Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Harry Stein, a long time journalist, writer and social commentator. He is currently a Contributing Editor at City Journal. He is the author of the new book, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican: A Survival Guide for Conservatives Marooned Among the Angry, Smug, and Terminally Self-Righteous.
FP: Harry Stein, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
What inspired you to write this book?
Stein: It was simply the fact of living in a dark blue locale – the artsy New York suburb of Hastings-on-Hudson, literally and figuratively an extension of the Upper West Side – and daily facing the reality that, for all my neighbors’ ostentatious ‘tolerance,’ they are astonishingly intolerant of anyone who challenges their own left-of-center assumptions and beliefs. There are millions of us conservatives marooned in places like this all over America, and I wanted the book to reflect their experiences, horrific, amusing and otherwise. I also want to encourage those who tend to hide in the conservative closet to stand up and be counted – something that, in the age of Obama, is more essential than ever.
FP: Why is New York so liberal? What forces made it so?
Stein: First, you've got to start with the unions. As in most big cities in this country, they have long held New York in a stranglehold, with the capacity to shut down municipal services at will -- a power they have exercised more than occasionally. For the benefit of their members, they have steadily pushed the city toward quasi-socialism, continually growing government to fund bloated contracts and ever expanding social services.
But of course the question is far more complex than that. Historically, New York is a city of immigrants -- immigrants who, in many cases, were fleeing genuine oppression. (This was certainly my grandparents' case). So their tendency, way back when, was to be extremely liberal, if not outright radical, in their political orientation. And leftist politics, like any other faith, tends to be inherited. Question many New Yorkers closely about why and how they became liberal and they'll look at you as if you're mad; they've always been this way, so has everyone they know, how could anyone possibly be anything else? In fact, they'll have contempt for you for even posing such an absurd question.
FP: Why do you think so many people hide in the conservative closet and are afraid to come out? What are they afraid of? I know many secret conservatives in my own life who won’t come out of the closet because they know they will simply lose their social lives and will become outcasts.
Stein: You've largely answered your own question. It is not fun to be a social pariah. It's so much easier to keep your mouth shut and get along with everyone. So that's certainly a large part of it. But, too, in many professional realms -- academia, the arts, media, social work, mental health, to name a handful -- it is nothing short of dangerous to be openly conservative. I deal with this quite a bit in my book, citing heroic (or, perhaps, if this is one's view, fool hearty) souls who've been open about their politics and dealt with the consequences. I have enormous admiration for these people. As one guy in Hollywood, a line producer, put it to me when I asked him whether his views had hurt him professionally, he said he guessed that they had. But, he added, at the end of his life, "I honestly can't see myself saying 'Gee, if only I'd kept my mouth shut, I could've worked on Spiderman 7."
FP: Were you always conservative? Can you tell us a bit about your own intellectual journey? What made you see the charade of liberalism? What influenced you?
Stein: Au contraire, I was a red diaper baby -- both my parents were Communists in their youth -- and I grew up in the most left/liberal of households. I was a student radical in the Sixties and, easing seamlessly into mainstream journalism, remained left through my twenties.
What changed me? Growing up. Thinking about things. Making connections. Specifically, I trace it to it to becoming a father. This was l981, when the norm -- the given -- in our circle of left-of-center media types was for the woman to deposit her newborn offspring in daycare with maximum dispatch and return to work. Well, my wife, a contrarian in her own right, decided literally in the hospital that she wanted to quit her high status job to stay home with our child. To our surprise, she very soon was made to feel like an outcast.
A year or so later, when I got a call from an editor at Esquire (for whom I was then writing a column called 'Ethics,' which also had me doing some serious thinking), and was asked if I wanted to contribute to the magazine's special women's issue, I suggested a piece on daycare and whether it was really best for the child. I did what I felt was a well researched and balanced piece, one I thought would generate some thoughtful conversation among (as I then believed them to be) thoughtful and open-minded liberal readers. Instead I got a torrent of abuse, full of the ugliest kind of invective. It was a real eye opener, my first glimmer of understanding that, in liberal land, there are certain lines that cannot be crossed, litmus test issues where one must never deviate from the approved stance.
A few years after that, in the wake of the Reagan landslide win over Mondale, I did a piece for the New York Times Sunday Magazine looking at why we liberals (as I then stubbornly more or less still thought of myself) had conceded the 'values' issues to the right. In the course of researching it, I went down to Washington and met a number of Reagan's top people and found, to my amazement, that not only did I like them more than I did most of my liberal friends, but I had far more in common with them. I was already a conservative and hadn't realized it.
FP: I spent about a decade in academia and I can honestly say that I consider my term there an experience of abuse. The way I was treated for liking Ronald Reagan, etc., doesn’t need expanding here. Why are liberals and leftists so abusive?
Stein: I really believe it's because they grasp on some level -- we're talking way, way, deep down, miles below consciousness -- that their ideas do not stand up to rational argument. Theirs is a belief system grounded on faith, not on facts and certainly not, God knows, justified by experience. So they simply cannot afford to accord their opponents the status of moral equals; they must be attacked, and dismissed, as evil. That's why trying to have an honest and fair-minded discussion with such people is useless, As soon as they're cornered, they reflexively resort to name calling.
