Like so many parties that go on past their proper bedtime, Karl Rove’s Republican Party has lately begun to break out in fights, as neocon theorists, Goldwater-style libertarians, the corporations, and grassroots Christian fundamentalists come to the aggravating discovery that they’re more defined by their differences than by what they hold in common. On climate change, government spending, stem-cell research, reproductive rights, and the Iraq war, to name just a few of the triggering issues, self-styled conservatives find themselves at loggerheads with other self-styled conservatives, each claiming the mantle of true conservatism for himself. As both symptom and diagnosis of this interesting—one might say promising—development, Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul is as engaging as it is provocative.
Sullivan is an odd duck. Born in England in 1963 to an Irish immigrant family, he grew up in East Grinstead, a town long associated with a cho-leric, class-based brand of reactionary Toryism. Whenever letters appeared in the Daily Telegraph demanding the return of the birch or the noose, the chances were good that they’d be signed by Colonel Blimp (retd.) of East Grinstead, Sussex. But that was never Sullivan’s style of conservatism. A beneficiary (as I was) of the 1944 Education Act, he passed the eleven-plus exam and went to Reigate Grammar School, where he became a “teenage Thatcherite” and sported a Reagan button in 1980. From there, he won a scholarship to Oxford, becoming the first member of his family to attend university. He was elected president of the Oxford Union and, in 1983, or so he has boasted, threw a champagne party to celebrate the arrival of Pershing II missiles in Britain. An exemplary product of British meritocracy, he went on to Harvard, where he completed a Ph.D. with a dissertation on the British conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott. Its title, “Intimations Pursued: The Voice of Practice in the Conversation of Michael Oakeshott,” played on the title of Oakeshott’s 1959 essay “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.”
As someone committed—almost, it seems, from the cradle—to minimal government, maximal personal liberty, and a “strong anticommunist foreign policy,” Sullivan’s natural habitat was the United States. In the 1990s he was the youngest-ever editor of The New Republic; he is now a blogger, columnist, and ubiquitous guest on radio and cable TV talk shows, where he speaks in a peculiar creole, half English, half American, an accent from a region located somewhere on the sea floor of the Atlantic, midway between the Azores and Flemish Cap. This highly idiosyncratic mongrel voice tells one something about the character of Sullivan’s conservative journey, on which he has been, variously, Irish among the English, a scholarship boy among the sons and daughters of privilege, an Englishman among Americans, an HIV-positive gay man among right-wing homophobes, and a liberal Catholic among fundamentalists—good training for a chameleon, as for a combative gadfly, and Sullivan is both. Along the way, he’s fallen …
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Iris Murdoch’s Holy Fool June 14, 2007