In the fall of 1971, when I was in twelfth grade, I started to grow my hair long. A failed basketball player, still loosely socially affiliated with the athletes, I knew that the next fall I’d be in college. There, I thought, I could really fit in—and find a great girlfriend or two, unlike anything that had happened in high school.
At that time the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was winding down. The draft was on the way to being abolished, so guys my age didn’t have to think about what they would do if they were drafted.
But “the war” was still a hot topic. In my school, it was a social marker: if you were “for the war,” you were more likely to be with the jocks and cheerleaders, an assertive patriot; those “against the war” were more likely to be on the “freak” side of the spectrum, more into loud music than sports, marijuana than beer. As for America, it was “Amerika,” venal and “imperialist” if not worse.
As part of the change I felt myself to be effectuating, I started to say things like, “It’s not our fight.” “I don’t know what we’re doing over there, wasting all that money when we could be spending it on social programs.”
It did not come out of genuine, deep thought or engagement with the issues. Once I had wanted to be cool by being a star basketball player; but I was only a mediocre one. Now I would be cool by being an intellectual firebrand, a scourge of the establishment.
Demographically speaking, that strategy made more sense. Though I didn’t yet understand it in such terms, I was a secular Jew with a strong yen for the arts and humanities. In most places in the world where Jews live, people of that description are overwhelmingly on the left; indeed, a good many people in the colleges I went to belonged to that description.
There was only one obstacle to my march toward—so I thought—coolness, popularity, and success with the girls as an “establishment”-basher: Alfred Hornik.
This is an online article, not a long chapter in a book, so I have to limn my father quickly.
Alfred Hornik was born in Vienna in 1923 and died in Clifton Park, New York, in 1978. He was a psychologist, an excellent family man with three children, an impassioned intellectual, and a chain smoker. He loved highbrow magazines and was never far from deep-thought books on a wide range of subjects. He was intensely political and listened to the news on the radio every hour even when we were driving somewhere in pristine countryside. A leftist when younger, by about 1970 he was a neoconservative. He was charismatic and kind, with something distinctly and appealingly rascally in his personality. It was the cigarettes that killed him at 55.
I don’t remember when he first “called” me on the stuff I was saying about “the war.” It’s likely, though, that we were both lingering at the table after supper; we were always the only ones present for these discussions we began having. He said what he said quietly and seriously, manifestly giving me the feeling that I was free to respond and anything I said would be considered fairly.
He told me that the people we were fighting over there were totalitarians no different from the Nazis who, if allowed to take over, would commit mass atrocities. He told me the war was part of a larger effort by the Soviet Union to extend its power and ultimately overcome American power. He told me that when South Vietnamese civilians fled a war zone, they invariably fled south—not north into areas the communists had supposedly “liberated.” He told me that diverting money from the war effort to America’s social problems wouldn’t accomplish anything; the social problems—particularly in the inner cities—stemmed from a breakdown of family structure and that was something the government didn’t know how to solve no matter how much it spent, and in fact had helped cause with its meddling.
I was stunned and dazzled. If I had heard some of these points before, it was in shouting matches between jocks and freaks. I had never heard political positions set forth with precision, nuance, and a logic that flowed like music, like Mozart. Living with my father for seventeen years, amid his journals, books, and tobacco smoke, I had never before heard him speak at length about these matters that so occupied him.
As Keats put it so wonderfully, I felt “… like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken,” like Cortez when “He stared at the Pacific…upon a peak in Darien.”
And he started giving me stuff to read. In those days he subscribed to two journals on Jewish and Israeli matters—and to National Review, Commentary, and American Spectator.
Of the three political magazines, I most took to Commentary. It was the most “Jewish”; I felt that people a lot like my father (including some of the non-Jewish contributors) were writing for it. My raw impression was: these people are totally reasonable and have no ax to grind.
Part of what created that impression was that they didn’t agree on everything—a sign of real intellectual activity. Some, like my father, thought “the war” was totally just and necessary, essential to stopping Soviet expansion. Some thought the U.S. involvement was overblown or at least poorly managed. But they all did agree on a couple of things: that the United States was not an evil country that had gone to Vietnam to make some more money while killing peasants; and that communism was a malevolent, totalitarian force.
And there was another thing that impressed me: I hadn’t known people like these existed. Like my father they appeared to be mostly secular intellectuals; and they were cultured too: Commentary and the others also ran fine articles on music, literature, and so on. Weren’t people of that kind—the highbrows—supposed to be “against the war,” liberals, establishment-bashers, kind of like the freaks in my school who tended to be more intellectual than the jocks?
It would dawn on me more and more—especially as I entered the university world—who the real rebels were, what courage it took to stand against the left-liberal tide of harsh correctness and conformism. That was where my father’s rascally side came in: he would make fun of the liberals with a very amusing derision. They may have been the group he was “supposed” to belong to, but he just didn’t care.
And another important thing I noticed about the conservative writers: they did not hate.
Yes, they derided the liberals, but it came from exasperation, not hate, and was substantively based. Exasperation at them for continuing to insist that the Vietnamese and Cambodian communists were liberators, that criminals were victims of a tight job market, that students at American universities needed to be liberated from being taught Plato and Shakespeare and all that white-male stuff.
As for the liberals, my father left the big, fat New York Times on the kitchen table every day and I could find out what they were saying by turning to the op-ed page. The hatred of President Richard Nixon was obsessive and seemed demented. Could a leader of a democratic country be that evil? Hadn’t he, by then, brought almost all the troops home from Vietnam, and wasn’t he on the way to abolishing the draft—two of the dearest desires of liberal hearts? I could see plain as day that they would give him no credit no matter what he did, that in their eyes this contemptible plebeian was wickedness itself, a demon on earth.
It was my introduction to liberal and leftist hatred, and I was to see the phenomenon again, of course, in the cases of Reagan and Bush Jr., and of right-of-center leaders in Israel. To the claim that the phenomenon exists on the conservative side too, I would respond that if President Obama had pursued some of the policies most championed by conservatives, they would give him credit for it. It was already evident to me back then, with Nixon, that liberal hatred was cultic and elemental, a sign of something deeply askew in those who harbored it.
So I was launched as a conservative, and have remained one ever since. Would I have been one without Alfred Hornik’s intervention? Not, I’m afraid, in the short term. I can see in retrospect that I was already cultivating a left-liberal identity that, I thought, would serve me well socially in college.
Would I eventually have arrived at conservatism on my own? There’s no way of knowing, though two things suggest I may have. One was the intense spiritual tendency—mostly outside a formal Jewish framework, but a little within it—that I’d had since childhood. The other was Israel. By the time I was in my twenties, liberals were relentlessly bashing it, conservatives were sticking up for it. That may have sobered me up.
Was my father right to “intervene” as he did? By all means. I was already soaking up views from TV anchors, teachers, classmates; why not his views too, and those of the people he was reading? It was up to me to decide whom I found persuasive; I made the right choice.