Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. He will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
The book I’ve just published, Exit Right, is about prominent Americans who’ve gone from the left to the right of the political spectrum. There are a few moments in the book, mostly in the introduction and postscript, when I poke my head up as an “I,” but it’s very much not about me.
That said, if I’m being honest, it’s entirely about me. It’s the product of my own struggles with the beliefs I inherited, and with the political community I grew up in. My maternal grandparents were members of the Communist Party, Philadelphia branch. My parents are leftists. Their friends, when I was growing up, were leftists too, some of them probably even communists in some sense—though by the time I came along it never would have come up.
It wasn’t a dramatically left-wing childhood. We didn’t live in an enclave of communists in Queens, as David Horowitz and his family did. We lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, a city so generic that its name is used to denote generic city-ness, and growing up there was about as exciting as that sounds.
Since I left my parents’ home for college I haven’t lived a highly dramatic left-wing adulthood. But what my life has been, from almost the beginning, has been a conversation about left-wing politics, very often an argument—with my parents, siblings, friends, classmates, co-workers, my wife, and, someday, soon my kids. I gave my grandfather a hard time about Stalin. I got into it in college with my fellow pro-labor activists about the merits of McDonald’s cheeseburgers (long story). I suspect I may have once blown it with a girl I was dating because I felt the need to complicate her views on affirmative action. I’m not usually that guy, but I’m that guy often enough to know that something’s going on.
Exit Right is about its subjects—Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens—and I did my best to empathize with them and understand how they experienced the world. But it’s also personal. I used their stories to tussle with my father, possibly with my grandfather. Definitely with Christopher Hitchens, who was the second great intellectual crush of my life, and whose break from the left at first enthralled me, then infuriated me, then saddened me.
I’m also struggling within myself. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been caught between a desire to be part of a cause—to live up to the ideals and myths of my childhood—and a discomfort with what that might entail, with the letting go of detachment and skepticism, not to mention a fear that maybe if I really let go I’d end up on the other side altogether. I have to wonder if I’ve engaged in so many conversations and arguments over the years in the hopes that one of these days I’ll find my way through to beliefs that feel so rooted and tested that I can at last commit to one political persuasion—though whether that might fall to the right or the left I don’t know. And also, of course, because by this point it’s what I know how to do.
I’m surely drawn to writing about these men who’ve gone all the way from the left to the right, who’ve refused to rise above, because theirs is the path I haven’t taken. I’ve been the detached intellectual, the one who takes his doubts about the left so far but no further. And while I’m not leaving that path, I’m not comfortable on it either. There is no point so high that we can remain political but escape the most unnerving risk of political life, which isn’t losing the fight but choosing the wrong side of it in the first place.
Daniel Oppenheimer is a writer and filmmaker whose articles and videos have been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet Magazine, and Salon.com.
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