July 17, 2017

The Conflict within Us: Daniel Oppenheimer

By In Interviews

“…there’s a depth of humanity that can be achieved, by any of us, only when we reckon bravely with what’s in conflict within us, rather than run away from it or deny its existence.” – Daniel Oppenheimer, Exit Right (p. 347).

Daniel Oppenheimer is the Senior Communications Lead for Population Health for The University of Texas System. He received a B.A. in Religious Studies from Yale University before earning an M.F.A. from Columbia University in nonfiction writing.

Daniel’s writing has appeared or been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Washington Monthly, Salon.com, and Tablet magazine among other publications. Among his documentary films is “Encountering Maslow,” a brief video biography of the famous psychologist.

Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, published in 2016, is his first book. The book profiles six individuals who established political beliefs on the far left before becoming conservative later in life. As such, the book is both a history of some of the key figures who shaped the American right in the latter part of the twentieth century despite originally having Marxist or liberal beliefs as well as an absorbing study of the factors influencing our choice of political beliefs.

Visit Daniel’s website: www.danieloppenheimer.com

[Note: This interview was conducted on June 28, 2017.]

OR: I was watching a talk you gave at Politics and Prose which I think is on YouTube. I was fascinated by your description of your background, which is, if I remember correctly: your grandparents were members of the Communist Party and you were raised in a pretty liberal household. Seeing the effects of communism in Eastern Europe caused you to rethink part of your worldview. I think you still describe yourself as somewhat liberal, although not as far left as your grandparents were. Would it be accurate to say that as you wrote this book you were using your own example, your own transformation, as a benchmark as you went through and did research on the people that you characterize?

DO: That’s roughly accurate. My maternal grandparents were members of the Communist Party. My parents were not communists. They didn’t have any attachment to the Soviet Union or Marxism. They were, however, pretty standard left wingers of the 1960s and 1970s, and I would say had a vague, rosy notion of communism, and with it a general hostility to more hawkish Cold War views.

I grew up with the idea that my grandparents being communist was a somewhat romantic and noble thing. Learning about Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the atrocities and repressiveness of Stalinism was a big part of my transition out of that specific perspective. By the time I came to the book, I had a pretty well-formed perspective that probably located me within the anti-Stalinist left or as an independent democratic socialist. That’s probably where I still am.

OR: Would “Trotskyite” have been a fair description?

DO: It’s funny. That’s possibly something I would’ve ignorantly said, once upon a time. Knowing what I know now, I would not say that that was ever accurate, but there was a lot of overlap in certain ways. Many of the intellectuals I have a lot of admiration for were Trotskyites at one point and then ceased to be so.

So, I may have vaguely said that about myself, but I would have been wrong. The term entails a lot more than simply the theoretical commitments of Trotsky, which for the most part I don’t find compelling, and in general it’s not something I have a lot of interest in. I don’t agree with Trotsykism as a system, but it’s more relevant that I don’t have an interest in parsing the nuances of Marxism.

OR: You actually don’t come across as very ideological at all. Maybe you’re wise enough to know most causes are imperfect.

DO: I wouldn’t call it wisdom. I would probably refer to it as temperament. I’m not temperamentally ideological because I’m not a mentally systematic thinker in the sense that I’m driven to make coherent sense of everything. I’m pretty comfortable with lots of different things going on and not finding a way to connect them into one overarching matrix or system. When people do try and do that it makes me uncomfortable.

OR: Why “Exit Right” and not “Exit Left”? Did you consider examples of people that had grown up with a conservative world view and then shifted to a leftist one? Or because most of us are naturally growing more conservative as we age were that not as many examples of that?

DO: I probably thought at some point of doing a few chapters on people who journeyed from right to left, but I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t that interested. It wasn’t about the availability of examples, it was just that I wasn’t interested. It goes back to what we talked about earlier, which is that part of this was me working through some of my own inner struggles and dilemmas. That struggle, moving from left to right, was interesting to me and it resonated, because I felt as though I had perspective and insight into it as someone who grew up on the left and, though I remain there, I’ve spent a lot of late nights wrestling with the flaws and orthodoxies of the left. I can imagine getting so fed up I’d just chuck it all. Right to left would have been a less interesting book for me to write, because that reverse journey is one into which I wouldn’t have that similar kind of organic insight.

