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In praise of consistency

By Steven Martinovich
web posted June 4, 2001

It's a claim that I suppose you could make at any time: political discourse has fallen to an all time low. If you'll permit some generalization, pundits on both the left and the right are ensconced comfortably in their ideological ruts while those on the so-called fringe are largely ignored no matter how good their ideas are. Long before liberals and conservatives debated Social Security privatization, people like libertarians were figuring out how to do it.

It's a good thing, perhaps, that most people ignore the talking heads. Outside of the 20 per cent that make up committed liberals and conservatives, the rest of us quietly continue to solve our own problems without making a show out of it. Most people don't have the time to be influenced by rabble-rousers so they don't bother to read or watch the so-called experts pontificate about issues that most people don't care a whit about.

It's also regrettable because these days a new class of pundit is rising up who isn't afraid to swim against the stream, ones worthy of following closely. Many of them also happen to be on the left or outside of the conventional left-right paradigm. These days the best writers to read are people like Nat Hentoff, Camille Paglia and Andrew Sullivan. What makes them such good reads is their ability to cross ideological lines in search and praise of good ideas.

I may be wrong, but it's hard to find the equivalents of Hentoff, Paglia and Sullivan on the right, possibly in part because it would be harder for a mainstream conservative writer to come out in support of gay marriage or abortion rights and maintain credibility with their constituency. Hentoff, Paglia and Sullivan suffer their shares of arrows from the left and right but it would be difficult to impeach their core beliefs. They all also share a belief in intellectual honesty and consistency, an increasingly rare commodity on all sides of the debate.

Nat HentoffTake Malcolm X friend and Village Voice columnist Hentoff. In 1992, at a time when every liberal writer was devoting themselves to the promotion of Bill Clinton, Hentoff recognized him as a threat. Initially angered when the then governor of Arkansas temporarily put his campaign for the presidency on hold to supervise the execution of a mentally retarded murderer who arguably wasn't responsible for his actions, Hentoff repeatedly hammered at the Man from Hope as "serial violator of our liberties" and someone who has "done more harm to the constitution than any president in American history."

Hentoff has also written extensively against hate crime laws, political correctness, the war on drugs and civil liberties in general, telling one interviewer in 1999 that he considered himself a "lowercase libertarian." It's a formula that won't endear him to either the left or the right but makes him the most compelling writer at the Voice, a magazine that long ago lost its way in favour of trying to become the voice of the ultra liberal establishment. In recent months he has taken on Kofi Annan for turning a blind eye to problems in Africa and come out against school vouchers as an expansion of the state.

If Hentoff has suffered at the hands of his liberal colleagues for his unorthodox views, Paglia has been savaged at every opportunity for criticizing political correctness and occasionally defending George W. Bush. Like fellow feminist critic Christina Hoff Sommers, Paglia identifies herself as a liberal but for her opinions has been referred to as an Uncle Tom feminist. That's especially true when it comes to readers of online magazine Salon where only David Horowitz surpasses her in the amount of bile directed at a staff writer.

Camille PagliaPaglia, who counts both Rush Limbaugh and Mick Jagger as fans, occasionally veers into loopiness - such as her promotion of pop singer Madonna as a female ideal or worship of Apollo and Dionysus - but is dead on when decrying the state of education. Paglia has for some time now complained of how poor critical thinking skills and emotionalism have snuck their way into education, or as one Paglia fan wrote, today's college students are "smug young adults who seem to only know how to be critical without actually thinking and who need constant validation even when they are wrong."

That smugness has translated into a dogmatic approach to education that battles any dissent that questions the now established orthodoxies that make up curricula today and has, in Paglia's opinion, destroyed the value of a liberal arts degree. Students shouldn't fear having to bump into Shakespeare in most colleges today since "important" writers that you've never heard of have often replaced him.

It's from her feminist peers, however, that Paglia receives the most withering criticism. In supporting "equality feminism" over "gender feminism" - and along the way richly referring to Naomi Wolf as a "a parent-pleasing, teacher-pleasing little kiss-ass" - she has been savaged by the old guards like Gloria Steinem for refusing to play the sexual orientation-race-gender card and blame all of today's problems on white males. In a 1991 Mother Jones piece, Molly Ivins even went as far as to call Paglia a "crassly egocentric, raving twit."

Andrew SullivanPerhaps the best and most enjoyable example of today's consistent commentators may be New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan. Unfairly ignored by many conservatives because of his association with NR and the fact that he is gay, Sullivan has crafted a body of work that generally promotes consistency in thought. A recent example of that was a masterful piece entitled "America the Puritan" where he derided America as "terminally bossy," a nation where the left and right both believe "they know what's best for us."

"The notion that people can actually think for themselves, that offense and even hurt are natural parts of human life, that difference of opinion is not a threat to anything but a sign of cultural health - these notions are now verboten under the neo-puritan order. No drugs, no sex, no jokes, no fights: this is a culture slowly being sedated into simpering nothingness," Sullivan wrote, taking aim at both but singling out the left where in some ways "puritanism is strongest."

He returned to the theme just days later with comments he made on his web site andrewsullivan.com regarding the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against medical marijuana. Correctly divining that the court's decision was in deference to a Congressional law and not something it came to on its own, Sullivan this time took conservatives to task for talking state's rights but walking federal power.

"It also seems to me to be a pretty obvious case of conservative hypocrisy on states' rights. If states like Hawaii or California want to make medical marijuana legal, why should the feds get in the way? D.C. voted for it as well - and we weren't even allowed to see the results because Bob Barr thought it would be bad for us," wrote Sullivan.

"This action seems to me to sum up a lot of what's wrong with contemporary conservatism: it's hypocritical on federalism when it doesn't like what states do (remember the Defense of Marriage Act?); it can appear to be callous with respect to some people's real and genuine needs; it's illiberal when it denies individual adults freedom of choice in their personal lives."

Of course, it's a good thing for conservatives not to get too in bed with Hentoff, Paglia or Sullivan for fear that the rational differences between ideologies will disappear into a bland mixture. It's a lesson that Bush himself will probably learn one day. Sullivan - and for matter I can be added to that list - may be praising him as someone who "gets" HIV/AIDS by his choice of Scott Evertz for the White House AIDS office but conservatives aren't.

What we can take from people like Hentoff, Paglia and Sullivan is the realization that mainstream conservatism has its problems, chief among a lack of consistency in some of our most fundamentally held beliefs. We preach individual action and initiative but only when it suits our goals. We act like the concept of liberty was invented by the Republican Party but only when our moral principles are being upheld. Occasionally it's good to cross the lines and fight for something that we may not necessarily agree with but is consistent with our line of thought. If Hentoff, Paglia and Sullivan can extend themselves that much, so can conservatives.

Simply put, when it comes to issues of liberty the old paradigm of left vs. right was rendered obsolete in the 1960s. Defenders of freedom can be found on many sides of the ideological fence and you can easily find the enemies of freedom among either liberals or conservatives. As writer Michael Miller stated recently, "The traditional right are basically free marketeers, but they collaborate with protectionists, drug warriors and sexual scolds. The traditional left see themselves as upholders of liberty, but they collaborate with mixed economy statists, anti-tobacco fascists and nanny-state scolds. The traditional dichotomy has meant that to support freedom in one area is to sabotage in some other area, a contradiction."

If conservatives really are the friends of freedom as their constant defense of America's constitution suggests, they should begin forging links with people like Hentoff, Paglia and Sullivan and create one common cause: the fight for liberty. Then the public would finally have a political alternative that's not filled with contradictions. I don't think we need the pundits to tell us which side Americans would choose.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer and the editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.

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