January 20, 2005

Jeff Jacoby: An American Conservative in New England

Justin Katz

Sitting around a pub's chest-high table with new acquaintances, a blue-state conservative will look for signs of ideological sympathy. In New England, should the Boston Globe arise in conversation, the canny conservative need only drop one name, before sipping his beer to disguise the true import: Jeff Jacoby. The Globe's bio gives an inkling as to how reactions to the gambit might differ:

Jeff Jacoby became an op-ed columnist for The Boston Globe in February 1994. Seeking a conservative voice to balance its famously liberal roster of commentators, the Globe hired him away from the Boston Herald, where he had been chief editorial writer since 1987.

Given Jacoby's unique standing in New England as well as his online renown, Anchor Rising is grateful that he agreed to spend some of his time discussing terrorists in the Left's view, Jewish voters, the claims of biological fathers, same-sex marriage, the arts, the Internet, and (of course) the experience of being conservative in New England with us.

Anchor Rising. What sort of reception and feedback do you get as a prominent conservative in such an infamously liberal state and region?

Jeff Jacoby. It varies. From some readers, the reaction is shock and awe. There was a lot of this especially during my first few years at the Globe, when the letters to the editor poured in from Globe readers appalled that their paper was making room for opinions that were so, ugh, conservative. There are still plenty of responses along those lines, but I also hear from a lot of readers who are glad that there is at least one corner of the Globe where they can read something compatible with their own view of the world. Readers elsewhere in the country, coming across one of my columns for the first time, often ask if I'm about to lose my job for wandering off the Northeast liberal plantation. There was a lot of that especially during the 2004 campaign.

AR. Do you find that the adversity helps you hone your ideas and develop material?

JJ. Yes, in this sense: I know that what I write is going to be vetted a lot more closely by liberal dissenters than a liberal columnist's work is likely to be. I'd better be able to back up what I'm writing, because it is almost certainly going to be challenged. But apart from that narrow sense, I wouldn't say that I thrive on being in the philosophical minority at the Boston Globe, or in Massachusetts, or in the mainstream media. I've been a conservative since I was in junior high school — it's the way my brain works, and I don't think that would change if I were writing deep in the heart of Red America.

AR. I first became familiar with your work on David Horowitz's FrontPageMag.com. How has your audience — even your career — changed since the Internet, and especially since blogs, broke into the public consciousness?

JJ. Less than you'd think. I am the world's worst self-promoter and have made virtually no use of the Internet at all to build my audience share. I wish I had a nickel for every person who has told me I should have a Web site (or asked me why I don't). There is a JeffJacoby.com, but so far it is simply a sign-up form for anyone who'd like to get my columns by email. I haven't created a blog or joined an existing one, and I marvel at columnists who actually have time, energy, and ideas left over for blogging after their "real" writing is done.

All that said, the Internet has unquestionably expanded my readership; I hear from far more readers, and from much farther afield, than was the case when my Globe column began in 1994. I get email from around the world, and radio talk shows often come calling after seeing a column linked on RealClearPolitics.com or posted on Townhall.com or JewishWorldReview.com, for example. I don't know that the nature of the readers themselves has changed, though. I'd guess that I'm read by a lot more conservatives than I used to be — and also by a lot more people who get all their information from screens, not newsprint.

AR. It has been much noted that "the Catholic vote" swung from 50/47 for Gore/Bush to 52/47 for Bush/Kerry; I suspect the shift will continue in Republicans' favor. Meanwhile, Bush votes among Jews increased from 19% to 24%. What do you foresee happening there?

JJ. I wrote on this topic a few weeks before the election. I think that American Jewish voters are slowly growing out of their nearly umbilical loyalty to the Democratic Party. The youngest cohort of American Jews are the most likely to consider themselves Republican; the oldest are the likeliest to still think the 11th Commandment is "Thou Shalt Vote for the Party of FDR." 2004 was actually the third election in a row in which the Jewish Republican vote improved, and I wouldn't be surprised if the 24% recorded by exit polls actually understated the shift. Obviously a lot depends on the candidates in any given election year. But to the extent that the well-being and security of Israel remains a cutting issue with Jewish voters (it is a key issue with many non-Jewish voters too, of course), more and more of them will be attracted by the pro-Israel stance of the GOP.

AR. Reading your column about Yasser Arafat's death and reactions thereto, I recalled a chilling letter to the editor that the Providence Journal published a little over a month after 9/11/01. As an assumption in his argument for ending sanctions in Iraq, the writer declared that "no leader... would deny his own people the necessities of life." Why is it, at bottom, that such people cannot understand the nature of our enemies?

JJ. Because to do so would be to abandon their utopian belief that people are basically good. The left cannot accept that some people willingly choose to do evil — they feel more comfortable explaining the terrorism or wanton slaughter or gas chambers or gulag as a response to unfairness or poverty or a lack of reasonableness on our part. Our worst enemies cannot be appeased with concessions. We can either defeat them or be defeated by them. But that is something the useful idiots, as Lenin called them, never seem to grasp.

AR. Michelle Malkin recently wrote on her blog that she couldn't bear to watch the video of 3-1/2 year old Evan Parker Scott being handed over to his biological mother after believing that his adoptive parents were, in your words, "his rock." In your column on the topic, you noted the questionable character of Evan's biological father as well as his delay in establishing paternity. But the hand-over would be heartbreaking, it seems to me, no matter his biological father's qualities. Is there an essential principle that you think ought to be followed in all such cases? What action do you think ought to be taken in similar circumstances in which an upstanding biological parent has a legitimate claim?

