An interview with Harry Stein
By Bernard Chapin
Harry Stein is a Contributing Editor at City Journal and the author of several works of fiction and non-fiction. He has been a professional writer and editor since he co-founded The American Mercury in 1972. Mr. Stein achieved great success in 2000 with his memoir entitled, How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy : (and Found Inner Peace). He has also written works of fiction likeThe Magic Bullet, Hoopla, and Infinity’s Child. Mr. Stein’s articles have appeared in numerous publications such as The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Playboy, New York Magazine, American Heritage, Men's Health, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, and The New Republic.
BC: The first thing I discovered of yours was the autobiographical How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy : (and Found Inner Peace). Along with being educational, it was a damn entertaining read. There’s no room for nuance with its title so did it’s release radically limit your professional opportunities? Did you alienate friends and family members?
HS: Bernard, excellent question. The answer is: all of the above. I've made my living for more than thirty years now as a writer, both in books and magazines, and both of those areas are dominated by people who are, let us say, highly unsympathetic to the views expressed in that book. Not, it must be said, that very many of them read it, but the title was more than enough. So, yes, these being businesses that very much run on personal relationships, that book has hurt me quite a bit. As a matter of fact, when I did my subsequent book, it was less reviewed than any I'd done previously. And one of the reviews it did get (in the trade press) began: "Liberal turncoat Stein..." This, although the book in question had zero to do with politics. Needless to say, the review was not favorable. As for family: Yeah, there was some discord there, too. There were certain (older) family members I literally scarcely spoke to for a couple of years. But we're more or less past that now. (Until I write the next one).
BC: I’d place your book right alongside David Horowitz’s Radical Son: A Generational Odysseyand Ron Radosh’s Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left as proof that some of the best minds on the right originated from the left. It seems that converts really do make the best believers. Do you think the lack of tolerance for dissenting opinion is what was caused so many people like yourself to switch sides? Why do think that so few of your baby boomer brethren had second thoughts about the 1960s and radicalism?
HS: I think you've precisely nailed it. I was initially drawn to the left not only because that's how I was indoctrinated at home, but because one of the things that indoctrination stressed was that 'progressives,' (as we liked to refer to ourselves), were more open to ideas; and, indeed, could effortlessly defend our own in the face of assault from boobs on the Right. It was only when I began to fully grasp the extent to which the Left itself imposed intellectual litmus tests -- indeed, that on everything from race and abortion to foreign policy that there were an array of issues on which dissent was forbidden -- that I began to seriously move rightward. Though the particulars of their experience were different (and, especially in Horowitz's case, far more dramatic), I think both Horowitz and Radosh, both of whom I know, would concur.
BC: How much of leftist passion and belief is driven by self-hatred? What else would cause someone to identify so devoutly with people other than one’s own? I’m thinking of those Jews who refer to Israel as a Nazi state or those Americans who think that we still live in the Jim Crow era and see Klansman taking over the country should affirmative action be discontinued. We could use just about any view of Noam Chomsky’s as an example or the time that Susan Sontag labeled the white race as “a cancer.” Is not self-hatred or masochism intrinsic to what drives these individuals?
HS: That's an extremely complicated question -- one could literally write a book. Several even. I'll stick to one part of it -- Jews and Israel -- because I think I have at least some insight into that. Jews, as one New York wag put it years ago, earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans? Why? Because no matter the facts, many Jews, especially secular ones, powerfully self-identify as victims. That they see it as ennobling to see themselves as bound up with those regarded as less fortunate is certainly part of it; but the larger part, I think, is that this is what they have drawn from their own tradition -- a tradition of being downtrodden and discriminated against. Indeed -- and this is the vital part -- in many cases it is ALL they have left of their tradition, since they've forsaken its religious element. I can't tell you how many Jews I've heard, including (Reform) rabbis, invoke "fighting for social justice" as the key element of what it means to be a Jew. It is this that turns so many Jews to the Left; and with the international Left having tagged Israel as a repressive and racist regime -- rather than what it is, among the most admirable states on earth -- many of them have, as is their custom, followed the party line. Oh so sad, but true.
BC: What are your thoughts about journalism as a profession? In your book you mention that your degree in journalism should have really been titled a “B.S.” Do you see much of a future for the profession? Has the recent transcendence of blogs and amateur writers decreased the need for a punditocracy? Do you think the recent scandals, such as those at The New York Times and CBS News, have done irrevocable damage?