I also would say that the other phenomenon hasn’t been as historically or intellectually important. There are plenty of important left-wing figures who were raised in conservative households, but that journey, as a trope, doesn’t have the same kind of tradition. And there aren’t movements on the left that were formed or influenced, in really interesting ways, by exiles from the right.  Whereas we do have intellectual and politically important movement, like anti-communism and neo-conservatism, which were profoundly shaped both in reaction to ideas on the left and in terms of the specific ex-leftists who led them.

Christoper Hitchens

OR: You had said that the first chapter you wrote was on Christopher Hitchens, which turned out to be the last in the book, I think because it’s chronological. It seems that some people might have misunderstood the chapter. There were a lot of Christopher Hitchens fans who bristled at the notion that he was ever a man of the right, although you’re pretty explicit about this in the book so I don’t think it’s anything you weren’t aware of. He definitely had an evolution later in life in his beliefs.

But, Hitchens is not a traditional conservative, even though his foreign policy in later years aligned well with neo-conservatism. You dwell somewhat on his relationship, or lack thereof, with Bill Clinton. In retrospect, do you think that this kind of move from the left to the center by Bill Clinton made him feel like he could open up space and not just be a man of the left as he got older?

DO: That’s interesting. I remember seeing some complaints that I had mischaracterized him as being of the right. If you read the chapter, I don’t actually make the case he became conservative. I just make the case that he left the left. He did leave the left, but didn’t end up on the right. It’s a fair complaint, in terms of the title of the book, but it misses the point.

I am trying to think back about his relationship to Bill Clinton. As part of the explanation for what happened, did the Democratic Party moving to the center actually open up space for him to detach? I don’t know. That’s an interesting question. On the one hand, he never identified himself with the Democratic Party, so he always had a fair amount of contempt for the organized, official Democratic Party. I can’t imagine him being a big fan of Jimmy Carter or any other Democratic candidates for president. So it wouldn’t precisely come out of the sense that Democratic Party had changed the left. What is possible, and there might be some textual evidence for this, that some of his comrades on the actual left made apologies for Clinton in ways that tarnished the left and therefore opened up space for him. My guess is that there were people who wrote for The Nation who were more anti anti-Clinton than they were critical of Clinton. That probably disgusted him and repelled him and created space.

You might be able to go back and find a back and forth between him and someone like Katha Pollitt at The Nation who was basically saying that we know Bill Clinton is not a great champion of working people, but these efforts at impeachment and undermining the presidency is more of a threat to democracy and the health of the republic than Clinton himself is. He probably saw that kind of approach and felt it was corrupt and cynical. But, I don’t remember him writing much about that.

OR: Do you think there is a determining factor in his shift? Is it that he really wanted to see the United States use its power for causes he believed in, which was very much opposed to the beliefs of more traditional leftists like Noam Chomsky? Or is it that his atheism placed him completely at odds with the left after 9/11?

DO: There isn’t necessarily one thing, but if you had to pick one I would say that it was the emergence of radicalism and extremism in Islam that separated him. He felt that the left was failing a sort of George Orwell test of recognizing true barbarism when you see it and fighting it with all the ferocity it deserves. I’m not sure atheism is the right frame for that. It’s more hostility to fundamentalism and tyranny and his appreciation for freedom in the basic sense of resisting restrictive norms placed on you.

OR: One of the reasons many of us don’t abandon our beliefs is because of the consequences we would face from people we admire and within our social circles. One thing that all of the people you profile must have in common is a bit of a contrarian style. Hitchens himself was very much against heroes. Anybody held up as a hero, he tried to swat down, just because I don’t think he liked to see it. I’m curious how much you think that contrarian psychology played a role.

DO: I have to think about whether I’d agree with that characterization of him being against heroes. He is definitely against sacred cows, or at least ones that other people held – people like Henry Kissinger and Mother Theresa. But he definitely had his own pantheon of heroes. I think he was comfortable with them living in a pretty hallowed space. These were people like George Orwell and Oscar Wilde.

