The production schedule of First Things is such that copy for the current issue is due before the previous issue has reached our subscribers. Which means that as I write this, I have no way of knowing the reaction of readers to last month’s column, “Punishment Yes, Impeachment No.”
But I have a pretty good guess. Several people saw the column prior to publication (including, of course, my fellow editors) and I have made its argument to a number of others. The reaction has been little short of unanimous: the argument is wrong and I have gone soft in the head. (I picture in my mind myriads of readers nodding their heads in agreement.) At a gathering of conservative intellectuals in early December, for example, my proposal that President Clinton should be censured rather than removed from office brought responses that ranged from bemused skepticism to stern disapproval. Even my wife, whose support (or diplomatic silence) I can generally count on, has indicated her confusion over why, on this point, I have suddenly become a liberal wimp.
My intention here is not to defend or revisit my argument. (Except to regret the imprecision of my title: Impeachment of the President by the House of Representatives does not require the unambiguous expression of national will that, in my view, is necessary—and not now present—for his removal from office by the Senate.) I am interested rather in the circumstances of my situation. How is it, I ask myself, that I am so out of step with prevailing opinion? “Prevailing opinion” is, of course, a relative term. On the fate of Bill Clinton I am in tune—or so all the polls suggest—with the general public mood. It’s my friends who think I’m crazy. That gives me pause.
I find on reflection that it is not unusual for me to be in the situation—if I may risk a cliché—of marching to a different drummer. That is a result not so much of a nonconformist disposition as of the circumstances that have marked my adult life. I have lived most of that time as a conservative surrounded by hosts of liberals, and that has made for marching out of step.
It began in graduate school. When I enrolled at Yale in the fall of 1960, the central preoccupation was the upcoming election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The only significant issue of debate among the graduate students was not over who should win—Nixon was unthinkable—but over the depth of Kennedy’s commitment to liberalism. When a rumor spread that one of the most respected professors in the History Department, David M. Potter, favored Nixon, it became for weeks a topic of bewildered consternation. (I have no idea if the rumor was true.)
I made the mistake of suggesting, one memorable day over lunch at the Commons, that while I wasn’t sure who I would vote for, I was leaning towards Nixon and that, in any case, given the few significant disagreements on policy between the candidates, it made little difference who won. I might as well have come out in favor of the plague. The outrage was immediate (“I suppose you supported Joe McCarthy too!”) and within minutes people from surrounding tables came over to participate in the shaming exercise. The word pariah took on new resonance for me that day.
Things improved somewhat after I became a professor of American history at Queen’s University in Canada in 1964. Few of my colleagues, to be sure, shared my political views, but, being Canadian, they were usually polite about it. (My sharpest exchanges were with fellow Americans on the faculty.) Debates got really hot only as the Vietnam war deepened and dragged on, and even then, compared to most U.S. campuses at the time, Queen’s was an island of civility.
The otherness I felt in Canada came mostly from encountering ways of thought that were alien to me. My arrival at Queen’s coincided with the publication of Lament for a Nation, by the Canadian philosopher George Grant. I read the book carefully—it caused an enormous stir in Canada—but found it difficult to come to grips with its argument. My problem was not that Grant’s lament had to do with the Americanization of Canada: that, I learned virtually as soon as I crossed the border, was a staple concern of all Canadians. It was rather that his analysis combined intensely conservative cultural criticism with radically leftist political economy. For someone who had come of intellectual age in an era when political debate in America occurred almost entirely between varieties of liberalism, Grant’s mixture of Burke and Marx was well-nigh inscrutable. As I told my students, “No American could have written this book.” (Though later on, as liberalism’s hegemony within American thought dissipated, social critics such as Christopher Lasch wrote in a manner that brought Grant to mind.)
Grant, I learned, was not unique among Canadians in his “Red Tory” way of thinking. In many heated debates in faculty meetings over the years, I found that my most regular allies on curricular issues were people who belonged to Canada’s leftist New Democratic Party but who had not a taint of progressive sentiment when it came to educational standards. (They also, rather to my surprise, became my closest personal friends.) We fought some valiant battles, and even won on occasion, but more often than not we were in the distinct minority. The winning side was generally led by transplanted American liberals and by those Canadians who, though they would have furiously denied it, had willy-nilly absorbed the educational philosophy of John Dewey.
In 1981 I returned to the United States and my alma mater, Valparaiso University. My main duty there was editing the university’s monthly journal of thought and opinion, the Cresset. Over the next seven and one-half years, under the heading In Luce Tua, I began each issue with a few pages of editorial opinion. It is safe to say that my views met with less than widespread approval, especially among my colleagues in the arts and science faculty. Valparaiso is, I am happy to report, less determinedly leftist than most American universities—but it is still an American university. I used to argue that, if nothing else, In Luce Tua was useful to the faculty as a kind of counter-guide to appropriate political thought. As had been the case in Canada, though, my colleagues’ disapproval of my politics only rarely became personal.
Since 1989 I have been in (self-imposed) exile from academia. Not only that, but for the first time in my working life I am surrounded by people who think more or less the way I do. It seems I had to come to Manhattan, the center of left-liberal thought in America, to find a decent conservative community. No longer am I an outsider.
And yet my contrarian habits have not altogether left me. Every now and then—as on the question of whether Bill Clinton should be removed from office—I find myself significantly at odds with those with whom I am normally in agreement. It’s partly habit, no doubt. All those years in almost constant opposition have inevitably left their mark. March out of step long enough and it becomes your natural cadence.
But I think it’s more a matter of temperament. My habits of mind are thoroughly and consistently conservative. At the same time, I am cursed with an instinct for ambivalence. For any argument I entertain, counterarguments come immediately—and quite unbidden—to mind. I am never less sure of a position than when in the midst of people who are entirely sure of it. I like to think all this makes for balanced and independent judgments. Critics might think it indulgence in willful perversity.
In any case, it’s a most untidy way to live an intellectual life. The only possible excuse for it is that life itself is most untidy.