The intolerance of the left: An interview with Harry Stein
By Bernard Chapin
Harry Stein is a long time journalist, writer and social commentator. Currently, he is a Contributing Editor at City Journal. He has been a professional writer and editor since he co-founded The American Mercury in 1972. Mr. Stein achieved great success in 2000 with his memoir entitled, How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy : (and Found Inner Peace). He has also written works of fiction like The Magic Bullet, Hoopla, and Infinity's Child. Mr. Stein's articles have appeared in numerous publications such as The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Playboy, New York Magazine, American Heritage, Men's Health, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, and The New Republic.
BC: Congratulations, Mr. Stein, on the release of your new book, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican: A Survival Guide for Conservatives Marooned among the Angry, Smug, and Terminally Self-Righteous. Let's start with a question about which most conservatives have long wondered: Why do so many leftists believe that political issues are black and white in nature and revolve around good versus evil?
Harry Stein: Well, the obvious answer is that, since they speak almost exclusively to one another, this is all they hear; indeed, in the case of many, who've come of age in a culture and educational system dominated by Sixties vets, pretty much all they've ever heard. For liberals, the left of center position on a vast range of issues – abortion, gay marriage, affirmative action, taxation, even national security – is not merely the correct position, it is the moral one. Which is to say, anyone who holds a contrary view is not simply mistaken, but morally flawed. There is no logic to this, of course, most liberals being wholly incapable of coherent arguments in behalf of their professed beliefs. Rather, they are articles of faith, sacraments in the religion of modern liberalism.
In fact, one of the things I note in the book is that, in their childish black-white view of the world, (and getting their sense of those on the other side from the snide hacks of the mainstream press), the liberals surrounding us have absolutely no idea what we conservatives actually think and believe. Driven as they are by emotion, they certainly have no interest in engaging our ideas. What the estimable Roger L. Simon writes about Hollywood liberals in his book 'Blacklisting Myself' also applies to virtually every liberal I know: their "politics is at root sentimental. It's about feeling good about yourself without having to do much more than sound off…"
I guess my overall sense of liberals can be summed up in the name I'm thinking of giving to the web site we're starting in connection with the book: smarterthanmyliberalneighbors.com
BC: When do you think all of massive confusion regarding the Democratic Party's identity—i.e. that they are the congress of the saints—began? Certainly, one would hope, after the end of segregation, but why does the general public buy into their myths? By these I mean, that government is charity, that federal programs equate with "saving the poor," and that the left stands for "the little guy," etc.
Harry Stein: Look, anyone who professes selfless dedication to the powerless and downtrodden – no matter how corrupt they may actually be -- is always going to look good to those ready to forego critical thinking in the search for easy answers. It is not for nothing that, even as reports of Stalin's Ukranian genocide emerged from the Soviet Union in the Thirties, hordes of young idealists, forebears of today's liberal elite, rushed to join the American Communist Party, drawn by its supposed dedication to equity and justice.
Moreover, the notion that the government will take care of all of one's needs is, for many, hugely seductive. To argue, as conservatives must, that that seduction is a trap – that it inhibits our capacity for action, robs of us possibility, infantilizes us – is a far more difficult task.
BC: You have a chapter entitled "Liberalism as a Mental Disorder" wherein you discuss Dr. Lyle Rossiter and his excellent book, The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness. Do you think that leftism is a psychological disorder? If so, it is not a terminal one as both you and I managed to overcome it.
Harry Stein: Perhaps the wisest course is to quote Dr. Rossiter himself here on the malady's symptoms: "Prominent among them are a basic mistrust of cooperation; false perceptions of victimization; intense envy and underlying shame; a need to vilify and blame others; deficits in self-reliance and self-direction; a marked fear and avoidance of responsibility; infantile demandingness; an intense and often paranoid hostility; a need to manipulate, control and depend on others; a lack of courage, resilience and frustration tolerance; and various defects in ego ideals, conscience and impulse control. Therapy must also address the liberal's self-pathology, especially his immaturity, self-centeredness and grandiosity; his lack of empathy for and recognition of others; his marked sense of entitlement; and his impaired self-esteem and identity. Educational programs to cure the liberal's ignorance of free-market economics, libertarian political process, constitutional democracy, and the psychology of cooperation rank high among therapeutic priorities."