Then when you get to people who were his contemporaries or just one generation older, like Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said – did he need to kill these fathers in some sense? I don’t know. My instinct is no. I don’t think there was something in him that ultimately was rebelling against the perspective of a Noam Chomsky, because he had to tear down an intellectual father. There was something about his personality that was a little reckless and aggressive that made criticizing others a comfortable move, but it wasn’t primarily what drove it.

OR: Your concluding remarks on Hitchens are quite fascinating, even provocative. You say that if Kissinger had supported the Iraq war earlier, Hitchens might have thought twice about his own support. In the same paragraph, you say that if he quit drinking he might have been able to “disentangle his own fantasies from those who are prosecuting the war.”

Did you come to the conclusion that a lot of Hitchens’ move to the right was a cognitive error later in life because he wasn’t aware of his blind spots?

DO: I don’t think it’s a cognitive error. But I think cognitive rigidity played a role. The older we get, the harder it is to be flexible in our thinking, for all of us. It not some kind of loss of capacity with Hitchens, it’s psychological. His age pushed him towards a psychological rigidity. It’s not that I think him moving towards the right was a sudden kind of conceptual or cognitive error. You could see him wrestling with all these things years and decades earlier, when you couldn’t accuse him of a drinking inspired decline.

The rigidity that slowly developed made it much harder to hold contradictory viewpoints at the same time. His writing also got worse and more stylized in a way that was more predictable.

I struggled with whether to get into the age and drinking stuff with him because it’s dangerous to diagnose people long distance. I came to the conclusion that I should do it because it was the best available explanation for some of what happened. When I say that his writing grew worse and more predictable, I’m coming at it from a very different perspective than his political positions. Never in his life did he enjoy admitting he was wrong, but I think you could see evidence in his earlier career that he was much more willing to absorb evidence that contradicted his positions. He lost his ability to do that. The Iraq war, for example, was clearly a disaster, but he refused to really reckon with that.

OR: Your chapter on David Horowitz was probably my favorite in the book – partly because I was so ignorant about his background. I wouldn’t have guessed that he would have had affiliations with the Black Panther Party in his youth. How did you come to become aware of this story? Did you already know of it or discover it in your research?

DO: That was one of the episodes that led to the book. I had written a piece on Horowitz for a newspaper and so I was familiar with him. I think what prompted that article was reading Michael Berube, a left-wing blogger, who used Horowitz as a kind of foil and was very funny about it. That led me to start reading about Horowitz. I actually interviewed Horowitz for the article I wrote about him, way back then, 12 or 13 years ago, and he really didn’t like the article at all.

OR: What didn’t he like?

David Horowitz

DO: So so much. I think he has both a powerful desire to be seen as right in his politics, and a powerful desire to be understood, even if you don’t agree with his politics. And my article was hostile to his politics, and not particularly focused on expressing empathy for his views. Also, I gave Todd Gitlin the space to criticize him, and he really loathes Todd Gitlin.

He actually liked my chapter about him, in the book, which maybe should give me pause, but it doesn’t. I think it’s important to understand his perspective, even if you don’t like his politics, which I don’t. There are a million people on the left who will say nasty things about Horowitz, which might serve some actual purpose in some very particular context, but my thinking is that he’s been an influential critic of the left and there is, in general, far more value in trying to understand what may be of value or interest in his critique. I also just think he’s an interesting character.

OR: Did he reach out to you after the book was published?

DO: Yes, he did. I think he thought I gave him a fair shake even if he didn’t agree with me about everything.

OR: How you describe his state of mind after the Van Patter murder is very interesting. Quite obviously, it should not come as a surprise that the Black Panther Party was involved in acts of violence. To most people it would not be shocking that something like this murder could happen. Your description of how he saw the Panthers at that time seems very similar to how a lot of people might see the Palestinians today – some of their methods are questionable, but oppression against them has existed for so long that they can somehow justify it.

It is almost as if this time, in the case of his friend being killed, the violence was no longer connected to any lofty aim – it was purely calculated to avoid exposure of corruption. Would you say that in his mind, that distinction was what caused the major reversal in his beliefs?

