Politics & Policy

In the Beginning . . .

How personal is politics?

Before I get into the details, let me issue a challenge right from the start. I think the suits should stage a debate between Dreher and Goldberg on the next National Review Cruise. Indeed, I will debate Rod anywhere, anytime, so long as it is on the High Seas and I have a daiquiri in my hand. In fact, I don’t care if it’s about crunchy conservatives or whether two-ply toilet paper represents the End of History according to the Fukuyamian paradigm.

But fear not, this will not be round two on the crunchy-con stuff. Rod has a rejoinder elsewhere on NRO and any further thoughts I have on it I’ll leave to The Corner .

But reading all of the e-mail about this got me thinking about a related subject: the tendency of people to justify their political views by their personal lifestyles. This has long been a bugaboo of mine (more on that in a moment) and it may explain part of my hostility to the crunchy-con stuff.


Humans, by nature, are self-absorbed and egocentric. So it’s only normal that we would extrapolate from our own habits, prejudices, and preferences to a larger view of the world. In some ways this is what superstition is — a belief that our own idiosyncratic quirks are so powerful that they can force the very machinery of the universe to grind to a halt and go in a different direction solely because we wear lucky socks or knock on wood.

But even when it comes to our rational preferences we have a tendency to blur the distinctions between our personal predilections and our larger political or philosophical allegiances. There are very few people who hate animals but are passionate about animal rights. It’s hard to imagine that many supporters of increased funding of the arts have never had positive experiences with the arts. This, too, is totally normal and relatively healthy in a democratic society. People should, after all, vote their interests — most of the time.

But as we all remember from Philosophy 101, all sorts of problems arise when we confuse is with ought. For example, not too long ago I got into an unfortunate snit with my friend Andrew Sullivan when I accused him of extrapolating from his own personal perspective to what he considered to be a correct and winning strategy for conservatives and Republicans generally. I thought Andrew had confused what he believes Republicans should do in a moral sense (fully accept gays) and what Republicans should do in terms of a winning political strategy. He may be entirely right about gays as a moral argument (I’m not there yet) but as a practical matter one needs to understand that something can be right on the personal level and a bad idea when it comes to politics and/or public policy.

Or look at it this way. I love dogs. I’m kind of silly about it. Dogs are an abiding fascination of mine and while I think the construction of “animal rights” is about as intellectually serious as a trout in a glass of milk, cruelty to animals still manages to slip past all of my ideological defenses as something I cannot rationalize or condone. But just because I feel strongly about the topic doesn’t mean I automatically think it should be a conservative priority and I do not automatically assume that public policy is terribly out of whack when it comes to the treatment of animals.

Marxists and cynics believe that you can tell where someone stands by where he sits. In other words, they believe that people espouse the political doctrines that help them the most. This has always offended me a little even though, obviously, there’s a lot of truth to it. Hollywood liberals freak-out about sexual freedom because they spend a lot of time leaping from bed to bed (or phone booth to phone booth, whatever). Blue-collar workers historically vote Democrat because they think the Democrats look out for people like them. Republicans allegedly vote Republican because the GOP is good to the wealthy. Southerners are more likely to defend the south. And so on.

But, we also know this way of summarizing the world often falls apart. There are limousine liberals and there are poor flat-taxers. Sometimes we stick up for principles even though they don’t benefit us. My friend Ronald Bailey, as dedicated a libertarian as you can find, has said to me more than a few times that if he thought socialism was better for poor people he’d probably be socialist. This has always stuck with me as such an odd thing to say for a guy who believes — passionately — that body parts and babies should be auctioned to the highest bidder. But it actually makes total sense.

We all like to believe that what we believe in isn’t just the best thing for us, but the best thing for everybody. Still, it’s an interesting question to ponder, Would you still be against socialism if socialism was somehow demonstrably better for poor people? I’m pretty sure I would be against it, but if you think about it, that argument becomes awfully ideological very quickly (lots of stuff about stealing from Peter to pay Paul and so forth).