Do I agree with this? Every word! The condition can indeed be cured, as you suggest, but this requires a degree of intellectual rigor and critical analysis that all too few liberals possess.
BC: Speaking of your personal life, throughout your analysis you try to bridge gaps with leftist associates…but fail. Your wife tries to bridge gaps…but fails. You even mention the "Shoot-Out over the Holiday Table" that you had with your father. Does the leftist markedly differ from the conservative in the fact that to them politics is a religious endeavor? Unlike your casual Democrat, is the leftist a true believer first and a friend and or family member later?
Harry Stein: Obviously, such a thing varies from case to case. But I do think that as a general rule it is a fool's errand to try and find meaningful common ground with the serious (and, invariably, self serious) leftists in our midst. Their politics are indeed their religion, and they are even more provincial than the Southern Baptist fundamentalists they hold in such contempt; more smug, more intolerant and even less incapable of genuine back and forth. If such a person is a friend or family member, the best course is to keep the conversation to sports and movies; or, if that's not possible, to prep before every meeting with healthy doses of Valium.
BC: You mention that you received $1700 dollars worth of damage to your car due to intolerant leftists keying the vehicle as a result of its being stamped with a McCain bumper sticker. Could it be that the leftists engaged in the behavior out of a realization that if they ever had to compete fairly with conservative ideas they would get trounced?
Harry Stein: Bernard, you give them waaaay too much credit. They don't think things through to that extent. In their world, during the last election McCain (and especially Palin) = BAD. To them this was a given, like the sky is blue and those who oppose affirmative action are racist. We shouldn't be trying to engage these people – an impossible task, anyway -- we should treat them to the gentle ridicule that their sad condition merits.
BC: Along the lines of the last question, how much is the political left to blame for the decline of civility in modern society?
Harry Stein: Excellent question. I'd say a good ninety percent. To be sure, there are some on the right who are as vicious the nasties on the left. The difference is, they don't have remotely the power or, yes, the respectability in mainstream circles of those on the left. Because we're not talking merely the Keith Olbermanns of the world, but the likes of Bill Moyers and New York Times columnists, professors at prestigious universities and honchos at leftist think tanks, major stars of stage and screen and the creators of popular entertainment. Look at the poisonous the attacks on Carrie Prejean from all sorts of mainstream types for even presuming to defend her traditionalist values.
BC: Do you think the political left is completely immune to irony given their championing phrases like "respect diversity" when they themselves do nothing of the kind?
Harry Stein: They truly don't see the irony, in the same way they're blind to their own multiple hypocrisies. Diversity to them is looking different and thinking alike. True intellectual diversity is inconceivable for those who simply dismiss conservative ideas as "bad" and "dangerous" or, even worse, as "racist" or "homophobic"; they must be shouted down, not given a fair hearing in the marketplace. Frankly, I don't know how much more plainly to put it: most of them really just aren't very smart.
BC: You received the PC devil treatment in response to a speech you gave at the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. In your narrative, you mention that "in the increasingly illiberal world of orthodox liberalism" argument has been replaced by poses of moral superiority and invective. Is this not just another indication of the fashion by which emotion has dispelled reason from the public square?
Harry Stein: Exactly. But the libs have also increasingly tried to see to it that those who disagree with them are deemed unworthy of being heard. In some precincts -- on the campus, in journalism, in the world of popular entertainment -- they have already succeeded to an alarming degree.
BC: Lastly, in terms of the academy, you mention the incredibly sad tale of the conservative academic who is abundantly qualified but cannot obtain employment. Is there any hope for the future of our colleges given that the baby boomers have now reached retirement age?
Harry Stein: A simple answer, with which others may disagree (and I pray they're right). No hope.
BC: Thanks for your time, Mr. Stein.