How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace)
by Harry Stein
Delacorte. 274 pp. $23.95
Harry Stein is a well-known author and journalist who wrote a column on ethics for Esquire in the 1970’s, has appeared regularly in TV Guide, and has contributed frequently to the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Playboy. But in this funny/serious book he offers a rather different description of the arc of his career: he is, he writes, “a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in a number of publications in which he will likely never appear again.”
Why not? As he tells the story, it may all have begun the day his wife Priscilla—an American blueblood whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, and an erstwhile feminist—brought home a copy of COMMENTARY. Stein’s response was immediate: “I don’t want this around the kids!” After all, he himself was then still a typical right-thinking “progressive” with solid red-diaper-baby credentials, whereas COMMENTARY’s editor, Norman Podhoretz, was “an individual as despised in my longtime circle as Jesse Helms.” Nevertheless, he read the issue that evening, was forced to admit that it “was as smart and thoughtful—as challenging—as anything I’d read in a long time,” and thereby embarked on his transformation into the “social conservative” he considers himself today.
Or perhaps the story really began earlier, with the birth of Stein’s first child in 1981. (As chance would have it, my wife and I were in the same natural-childbirth class on Manhattan’s Upper West Side as Harry and Priscilla Stein, though we did not get to know each other.) After the birth, his wife informed him that she was quitting her job and opting for the joys of at-home motherhood. If he was shocked, his friends were aghast; one actually chastised him for remaining in “an old-fashioned family.”
A decade later, matters had progressed significantly. Soon after Vice President Dan Quayle’s notorious 1992 speech criticizing the TV character Murphy Brown for choosing to become an unwed mother, Stein found himself at a dinner party. He took what he thought was a safe middle course. “Quayle may have had a point,” he remembers having said, suggesting to his dinner partners that parents should think harder about the consequences of their actions while also making it clear that he abhorred Quayle’s “indifference to those at the bottom rung of the social ladder.” But the ruse failed. One of his journalist friends turned red and, “literally sputtering,” demanded: “Jesus Christ, when did you become a fascist?!”
Remarks like these, Stein now knows, are a hallmark of the political Left’s “unshakable sense of its own virtue,” and also the source of its emotional power over those who have grown up or have sojourned for any length of time in its precincts. How he shook free of that power, and slowly came to grips with the “sobering truth that the version of the story I grew up with was woefully incomplete,” is the burden of this book, which artfully intersperses personal stories from his family life and his intellectual career with sharp and incisive commentary on the major social changes of our times. Stein’s passages on the nature of political correctness in the academy, the pitfalls of the feminist movement, the cult of victimization, the shabbiness of political coverage by the mass media, and the ever-present anti-Americanism in the culture may go over familiar ground, but they do so with skill, humor, and unfailing interest.
Stein is not alone in the path he has taken. Many of us who started out at the same time and in the same place ended up realizing, like him, that the views of people we had instinctively disdained as conservative or neoconservative were actually closer to our own feelings about what had gone awry in our country than the view regularly espoused in the magazines we wrote for or the circles we traveled in. But the peculiar strength of his book—what makes it essential and richly enjoyable reading—lies in the wit and verve with which Stein advances his case. In brilliantly conveying, from the inside, just how and why someone like himself began to change, he also succeeds in showing how the change he underwent makes perfect sense.
One would like to think that even those who disagree with Stein would be capable of appreciating his deep powers of sarcasm and liberating humor. And they should be warned that, if exposed to his reasoning, they may not disagree for long—for, as Stein truly puts it, “once you start, the process of seriously rethinking things takes on a life of its own.” If you know someone in need of his strong arguments and winning prose, or if you know someone already moving in the same direction but hesitant to take the final step, you can do them a favor by giving them this book. If you happen to be already on his side, your own enjoyment of it promises to be unalloyed.