With the passing of Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator Charles Krauthammer last month, conservatives lost a principled thinker and an eloquent voice against Trumpism.
Liberals lost too.
Krauthammer, an American raised in Montreal, was a medical student who swapped his scalpel for a pen after he was paralyzed in a diving accident. As a writer, he was one of those rare conservatives who could make liberals second guess themselves as often as he infuriated them. Perhaps because he was a liberal convert to conservatism, he also had a particular aptitude for bridging the partisan divide, which was famously expressed in his pithy observation that “conservatives think liberals are stupid and liberals think conservatives are evil.”
I used to be one of those liberals, I’m sorry to say.
In my defence, I blame my education.
As with many of my contemporaries who studied at places like York University and the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, graduate school was more like an electric fence than an education. It kept me from encountering dangerous ideas – always conservative – while I fattened on the straw of progressive and liberal politics and theory.
My education wasn’t that bad; it was just one-sided.
For me, for a while, that was just fine. I was – and still am on most issues – a liberal. I grew up in a liberal household nestled securely in a liberal culture, and I’ve lived a liberal life.
I didn’t know until later in life how provincial I was in my cosmopolitanism. My understanding of conservatism was a caricature. Conservatives, I knew with certainty, had only two policy offerings that they applied to any issue, no matter the circumstance: tax cuts and smaller government. The more noxious right-wingers also hated gays and immigrants. Plus, they despised communists, which as an undergraduate student made no sense to me, since the only communists I knew were harmless hairy cranks who handed out leaflets that nobody read. Rich plutocrats or red-necked working stiffs, right-wingers couldn’t stand uncertainty. They were religious zealots without any spiritual empathy.
In other words, they were the antithesis of what I thought liberalism was. Liberalism was thoughtful and kind, not close-minded and cruel. Reasonable rather than reactionary. Open-hearted and comfortable with ambiguity. Liberals were flexible and fundamentally anti-dogmatic. They were spiritual without being religious.
At least that’s what I used to think.
My road to Damascus
I can’t say when I first began to doubt what I thought I knew. Gradually, something changed between me and my liberalism. It was like a falling out with a friend – no mortal wound ended the friendship because we still saw each other from time to time, but when we got together, the conversation was predictable. I knew I needed better conversation.
The moment that made me question my blind devotion to liberalism came during a conversation with a student at the university where I teach. A fine, intelligent young man, he told me that he hated Stephen Harper, at the time the Conservative prime minister of Canada.
Now, there were and are plenty of reasons to hate Harper’s policies – I’ll never forgive him for what he did to libraries – but when I asked my student to explain the reasons for his disgust, he replied, “Because he’s a Conservative.”
A sad realization fell over me after he left my office. I knew that when I was his age, his response would have been my own. Disliking the man for what he was, rather than disliking what he’d done.
Alone in my office, I realized I couldn’t call myself an academic, let alone an intellectual, with such a prejudice in my heart. So I set out to read my enemies and test my intellectual honesty. I had to know: Could I be honest with myself and what I believed?
A real page-turner
It turns out I could.
My experiment was simple and enjoyable. What I did was buy subscriptions to top-tier conservative publications and collect the writings of philosophical conservatives, then read them.
I had one rule for myself: I had to try to believe what these writers were telling me. It’s a way of reading that the famed American writing teacher Peter Elbow calls “Methodological Belief.” The idea is to engage a writer as a friend, rather than as an enemy, and to see the text as a gift, not a grenade. If you approach a text as a diehard skeptic, you won’t hear what the other person is saying or let yourself change your mind. Even if you’re wrong. You dig in. It’s trench warfare.
Civility and a willingness to be persuaded was the better way, I decided, and so I tried to believe what conservatives said. I gave them a chance. I admitted to myself that I had a lot still to learn, and these people might have something to teach me. What I couldn’t believe – and there was plenty I found hard to believe – I set aside.
But after years of experimentation, here’s what I discovered.
First and most important: the bad guys aren’t so bad. In fact, some of them are very good—very good writers and very good people. I sought out the best conservative writers, prose technicians with wit and intelligence. Reading my enemies turned out to be a pleasure.
