Friday, March 26, 2004

A few years ago, I worked for a struggling dot-com in Manhattan whose work force was almost uniformly liberal. Given my conservative orientation, I saw little sense in getting involved in workplace political discussions. My silence was interpreted as acquiescence until I could stand it no longer and fessed up. One co-worker, who had served on the committee that hired me, felt betrayed.

“But,” he stammered, remembering my resume, “You worked for NPR.”

Actually, I never worked directly for NPR, but rather for a production company whose program was carried on 100 NPR stations. It was a distinction without a difference — I had worked in public radio.

My colleague’s incredulity implied disappointment with public broadcasting’s ideological screening process: How had I gotten through? He would have been even more surprised if he had known the truth: I had arrived in public radio not as a conservative, but as a liberal, if an admittedly disaffected one. By the time I was through with public radio, I was through with liberalism, too.

I was a co-producer for one of the most unusual programs NPR ever carried, “Bridges: A Liberal/Conservative Dialogue.” The premise was a discussion between the liberal of the show’s title, Larry Josephson, and leading conservative thinkers.

Larry was a longtime public-radio host and producer. He had started out at New York’s always-loony WBAI, where he had hosted a legendary morning program in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Since then, he had moved on to more sedate terrain. When the Gingrich revolution swept Washington, Larry conceived of “Bridges” as an answer to charges that public broadcasting shut out conservatives. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting approved the show and provided funding for a four-year run.

By the time I arrived in 1997 as a co-producer in charge of writing, research and booking guests, the program was in its third year. I had been a liberal since college, but the performance of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had shaken my old certainties. Crime was dropping precipitously all around the city. The drug dealers were gone from the street corners of my East Village neighborhood, and Grand Calcutta was becoming Grand Central again. Watching the city change before me, I was worried: Was I starting to like Giuliani? Would it pass?

Besides my having a graduate degree, the impulses for my liberalism were fairly common: anguish and guilt over the inequities of life; the conviction that only liberals wanted to alleviate suffering (a belief reinforced by professors, the mainstream media and most everyone I knew in New York); and a deep suspicion of capitalism, heightened by disgust at the behavior of so many successful people in American culture.

I had read a couple of books by Jonathan Kozol, “Savage Inequalities” and “Amazing Grace,” both about poor children. They were beautifully written, with the searing passion of an Old Testament prophet. Mr. Kozol demanded a moral accounting; he was the kind of writer who made readers question even the smallest life choices they made. In the real world, though, his prescriptions usually came down to more government spending. America was still a deeply racist society, he held. Perhaps tax dollars could redeem centuries of sin. I wasn’t sure anymore.

In my previous job, at Legal Aid in East Harlem, I had seen the office torn apart by the use of race in hiring. A cold war had broken out between blacks and whites over the hiring of a white candidate who happened to be significantly more qualified than a black candidate. The office seethed with mutual recriminations, and “race matters” consumed more time than official work.

Because everyone in the office was a committed liberal or outright leftist, no one condemned affirmative action. Still, I felt a simmering disgust for the entire enterprise. As with my feelings about Giuliani, I tried to reassure myself. True, I hated muggers and affirmative action. But I still opposed Newt Gingrich and supported the progressive income tax. Everything would be fine.

Then came “Bridges.”

Now I would have to read and hear what the conservatives were thinking.

Sure beats Foucault

My main responsibility was to distill guests’ books into a few single-spaced pages and write interview questions for Larry that he could accept or reject while adding his own. As part of my job, I read omnivorously in the conservative literature — books, periodicals and the Web sites that were coming online.

Larry had print subscriptions to just about everything, from Reason to Crisis. The piles of conservative magazines lay around my workspace like a stack of Hustler in Saudi Arabia, daring me to look inside. Opening the pages of National Review or Commentary for the first time gave a certain thrill of heresy.

It quickly became clear that my understanding of conservatism was a cartoon. The writers took perfectly reasonable positions and argued them with eloquence. Always, there was the sense of limits to what one could hope for — and the warning that taking action could make things worse instead of better. After my years in the fervent environs of the left, the sober skepticism of the conservatives was very appealing. I couldn’t help but think that many of my fellow liberals had, like me, assiduously avoided coming in contact with their arguments. That was easy to do in New York City.

One of our first shows after I arrived was a history of American conservatism with the historian George Nash. His magnum opus, “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945,” has long been a reference bible on the right. The book condenses the thought of some of the most consequential political and economic thinkers of the 20th century — men such as Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and James Burnham. I had heard of very few of them. Nash traced the intellectual fault lines that appeared on the right and that endure today, such as, for example, the one between traditionalists and libertarians.

As I read, I kept thinking to myself: “This sure beats Michel Foucault.”

