[This review was published in the Winter 2001 issue of the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 761-763.]
How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace)
Delacorte Press, 2000
Harry Stein has written prolifically along popular lines as an ethics columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the author of both fiction and non-fiction books, and a frequent contributor to such media as GQ, Playboy, New York, Esquire and TV Guide.
The result is that he brings a sprightly and entertaining style (such as is evidenced in the title) to this book that tells of his conversion from the radical Left in the United States to a moderate form of cultural conservatism. The book is not a profound tome such as Whittaker Chambers' Witness, but it does make a delightful read as it pierces one after another of the shibboleths that prevail in established intellectual circles today.
Stein tells how he moved away from an unquestioning acceptance of the Left's mindscape, an acceptance that began with him as the child of Communist parents. It was mainly his own becoming a parent that caused him to question first one thing and then another about the prevailing relativism, cynicism, multiculturalism and feminism. "Trust me, once you start, the process of seriously rethinking things takes on a life of its own; second thoughts (say, about declining school standards) lead to third ones (the new emphasis on self-esteem over knowledge) and then to fourth (the particulars of the multicultural curriculum)."
Over time, he became acutely aware of the hypocrisies and double-standards within the left-liberal position. What hit him most directly and personally, of course, was the gulf between "progressive" opinion's "vaunted reverence for free expression," on the one hand, and its "ready contempt directed at actual diversity of thought," on the other. He remembers distinctly the first time his new-found conservatism caused an erstwhile colleague to call him, sneeringly, "a fascist."
Thusfar, his odyssey has taken him primarily into cultural conservatism. He came to see the value and importance of "personal responsibility," of the need to make serious demands on oneself; of a sense of shame, and of gaining self-respect by earning it. Whereas at one time "indulging ourselves" took a high priority with him in keeping with the countercultural attitudes of his peers, he developed an appreciation for monogamous marriage: "Once in a while, it can seem like a rotten bargain. But in the end lots of us stick to it for basically selfish reasons: because it works. Because we love our spouses and don't want to cause them pain. Because the well-being of our kids is immeasurably more meaningful than indulging ourselves. Because somewhere along the line we've learned that having values and sticking to them is the formula for an infinitely more fulfilling life."
This has affected his political outlook. One of the more important features of the Clinton scandals was how reflexively the great majority of Democrats and liberals rationalized a partisan defense. Stein, however, sees Clinton as "a man whose ambition was unchecked by any of the nobler impulses" and present-day Democrats as, for the most part, practitioners of "racial and gender extortionism."
He sees multiculturalist ideology as distorting important aspects of American history, and feminism as having revealed itself "as more partisan than principled." He praises Wendy Shalit's recent book A Return to Modesty: Discovering a Lost Virtue.
This is not to say that Stein's migration from Left to Right is complete. It seems impossible to say where his thinking will be in ten years. There are many facets of "progressive" thinking he has yet to question, although the "one thing leads to another" process may lead him to do so. Probably most apparent is his lack of scholarly bent. The time-frame of his thinking seems entirely encompassed by his own life and experience, so that he has no historical perspective to help him in understanding the terrain he has been crossing. Nor does his book show any sign of his having dipped into the serious writing that exists within the various branches of conservative thought to see in what way they may inform him. One of the prejudices of the Left, of course, is that there is no conservative intellectual tradition to speak of; and either by an implicit acceptance of that premise or by a personal inclination away from reflective study, he has, so far at least, left himself on the periphery of conservative intellectuality.
Stein is among the most recent of a long line of top-flight individuals who since the 1920s have been "mugged by reality" and have accordingly fled the Left in search of something better. Fortunately for him, his conversion did not come from "hearing the screams," but from a streak of common sense and independence that somehow enabled him to break free. For greater depth, there would be no better place for him to start than by reading the later works of such individuals as Max Eastman, James Burnham, Freda Utley, Sidney Hook, Peter Collier and David Horowitz (to mention just a few).
Dwight D. Murphey