Switching Sides — A Speech
The below is a speech given by Roger L. Simon, PJ Media CEO, to the Roanoke Conference — the annual gathering of Washington state Republicans -- on January 25, 2013. The other keynote speaker at the conference was Bob Herbold, former COO of Microsoft.
Thanks for having me here. When my friend Todd Hermann emailed me to invite me to speak to this group, he directed me to Steve Buri, whom I suspect many of you must know. Anyway, by way of advice, Steve me told this audience was depressed by the election. (No surprise there.) They need cheering up. So I thought — oh, great… a group of Republicans in the northwest during the dead of winter need cheering up from a disastrous election, Obama’s inaugural speech announcing the installation of socialism in America followed by Hillary testalying about Benghazi. That’s going to be a real walk in the park…
All right, here are five words that should make you smile: You don’t live in California…. I would imagine that saves many of you ten thousand dollars a year or more right there. There’s something to be happy about. Speaking of which, since I live in L.A. but spend a lot of time in this state, I’ve always been perplexed why everything seems to work better up here… the roads are better, the services are better… but we pay the ridiculous amount of state income tax. I don’t have to tell this crowd — don’t ever go there.
So I will try to cheer up you up, but I’m not going to make any false promises. Years ago I wrote a movie for Richard Pryor who was then supposed to be the funniest man in America and I never met anyone gloomier — unless it was Woody Allen with whom I worked several years later.
But Pryor did tell me something interesting when I asked him why he never cracked a joke in person during our meetings. (BTW, I was always trying to make Pryor and Allen laugh… probably to prove myself in some way, kind of a guy thing… I never did get even a smile out of Richard, but finally did get one out of Woody. You won’t be surprised to know it was a dirty joke.) Anyway, Pryor said the secret to his standup is he just got up and told the truth and that, by itself, made everybody laugh. Somebody should to tell that to Bill Maher.
Anyway, Steve and Todd also thought I should tell you something of my personal story, my evolution from standard issue Hollywood lefty to the reviled mouth-breathing right-wing often libertarian co-founder of PJ Media I am today — maybe as a “Yes, it can be done. Even in Hollywood, kind of thing.” Fights post-election depression syndrome.
I have already discussed this at length in my memoir Turning Right at Hollywood and Vine: The Perils of Coming Out Conservative in Tinseltown, but it’s been a few years since I wrote the book and this speech gives me an opportunity to reexamine the subject of political change. Actually, I haven’t ever really deserted the topic because that is partly the theme of The Party Line, the just-published play by Sheryl Longin and me that is set in Moscow in the thirties and Amsterdam in more recent times. The subject fascinates me.
One of the most interesting aspects of political change is that most of us who have experienced it don’t feel as if we have changed. We still see ourselves as the same person, live in the same skin. To us, it is the world that has changed — at least for the most part.
As an illustration, a significant number of people changed their views of global affairs immediately after September 11, 2001. Our country was attacked by an ideology that was misogynistic, homophobic, anti-democratic, racist, xenophobic, and religiously intolerant and that sought world domination — in short was the enemy of all classically liberal society since the Enlightenment.
The majority of our people recognized this and sought to push back, asserting the values of our culture — for a year or two. Then — as that most hypocritical of ideologies “political correctness” reasserted itself — the majority of that majority reverted to type and we had the election of Barack Obama… twice.
A few of us remained changed, now open to ideas we once thought anathema, or reactionary, when we were younger. How did that happen and why was I among them?
To be honest, despite having written a book and a play about it, I don’t really know. Political change remains a mystery to me, although I think it one of the most important topics, perhaps the crucial topic, we need to examine, because without political change, what’s the point of democracy? If people can’t be persuaded to switch sides, why bother?
The reasons for resistance to change are clear to me, however. Those who change risk losing friends, family, and livelihood. Even more importantly, they face personality disintegration, the loss of self-image, the “who” of themselves. Who wants to deal with that?
I did apparently. But it was largely accidental. I was part of that majority reaction after 9/11, but, unlike others, I never looked back, was not recidivist. Part of the reason for that was my vocation. As a writer, I found it difficult to lie – particularly in print where people could easily catch me. I couldn’t write well what I no longer believed.
Yet all around me I saw split personalities, still do. The prototypical Hollywood (and DC) liberal lives two disparate lives, one public and one private. In public he or she is the greatest of altruists, in private the greediest and most ambitious of persons. The former acts as a cover for the latter, to themselves and to others.
