Either/Or

Will Saletan and Timothy Ireland

Either/Or

Will Saletan and Timothy Ireland

Either/Or
An email conversation about the news of the day.
July 27 2000 5:17 PM

Will Saletan and Timothy Ireland

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Dear Tim,

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In fairness to the Times, if that newspaper and its unbearable self-importance vanished tomorrow (where's Vladimir Putin when you need him?), we'd miss having Johnny Apple and Howell Raines to kick around. In order for you and me to ridicule and debunk the conventional wisdom, some poor snob has to be the conventional wisdom. Look at it from the viewpoint of a Times reporter. Here's your job interview: "We expect you to follow this beat, write four times a week, and refrain from saying anything original for the duration of your career. In exchange, your phone calls will be returned." Some bargain.

One great thing about the Internet is that it allows people in flyover country to read the Times every morning. Another great thing about the Internet is that it allows people like me to read something else. Most of what you and I have been chatting about this week has been in the Times or the Washington Post. But since I've been online, I've been reading the Los Angeles Times every day on its Web site. Today that paper has an interesting story on Marvin Olasky, one of Bush's compassionate-conservatism gurus. Here's the Times' synopsis of Olasky's ideological conversion:

By the time he entered Yale, Olasky was running toward the left at full tilt. He protested the Vietnam War. He staged a five-day hunger strike. By 1972, he signed up to become a card-carrying member of the Communist Party USA. Then one night, while reading a passage from Lenin, Olasky asked himself the sort of question that keeps college students up at night: What if Lenin is wrong? What if there is a God? Olasky decided God deserved a second look and began a slow process that culminated with his conversion to Christianity in 1976. He and his wife began attending a conservative Christian church they picked out of the phone book and never looked back.

Now, here's what interests me about this story. You and I spent some time at Swarthmore College, which Spiro Agnew--one of the finest men ever to occupy the vice-presidency, if your assessment of other past vice presidents is correct--once called "the Kremlin on the Crum." I don't know about you, but I took a lot of classes there from Marxists and Marx sympathizers. I still like Marx's general tools for studying the world (critical analysis, historicism, exposure of false consciousness), which help people see through bad institutions. But I gradually realized that these astute criticisms of bad societies didn't translate into a clear theory of the good society. That's where Marx went off the rails: He tried to spin his criticism into a vision and program, which were necessarily vague, and this vagueness made them an easy vehicle for guys like Lenin, Mao, and Pol Pot. In this way, Marx repeated and catastrophically magnified the error he had exposed in his predecessors: He thought he had the answers. He thought he understood what would make everyone happy and fulfilled. Once you think that, everything that gets in the way is fair game.

Olasky, David Horowitz, and other leftists-turned-rightists make the same mistake. They think they've transformed their lives because they've dumped one simplistic worldview for another. Their brains are locked in a Boolean box: Either there's no God, or there's the God of our fathers. Either Whitey is the devil, or Whitey is the greatest thing since white bread. They stride blindly past the possibility that truth exists in shades of gray, that God might defy anyone's attempt to describe Him in a series of books, and that those who claim to know God's will are just as dangerous as those who claim to know God doesn't exist.

It's one thing for these Boolean zealots to rule academic fiefdoms from which you and I are free to graduate and rethink what we were taught. It's quite another matter for them to shape, through an impressionable president, the policies under which a whole nation must live. Good riddance to left-wing totalitarianism. But let's keep an eye on its right-wing descendants.

Timothy Ireland is a media consultant and former political reporter for the New York Daily News. Will Saletan writes Slate's "Frame Game" and "Damned Spot" columns.