkers who look and sound like late-era Dorothy Parker, minus the alcohol poisoning. They live on Park Avenue, they explain in precise Northern tones. "You must live near the U.N. building," the Floridian says to one of the ladies after the entree is served. Yes, she responds, shaking her head wearily. "They should suicide-bomb that place," he says. They all chuckle gently.

The conversation ebbs back to friendly chit-chat. So, you're a European, one of the Park Avenue ladies says, before offering witty commentaries on the cities she's visited. Her companion adds, "I went to Paris, and it was so lovely." Her face darkens: "But then you think--it's surrounded by Muslims." The first lady nods:"They're out there, and they're coming." Emboldened, the bearded Floridian wags a finger and says, "Down the line, we're not going to bail out the French again." He mimes picking up a phone and shouts into it, "I can't hear you, Jacques! What's that? The Muslims are doing what to you? I can't hear you!"

Now that this barrier has been broken--everyone agrees the Muslims are devouring the French, and everyone agrees it's funny--the usual suspects are quickly rounded up. Jimmy Carter is "almost a traitor." John McCain is "crazy" because of "all that torture." One of the Park Avenue ladies declares that she gets on her knees everyday to "thank God for Fox News." As the wine reaches the Floridian, he sits back and announces, "This cruise is the best money I ever spent."

The next morning, I warily wander into the Vista Lounge--a Vegas-style showroom--for the first of the trip's seminars: a discussion intended to exhume the conservative corpse and discover its cause of death on the black, black night of November 7, 2006.

There is something strange about this discussion, and it takes me a few moments to realize exactly what it is. All the tropes conservatives usually deny in public--that Iraq is another Vietnam, that Bush is fighting a class war on behalf of the rich--are embraced on this shining ship in the middle of the ocean. Yes, they concede, we are fighting another Vietnam; and this time we won't let the weak-kneed liberals lose it. "It's customary to say we lost the Vietnam war, but who's 'we'?" Dinesh D'Souza asks angrily. "The left won by demanding America's humiliation." On this ship, there are no Viet Cong, no three million dead. There is only liberal treachery. Yes, D'Souza says, in a swift shift to domestic politics, "of course" Republican politics is "about class. Republicans are the party of winners, Democrats are the party of losers."

The panel nods, but it doesn't want to stray from Iraq. Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan's one-time nominee to the Supreme Court, mumbles from beneath low-hanging jowls: "The coverage of this war is unbelievable. Even Fox News is unbelievable. You'd think we're the only ones dying. Enemy casualties aren't covered. We're doing an excellent job killing them."

Then, with a judder, the panel runs momentarily aground. Rich Lowry, the preppy, handsome 38-year-old editor of National Review, announces, "The American public isn't concluding we're losing in Iraq for any irrational reason. They're looking at the cold, hard facts." The Vista Lounge is, as one, perplexed. Lowry continues, "I wish it was true that, because we're a superpower, we can't lose. But it's not."

No one argues with him. They just look away, in the same manner that people avoid glancing at a crazy person yelling at a bus stop. Then they return to hyperbole and accusations of treachery against people like their editor. The aging historian Bernard Lewis declares, "The election in the U.S. is being seen by [the bin Ladenists] as a victory on a par with the collapse of the Soviet Union. We should be prepared for whatever comes next." This is why the guests paid up to $6,000. This is what they came for. They give him a wheezing, stooping ovation and break for coffee.

A fracture-line in the lumbering certainty of American conservatism is opening right before my eyes. Following the break, Norman Podhoretz and William Buckley--two of the grand old men of the Grand Old Party--begin to feud. Podhoretz will not stop speaking--"I have lots of ex-friends on the left; it looks like I'm going to have some ex-friends on the right, too," he rants--and Buckley says to the chair, "Just take the mike, there's no other way." He says it with a smile, but with heavy eyes.

Podhoretz and Buckley now inhabit opposite poles of post-September 11 American conservatism, and they stare at wholly different Iraqs. Podhoretz is the Brooklyn-born, street-fighting kid who traveled through a long phase of left-liberalism to a pugilistic belief in America's power to redeem the world, one bomb at a time. Today, he is a bristling gray ball of aggression, here to declare that the Iraq war has been "an amazing success." He waves his fist and declaims, "There were WMD, and they were shipped to Syria. ... This picture of a country in total chaos with no security is false. It has been a triumph. It couldn't have gone better." He wants more wars, and fast. He is "certain" Bush will bomb Iran, and "thank God" for that.