This system is so enduring, so entrenched, that it makes political change exceptionally difficult to achieve. How do you change someone so successful, someone who has so much wealth and power while feeling so inordinately good about him or herself?
I am speaking obviously about the so-called thought leaders here — the elites of New York, Washington and Los Angeles who dominate our media and entertainment and tell the hoi polloi how to live and think. These people have little incentive for change, even though in some cases their careers are in jeopardy. The New York Times is hemorrhaging reporters, last time I looked. Still, it’s hard for them to make a connection between the current economic uncertainty and the system that nurtured them for so long.
So what can we do to encourage change, this fragile sprout of Spring when we see it? Here are some preliminary thoughts.
Be humble. Few, if any, of us make drastic alterations in our lives and thought because someone won an argument. We have to come to things ourselves — or think we have. I know this was my experience. I just woke up one morning agreeing with every Charles Krauthammer said… or most of it…. We have to own our change. These things take time and happen when we least expect them, sometimes when we don’t know they are even happening.
When you see someone who is ripe for change, encourage him or her, but do it gently, responsively, and not confrontationally. And do not look for or expect a complete ideological shift. Be grateful for what you get.
For example, I am still more or less a social liberal, especially on marriage which is to me a civil rights issue, and likely to remain so. I have changed mostly in the economic and foreign policy areas. Many are like me. Be glad we’re here. We’ll try to accept you too, if you’re socially conservative.
Most of all, do not gloat — on the inside or on the outside. Generations of therapists have warned us of the perils of our “need to be right” (not politically but personally) tripping us up. The therapists were correct in their admonition. Remember, the goal here is the political change of others, not to be victorious ourselves.
But speaking of the personal meeting the political, let me contradict myself to a small degree and tell you a little of what I understand of my own evolution.
Although I have a vacation home on Bainbridge Island, which some day I wouldn’t mind making a permanent home, and not just to avoid those confiscatory state taxes in California, but because I like the place, I am a city boy through and through, having grown up on that other island the same physical size, but not population size, as Bainbridge – Manhattan.
My parents were typical Jewish liberal Democrats of their generation, my father having served in World War II as a flight surgeon. They did well in the New York of the fifties, living the American dream and eventually moving to the suburbs.
Like many of my generation, I rebelled. My parents’ Jack Kennedy-style liberalism was too bourgeois for me. Although a privileged graduate of Dartmouth and Yale Drama School, I went left… New Left, as we said in those days. I hung with all of them, the names you know -- Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, virtually all the Chicago Seven, plus Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton.
That’s right, the Black Panthers. When I first came to Hollywood in my early twenties — phenomenally lucky as you could be in those days when they threw inordinate amounts of cash at clueless young screenwriters — I felt class guilt… white skin privilege, as it was called… and became one those sponsoring the Black Panther Breakfast Program for kids, although I never knew whether my donations were going for eggs, bacon or AK-47s.
It took me a long time to get out of that, decades really, because my leftism was well rewarded in the entertainment industry. It was cool. And the movie moguls loved it because they wanted to be cool by osmosis.
Meanwhile, I had invented the pot-smoking private eye Moses Wine, made into a film with Richard Dreyfuss, The Big Fix, and couldn’t conceive of being another way. For a time I even lived in a working class district of Los Angeles, Echo Park, to fit my image.
But, in retrospect, it may have been this largely phony left-wing reputation… most of such reputations are largely phony… that caused the beginnings of my change. For a book I was writing, I was able to wrangle an invitation to the People’s Republic of China in 1979, the days when they were still all in Mao suits. The trip was, of course, fascinating. It was China, after all, and at that point there were no more than a couple of dozen lucky tourists in that entire huge country, but something about it disturbed me even then. I had a feeling I was in a giant jail with undercover agents watching my every move. In fact, that was true.
Later, on subsequent cultural exchanges to the Soviet Union in the eighties, I learned just how true as KGB agents followed us everywhere, including the bathroom. An attempt was even made, at hotel in Yalta, to draft me into Soviet intelligence by a female reporter from Soviet Screen magazine. Not only was I not tempted, I was terrified. Maybe I wouldn’t be allowed back home, I thought — what a disaster. And in any case, the only secrets I knew could be written on the back of a bubble gum pack. (Only lately, have I begun to understand what it was they wanted. More of that in a moment).
