Don't call me righty

Why do leftist academics treat everyone who doesn't kowtow to their dogma as a flaming right-winger?

Published June 29, 2001 12:27AM (EDT)

It is a truth universally acknowledged among lefty professorial types that every so often someone crosses their paths whom they expect, for one demographic reason or another, to share their ideology down to the last jot and tittle, but who turns out, to their surprise, to be located elsewhere on the political spectrum.

The perennial academic fascination with this mysterious and disquieting phenomenon has now spawned a book entitled "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? Multicultural Conservatism in America." The author, Angela D. Dillard, who teaches history and politics at New York University, explains in her preface that the phrase "multicultural conservative" -- by which she means a conservative who is black, Latino, female or gay (and sometimes Asian) -- "began as something of a joke during a dinner party given by a close friend. I was regaling the company with stories and anecdotes uncovered while doing preliminary research for this book and was delighted by their confused and often horrified expressions."

Thus does Dillard -- whose book, by the way, contains not a single anecdote that would confuse or horrify a reasonably educated common reader -- let us know precisely what territory she's setting us down in. It's the heart of Academic Country, where the very existence of conservatives who are not straight white males can indeed generate horror and confusion (or, alternatively, amusement, perhaps bordering on clinical hysteria), and where, as surely as a multiplicity of genders, skin colors, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations is the collective dream, a multiplicity of viewpoints is the collective nightmare.

One might have expected Dillard's book to be a savage attack -- a jeremiad that took on conservative ideas one by one and tore them to shreds. But Dillard, who frequently goes out of her way to remind us how much of an effort she's making to be careful and objective, to "listen attentively to the voices of minority conservatives," does an extraordinary job of avoiding any extended engagement with those conservatives' actual ideas. What she does instead -- in addition to offering up large dollops of historical background -- is to soft-pedal ideas and emphasize personal stories.

This emphasis has patently dictated her choice of persons to highlight: Though high-profile political figures like Alan Keyes, Phyllis Schlafly, Linda Chavez and Clarence Thomas wander through these pages, Dillard devotes particular attention to "minority conservatives" who have written memoirs, or whose books contain autobiographical material, which she focuses on to the near-total exclusion of other content. By concentrating on such works -- among them Stephen Carter's "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby," Ward Connerly's "Creating Equal," Mel White's "Stranger at the Gate" and something called "Pimps, Whores, and Welfare Brats: From Welfare Cheat to Conservative Messenger" by one Star Parker -- Dillard enables herself to conclude that minority conservatives are overly preoccupied with their own experiences, and that they "jump too quickly from the particular to the universal; the 'I' slides too easily into the 'we.'"

This, she claims, is a consequence of the lamentable and misguided conservative fixation on the individual -- and it illustrates the superiority of leftists' emphasis on the group. (Naturally, she ignores the enthusiasm of left-wing academics for such pious, if sometimes notoriously unreliable, works of personal testimony as "I, Rigoberta Menchu.") In a classic bit of doublethink, she refers to "the conservative desire to silence irreducibly different collectivities in the name of a constrictive and artificially singular American identity" -- thereby elegantly equating individual liberty with oppression and enforced groupthink with variety.

One of Dillard's hobbyhorses in this meandering volume is that "minority conservatives" have been "awarded enormous access to the corridors of power and the byways of public opinion." Yet surely the scandal lies not in the fact that the media sometimes welcome a diversity of views but in the fact that the academy (Dillard's own institution) almost never does. Indeed, the near-absolute exclusion from humanities faculties of those who dissent from academic orthodoxy is one of the cultural outrages of our time. The issue could hardly be more germane to Dillard's topic -- yet she, needless to say, doesn't go anywhere near it.

Dillard's principal interest is clearly in African-American conservatives, and she actually seems to know quite a bit about the history of black politics in America, offering an informative and engaging account of some of the ideological struggles that have taken place within the civil-rights movement since Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. The problem is that, when it comes to other minority groups, she insists on depicting any challenges to the left-wing establishment as philosophically analogous to and politically allied with black conservatism, and indeed as ultimately being little more than adjuncts to the African-American conservative movement. This is an extremely problematic assumption when it comes to gays -- who, after blacks, receive the most attention here -- and it results in an inexcusable degree of historical distortion.