HS: Jeez, Bernard, another book. As it happens, I'm good pals with Bernie Goldberg, and served as a sort of unofficial advisor on his last one, Arrogance. So I'm tempted to say, screw it, read that. But the short answer: the journalism business is obviously in flux, and I don't think any of us really know how it will ultimately play out. I do think that most mainstream journalists, certainly those who work for elite institutions, are woefully out of touch; living "in a bubble," as Goldberg says, and so liberal they don't even realize it. Yeah, they've been given a bit of a wake-up call by the scandals and the bloggers, but it's increasingly clear they're never gonna get it. Their only hope is to encourage true diversity in the newsroom -- the ideological kind -- and I'm not sure they're capable of that. Certainly, Pinch Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, will never be.
BC: Five years ago you said that, despite the bias, The New York Times was still a great paper. Might you have a different opinion now? I ask because it seems near to self-parody at this point. Yesterday, I read a book review demeaning Churchill and another that made sure to point out how little the Khmer Rouge actually knew about Marx–just in case any of the faithful correctly found a correlation between Pol Pot’s genocide and the system of communism. Has the gray lady entered an impenetrable abyss?
HS: Good question. (And see above for part of the answer). The curious thing is that the editor of The Book Review is one of the most fair-minded guys there -- I did a review for him just a few weeks ago, something that never would have happened under his predecessor. In fact, under the current executive editor, Bill Keller, there have been a number of improvements, including the installation of a public affairs editor, Dan Okrent, who has been fairer than anyone had a right to expect. All that said, Pinch is the ultimate authority, and he is a hard left ideologue from the word go, and everyone from the top editors to the janitors knows it.
BC: One of the most underrated books that I’ve ever read was Modern Sex: Liberation and its Discontents which is a compilation of essays from City Journal. An essay of yours, “Feminists and their Enemies” is included. Would you agree with Justice Bork when he stated in Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline that “radical feminism is the most destructive and fanatical movement to come down to us from the Sixties” [p.193]? I mean obviously the radical feminists have some serious competition for the title.
HS: Simple answer: yes, I would. You may recall that in my book I talked a bit about the anti-suffrage movement, which of course has been very much derided by history. But I found it fascinating to go back and read what those people were saying, and realize how prescient they were in some ways; notably, those having to do with the impact of the women's movement on children and family. Obviously, I'm not advocating rolling back suffrage -- but I agree we're still reluctant to honestly deal with the how destructive radical feminism has been to so many lives.
BC: Do you think that much of the argumentation between right and left today can be boiled down to a basic disagreement over human nature and whether it exists at all? Admittedly I’m very biased on the topic, but don’t we on the right just accept humanity as it is while the left denies that there is an “as it is” at all? I’m reminded of that humorous t-shirt that says, “Question Gravity,” whenever I hear about human beings being infinitely malleable.
HS: Entirely agree with you. Speaking again, for example, of feminism, the central problem, in my view, has been the extent to which it is a war on nature. This idea so fervently embraced by the Left, in the face of all evidence, that we are infinitely malleable has in fact succeeded in sowing infinite confusion and repeating infinite misery.
BC: Mr. Stein, can you tell us about your plans for a new book regarding the plight of red state people (like the interviewer) that are ensconced within enemy territory like blue zone Chicago? I won’t say what the book’s working title is as it’s so clever it ought to have been written on stationary found in P.J. O’Rourke’s apartment. Do you regard the whole blue state/red state dichotomy as being legitimate?
HS: Bernard, I'd prefer to leave this one for the moment, because I'm still trying to work it out in my mind. I've got some ideas for a proposal, and am thinking of a sample chapter -- the one I interviewed you for -- but, that said, it's still very much on the drawing board.
BC: You’ve written some fiction as well. I recently read an article that proclaimed fiction to be a dying medium. Would you agree? Certainly, outside of mystery and romance books, I rarely encounter many people who read fiction at all nowadays. What factors do you think have caused its decline?
HS: That's a bit hard for me to speak to. I'm not a fiction reader myself, and only fell into it (early in my career) when I ran into an editor who suggested I try it. The book I wrote then was an historical fiction -- so I very much relied on real events. The couple I wrote later on, were medical thrillers -- so I relied on the expertise of a cousin of mine who's a doctor. In all cases, I felt funny whenever I had to actually make up stuff. So I'm not the one to ask about the state of fiction. I do know that publishers prefer non-fiction, for the simple reason that it tends to sell better.
BC: What are you currently reading? And who are your favorite authors and books of all time? I always like asking my fellow book lovers that question.
HS: Curious you ask. I'm currently re-reading a couple of old Norman Podhoretz books. Breaking Ranks and Ex-Friends. I'm a great admirer of his, and both these books had a real impact on me when I first read them; I felt like I was traveling a path he'd set out upon (far more bravely) a generation earlier. Also just read a terrific, soon-to-be published book by a pal of mine named Denis Boyles called Vile France. (Guess I don't have to tell you what it's about).
BC: Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Stein.
Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at
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