My disaffection with Communist China and the Soviet Union was probably step one in my political evolution. Step two was, of all things, the OJ trial. The mega-circus took over my home city of Los Angeles back in 1994-1995. In fact it dominated the country’s media and in the process changed the face of media as we know it. I wanted to attend the trial myself. It was the hottest ticket in the city and every writer I new wanted to be there.
After I finally got to see it, sitting in the surprisingly small room in L.A.’s Superior Court, I was mightily depressed. The miscarriage of justice was overwhelming. I had been a civil rights worker in the South in the sixties and was appalled to see racism turned on its head with obvious DNA evidence disdained. In this one case at least, the blacks were worse than the whites. The great lie of political correctness stalked the land and I was just beginning to see it, even though I didn’t want to. Change, as I said, is hard.
But when step 3 happened, 9/11, all the scales dropped from my eyes. There was no longer any way I could hold them up.
I started writing about this change online — and that is some of the reason Pajamas Media, now called PJ Media, was born.
But let me roll back on that a little bit.
I had written one of my crime novels shortly after 9/11 in which my very liberal detective hero, Moses Wine, was starting to undergo a political change similar to his creator's. In fact, the opening line of the book was “I knew I was in trouble when I was starting to agree with John Ashcroft…”
I could tell the publisher, a branch of Simon & Schuster, didn’t care for this and wasn’t going to promote the novel. I had to do something myself. But the author websites I had seen were static advertisements and scarcely worth anyone’s time.
This was all at the beginning of blogging and I had been reading the work of this Tennessee law professor, Glenn Reynolds, whose pioneering blog Instapundit went live just a few weeks before September 11. I decided, in imitation of Glenn who eventually became my business partner, that I would blog to promote my new novel.
It didn’t work. The novel sunk like the proverbial stone. But something else happened. The blog itself became immensely popular with tens of thousands of readers online every day because I was writing about… political change…. something a lot of people were undergoing in those days, as I mentioned.
Glenn, I, and others started talking to each other about this new form and, being pro-capitalist, decided to do something with all this Internet traffic we were getting,. That led to the debut of Pajamas Media in the fall of 2005 and of PJTV at the Republican Convention of 2008.
Our company got its name from a slur by CNN executive vice-president Jonathan Klein. When some of us alleged that a document being flogged by Dan Rather on 60 Minutes as proof that George W. Bush had not completed his National Guard service was a forgery — Klein called us “amateurs in our pajamas.” We thought that would be a nice name — hence, Pajamas Media. Of course, we were right about those National Guard papers. The exec, like Rather, lost his job. PJ Media is a thriving online media company with page views roughly equivalent to National Review and Weekly Standard, with many of the same writers like Victor Davis Hanson and Andrew McCarthy. We have recently added former Congressman Allen West for a new television initiative.
And I have been an accidental CEO for over seven rather amazing, incredibly fast-moving, years. My only regret is in that time I have not done as much screen and novel writing. That’s about to change. The last election… not that I want to bring up that ugly subject again (my mission being to make you laugh)… has convinced me, if I even needed convincing, that my friend the late Andrew Breitbart was right when he said “politics was downstream of culture.”
Many on the right love to attack Hollywood and make fun of the likes of Sean Penn and Oliver Stone and they deserve it. But this abjuring of the entertainment industry happens at our peril. The rest of the world is watching that entertainment no matter what you say or do, most especially your children. Rather than boycott Hollywood, take it over – at least part of it. But do it well and professionally. Otherwise there’s no point. No one’s interested.
As one who was given by God, or my parents’ DNA or something, the ability to write dialogue and make up stories, I am going to be devoting more of my time to that in the future, putting some of the skills I learned as a liberal to work as a conservative. Toward that end, my wife and I have written the play The Party Line I referred to earlier and have several other screen projects in the hopper.
One I am doing for a young Russian director may actually get me truly blacklisted this time. (The title of an earlier version of Turning Right at Hollywood & Vine was Blacklisting Myself.) That screenplay posits an America where everybody is working for the government. I’m writing that one fast. I don’t want it to be passé before I’ve even finished — and the way things are going, that’s a genuine risk.
And people like me need the support of people like you more than you know. After decades of pervasive liberal culture, we need an audience, financial support, and new means of distribution. That’s a whole infrastructure, if you think about it. And then there’s educational system and the media to think about…. Whoa…. No one ever said it was going to be easy. Thank you.
(Thumbnail on PJM homepage created using multiple Shutterstock.com images.)