To begin with, in contrast to her more substantial chronicle of black politics, Dillard provides an exceedingly brief and selective sketch of gay political history that omits any mention of how the current wave of what she calls "gay conservatism" took shape. The fact is that when, in the early 1990s, causes like gays in the military, gay marriage and openly gay clergy came to the fore, the far-left liberationists who ran the major gay political groups thundered their opposition. In their view, gays should seek not to participate equally in establishment institutions but to transform them radically. "By aspiring to join the mainstream rather than continuing to figure out the ways we need to change it," opined National Gay and Lesbian Task Force honcho Urvashi Vaid in 1994, "we risk losing our gay and lesbian souls in order to gain the world." (Vaid is now drawing a six-figure salary at the Ford Foundation.) Queers' proper place was not in society's mainstream, collaborating with the enemy, but at its margins, in revolutionary solidarity with other oppressed peoples.

Enter a host of gay authors and journalists, myself included, who dissented from this orthodoxy. Our politics varied -- liberal, moderate, libertarian, conservative -- but we all believed in integration, not liberation; in realistic efforts at reform, not endless utopian talk about revolution. Faced with a queer establishment that was neither willing nor able to argue passionately for causes like gay marriage, we stepped in and did the job.

But not a hint of any of this appears in Dillard's book, which deep-sixes liberationist resistance to mainstreaming and turns integrationists into a pack of conservatives. This is of particular interest to me, since, as it turns out, I'm Exhibit A in Dillard's "gay conservative" gallery. Never mind that, having repeatedly been labeled a right-winger by the queer left and a radical lefty by the homophobic right, I've gone to some pains over the years to make it clear that I'm a registered Democrat and a classical liberal. (For heaven's sake, the epigraph to my 1993 book "A Place at the Table" is a Bill Clinton quote.) But no matter: In the world according to Dillard, I'm not only a conservative but a "self-identified conservative," an "ally" of movement conservatives, someone who is known primarily in "conservative circles" and one of the "'radical conservatives' of the New Right." (Interestingly, eager though Dillard is to tag people in this fashion, when she cites Urvashi Vaid -- approvingly, of course -- she somehow manages not to mention that Vaid is a self-identified anarcho-syndicalist.)

Dillard's multitudinous misrepresentations of the subject I know best -- me -- make it difficult to accept unquestioningly anything she says about anyone else. For example, she repeatedly calls me an assimilationist -- yet I've routinely differentiated between integration and assimilation, a concept I firmly reject. She includes me on a list of people who have "sided with the Religious Right" -- even though I wrote "Stealing Jesus" (1997), which indicts fundamentalism as a betrayal of Christianity. (Dillard's bibliography includes several books on fundamentalism, but omits mine.)

Dillard also dwells at length on "A Place at the Table," in which I argued (an unfamiliar position then) that the image of gays as sex-obsessed subversives -- an image promulgated by the right and reinforced by a great deal of queer-left rhetoric -- was false, and that most gays simply want equal rights and respect. Though antigay conservatives and queer lefties alike savaged the book, it topped two bestseller lists compiled from sales at gay bookstores for months (and still sells briskly); countless people told me it brought them out of the closet, and some have even said it marked gay America's turning point. Yet you'd never know any of this from Dillard, who ignores the book's wide impact, writing about it as if it came out yesterday and depicting me as a marginal right-winger striving unsuccessfully to sell an outri message.

As for the other actors in the story of gay integrationism -- an admittedly unsexy umbrella term, which I use only for want of a more accurate one -- Dillard omits some of the most important (such as Frank Kameny), barely mentions others (Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch) and ludicrously foregrounds, of all people, the late Marvin Liebman, who founded several conservative organizations in the early postwar period and came out in the National Review in 1990. Liebman -- an organizer, not an idea man -- is far from a major figure in the gay integrationist story, but Dillard devotes scads of attention to him, presumably because A) he actually was a conservative, with longstanding movement ties, and B) his rather gossipy 1992 memoir, "Coming Out Conservative," makes him a useful illustration of minority conservatives' insidious fixation on the individual.

