Monday, March 5, 2007

With conservatism at both philosophical and practical crossroads, this is an opportune time to consider “Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys,” edited by Mary Eberstadt. The book proceeds from the assumption that most of today’s conservatives evolved from somewhere else on the political spectrum.

At their best, the essays offer honest, even revelatory evidence of these intellectual journeys. This collection is something no conservative should live without.

The best essay is also the first — P.J. O’Rourke’s “The Unthinking Man’s Guide To Conservatism.” Mr. O’Rourke addresses the singular temptation of the left wing: “I was swept out to Marxist sea by a flood of sex. I was trying to impress cute beatnik girls.”

Unsurprisingly, though, Mr. O’Rourke has long since come to an understanding about those objects of his desire: “All those beatnik girls had a history. And many of them ended up institutionalized.”

For Mr. O’Rourke, as for so many others who were raised by Republicans but drifted leftward during their college years, learning to appreciate the conservative message was tied in to accepting life’s responsibilities.

Fatherhood, for example, taught Mr. O’Rourke that “being a parent means suddenly agreeing with Pat Buchanan about everything except immigration.” Another factor in Mr. O’Rourke’s conservative identity was coming to understand that God existed:

“Then one day it seemed silly not to believe in God… Maybe I was just too small a part of creation to understand what the larger point was. But if I was so small that my comprehension was meaningless, what did that make my incomprehension?”

P.J. O’Rourke’s essay may be the gold standard for this collection, but most of the other essays brim with useful insights as well. David Brooks, the former editorialist for the Washington Times who now pens a column for some New York paper, was raised a fairly conventional leftist; he starts off his essay by describing a “Be-In” he attended in 1965, and mentions later that he “probably didn’t meet a Republican during [his] first decade” on Earth.

So how did Mr. Brooks go from “Be-Ins” to his self-styled “Hamiltonian conservatism”? In his reckoning, it definitely was not a linear path: “I’m struck as I look back on my little political peregrination by how haphazard it has been. For the past thirty years or so I’ve been trying on different ideological clothes — books and schools of thought and labels — as they came upon me.

“It hasn’t been a rational, self-conscious, or scientific process… more like a meandering journey in search of the ideological clothes that fit my intuitive view of the world.”

David Brooks’ words are those of the honest convert, a man who came to conservatism not because it was easy but because the world was a hard and treacherous place, one in which understanding the eternal verities is necessary to live righteously.

Since my own “political peregrination” was “haphazard” at times, it is hard for me not to identify with Mr. Brooks’ candor here. I suspect many readers of “Why I Turned Right” will feel the same way.

Beyond these two essays, there is no shortage of worthwhile reading. Dinesh D’Souza’s insights on the historic impact of the legendary campus weekly the Dartmouth Review are worth the price of this collection in themselves.

Another delicious read: Heather Mac Donald’s “Down and Out With Paul DeMan,” in which the Manhattan Institute fellow skewers the Nazi-friendly Deconstructionist and those who followed his intellectual lead. In Ms. Mac Donald’s reckoning, deconstruction’s appeal rested not in “its intellectual appeal … but in its aura of transgression.”

That insight, of course, can be extended to the left wing at large. The appeal of the left — to wayward students and to the Cindy Sheehans of the world, who never quite outgrew the left’s jejune nature — is its theater, its spectacle, its pageantry. Conservatism is the last redoubt of the realist. And better than any other book in recent memory, “Why I Turned Right” spotlights why conservatism is the most essential of all political philosophies.

A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Fla.

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