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Jefferson Cowie

Jefferson Cowie is the author of 'Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class'

November 22nd, 2010 12:25 AM

Reason Frum the Right?

One of the things I miss the most in the current conservative movement is conservative thought. Right wing intellectuals used to be the ones who scowled at the histrionics of the left, who warned against passions overruling reason, who counseled fact over polemic. Obviously that's no longer the case--by a long shot. All the stuff they once frowned upon is now their stock-in-trade.

David Frum, author of small pile of conservative books and former member of the Bush administration, is a deeply conservative guy. But he is also a witty, energetic, perhaps even principled, one--quite possibly the last of the breed. His 1970s book, How We Got Here: The 1970s, the Decade that Brought You Modern Life--for Better or Worse, came out in 2000 when my newly released book, Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class was a mere glimmer in my intellectual eye. To my surprise Frum's book wasn't terrible--it's a bit rambling, more than a little undisciplined, and lacking in empirical rigor, but its conservative bend did not make for the complete crazy talk that I expected. In fact, I learned stuff and agreed with a great deal of it. 

I've often thought that the study of history has the potential to transcend the narrowness of politics. What we make of that history in our own time--how we use those ideas--is, and needs to be, essentially political. I felt confirmed in that judgment when I finished his seventies book. 

Not surprisingly, though, Frum is in deep trouble with his own people (if he has any left). Not too long ago he got the boot from the American Enterprise Institute for criticizing the GOP's approach to the Dem's "victory" on health care. He has since lambasted the scary ignorance of the Tea Party, recently called Sarah Palin's new book "a huge irony fiesta, a huge display of non-self knowledge," explained in Newsweek why Rush is wrong, and now, in a piece called Post-Tea-Party Nation in the NYT, actually advocates rules for the future of conservatism based on reason rather than fear mongering, ignorance, and empty sloganeering. 

Times are dangerous for that sort of conservative. 

While I can never forgive Frum for a lot of things, not the least of which was coining the term "Axis of Evil" during his time in the Bush administration, he is one of the few conservatives to admit that "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox." For that alone, there is hope. Perhaps a tiny hint remains of the early Canadian NDP organizer, which he once was long ago. 

Let's hope that the likes of Frum will win the long-run struggle for the hearts and minds of the conservative movement. I'm heartened by a glimmer of reasonableness on the right, even if it is from one of the few independent conservative intellectuals trying to break into the public sphere. I don't agree with his politics in the least, but he is the type of guy with whom I can at least share a belief in rational discourse.

Consider the alternative.

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