FP: So in some ways it could be fair to say that leftism is a psychological disorder?
Stein: I deal with this at some length in the book. I quote, among others, a terrific guy named Dr. Lyle Rossiter, a soft-spoken and extremely gracious psychiatrist in Chicago who wrote a book going into chapter and verse on liberalism as a mental disease. It's absolutely priceless, hearing him spouting all the high-filutin' psychological terminology, which basically adds up to the observation that liberals are pathetic, whiney, endlessly needy sickos.
FP: One thing I could never get over is that whenever I went to a “party” within the academic community, a complete stranger would start talking to me as if it were a given that I agreed with him. “Oh you know how Chomsky is a genius and. . . .”
Can you talk a bit about this echo chamber that the Left lives in? Your book crystallizes it perfectly.
Stein: Well, sure. After all, you're there, in the same room with them; you don't look like a ranting right-wing maniac, your knuckles don't drag the ground. People like this simply don't encounter anyone who doesn't think as they do -- and I mean EVER.
FP: Can you expand a bit about this echo chamber?
Stein: 'Echo chamber' is the right term, because these views tend not simply to be endlessly repeated in such environments, but amplified through the repeating. Something that strikes many of us who live in such environments is how blithely unaware they are of conservative views. What they think they know about who we are and what we believe, picked up from the likes of NPR or The New York Times, is invariably distorted; we're reduced to crude caricature, so as to flatter their own smug sense of moral and intellectual superiority.
FP: Share with us one of the most incredible run-ins you had in your life with a leftist.
Stein: Oh, there have been a bunch of pretty ugly episodes – this despite the fact that I think of myself as an extremely likable guy who rarely goes out of his way looking for trouble. One was an encounter with a big burly guy at my local supermarket during the water boarding controversy. There I was on the checkout line, minding my own business, when this jackass (whose son I had coached in Little League) turned my way and spat "You people disgust me!" "Excuse me?" I said startled. "You Bush lovers. All that bullshit you put the country through over a little lie about sex, but you have no problem at all with torture!" It was downhill from there.
FP: Why do you think Liberals hate Palin so much? They foam at the mouth. It is a bit strange no? How do you explain this phenomenon?
Stein: Palin's an interesting case -- and frankly I have problems with her myself. But mine are because I think she's ill-equipped to be the leader of a broad-based conservative movement. I think liberals initially despised her because she so effectively challenged so much they regard as sacred. She was a woman who was hugely successful on her own terms. A governor and vice presidential candidate who so utterly rejected contemporary feminism that she'd knowingly given birth to a Downs Syndrome child. Talk about threatening. But, of course, she also rejected liberals' entire system of values, what they regard as meaningful and important. She doesn't read the books they do or care as they do about fashion or hip movies. As one guy I know contemptuously put it to me during th campaign, re. the enthusiasm Palin had whipped up in Middle America, "There's a reason they call it the heartland, not the brainland." She rejects them -- indeed, has contempt for them -- at the most fundamental level, and it drives them crazy.
FP: Why are liberals so smug and self-righteous? In the end, these are the emotional dispositions they need to survive aren't they? What would a leftist do without his self-righteousness?
Stein: You're absolutely right about that. The self-righteousness in the liberal's armor -- he uses it to airily deflect challenging argument, rather than risk honestly engaging it. Without it, he may not be naked, but he's pretty damn vulnerable.
FP: What are some of the main myths that liberals create about conservatives?
Stein: 1) That we are racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., etc.
2) That we are selfish s.o.b.'s who care only about our own financial well being and don't give a damn about anyone else.
3) That we are vicious war mongers who believe that the United States should impose our oppressive values on the rest of the world.
4) That we are religious zealots driven by intolerance and hatred of The Other.
5) That we are lowbrow ignoramuses.
6) Whatever else occurs to them at the moment, in response to the latest scenario. All the myths are aimed at belittling conservative and the conservative belief system, so that we may be readily and contemptuously dismissed as the intellectual featherweights and moral monsters it is essential for them to believe we are.
FP: What are your thoughts on Obama?
Stein: I had very few hopes going in, but in retrospect, those lookexalted. I think the guy's a front man for a potential thugocracy. At this point, nothing would surprise me, up to and including a ginned up, Reischstag Fire incident aimed at discrediting the Right.
FP: What is the future of the Left?
Stein: They're their own worst enemies, of course. On good days, I think they'll so overplay their hand that they'll soon be soundly defeated; on the worst days, I fear this gang will never willingly relinquish power.
FP: What do you hope your book might help achieve?
Stein: As I say, I'd like to give those conservatives marooned in blue areas lots of laughs of recognition, along with the sense that they're far from alone. And I'd like to embolden them to speak up, even at the cost of disrupting a neighborhood dinner party.
FP: Harry Stein, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.