Buckley is an urbane old reactionary, drunk on doubts. He founded National Review in 1955--when conservatism was viewed in polite society as a mental affliction--and he has always been skeptical of appeals to "the people," preferring the eternal top-down certainties of Catholicism. He united with Podhoretz in mutual hatred of Godless Communism, but, slouching into his eighties, he possesses a worldview that is ill-suited for the fight to bring democracy to the Muslim world. He was a ghostly presence on the cruise at first, appearing only briefly to shake a few hands. But now he has emerged, and he is fighting.

"Aren't you embarrassed by the absence of these weapons?" Buckley snaps at Podhoretz. He has just explained that he supported the war reluctantly, because Dick Cheney convinced him Saddam Hussein had WMD primed to be fired. "No," Podhoretz replies. "As I say, they were shipped to Syria. During Gulf war one, the entire Iraqi air force was hidden in the deserts in Iran." He says he is"heartbroken" by this "rise of defeatism on the right." He adds, apropos of nothing, "There was nobody better than Don Rumsfeld. This defeatist talk only contributes to the impression we are losing, when I think we're winning."

The audience cheers Podhoretz. The nuanced doubts of Bill Buckley leave them confused. Doesn't he sound like the liberal media? Later, over dinner, a tablemate from Denver calls Buckley "a coward." His wife nods and says, "Buckley's an old man," tapping her head with her finger to suggest dementia.

I decide to track down Buckley and Podhoretz separately and ask them for interviews. Bill is sitting forlornly in his cabin, scribbling in a notebook. In 2005, at an event celebrating National Review's fiftieth birthday, President Bush described today's American conservatives as "Bill's children." I ask him if he feels like a parent whose kids grew up to be serial killers. He smiles slightly, and his blue eyes appear to twinkle. Then he sighs, "The answer is no. Because what animated the conservative core for forty years was the Soviet menace, plus the rise of dogmatic socialism. That's pretty well gone."

This does not feel like an optimistic defense of his brood, but it's a theme he returns to repeatedly: The great battles of his life are already won. Still, he ruminates over what his old friend Ronald Reagan would have made of Iraq. "I think the prudent Reagan would have figured here, and the prudent Reagan would have shunned a commitment of the kind that we are now engaged in. ... I think he would have attempted to find some sort of assurance that any exposure by the United States would be exposure to a challenge the dimensions of which we could predict." Lest liberals be too eager to adopt the Gipper as one of their own, Buckley agrees approvingly that Reagan's approach would have been to "find a local strongman" to rule Iraq.

A few floors away, Podhoretz tells me he is losing his voice, "which will make some people very happy." Then he croaks out the standard-issue Wolfowitz line about how, after September 11, the United States had to introduce democracy to the Middle East in order to change the political culture that produced the mass murderers. For somebody who declares democracy to be his goal, he is remarkably blase about the fact that 80 percent of Iraqis want U.S. troops to leave their country, according to the latest polls. "I don't much care," he says, batting the question away. He goes on to insist that "nobody was tortured in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo" and that Bush is "a hero." He is, like most people on this cruise, certain the administration will attack Iran.

"I keep telling people we are in World War Four," Podhoretz declares. He fumes at Buckley, George Will, and the other apostate conservatives who refuse to see sense. He again declares victory. And for a moment, here in the Mexican breeze, it is as though, thousands of miles away, Baghdad is not bleeding.

I encounter other ghosts of conservatism past wandering the ship as well. From the pool, I see John O'Sullivan, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher and former editor of National Review. And, one morning on the deck, I discover Kenneth Starr, looking like he has stepped out of a long-forgotten 1990s newsreel. His face is round and unlined, like that of an immense, contented baby. As I stare at it, all my repressed bewilderment rises, and I ask: Mr. Starr, do you feel ashamed that, while Osama bin Laden was plotting to murder nearly 3,000 American citizens, you brought the government to a standstill over a few consensual blow-jobs?