DO: I think broadly speaking your comparison to the Palestinians is a good one, if we are talking about how a lot of folks on the left saw them. But not necessarily Horowitz. I think he didn’t know the extent of the activities of the Black Panthers. If a police officer was shot, for example, he genuinely believed it was in self-defense; he was genuinely naïve about the movement.

Everybody knows that the Palestinians are committing acts of violence in a not locally self-defensive way. They’re not typically firing back at soldiers who are attacking them. They’re planning suicide bombings. That’s very explicit. The Panthers were framing their violence as self-defensive. Even so, there were plenty of folks on the left who knew it was more complicated than that, but I think Horowitz was genuinely less savvy about the Black Panthers than you might think, and less savvy than a typical leftist might be today about the Palestinian movement. He was just more naïve than you might think.

But did this unjustifiable murder pull back the lens? Yes, it did. Absolutely. All the more dramatic because he had been willfully blind to certain aspects of the group.

OR: That surprises me.

DO: Yeah….I don’t totally know what to make of that. Some of his contemporaries who are still on the left will say that he should have known better, that he was inexcusably clueless. By that point Huey Newton was doing a lot of things that were completely criminal that had no connection to any kind of political movement whatsoever, just completely criminal.

Maybe Horowitz still has some of the same naivete. He’s a big Trump defender now. I don’t think he’s naïve in an insulting way. Certainly, he’s not naïve to a lot of facts, but he still has the capacity to cordon off contradictory facts.

OR: There was no immediate epiphany for Horowitz. Maybe his realization that the left was not the answer was more immediate, but he did not quickly take up sides with the right. It was a very gradual process. In some ways, you might think that disillusionment would cause one to avoid all ideology in the future. Are there certain people who temperamentally are the opposite of the way you described yourself and need to have ideologies to believe in? And is that the reason why someone like Horowitz might take up a cause later in life after feeling failed by another one?

DO: An even better example of that than Horowitz is Whittaker Chambers, who because of his temperament wouldn’t know what to do with himself without some overarching theory of the world. He was casting about for one when he found communism, and that satisfied him for a while, and then he wasn’t able to break free from communism until he had a religious faith worldview to take its place. There was a period of time of a few years when he was still in practice a committed communist, but without any kind of conviction. He was looking for some worldview to fill the void.

Hitchens was not an ideologue in the same sense. He was more of a romantic. He saw the world as made up of good guys and bad guys.

With James Burnham it was more of an intellectual thing than an emotional thing. Those two aren’t inseparable, but Marxism was a powerful way for him to explain the world of politics and economics during the 1930s, when everything was falling apart. When that collapsed for him, he left for other systems of thought.

With Horowitz, I don’t know if I could even say what his ideology is at this point or what his system is. His cause seems to be destroying the left, but he seems to have Messianic tendency to change the world. Arguably that period in the wilderness broke him of his desire for a system.

OR: In Reagan’s case, you talked about how he was not always forthcoming about himself in regard to his own background and transformation. He probably could have been described as a New Deal Democrat when he was young and something like a neoliberal conservative when he was older. Why do you think it was difficult for him to confront his transformation? It doesn’t seem like the type of thing anyone would be hesitant to talk about.

DO: You mean the transformation in his political beliefs?

OR: Yes.

DO: Reagan had a weird brain and a weird psychology, and I’m hesitant to draw too many conclusions based upon it. His weirdness kind of broke Edmund Morris, who was his official biographer, who was so confounded by his psychology that he ended up writing this very weird biography that is part fiction and told from the standpoint of an imaginary person observing Reagan. It’s actually quite insightful, in many ways, but it’s strange. So, given that Reagan drove one of his biographers over the edge, I don’t know.

Maybe one of the reasons why he had a hard time confronting his political change honestly was because it would have forced him to break philosophically with his father or render some judgment on his father..

Reagan is very difficult to come to know, but what I will say is that from a certain angle, on this topic, he is not that odd. He said, more or less, that he stayed the same but the left changed or the world changed or something like that. That’s a very common rationalization. People will construct a story in which they were right then and are right now, even though when you compare their actual past and present beliefs that are contradictory in fundamental ways.