I also discovered a gaping hole in my education. I’ve got a couple advanced degrees, and for a while I thought they looked pretty solid, like a model home in a new subdivision. But after I started giving conservatives an honest hearing, I began smelling the rats behind the walls.
To give one example: In all the courses I took on culture, none ever touched on the role religion plays in forming a culture – which, as pedagogy, is about as irresponsible as you can get. Nor did my culture degree expose the Germanic roots of cultural theory. We talked a lot about Marx, Foucault, and Derrida, but never Herder or Humboldt. I didn’t notice this astounding oversight until I started reading Sir Roger Scruton, whose writings on culture and aesthetics pointed out and filled in the potholes of my education.
I encountered plenty of questionable and even repugnant ideas emanating from conservative thinkers and writers, including the tortured support of Trump and homophobia that looks more like fear than principled objection, even when articulated by principled people. I also detected an anti-democratic thread running through much of the small-government-is-always-good writing. The way of these libertarian purists, it seems to me, is anarchy. And, of course, there is the knee-jerk hatred of liberals simply because they’re liberals. Immaturity transcends party lines.
Reading conservatives has helped me interrogate my beliefs in a way that is truly liberal. To read one’s enemies is to participate in a call and response, rather than the echo and repeat that happens when you read your friends. Today, I’m better able to see when liberalism goes too far, when extreme individualism dissolves the bonds of community and tradition. Life without principles or boundaries is not life, it’s an unstructured goo, at best an unthinking amoeba, and very likely spineless. That’s what thoughtful conservatives have taught me.
The cloistered mind, left or right, doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. And the point is that it doesn’t want to know. I know. I’ve been there. Maybe you have too. It’s a sad place where people are either stupid or evil and conversation is policed – or even worse, self-policed.
In the end, I discovered old wisdom I might have heard once but never really understood: that the person with shaky principles and no understanding of – or belief in – truth cannot allow himself to read opposing opinions fairly or honestly. Giving one’s enemies a fair trial is a threat to fragile psyches.
A confident intellectual position welcomes correction, which comes through conversations with people who do not think like we do. It comes through a willingness and courage to admit when we’re wrong. Correction brings us closer to seeing what is real and true.
Making peace with my enemies
My enemies are not my enemies. Not anymore. Now the sorts of people I might have ignored out of some ancient tribal animosity are like old friends I can disagree with while still enjoying their company.
I recommend to anybody interested in replicating my experiment that they read the writings of only the best minds. Spend your time wisely. Avoid the shallow, the entrenched, the cruel, and the people who crusade and insult rather than persuade and think. I also recommend against spending precious time on YouTubers, “independent citizen journalists”, and anybody whose primary place to prognosticate is twitter or whose default setting is rage. This is a personal preference. I like publications with an editorial structure and standards.
On the left, writers worth a serious reader’s time include Terry Eagleton, Paul Krugman, and publications like the Nation. Chris Hedges’s dour style can make you want to pull a blanket over your head and stay in bed, but his relentless criticism always comes from a place of compassion. Lewis Lapham, master of the long sentence, made Harper’s a magazine worth reading, and he continues to illuminate in essays that appear in Lapham’s Quarterly. And although Canadian conservatives might find this hard to believe, John Ralston Saul’s philosophical work deserves a first and second reading.
On the right, R.R. Reno, editor of the excellent First Things magazine, offers a unique perspective on current events in his monthly Public Square column. Douglas Murray’s columns and his book The Strange Death of Europe articulate positions that beg a response from liberals. Roger Scruton and James Schall take a religious look at the world, and they do so with clarity and passion. And for those who’ve never read Krauthammer, or want to have the pleasure again, I’ll add Things That Matter, his collection of his newspaper columns.
The Claremont Review of Books pairs well with the New York Review of Books, since they tend to review different books. A reader could alternate between the new releases of Encounter Books and Verso Books and never get bored.
And as for online journals, c2cjournal.ca, rabble.ca, spiked-online.com, thepublicdiscourse.com, and truthdig.com showcase intelligent writers and timely dispatches. Good writing for those with the courage to venture outside their tribe and test the strength of their intellectual honesty.