He smiles through his teeth and says, in his soft, somnambulant voice, "I am entirely at rest with the process. The House of Representatives worked its will, the Senate worked its will, the chief justice of the United States presided. The constitutional process worked admirably." It's an oddly meek defense, and, the more I challenge him, the more legalistic he becomes, each answer a variation on, "It wasn't my fault."

Several days later, the nautical counter-revolution has docked in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where passengers will clamber overboard into a nation they want to wall off behind a 1,000-mile fence. One expresses horror at my intention to find a local street kid to show me around, exclaiming, "Do you want to die?" D'Souza summarizes the prevailing sentiment by unveiling what he modestly calls "D'Souza's law of immigration": An immigrant's quality is "proportional to the distance traveled to get to the United States." In other words: Asians trump Latinos.

After wandering Puerto Vallarta without bodily harm, I return for dinner with my special National Review guest: Kate O'Beirne. She's an impossibly tall blonde with the voice of a 1930s screwball star and the arguments of an 1890s Victorian patriarch. She inveighs against feminism and "women who make the world worse" in quick quips. She is sitting among adoring fans with her husband, Jim, who quickly announces that he is Donald Rumsfeld's personnel director. "People keep asking what I'm doing here, with him being fired and all," he says. "But the cruise has been arranged for a long time."

The familiar routine of the dinners--getting-to-know-you chit-chat, followed by raging right-wing echo chamber--is accelerating. Tonight, there is explicit praise for a fascist dictator before the entree has arrived. I drop the news that there are moves in Germany to have Rumsfeld extradited to face war crimes charges. A red-faced man who looks like an egg with a moustache glued on grumbles, "If the Germans think they can take responsibility for the world, I don't care about German courts. Bomb them." I begin to cite the Pinochet precedent, and O'Beirne snaps, "Treating Don Rumsfeld like Pinochet is disgusting." Egg Man pounds his fist on the table:"Treating Pinochet like that is disgusting. Pinochet is a hero. He saved Chile." "Exactly," adds O'Beirne's husband. "And he privatized Social Security."

The table nods solemnly before marching onward to Topic A: the billion-strong swarm of Muslims who are poised to take over the world. The idea that Europe is being "taken over" is the unifying theme of this cruise. Some people go on singles' cruises, some on ballroom-dancing cruises. This is the Muslims Are Coming cruise. Everyone thinks it. Everyone knows it. And the man most responsible for this insight is sitting only a few tables down: Mark Steyn. He is wearing sunglasses on top of his head and a bright shirt. Steyn's thesis in his new book, America Alone, is simple: The "European races"--i.e., white people--"are too self-absorbed to breed," but the Muslims are multiplying quickly. The inevitable result will be "large-scale evacuation operations circa 2015" as Europe is ceded to Al Qaeda and "Greater France remorselessly evolve[s] into Greater Bosnia." He offers a light smearing of dubious demographic figures--he needs to turn 20 million European Muslims into more than 150 million in nine years, which is a lot of humping--to "prove" his case.

But facts, figures, and doubt are not on the itinerary of this cruise. With one or two exceptions, the passengers discuss "the Muslims" as a homogenous, sharia-seeking block--already with near-total control of Europe. Over the week, I am asked nine times--I counted--when I am fleeing Europe's encroaching Muslim population for the safety of the United States.

At one of the seminars, a panelist says anti-Americanism comes from both directions in a grasping pincer movement--"The Muslims condemn us for being decadent; the Europeans condemn us for not being decadent enough." Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz's wife, yells,"The Muslims are right, the Europeans are wrong!" And, instantly, Jay Nordlinger, National Review's managing editor and the panel's chair, says, "I'm afraid a lot of the Europeans are Muslim, Midge." The audience cheers. Somebody shouts, "You tell 'em, Jay!"

He tells 'em. Decter tells 'em. Steyn tells 'em. On this cruise, everyone tells 'em--and, thanks to my European passport, tells me. It is, unsurprisingly, the last thing I hear at the end of the voyage. I'm back on the docks of San Diego, watching the tireless champions of the overdog filter past and say their formal goodbyes. As I turn my back on the ship for the last time, I feel the judge I met the first day place his arm affectionately on my shoulder. "We have written off Britain to the Muslims," he says. "Come to America."

Johann Hari is a columnist for The Independent newspaper in London.

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