Why I Turned Right

Edited by: Mary Eberstadt
Published by: Threshold Editions, 2007

This book should be required reading, if for no other reasons than a) to understand the minds of conservatives (and not leave it up to the opposing side to define them), and b) to read the thoughts of Joseph Bottum and Rich Lowry, which alone would have sustained the book.

While those two writers stand out, the other essayists in this small but powerful collection are also quite fascinating, and the greatest power of the collection as a whole is to convince the unfamiliar reader that conservatives are no more lockstep in their thinking than any other loosely affiliated group of political thinkers. Oh, and the essays also convince you that thinking is, indeed, part of the reason these people have chosen to call themselves "conservative," again, contrary to what might be suspected by the left about "robotic dittoheads" marching to the controlling drum of some corporate head or loudmouth pundit.

The essays are based on the question, "Why did you become a conservative?"

Frequently, the essayist didn't start out as a conservative, but through some moment of epiphany, converted. One of the most moving "conversion stories" is Joseph Bottum's, who says that one spring day in Washington, D.C., he, a college student in full fun mode, sees a young mother with her happy toddler out for a walk, and reaches the "sudden, absolute conviction that babies are good."

Recognizing his own participation in "the great sexual revolution," he acknowledges that "fun as the pleasure dome had been, I must leave - for it was kept bright and warm with the bodies of aborted babies, burned in the basement furnace for fuel."

His brand of unwilling conservatism (being a conservative is anything but "cool") is discovered, he says, "when you find in yourself a limit, a place beyond which you will not go, and always for me it comes back to this touchstone: Anything that participates in the murder of a child - anything that slices it into pieces or burns it to death with chemicals in the womb - is wrong. All the rest is just a working out of the details."

Other essayists would not agree with Bottum. Take Sally Satel, for example. She's not even sure she really wants people to call her a conservative, but since she is often asked to represent what she might call a "non-PC" point of view of psychiatry, she is more than willing to oblige - simply, she says, to "expose muddled thinking."

Satel would not characterize herself as political at all, but rather as a doctor, and a scientist. If her opinions are politicized by others, so be it. She can't be still about such abuses in her profession as grouping psychiatric inpatients by sexual orientation and race, or insisting that a "team" of specialists assigned to treat black patients, for example,  be themselves only black.

"I am," she writes, in a distinctly non-typical conservative fashion, "pro-choice, pro-Darwin, and pro-stem cell."

Danielle Crittenden, on the other hand, comes to her conservatism when the questions she asks - as an enfranchised young female reporter - fail to give her convincing answers.

She and her contemporaries come up at a time when many of the larger issues of women's rights are no longer in dispute. Their attitude is, "Just give us the opportunities - we will take them!" What she finds on the front, however, she characterizes as "angry" and "whiny."

While Crittenden readily admits that she benefited from the opportunities afforded young women like her by trail-blazing feminists, she is not so sure that the "there" they reached is an unqualified success. Young women of her generation enjoyed "Success, because women like me were indeed building our lives upon feminist assumptions; failure, because it clearly wasn't working. Women were different, and those differences had consequences. Women still bore the babies, so we also bore the choice of abortion or single motherhood in a culture that encouraged casual sex and and discouraged male commitment. Women still took the low-paying jobs, because they were still by and large the ones raising children - and so we were more likely to be left struggling and poor in an ear of easy, no-fault divorce."

The problem, as Crittenden sees it, is that in a world in which young women are asked to do, have, and be it all, very few of them can actually perform, nor should they be expected to. And where once conventional wisdom assured young women that the most fulfilling role of their lives would be wife-and-mother, this counsel has been hushed up - to the pain and detriment of a growing body of over-forty and unhappily childless women.

Rich Lowry's essay wraps up the book, and more than any other convinces the reader that conservatives are first and foremost individuals, as complex and unique as any others. Where Bottum does an excellent job of characterizing the Great American Experiment as a fine balance between classical liberalism and Christian faith ("The United States as it naturally wants to be - what we might call the platonic ideal of America - contains a tension we must be careful not to resolve. From its founding, the nation has always been something like a school of Enlightenment rationalists aswim in an ocean of Christian faith... In other words, the Bible may help produce the ethics a modern state needs to assume in its citizens if it is to allow them freedom."), Lowry tells us about the interior tightrope walked by any modern, thinking individual who is both independent and filial, religious yet here-and-now, self-actualizing but the concerned brother of a handicapped sibling.

"I didn't like being told what to do," he writes of his divided nature, "and I still feel an anti-authority tug every time I have to fill out a form, or stand in a line, or obey any petty rule. Deep down, however, I was thoroughly enamored of the bourgeois family and way of life. It's hard to be a conservative without filial piety."

The popular definition of "conservative" is one who wishes to "conserve" the old approach. Lowry assures us that at least his conservative mind prefers to conserve only those things about the past and tradition that make sense, and that benefit people. How much higher our reach, he convinces us, when we stand upon the experience and wisdom of those who went before.

If you're a conservative, read this book. It will put you among friends. And give a copy to your liberal friends.  If you are a liberal, read this book - if it doesn't make you feel warm and fuzzy about conservatism, it will at least assure you that Rush Limbaugh is not practicing mind control on an army of zombies. It's a step in the, er, Right direction.


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