2005-04-29 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Why I
by Stuart W. Mirsky

Recently, my colleague in this paper wrote a piece entitled “Why I Am a Progressive.” Fair enough. Progressive policies are a very respectable point of view with an honorable tradition in this country. And yet, so many of today’s self-styled progressives seem to have forgotten the principle of tolerance for other viewpoints which they purport to value and which is enshrined in our Constitution.

Recently, watching the outspoken progressive Bill Maher, on cable, I was appalled at the level of intolerance he and his equally “progressive” guests, Whoopi Goldberg, Alex Baldwin and Cornel West, brought to the small screen. Laughing uproariously at their own cleverness, these four systematically castigated and demeaned the intelligence and sincerity of Republicans, conservatives and religious folk, all the while emphasizing how their own views represented an enlightened toleration and commitment to diversity.

Well, maybe there’s a new progressive definition of tolerance today? Certainly one is moved to think so after listening to Maher and his guests, or to people like Ward Churchill, the self-styled progressive college professor in Colorado University who is now fighting to retain his tenured status after having called Americans killed in the 9/11 terror attacks “little Eichmanns,” and having suggested they deserved what they got. In this country, of course, you get to say those kinds of things and still manage to hold onto your head, not to mention your legal rights. So Maher and his guests, and guys like Ward Churchill, are today’s progressives? Is it any wonder that a nice Jewish boy like me, brought up in what can only be called a progressive home, ended up a Republican and (shudder) conservative?

Like many New Yorkers of my generation, I grew up in the shadow of the Democratic Party. I cut my teeth on the presidency of John F. Kennedy, the first national politician I was really aware of.

I supported Lyndon Johnson as his rightful heir, after his untimely assassination but, with many of my generation, soon turned against Johnson as the Vietnam War began to spin out of control.

I was draft age at the time and so had a vested interest in opposing the war, though you tend not to think in such venal terms when the vocabulary of the moment is all about the morality of conflict and the “just” use and projection of power. Like many others of my era, I was steeped in the Civil Rights movement, too, and had a deep sense of disgust at the injustices visited upon many of our fellow citizens in parts of this nation.

Throughout the Reagan years, I voted the Democratic ticket almost religiously. Ronald Reagan just seemed to lack the intellectual heft I wanted in my presidents, so I was first a Carter and then a Mondale man, as Reagan ran for and won his two terms. But some time near the end of the second Reagan term I started to think I had been wrong.

Despite the steady media drumbeat against Reagan and his policies, and the Democrats’ efforts to do to the Reagan presidency, via Iran-Contra, what they had done so successfully to Nixon over Watergate, I noticed that Reagan had actually done what he’d said he’d do back when he first won election to the presidency.

By the late eighties, the economy was growing again, in the wake of the Reagan tax and regulatory cuts and despite the Democrats’ rhetoric to the contrary. The Soviet Union, instead of becoming more bellicose and dangerous in reaction to Reagan’s military build-up and assertive international posture, had begun to come around, too.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the new Soviet leader, was making friendly noises as the Cold War began to taxi in for an unexpectedly soft, and long overdue, landing. I had not imagined that that would have been possible in my own lifetime. But Reagan, the conservative, had.

I voted for my first Republican when George H. W. Bush succeeded Reagan, belatedly switching my party affiliation when I saw the harsh, partisan tactics employed by the Democratic leadership, abetted by the mainstream media that seemed in perfect sync with them, against the senior Bush. In fact, I’m probably the only Republican who can say, in all honesty, that I became one due to the first President Bush.

It wasn’t the senior Bush’s eloquence or charisma that swayed me, of course (no one’s ever accused him of those things). It was the sense I had that he was a very competent chief executive, following sound policies and doing a good job but getting a raw deal.

Well, what did it mean to have become a Republican, besides merely expressing a degree of sympathy for an embattled incumbent? Indeed, I could have defined myself as an independent, voted for Bush, and blithely gone on with the business of living, party politics be damned. But gradually I had come to realize that I really was conservative at heart. Not that I opposed change or improving things. It’s just that I began to recognize that what we had and might be losing, in the rush toward what many were calling progress, might be too dear to part with.

Among other things, I believed that individual liberty, and the personal responsibility that went along with that, was paramount to the kind of nation we were and that this was jeopardized by the continuing unchecked growth of government-as-nanny-state which the Democratic Party, firmly in the grip of the progressive left, seemed to be pushing. At the same time, a culture of intolerant political correctness had taken hold in the wake of the great liberal victories of the past which manifested as a kind of self-satisfied arrogance and disdain for the “other.”

Conservatives, of course, have a vested interest in preserving what we already have, whether past or present, rather than rushing willy-nilly into the future. They’re not necessarily against change; that, indeed, would be absurd.

Nothing can remain static, least of all ourselves. But the question always before us is how shall we approach this change? Shall we deny what we have and blindly toss it all aside for a dream of a better world? Or shall we proceed cautiously, holding tight to the road as we drive into an unknown future?

My colleague writes of why he’s a progressive and offers a litany of policy prescriptions he values and that conservatives generally don’t. But what he doesn’t tell us is why he values them or why we should, which, of course, is the real and only answer to the question he poses.

Well, at least I know why I’m not a progressive. It’s because I don’t want to throw out what we have as we advance into the future. It’s because I want to hold fast to the good stuff, including things like civility and tolerance, though so many of today’s self-styled progressives seem to have already tossed these away.


This article is adapted from the Introduction to Stu Mirsky’s new book, “IRREGULARITIES: Tidal Flows and Politics Along the Rockaway Shore,” a compilation of his favorite Rockaway Irregular pieces now available at www.amazon.com, www.bn.com or wherever books are sold.

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