- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2000

Jessica Smith of The Washington Times interviewed Harry Stein, author of "How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (And Found Inner Peace)" after the book was released last week.

Mr. Stein, 51, is an ethics columnist at the Wall Street Journal. His book is about his gradual shift from '60s liberalism to '90s conservatism on issues like feminism, bias in the media, affirmative action, multiculturalism, abortion and homosexual rights.

Question: So far, what's been the response to the book?

Mr. Stein: There are a lot of people out there who have more or less traveled the same road: They started out liberal and got more conservative, whether because of family or because they couldn't stomach political correctness, and those people tend to really like it.

Q: Do you think the title jumped out at people?

Mr. Stein: I was a little concerned about the length, but it was designed to be provocative. It communicates very clearly and quickly what the book is, both in terms of its subject matter and its tone.

I wanted the book to not only work as serious work, but as entertainment. I wanted people to laugh because there's this notion that people on my side of the political spectrum are narrow-minded and humorless, scolds who are continually finger-wagging.

Q: You think people have been able to look at the book so far without a political lens?

Mr. Stein: Amazingly so. There were clearly some reviewers who were eager to forgive me for my politics.

Booklist, which gave a very positive review, said, "How conservative can he really be if he has problems with Pat Buchanan?"

I don't know if that will remain the case; it's early days yet. It remains to be reviewed by some of the more prominent liberal publications, but I think the fact [the New York] Times reviewed it so favorably is a sign to people in the mainstream media that maybe it's OK not to despise this book.

Q: This is a book that speaks to where America is now. Do you think it will be relevant for very long?

Mr. Stein: It is very much pitched to the moment. It's a combination of extremely timely things … and more enduring matters, like honor and the direction of the culture and children and what their needs are. So in that sense, I don't think it has a short shelf life.

Q: How do you "accidentally" join the right-wing conspiracy?

Mr. Stein: Growing up as the son of communists, growing up in the most liberal of households in the most liberal part of the world in the most liberal of professions, it never occurred to me that I would sit here at age 50-plus saying the kinds of things I'm saying.

It wasn't something that happened instantly. There wasn't some cathartic moment. It was a gradual transition and a series of realizations about myself and about the culture, beginning with fatherhood, which is a pivotal event for most people in this regard.

In the early '80s when my wife chose to stop working, I wrote a piece on day care, which I expected to be moderately controversial, but I ended up being attacked viciously for.

It was eye-opening to realize there were certain givens in the liberal universe that one is not allowed to question, and that was only the first of them… .

Liberalism has also changed dramatically in the last 20 years. When I was growing up, classical liberalism was a true openness to ideas of all kinds. We've reached the point where those who are truly interested in freedom of thought and freedom of speech tend to be on the conservative side of the spectrum.

Q: How did fatherhood help you make that transition toward a more conservative point of view?

Mr. Stein: I think children, by definition, make you think about larger questions yourself in relation to time and space and they make you think about other people and their needs and future generations and their needs.

A lot of people who now consider themselves social conservatives who didn't awhile ago became that way for exactly that reason in defense of their children.

When you get [President] Clinton and the horrific standard of behavior he has modeled for our kids, and you have many small children asking unseemly and embarrassing questions, that exacerbates that trend.

Q: Why is feminism a topic that sets you off so much?

Mr. Stein: Feminism has been destructive in many ways. I don't think anyone objects to the original premises of the women's movement equality of opportunity and a level playing field but it very quickly moved beyond that into a war on nature.

The assumption that boys and girls were the same, except when girls are better, launched a war on boys. Characteristic boy behavior has been pathologized. When boys are rambunctious and a little vulgar and act out, they must be tamped down and taught that people shouldn't act this way… .

A lot of girls have been taught that their sexuality is exactly the same as male sexuality, which is a lie, and that has been very damaging. Wendy Shalit has written about that.

Again, the people who are making the intelligent critiques of this are on the right… .

You could get into a whole notion of victimhood: On the one hand, women are strong and capable and utterly independent, but on the other hand, if something goes wrong, they're victims who need help and sexual-harassment laws to protect them.

The whole regime of sexual-harassment laws has led to virtual Star Chambers where people are afraid to speak and act normally. Office interaction, which should be normal and easygoing, becomes fraught with tension and potential danger… .

Q: When you're discussing feminism or any other topic, what makes you angry: Is it name-calling or not being open to another opinion or something else?

Mr. Stein: It's important we get back to the notion of civil discourse and honest discussion. One thing that's happened over the last 25 years is that many major changes have happened without serious discussion.

In the early '70s, we used to make fun of conservatives who would say that there would be coed bathrooms in college dorms and a feminized military. These people were Martians as far as we were concerned.

The surprising thing is not that those things have come to pass, but that they've passed without the kind of debate that's essential in democratic society for social change.

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