Extreme Makeover; How Heather Mac Donald's stolen bicycle ledto Guantanamo Bay.

by Jonathan Chait | April 2, 2007

What causes lefties to turn into conservatives?Conservatives are fascinated with this question, repeating, oftenfor years on end, their stories of deliverance from liberal hell toconservative heaven. Several such testimonies can be found in a newvolume, Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom ConservativesChronicle Their Political Journeys. Most of the journeys describedare short ones--from apolitical child of (generally) conservativeparents to conservative young adult. (Rich Lowry's progression fromson of Republican parents to avid teenage reader of National Reviewto editor of National Review lacks the dramatic tension of, say,Whittaker Chambers's Witness.) Of the essays that do describegenuine left-to-right conversions, the striking thing about them isthat encounters with actual liberalism are virtually absent.;Heather Mac Donald details her experiences in academia withliterary deconstructionism and critical legal studies. P.J.O'Rourke recalls that he "was a communist, unless I really was ananarchist or an anarcho-syndicalist or a Trotskyite or a Maoist."And Stanley Kurtz describes campus activists cheering when RonaldReagan was shot and the sight of "severed pig heads impaled onpoles carried by antiwar demonstrators in New York's CentralPark."; If I have my history correct, however, the BrookingsInstitution does not take its principal intellectual inspirationfrom Michel Foucault; Tip O'Neill did not cheer Reagan's shooting;and attendees of the Democratic National Committee never marched inpublic with impaled pigs' heads. I guess I don't understand how therecoiling from an ugly campus protest leads directly to a desire toprivatize Social Security.; The older generation ofneoconservatives, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, atleast had the decency to defect to the right in the late '60s andearly '70s, at a time when the Democratic Party and mainstreamliberalism were flirting with radicalism. The new generation ofright-wing converts, on the other hand, switched sides after theDemocratic Party had already pulled back from the McGovernitebrink. (Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis were centrist technocrats;Walter Mondale was an heir to Hubert Humphrey, the "Hump" in theNew Left slogan "Dump the Hump.") And yet the converts all seem toconsider the GOP the only alternative to joining the pigs'-headsmarchers.; The conversion stories featured in Why I Turned Rightare not atypical in this regard. David Horowitz offers the modelfor this left-right metamorphosis, having changed almost overnightfrom gun- storing Black Panther wannabe to radical right-wingculture warrior--a story he has recounted in no fewer than four (aswe go to press) books.; Christopher Hitchens is a more recentexample of the phenomenon. In a 2001 Atlantic Monthly essay,Hitchens excoriated figures like Noam Chomsky, bell hooks, andOliver Stone before concluding with a general denunciation of"America's liberals"--as if his targets were typical liberals, oreven liberals at all. One day Hitchens was denouncing liberals ascruel imperialist aggressors (e.g., attacking Bill Clinton's 1998air strike against Sudan), the next day as cowardly appeasers.Hitchens differs from the typical convert only in that he hasmanaged to retain many of his Trotskyite beliefs even as he'sadopted new, neoconservative ones.; Why do these converts registertheir disgust with the far left by immediately hopping into bedwith the right, rather than settling down with some nice neoliberalthink tank? The answer is that the content of one's beliefs canchange, but one's intellectual style rarely does.; For example, inher chapter in Why I Turned Right, Manhattan Institute fellow MacDonald describes how she "had fallen under the thrall ofdeconstruction." She aptly skewers her former belief system as akind of exotic wordplay in which "ethical responsibility is afiction and good and evil are completely interchangeable."Unfortunately, this description bears more than a passingsimilarity to Mac Donald's current work explaining away Americantorture. (In a typical article, she accused torture critics of"succumbing to the utopian illusion that we can prevail whileimmaculately observing every precept of the Sermon on the Mount.")Conversely, it's not surprising that the one contributor to Why ITurned Right who describes himself as at all uncomfortable with thetenets of conservatism, David Brooks, also declares himself to havebeen a moderate liberal in his prior incarnation.; Stylistically,leftism and conservatism have more in common with each other thaneither does with liberalism. The ex-radical once believed the freemarket and the U.S. military were perfectly evil; now he believesthe exact opposite. He will never be satisfied with the "well, yes,sort of, but ... " explanations. He craves--to use a favoriteconservative slogan--moral clarity. ; Newly christenedconservatives also have the thrill of joining a movement: "I foundmyself in the same trench as people like Paul Wolfowitz and JeaneKirkpatrick," as Hitchens put it. Most conservative converts conveya similar sense that they have joined a hardy band of fellowbelievers who have broken through the tissue of lies fed to them bythe academy and media.; Memoirs of conservatives who have movedleft are rarer and tend to read like the tales of cult escapees.The emphasis is on what was left behind-- Michael Lind's Up fromConservatism, David Brock's Blinded by the Right--rather than whatis joined. Conservative stories, by contrast, follow the arc ofreligious redemption (or, less charitably, of joining a cult): Iwas lost until, praised be Reagan, I found the true path.; One ofthe oddities of conversion literature is how proudly convertstrumpet their former stupidity. "When my Holdsworth bicycle wasstolen from in front of the Yale law school," recalls Mac Donald, "Ifelt that redistributionist justice had been done." (Today, nodoubt, tax cuts for the rich give her the same feeling.); Let mejust note that, when my college bike was stolen, I felt noideological gratification. Nor did four years in Ann Arbor fightingsome truly nutty left-wingers make me one iota more sympathetic toNewt Gingrich. Mac Donald explains her leftist naivete as anunconscious swallowing of liberal propaganda--she was "a liberal bydefault, the inevitable condition of those who do not bother toeducate themselves about social facts." Default, dear Heather, isnot in our stars, but in ourselves.

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