He argues well

From Nash, it became abundantly clear that conservative thinkers were more than equal to those on the left. I was impressed with their emphasis on preserving Western culture and what they called the “Great Tradition,” their gloomy take on collective man and their profoundly religious motivations for anti-communism. None of these squared with my superficial view of the right — on culture, as prudes and scolds who didn’t really care for the arts anyway; on history, as blithely indifferent to human suffering; and on communism, as rabid and paranoid.

The depth and moral seriousness of the Nash book stayed with me long after the broadcast, and I found myself taking it home to read — and reread. I just made sure I didn’t leave it on the coffee table when friends came to visit.

Soon afterward, we scheduled a program with Robert Bork. Reading some obscure intellectuals was one thing, but reading “Slouching Towards Gomorrah” was another. This was radioactive stuff from one of the right’s Great Satans.

Nothing had prepared me for the shock of reading Bork. He identified American cultural decline with two primary forces: radical egalitarianism, which I had seen firsthand at Legal Aid, and radical individualism, which was all around us.

Like many other conservatives, Bork traced the cultural crisis to the ‘60s generation. He didn’t just blame the ‘60s, though; he took apart the foundations of the ‘60s ethos and held them up to withering scrutiny. Bork spoke to a central premise that continues to animate the left — namely, that man can be perfected into a state of harmony.

“Real human beings do not have any large unfulfilled capacity for love,” Bork wrote. “They simply do not regard men as infinitely precious, whatever the homilist may say on Sunday; and they lack the boundless energy and selflessness required to will themselves to brotherhood. … Attempts to suppress aggression entirely and to substitute love, being unnatural, will finally erupt in greater aggression. When utopians are frustrated in the realization of their vision by the real nature of humans, who are then seen as perversely evil, they can turn nasty and violent.”

Maybe other liberals already knew that the soul of man was, at best, equal parts dark and light. For me, though, coming up against this assertion — which I instantly recognized as true — left the rest of my political foundation as wobbly as an old porch struggling under too much weight.

“What did you think of the book?” Larry asked me, paging through my summary.

I wanted to say, “I can’t believe how much of this I agree with.”

Instead, I said, “He argues his points well.”

Game’s up

With each subsequent guest — Sam Tanenhaus on Whittaker Chambers, James Q. Wilson on crime and punishment, David Horowitz on Vietnam and the new left — my liberalism weakened.

I also had begun listening to old tapes of “Bridges” from before my arrival. On one, Marvin Olasky discussed poverty and welfare reform, sounding not unlike a Jonathan Kozol who had allowed for human nature. His emphasis on the spiritual and moral importance of work bore no resemblance to the “Dickensian workhouses” described by angry liberals. Unlike many welfare advocates who often seemed more interested in discussing the selfishness of the rich, Olasky spoke of the poor themselves, what they genuinely needed.

But the tape I played over and over — the one that pushed out the few remaining beams in my tottering old porch — was an early program with Shelby Steele. Steele argued forcefully for individual responsibility and rejected black group identity. He described affirmative action as “a fraud perpetrated on black Americans” by whites eager to assuage their racial guilt.

Taking this as an invitation to candor, Larry told Steele that he had been mugged twice by blacks and now walked to the other side of the street at night when he saw black men approaching. Here, on NPR, Larry was confessing one of the great liberal taboos: that his traumas had scarred him in a way that affected his behavior toward blacks. Though liberals could always rationalize black anger toward whites, no white emotional responses other than guilt and empathy were permitted.

NPR listeners must have been stunned by Steele’s response.

“I see people move across the street when I cross the street in Monterey, California,” he said. “I understand why. I do, too. There’s a crime problem in the black community. … Until that fundamental situation begins to subside, you can say anything you want; people are going to have that kind of reaction.”

Larry was not condemned; the conversation proceeded. It was what a conversation between blacks and whites might sound like in America if honesty prevailed.

Race was the hook on which liberals hung their moral authority. Without it, I had nothing left to hold onto. It took a little while for it to sink in, but I knew as I listened to Shelby Steele that the game was up.

I was misinformed

For the rest of my time at “Bridges,” I thought of myself as an enemy mole. I’m not sure if Larry suspected; he had enough on his mind. “Bridges” went off the air in June 1998 when we were unable to secure another year’s funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Gingrich storm had passed.

Unlike some former liberals who moved to the right, I did not find the experience disillusioning. It did not fill me with sadness that what the culture would call my “youthful ideals” bore so little relation to the real world. My reaction might be compared to Casablanca’s Rick, who tells Captain Renault that he came to Casablanca for its waters. When Renault protests that they are in a desert, Rick nods and replies, “I was misinformed.”

NPR’s liberal tilt hasn’t changed, at least when I’m listening. “Bridges” was always an aberration. CPB would never have funded it if not for the Republican takeover of Congress and the subsequent threats to “zero out” public broadcasting. Therein lies perhaps the show’s most unlikely legacy: Trying to get conservatives off their backs, the CPB and Larry made a conservative out of one of their own producers.

All things considered, my time in public radio was a breath of fresh air.

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