Similarly, because the eloquent memoirist Richard Rodriguez, who otherwise has nothing to do with any of this, has written about his gay and Latino identity in a sensitive and illuminating way -- a way entirely undeformed, in other words, by inane groupthink -- Dillard ropes him, too, into her cast of characters, hammering him into place as (poor guy) a conservative "fellow traveler." And since she wants "A Place at the Table" to serve as yet another example of this baneful autobiographical predilection, Dillard wildly exaggerates the amount of personal content in the book -- and has even persuaded herself that its subtitle is "A Gay Life in America." (The actual subtitle is "The Gay Individual in American Society.")

Now, if Dillard had wanted to represent gay integrationist thought fairly, she could've set Liebman's memoir aside, paid some notice to the 95 percent of my book that isn't autobiographical and wrestled with the ideas of people like Paul Varnell, Stephen H. Miller, Norah Vincent, David Link and the many other contributors to my 1996 anthology "Beyond Queer" (which does, in fact, appear in Dillard's bibliography). Then there's the splendid and comprehensive Web site of the Independent Gay Forum, which is edited by Varnell -- with Reason columnist Walter Olson as webmaster -- and which, in addition to publishing many of the people I've mentioned, includes the work of scholars like Stephen O. Murray and Wayne R. Dynes, journalists like Jennifer Vanasco and Carolyn Lochhead, and activists like Richard J. Rosendall and Richard E. Sincere Jr. -- people whose ideas should be taken into account by any serious author seeking to properly characterize the phenomenon I call gay integrationism.

Yet Dillard, patently, has no such aim. She fails entirely to acknowledge that the most significant recent development in American society has been the mainstreaming of homosexuality -- and that what she misleadingly calls "gay conservatism" has helped to improve life not only for gay adults but also for gay youth, more and more of whom now grow up in safe, accepting environments. Her apparent indifference to this reality represents, in my view, the worst kind of ivory-tower arrogance.

Hardly less unattractive than Dillard's twisted picture of gay politics are her clumsy rhetorical attempts to yoke nonbigots -- straight and gay alike -- to bigotry. She says, for example, that one is obliged "to ask whether assimilation in the views of Star Parker, [Glenn] Loury, [George S.] Schuyler, Bawer and Rodriguez is implicated in the taint of assimilation into racism and antiblack ideologies, into anti-ethnic sentiments, and into homophobia." (Not the clearest prose, perhaps, but, hey, it's the thought that counts.) Likewise, she drags in the racist doctrines of nonminority right-wing crank Peter Brimelow, saying that minority conservatives Glenn Loury and Robert Woodson may "seek to publicly dissociate themselves from extremist and ethnocentric views, but the taint of association lingers." Yet the taint is only there because Dillard has put it there. Finally, she ends her book with this dubious fluorish:

[S]ome African American conservatives ... appear content ... to assimilate on the backs of the black poor ... The major losers in this shifting discourse about race and identity in America, then, may prove to be poor blacks, who, pathologized and silenced, will continue to be everybody's convenient and favorite scapegoat. ... [T]he most pressing question is not whether a multicultural Right can be crafted and solidified but at what cost, and at whose expense?

A couple of points about this. First, nowhere has Dillard shown that any of her principals -- especially not gay integrationists -- wish to assimilate on anyone's backs. Many black conservatives have indeed weighed in on inner-city poverty, but whether their ideas have merit isn't the point here. What matters is that Dillard doesn't even bother to construct an argument against their proposals -- she simply assumes a readership that dismisses conservative economic approaches out of hand as the work of obvious hypocrites, and that will nod in contented agreement at her facile equation of any departure from leftist ideological purity -- whether by blacks, gays or whoever -- with an indifference to black poverty.

Second, everybody's favorite scapegoat? How can anyone objectively examine the rhetoric of American conservatism in our time and not notice that it's gay people who are by far the No. 1 scapegoat? It seems clear that if Dillard offers a warped picture of gay politics, it's because she fails entirely to view gay issues on their own terms rather than through the prism of black politics; one result of this is that gay integrationists, most of them political moderates, get lumped in absurdly with hard-right types who have built their careers largely on demonizing gays. This, to my mind, is a critical deficiency of a book that -- while it may well advance its author's fortunes in the academy -- does altogether too much harm to complex and important truths about the world outside of it.

By Bruce Bawer

Bruce Bawer is a poet and literary critic whose work appears regularly in "The Hudson Review." He lives in Oslo, Norway.

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