At first I thought, “Haven’t I seen this before?” A glossy New York magazine is shocked — shocked! — to discover that there are cosmopolitan, young, and (get this) female conservatives loose upon the land. It features fancy studio pictures of these women, and long, detailed descriptions of their clothes; it explains that they chew with their mouths closed and know which salad fork to use. I stopped counting such articles a long time ago, but I guess it all started with that New York Times Magazine piece in 1995 that had Laura Ingraham on the cover in a leopardskin skirt.
This time, the article seemed more promising. The writer is Sam Tanenhaus, the author of the stunningly good and fair biography of Whittaker Chambers. But in reading “Damsels in Dissent” in the November issue of Vanity Fair, I found myself checking the cover date over and over again to see if maybe this was so much dentist-office detritus from the early nineties.
Tanenhaus’s byline has been popping up all over the place of late (including an excellent piece in the current New Republic). He may be making up for lost time; Tanenhaus spent years writing his wonderful Chambers book. And it seems to show a bit. For example, we learn in his Vanity Fair piece that he’d never heard the phrase “hooking up” until Wendy Shalit explained it to him. Note to glossy magazine writers: When the peripatetic prophet of chastity has to explain sexual phrases to you, it’s time to start watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Felicity, purely for the data-dump.
Well, it seems Tanenhaus’s datedness doesn’t end there. The thesis of his article is that women conservatives have come into their own, and that there is a thriving, cosmopolitan, conservative counter-culture out there. This, as I said, we’ve known for years. It was the theme of all those smarmy articles of the early Gingrich years. It was the tide that lifted Arianna Huffington’s boat, and created the rationale for George magazine. In 1995 David Brooks edited a wonderful book, Backward and Upward: The New Conservative Writings, which was dedicated to the idea that conservatives were winning the culture wars because they were having the most fun.
Tanenhaus goes on, however, to suggest that the new conservatism, er, sorry, the “new female conservatism,” is different. It is more geared to lifestyle than to hot-button issues: With the end of the Cold War, “we have become a nation of soccer parents, preoccupied with schools, health care, child care, the family-friendly workplace.”
Here Tanenhaus is largely right, but again this isn’t new. (Half the reprinted essays in Brooks’s book could be described as about “lifestyle.”) Still, the national mood fits the times. He approvingly quotes Francis Fukuyama, whose new book The Great Disruption argues that the 1960s were a mini Dark Ages and that America is finally recovering from it. The Left — or at least, the Left that anybody takes seriously — has abandoned Utopian schemes, and, not unrelatedly, the Right has won its big arguments about the role of government. So why should anyone be surprised that the remaining arguments are either cultural or about small-bore politics?
Alterman’s Dilemma But there’s still this nagging question of why Vanity Fair commissioned such a piece from such a literary and intellectual heavyweight. Eric Alterman seems to be even more perplexed. Writing in the current issue of The Nation, Alterman tries to offer an answer. Alas, it seems he can’t. So instead he offers sneering jokes that drip with envy? bitterness? It’s hard to say what they drip with. But he certainly sounds like a high-school chess-team captain who can’t understand why the cool kids are hanging out at the pretty girls’ cafeteria table (Alterman used to be my landlord, by the way). He jokes that “East Coast bigwigs — working through their unwitting ideological dupe Sam Tanenhaus — are purposely revealing the vacuity of these intellectual ingénues precisely for the purpose of discrediting their ideas.” Alexander Cockburn must have laughed so hard he coughed his milk through his nose.
But when Shecky Alterman is done, he doesn’t offer much in the way of real analysis. Instead he takes pointless pot shots at the Independent Women’s Forum — a Washington-based conservative group which fights organized feminists on their own terms. He argues that by taking the fight to cable TV, IWF has helped create “a media-wide misimpression that young women are marching back into the kitchen with [their] virginity intact.”
One may wonder how or why he thinks this is a media-wide view; it seems to me, in fact, that the media he is speaking of is still in denial about the fact that most women are more inclined to slap you than smile if you call them feminists. But if he is right that the IWF can take credit for the ongoing female moral rearmament — the explosion of books like the neo-Victorian The Rules, the endless stream of Jane Austen-inspired movies, the various New York Times articles about women creeping back to traditionalism, the explosion in home-schooling, the boom in bridal and birthing books and magazines — well, it’s time for me to send the IWF a new check.
