PROUD TO BE RIGHT: VOICES OF THE NEXT CONSERVATIVE GENERATION
Edited and with an introduction by Jonah Goldberg
Harper, $15.99, 247 pages
At the outset, let me declare a personal interest: Jonah Goldberg de-
stroyed my career. Let me explain: When I was a young writer starting out, I fancied myself as something of a conservative humorist. My jeremiads about the Clinton impeachment and high marginal tax rates were interspersed with anecdotes about beer and chicken-wing consumption. My shtick was laughing it up with the Laffer Curve.
As I was getting ready to leave my collegiate right-wing scribbling behind and burst onto the national scene, another young writer became famous. He told jokes. He made pop-culture references. He wrote self-deprecatingly about his waistline. One career in conservative journalism was forever altered, but Mr. Goldberg may now have launched several more with “Proud to Be Right,” his edited collection of essays by young conservative writers. The contributors range from people who already are fairly well known to scribes you’ve likely never heard of. Most of them I’ve never met personally, a couple I know so well that they’ve spilled nachos on my couch.
Mr. Goldberg writes in the introduction that he “leaned heavily in selecting contributors at the dawn of their careers,” who “do not yet have a megaphone, but might deserve one.” And though they have little in common besides their relative youth and identification with conservatism, Mr. Goldberg identifies a common thread in the essays: “Young conservatives - at least on college campuses - must master their own culture and learn to live in the majority culture.”
Most of these young writers talk about being conservative in the hostile setting of academia, but without self-pity: In each case, exposure to alternative ideas and robust political conflict only made their convictions stronger. Some of them came to their right-leaning opinions reluctantly, from improbable backgrounds and almost against their will.
Consider Joel Pollak, whose bio in the anthology describes him as “an author, speechwriter, and human rights lawyer” in addition to a Republican congressional candidate. A 1996 Ralph Nader voter, he began to question his liberalism while working in South Africa, where he saw the dangers of collectivism and the value of constitutionalism as a guarantor of individual liberty.”
When I returned to the United States,” Mr. Pollak writes, “I still thought of myself as a Democrat.” He had been tempted to vote Republican in 2004 but had resisted the urge. Instead, he enrolled in Harvard Law School and was elected to be his section’s representative to the school’s Democratic campus organization. Mr. Pollak started mixing it up with Barney Frank at the Kennedy School of Government and returned home a conservative activist.
Mr. Pollak came to conservatism in part through his support for the war in Iraq. He was attracted to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential candidacy because the senator had been for the surge. Michael Brendan Dougherty, by contrast, writes that his opposition to war in the Balkans moved him rightward. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Mr. Dougherty argues, “made it sound like American armed forces constituted some kind of tricked-out lawnmower, and she was anxious to ride it across Serbia.”
One young writer became a conservative because of his hawkish tendencies in the war on terror, another because of his budding isolationism. It is the diversity of this collection that makes “Proud to Be Right” valuable. Reading this volume is not like plodding through chapter after chapter of Republican talking points or Beltway conservative press releases.
Contributor James Poulos was an eyeliner-wearing “brooding indie-glam front man,” Todd Seavey was a conservative punk; Ashley Thorne hailed from a “tiny Christian college” in New York, Helen Rittelmeyer from the Party of the Right at the Yale Political Union.
“Proud to Be Right” has its callow moments: a passage here that is too self-absorbed, one there that isn’t self-aware, the occasional sweeping statement the author will not be able to read in five years without rolling his eyes. But those are the occupational hazards of being a young writer. Overall, the volume brims with its contributors’ often deserved self-confidence.
A recurring theme is how the personal is the political, an idea once identified with the left. The writers talk about the significance of their being college students and conservative, young mothers and conservative, homosexual and conservative. Their varied experiences add texture to their views in a way that the usual “I read ‘The Road to Serfdom’ and - bam - I knew Reagan was right” proclamations do not.
Just as many of the authors struggle with being conservative, others write about their alienation from the professional conservative movement: their frustrations with its institutions and the always uneasy intersection of one’s idealism with real life. M. Stanton Evans, a teacher of many young conservatives, famously observed that many people on the right come to the nation’s capital believing it’s a sewer only to end up treating it like a hot tub.
It’s an interesting and sometimes ambitious collection. Even if it doesn’t give us the next Jonah Goldberg, perhaps it will succeed in reminding us that “conservatives are people, too.”
W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator and manager of its young writers program.