National Review's Anathema Corner

by J.P. Zmirak

The spitball bombardiers of the imperialist "right" aren't satisfied with imposing "democracy" abroad – they also want to stifle it here at home. The most serious attempt in recent weeks to silence discussion in American politics is David Frum's cover story in the current National Review. If you haven't slogged through it yet, it's a compilation of all the most unfortunate things ever said – or almost said, or never said but possibly implied – by thinkers whom the ex-Canadian speechwriter broadly labels "paleoconservative."

Rather than refute his charges point by point – that has been done extraordinarily well elsewhere, such as here and here – I'd rather address what Frum is trying to do, and why. I've a certain insight into this question, since, like Frum, I was once a conservative columnist at Yale. I came in just after he graduated, and made a lot of noise in the campus papers, just as he had, so inevitable comparisons were drawn. And contrasts.

You see, Frum had made himself well-known among the amazingly intolerant leftist students of early 1980s Yale by loudly espousing Reaganite foreign and budgetary policy. He also made certain to assert over and over again that he was a fiscal conservative but a social liberal.

This was a crucial point, on a campus where liberal social attitudes were taken utterly for granted, and very few students dared to speak against them. For those who did, "social suicide" doesn't begin to describe what they’d done to themselves. The few undergrads who advocated traditional Christian values made themselves almost radioactive. Shunned and loathed, they would eat alone, or in tiny groups of fellow thinkers, in the cavernous Gothic dining halls, as if they'd contracted some contagious, incurable skin disease. (And no, they didn't get to date much.)

As if to publicly proclaim his distance from the misfits who were so despised, Frum led a public campaign to close down a conservative literary magazine, The Yale Lit, because – well, because "he couldn't stand that type of conservative," as he told a friend. Enlisting student opinion, and the Yale administration's help, Frum succeeded in quashing an exquisitely edited, beautifully produced student magazine, which was promptly replaced, under the same name, by a fourth-rate broadsheet that printed students' trashy, confessional poems about their drug experiences and tentative erotic fumblings. Frum's first purge of right-wing opinion was accomplished.

No ostracism for David. He went from Yale to swim among the suits at The Wall Street Journal, and write a number of mildly interesting books, en route to rising smoothly through the ranks of what was by now called "neoconservatism." He really "arrived" (or "made it" in the sense of Norman Podhoretz in his revealing, appalling autobiography) when his commentaries began to appear on that bastion of respectable opinion, National Public Radio. I listened to many of them, and found them witty. Also troubling – since their purpose was clear: To explain to America's liberal intelligentsia why they shouldn't be afraid of Republicans.

These urbane, chatty contributions all centered on one theme: That the social issues the Republican party had adopted were simply red meat for the rubes. They would never go anywhere, and shouldn't stop people from voting for lower marginal tax rates and a "strong" foreign policy. Again and again Frum would patiently explain how the gestures made by the likes of Newt Gingrich, George Bush I, and Robert Dole to appease the Religious Right, the Southerners, the libertarians, and the "gun people" in their party were simply that – hollow, symbolic tips of the cowboy hat to the hapless activists whom they needed to keep in line. Cheap pizza bought for the "3:00 am" types who leave their trailer parks to volunteer at Republican phone banks. His wink was almost audible. Those people were never going to get what they wanted – any more than black voters really benefit from electing Democrats. But the rabble must be appeased. No wonder Frum got a job writing speeches for a Republican administration.

It does, however, strike me as strange that such a chameleon feels entitled to dictate the legitimate boundaries of conservative debate. I feel it's fair to ask Frum now: Where does he stand on the social issues which matter so much to many fervent conservative voters? Is he still pulling the wool over their eyes, wrapping tax cuts for Enron in pages torn from the New Testament?