I’m having an ongoing conversation with a family friend who voted for Trump. This was someone who marched against apartheid in South Africa, when he was in college, and was a big believer in the need to solve racial injustice. Now he’s a Trump voter. His explanation is that what has happened is the Democratic party has started turning too far left. When I asked him when he thought that shift began to happen, he said that the Clintons took the party left, that it started then. Which is shocking for someone like me. The idea that the Clintons took the Democratic party to the far left is just historically backwards. It’s contrary to every possible story you could tell of the Clintons. It’s not that you can’t argue that the Democratic party started turning left, but it’s been much more so in the last five to ten years. What really happened is that he started moving to the right about the same time the Clintons led the party, and perhaps some aversion to the Clintons played a role in his shift. But rather than recognize that his politics were shifting he constructed a narrative in which others were changing. People do that all of the time and I don’t know why. I don’t know why it’s harder to say that ‘I changed’ instead of that ‘they changed.’

Ronald Reagan

OR: How much of Reagan’s shift was pragmatic and out of fear that being associated with communism would be a major hindrance to his career?

DO: Was it a sincere or pragmatic shift? As it so often is with Reagan, it was both. There was, I think, a friend of his brother who was receiving some feedback from the FBI that Reagan’s name was being bandied about as a possible communist. There’s little question that there was a pragmatic aspect to him separating himself from the left. He was just a careerist in that sense.

Having said that, his transition was also very earnest and probably inevitable. He was always a true-blue American patriot, and in terms of how the Cold War evolved, the more the debate about communism became partisan, which it wasn’t at the beginning, and the more Democrats were charged with being appeasers of communism or enablers (which they weren’t), it was likely that he was going to move in the other direction.

OR: He went through a really difficult period in life in the late 1940s and it wasn’t long after that that he began his relationship with General Electric, a very conservative company that obviously gave him a lot of stability and purpose and that seemed to be the definitive foundation for his break with liberalism. Is there a psychological aspect at play, the need to feel a part of something stable amidst some turmoil?

DO: It’s similar to what I was saying before that with Reagan there is almost always both pragmatic and an earnest element. I talk in the book about his work for GE. They didn’t require him to be political. They didn’t expect him to be political, and were comfortable with him being a liberal as long as it didn’t compromise his work for them. But it was a very comfortable and safe world for him. He traveled around the country by train because he didn’t like flying, and he visited all these plants and met with managers and workers. He saw these massive industrial works and associated them with the American can-do spirit. It was almost the same vibe he got from FDR in his speeches, but this time he’s surrounded by a comprehensive ecosystem of conservative thought. GE educated their managers and workforce on the principles of the free market and he was getting flooded with the same education, and over time, he just began to shift. He began to associate the warm GE vibes with the conservative GE policies.

If you fast forward to the late 1960s when he is governor of California, it is very hard to imagine him not pushing back against the radicals and often anti-American strands of liberalism with revulsion. There’s no question that his relationship with GE had a profound influence on him, but it’s not the sole reason he evolves as he does.

OR: In the postscript, you talk about what tension can do for us. Using Hitchens as an example of someone who went to the right, but lost the tension within himself. What is the lesson that we should take away when we read about people like this? Is it that it’s important to maintain a dialogue with ourselves because that tension that results is the space where progress is made?

DO: Yes, I think you said it well. The lesson, and in some ways it’s a non- or pre-political lesson, is that introspection and a commitment to personal, intellectual, and emotional growth are part of a life well lived. There’s various frames for that way of being. Some people are of deep faith and use their religion to struggle and wrestle and grow as human beings. Other people do that in the context of family. Politics is one more version of that. To me the personal necessity of it weighs more heavily than the political necessity. You’re in trouble as a person if you just give up and entrench at some point thinking that you have nothing left to learn.

There’s also a political necessity to this. I don’t think that being flexible and open is antithetical to being passionately committed. In fact, you can look a lot of really admirable political actors in history and see that they were those kinds of people. You can see that openness can make you more effective.

OR: I really appreciate you giving up some of your time today and enjoyed the conversation.



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