If Alterman’s arguments don’t explain why Vanity Fair ran this piece, his tone partly does. The serious Left, of which Alterman is a proud member, is in foot-stomping denial about the same conservative phenomenon that fascinates the Vanity Fair liberals. Conservatism has been running on open ground for almost a decade. We can be found across the terrain and on every hilltop, often disagreeing with each other as much as with liberals. And, we’re not going away.
“In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950. “For it is plain nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” It’s an overused quote, to be sure, but overused for a reason; it seems so unimaginable compared to the incredible diversity and depth of conservative ideas today. Post-war conservatism grew up almost overnight. More to the point, for most of its modern life, the conservative movement has been about anti-Communism. In a sense, the twilight struggle kept conservatism focused, and therefore definable. With the obvious exceptions of William F. Buckley Jr. and Russell Kirk, the majority of the American Right’s greatest thinkers began their careers somewhere on the Left. They moved to the Right because they were pushed in that direction by the evils of Communism.
But wherever they began their intellectual odysseys, their views of the welfare state, taxes, defense, even freedom itself, were powerfully informed by the horrors of Communism and their battles with its apologists.
Liberal commentators love to chuckle about how the Right was toppled by the Berlin Wall. Without their bogeyman, the argument goes, conservatives have lost their rationale. It turns out that that isn’t true. Instead, the Right has been liberated, scattering throughout the culture. Which means, alas, that we’ve lost some discipline. Ronald Reagan had order in the troops. Newt Gingrich was herding cats. But in exchange, we have conservatives — like P. J. O’Rourke, Andrew Ferguson, and Richard Brookhiser — who are equally comfortable making jokes as making serious arguments. And, we have female conservatives — like Danielle Crittenden, Amity Shlaes, and NR’s own femmes fatales Kate O’Beirne and Florence King — who are equally comfortable talking about raising kids as about nuclear throw-weights. And they actually are engaging and attractive people, too.
Vanity Fair is fascinated by this fact; Alterman has been determined to label it a horrible lie for much of the decade. But the truth is both of them are behind the times. For years, all of the really engaging, provocative, and fun arguments have been on the Right — usually between various forms of conservatives and libertarians. Just compare the leftist magazines: The Nation and Dissent to, say, Reason, National Review, and The Weekly Standard. The nasty, sniping arguments accrete on the left side of the ledger.
The Real Problem This is all preamble to my problem with the Tanenhaus piece. (Tanenhaus, by the way, is writing a biography about the guy who ultimately signs my checks, William F. Buckley Jr.) . Tanenhaus tries to impose a “big idea” over all of these conservative women. His “new female conservatism” covers everyone from the brilliantly libertarian Reason magazine editor, Virginia Postrel, to the incandescently reactionary Wendy Shalit. To him they are all, “the coming thing, heralds, or sirens, of a genuine conservative chic.” He dumps Lynn Chu, the powerhouse literary agent, into the same bag as Amity Shlaes of the Wall Street Journal. Sure, these women are conservatives (or libertarians), and, yeah, they’re women, and yup, most of them are pretty good-looking. But the only thing all of these women really have in common is that they are, well, women. If you put them in a room, it’s unlikely they’d agree on much of anything, be it a lifestyle issue or a “hot-button” topic like defense spending.
Tanenhaus does note that this group has its differences: Postrel, for example, ran a “skeptical review” of Shalit’s A Return to Modesty. This is an understatement — I should know; I wrote the review. But even those disagreements between Shalit and Postrel are portrayed as a catty scrap rather than a real difference of world-views.
Alterman implies that these women are all the same, because they are poseurs and lightweights, heirs to the “MSNBC blondes” he spent so much time debating. Tanenhaus leaves the impression that they’re all the same because they’re so damn charming and well-groomed. Both interpretations strike me as unfair.
I’m curious if Vanity Fair would run an article that said Susan Faludi, Naomi Wolf, Ellen Willis, Catharine MacKinnon, Patricia Williams, Hanna Rosin, Gloria Steinem, and Camille Paglia are all champions of the same intellectual “movement” — all the while paying inordinate attention to their clothes.