JJ. The decision should not turn on the claim of a biological parent, upstanding or not. It should be based on the child's best interest. Evan Scott should not have been taken from the stable home he had lived in all his life — a home anchored by a married mom and dad who clearly loved and cared for him. Period. A biological mother who placed her newborn for adoption should not be permitted to change her mind 3-1/2 years later. And the law should be changed so that no man has a "legitimate claim" to his biological child unless he married the child's mother. (Nor should he be responsible for the financial support of that child.) Evan Scott's biological father was nothing more than a sperm donor. It defies common sense and decency that he should now have liberal visitation rights with Evan, while the little boy's true mom and dad — Dawn and Gene Scott — never get to see him again.

AR. You've written a number of straightforward and obfuscation-dispelling columns about same-sex marriage. To my experience that's a particularly rare action for a member of the New England media. In Rhode Island, for example, the news department of the Providence Journal has practically advocated for same-sex marriage, and even conservative talk radio hosts claim an inability to see anything wrong with it. Why do you think something so clear to you and me barely seems to register as a real argument among New England opinion makers?

JJ. Same-sex marriage, like the mainstreaming — even celebrating — of homosexuality generally, is one of those ideas that you have to believe in to be in the media or opinion elite, especially in a blue state. Just as you have to believe that the United States is a rogue nation led by a crazed cowboy, just as you have to believe that there is no more fundamental qualification for a federal judge than unblinking support for easy abortion, so you have to believe that the understanding of marriage that has prevailed for 5,000 years is a manifestation of ignernt redneck bigotry. Maybe it's a question of DNA. Or maybe it really is true that we come from utterly different origins: Conservatives are from Mars, liberals are from San Francisco.

AR. Not unrelated to the previous questions: You're on the Council of Overseers for the Huntington Theatre Company. How did that come about?

JJ. Interesting question with an interesting answer. I used to host a weekly show for New England Cable News. "Talk of New England" was nothing fancy — I would choose a topic and invite some relevant guests to come on the program and chew it over for an hour. The topic one week was government funding of the arts — which I opposed — and one of my guests was Michael Maso, the engaging managing director of the Huntington Theatre Company. As I recall, we had a spirited debate, in which I called for abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts and he made the usual litany of arguments for its existence. In the course of the show — or perhaps during a commercial break — I mentioned that I was a longtime subscriber to the Huntington, and a regular, if modest, contributor. A couple days later, Michael called to ask if I'd be interested in bringing my unconventional view into the Huntington as an Overseer. Which I was glad — still am glad — to do. (No minds have been changed on the subject of the NEA, though.)

AR. As a conservative with interests in the arts, I've noticed a number of figures who share our combination of conservative principles and artistic predilections. (National Review's Jay Nordlinger prominent among them.) Are we a silent cohort? A growing movement? What?

JJ. How about simply — normal? Music- and theater-lovers come in all philosophical shades, just as football- or soccer-lovers do. And vegetarians, poets, motorcyclists, and gardeners. There is no more reason to assume that only liberals are interested in the arts than to assume that only conservatives are interested in business. But don't do Jay Nordlinger the disservice of lumping me together with him as someone with "artistic predilections." His knowledge of classical music is encyclopedic; when he reviews a performance, you can take his opinion to the bank. I couldn't write an intelligent review of a play if you held a gun to my temple. When it comes to drama, I'm simply another Chance the Gardener: I like to watch.

AR. Fine arts seem an odd area of society from which to find conservatives absent — with the arts' long tradition and cultural significance. How can conservatives reclaim a place? Or do you think it'll happen organically, as aesthetic trends move away from rebellious nonsense to plain ol' high-quality work? Do these sorts of considerations affect your activities with the Huntington? Elsewhere?

JJ. I suspect that what is true in academia and the media is true in the arts: The leftwing hegemony has become so pronounced that conservatives either avoid the field altogether or, if they want to rise in it, suppress their political views. A friend of mine, a musician in a Top 5 symphony orchestra, is a devout Christian and an ardent conservative. His views are known to some of his colleagues, but he is careful not to be too blatant in his non-leftism. In recent years, a counterattack from the right has begun on campus. Whether it will succeed or not remains to be seen, but maybe conservatives and other non-leftists with an interest in the arts need to follow suit. I promise to do my part — I think I'll start by (finally) reading Roger Kimball's The Rape of the Masters.

AR. Any plans for a book?

JJ. I am the world's slowest writer. Two columns a week is absolutely a full-time job for me. I am in awe of people who can toss off a couple columns in a few hours, and spend the rest of their time hosting daily talk shows, editing journals of opinion, or writing books. All of which is a roundabout way of saying: No, not yet.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

"Fine arts seem an odd area of society from which to find conservatives absent"

This needs some clarification. I can relate from my own experience as a classical musician AND orchestra manager that you might make the blanket assumption that, say, members of the orchestra are predominantly liberal. But that fails to explain why members of the audience and consequently members of the board of directors of an orchestra are predominantly conservative.

"Is he master of his own time?" is one question we would ask in recruiting new board members. The explanation being that he or she is a well established and sucessful business owner. "He makes his money work for him rather than working for his money" to put it another way. Now how many liberal folk (other than the abberant limousine liberals) do you suppose can claim to be "master of their own time?"

I can clearly recall the steam pouring out of the board members ears when I announced the planning of an on-stage ceremony in which the late Senator Wellstone was to present the orchestra with the ceremonial federal funding, NEA check at the next concert. The board president suggested that the ceremony take place at the next youth orchestra concert instead. She eventually relented.

So to make the claim that conservatives are absent from fine arts is to ignore the organizational leadership and the audience of any given artistic venture.

BTW, I used to be the typical LLL musician. Consider me now a September 12th conservative.

Posted by: Gerard Gibbs at January 21, 2005 5:05 PM