You may be wondering why I am bringing all of this up. And, truth be told, I’ve asked that very same question several times myself while trying to finish this column. I guess it boils down to a couple of things. First, what annoys me so much about the crunchy-con thing is the degree to which it blurs personal lifestyle and politics. It has always been a hallmark of the Left to believe that the personal is political and I simply don’t like it. It smacks of a form of snobbery rooted in not the old and tried but in the new-fangled and fashionable. It is another form of Hillary Clinton’s politics of meaning — a way by which people can hitch their self-esteem, their passions, and their hobbies to vast causes larger themselves. We all know that the “politics of me” and cults of personality are dangerous in our leaders, but such politics are dangerous in our citizens too. The kind of shirt you wear, the sort of food you eat, and the kind of music you listen to should be as irrelevant in the voting booth as your eye color. To hitch the fate of society on your personal tastes has always seemed to me to be a form of selfish superstition no more absurd than to assume that your rabbit’s foot will bend the courses of planets and upend mountains.

Second, I myself have been increasingly accused by readers of taking stands based upon where I sit. From the charge that I’m for Israel and against Iraq because I’m Jewish to the suggestion that I don’t make many jokes about porn anymore because I’m married now, readers have been saying that I let my own newlywed New Yorker, inside-the-Beltway, pseudo-intellectual, demi-Jew biases govern where I come down on any given subject.

A few readers actually wrote me to insist that if Rod were writing about a new form of conservative who wears fedoras and listens to classical or swing music, I wouldn’t have any problem with his analysis. It’s just that I don’t like organic food, hippies, and “sloth fashion,” and so I’m coming down hard on crunchy conservatism. Well, that’s simply not true, and I can prove it.

Almost exactly six and half years ago to the day, the Wall Street Journal published this op-ed of mine which denounced the new conservative fascination with fedoras and whatnot. I was against conservative fashion statements when I was thin and single and on the prowl and I’m against conservative fashion statements now that I’m bulging and married and fixing the toilet in the guestroom. I was against conservative fashion statements when they involved clean clothes, cool music, and great scotch. And I am against such statements when they involve filthy clothes, mediocre music, and righteous bud.

But there is one more reason that I’m bringing up all of this, particularly that op-ed. Shortly after I wrote that piece in 1996, I was at a party. A friend of mine said he had a friend who wanted to meet the guy who wrote that piece. He (Ken Weinstein for the record) introduced me to a stunning woman I’d seen in the elevators of the American Enterprise Institute building but was too intimidated to ever say hello to. We talked for a long time and became friends. And, skipping ahead many chapters, despite Ken’s insistence that she was out of my league (and he was right), we ended up getting married five years later.

Now, Jess and I are having a baby. (Well, not right now — in February, to be exact.) And, in a sense, I owe it all to that op-ed. So maybe you could say I’m too invested in this argument because my entire family is a consequence of it.

But, here’s where the irony gets so deep you need hip-waders. As the days tick by in anticipation of our baby’s arrival, I’ve come to suspect that I’ve been wrong all along. The wheels of the universe can grind to a halt, the courses of planets could be rewritten by the tiniest of things. But before he or she gets started on all that, Jessica and I have to buy a crib.


1. Sorry about yesterday’s no-show and the poor delivery of G-File’s generally. I’m more than a bit overextended these days and I’m trying to figure out how to get things more manageable.

2. Speaking of yesterday’s no-show, the decker for the column was “I’ve been outed.” That was a reference to the fact that we’ve been keeping this whole Goldberg: The Next Generation thing relatively quiet. But my buddy Melanie Morgan on the radio station KSFO accidentally blew my cover yesterday on the air when she asked me “When’s the baby due?”

3. Just in case you’re interested, I have not one but two pieces in the latest dead-tree NR, including at an at-bat on the back page where Florence King left such a mighty void.

4. And, finally, check out The Corner for any further crunchy-con stuff from me. If there is any.


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