A few weeks ago, Jonathan Chait wrote a sharp, smart critique of the new, Mary Eberstadt edited anthology, Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys. The only problem with Chait’s piece is that it bears little relation to the book it purports to analyze. Chait’s point is that ex-leftists who’ve turned right tend to keep their radical temperaments. Instead of considering and rejecting reasonable, moderate liberalism, says Chait, conservative converts ignore the liberal alternative and simply exchange one brand of extremism for another.
Chait invokes David Horowitz and Chritopher Hitchens as evidence for his claims, largely because the actual contributors to Eberstadt’s anthology offer little support for his thesis. One of the things that makes Eberstadt’s anthology so interesting, in fact, is that it breaks the well-worn Horowitz conversion paradigm. Why I Turned Right contains examples of unselfconscious conservatives gradually gaining awareness of their own presuppositions, apolitical folks treated as reactionary just for refusing to sacrifice professional standards to political correctness, part-conservative/part-social liberals made still more conservative by struggles with abortion, marriage, career, or parenthood, and several more paths to conservatism that don’t fit into Chait’s preconceived mold.
So far from describing unthought-out shifts from radical left to right, even the essays Chait concentrates on have plenty to say about the failures of mainstream liberal policies on taxes, welfare, the Cold War, affirmative action, and more. Take Chait’s main target, Heather MacDonald. Part of the power of MacDonald’s personal story (and her entire body of work) derives from the way her on-the-ground experiences in New York City contradict mainstream liberal wisdom on public housing, crime, and welfare policy.
Chait wants to know how the conservatives in Why I Turned Right move from revulsion against radical leftism to dissatisfaction with liberal entitlement programs. Well, MacDonald’s encounter with liberalism’s failed welfare policies goes a long way toward explaining the shift. It’s just that Chait has to ignore all that if he’s going to stuff MacDonald into the Horowitz-shaped box he’s prepared for her. (MacDonald’s contribution to Why I Turned Right, by the way, is about as good a read as you’ll ever find. Here my take on it.)
I’m touching on Heather MacDonald’s starring role in Chait’s critique of Why I Turned Right because, for whatever reason, TNR has not published the letter MacDonald submitted in reply to Chait’s essay. I have no idea whether TNR’s failure to publish MacDonald’s letter is the result of a conscious decision, a minor communications slip-up, or is somehow connected to the new magazine format (the latest issue seems not to have a letters section). In any case, I think MacDonald ought to have a forum in which to reply to Chait, so here’s her letter:
To the Editors:
I am among the contributors to “Why I Turned Right” about whom Jonathan Chait commented in his TRB column (April 2). He claims that I have recently been “explaining away American torture”—indeed, that by doing so I resembled the deconstructionist literary critics I complained of in my essay, for whom (as he quotes me saying) “’ethical responsibility is a fiction and good and evil are completely interchangeable.’”
I will resist the urge to compare Chait’s account of my position to the perverse misreadings of academic Theory. Nevertheless, I am compelled to say that I have never defended torture or explained it away. I have argued that certain non-torturous stress techniques may be appropriate for terrorist detainees trained to resist interrogation methods developed for lawful prisoners of war. Far from seeing “ethical responsibility” as a fiction, I have argued that accountability for the deplorable prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib belongs much farther up the Pentagon chain of command.
More generally, Chait is at pains to separate a good and unobjectionable liberalism from a kind of phantom leftism to which, he thinks, the contributors to “Why I Turned Right” are over-reacting. After all, he says “the Brookings Institution does not take its principal intellectual inspiration from Michel Foucault.” Perhaps not. But identity politics is currently inseparable from the “actual liberalism” that Chait is so proud to defend. I will be happy to grant Chait’s point when I see “actual liberals” oppose racial and gender preferences or reject racially gerrymandered voting districts. I look forward to the moment when “actual liberals” defend universal standards of behavior, instead of vilifying conservative social critics for “blaming the victim.” I mocked my early, unthinking acceptance of the rhetoric of victimology in “Why I Turned Right.” Chait suggests that he was wiser than I in his undergraduate years. I believe it. A lot of people were.
Heather Mac Donald