Frum's ascendancy doesn't surprise me. You see, one of the most dominant motives in any socially stigmatized group – such as conservatives were at Yale and still are in the opinion-making circles Frum now inhabits – is self-purification. One tries to wash away the taint that your opponents have attached to you by finding someone within your own movement who is more distasteful, more extreme, more socially maladroit, then denouncing him. Best of all if you can lead the chorus of ostracism. That renders you yourself ritually pure, at least for a while – and joins you securely to the community that has now been purged. Anthropologist Rene Girard analyzes this social phenomenon brilliantly, tracing its operation from the ancient world, through the death of Christ, up to the present. It was frequently the motivating force in anti-Semitic uprisings, as social misfits whipped up the crowd to persecute the "evil," loathsome Other. As Justin Raimondo points out in Reclaiming the American Right, this liturgy of anathema has been the rite of choice for decades in "movement conservatism." Self-hating conservatives conduct such a ritual every few years – are duly applauded for it.

How easy to relieve one's own anxieties, demonstrate one's own "good will," and win general approval by finding an alternate focus for opprobrium, then leading the mob that drives out the evildoer! Bill Clinton (remember him?) was engaging in this tactic when he denounced Sistah Souljah. Moderate black leaders do the same when they dutifully denounce Louis Farrakhan – a point made brilliantly in Warren Beatty's worthy film "Bulworth." Countless conservatives joined in such fun when Trent Lott shot off his mouth. I must confess that I've done it myself. There's a certain glee, a sense of cleanliness and virtue that arises when you discover that there is someone – anyone – in the world who's further out on a limb, then you righteously saw it off. "I may be conservative (or liberal, or antiwar), but I'm not like…" Fill in the blank with your favorite extremist, the person with whom you'd least like to be associated. The gay writer David Sedaris described the phenomenon brilliantly in a radio essay, explaining how in high school he'd find someone more effeminate than he, and lead the chorus of taunts, to help redirect the social abuse from himself, and affirm his place in the mainstream.

Of course, there are ideas that must be refuted. But the unseemly eagerness with which today's political police latch onto and denounce perceived dissidents betrays something dark at work. When you realize that someone in your own political camp has taken your own principles and perverted them beyond recognition, the appropriate emotional response is sadness, a grim sense of necessity, and a determination to be fair. That's also the spirit in which sane men approach the prospect of starting a war.

Instead, too often, the self-anointed members of a given "mainstream" movement (whatever it is) respond with an ugly glee. John Podhoretz boasted on NPR of the role warbloggers had played in bringing down Trent Lott. Podhoretz spoke with as much bravura as if he'd personally captured Osama bin Laden, and dragged the murderer to prison by his beard. It's the very same spirit that Frum displays in his preening piece in National Review. With an almost papal solemnity, he declares opponents of the current war virtual traitors, and employing the papal "We" he pronounces anathema: "We turn our backs on them." My first reaction to this was simply to laugh, and mutter, "Be glad there's an American soldier watching your back, chicken-hawk."

But upon reflection, I think I was being a little too harsh, expecting too much of a political ghostwriter. Man is a social animal, and it's only natural for men to wish to move amongst the principalities and powers, to ascend socially, to consume rubber-squab at election parties with Republicans, then kick back and drink Barolo with the Democrats. It's only human. But it's not particularly admirable. It doesn't take courage – just the instinct of a dog to stick with its pack. The lone wolves Frum presumes to exile – serious, flinty, sometimes wrongheaded and mostly crotchety, unclubbable thinkers such as Peter Brimelow, Lew Rockwell, Paul Gottfried, Sam Francis, Pat Buchanan, and Justin Raimondo – have each added far more to the stock of interesting arguments on the Right than Frum ever will. They have each, in different ways, helped blow away the cloud of rhetoric, demagoguery, and lies that passes for political debate in this country. They each write with careful reference to history, reverence for the Western tradition, and an understanding of our country and its Constitution – instead of spewing mindless, provocative slogans such "Axis of Evil," or "Nuke Mecca." They each provoke serious thought among their readers. But then, that isn't what Frum cares about. As far as I can tell, it never was.

Dr. Zmirak [send him mail] is author of Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist. He writes frequently on economics, politics, popular culture and theology. Visit his blog.