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David Frum’s Spiritual Progress

In a mid-90s New Yorker article, Edward Hirsch described a famous American writer of arguable politics in the following terms: …indeed, there is a wild, nervy, nearly out-of-control quality to his best writing. He was a passionate intellectual explorer setting forth for the unknown and flinging himself into the wilderness of experience. His essays are a clarion call for movement, action, transport. He held nothing back.

Now, this sort of adjectival froth isn’t exactly rare these days. The temptation to stick the air-hose into the people and things we approve of occasionally strikes even the best writers as the only hedge against a practice scumbags and opportunists have always employed. But maybe they ought to calculate the cost incurred by this sort of inflation. The writer Hirsch was reinventing for himself wasn’t Ken Kesey, or Hunter S. Thompson. He was writing about Ralph Waldo Emerson, a man of considerable virtue, but hardly the 19th century cross between Jack Kerouac and Marshall McLuhan Hirsch wants him to be.

Compare Hirsch’s overheated prose with David Frum’s description of early 1990s US Republican culture hero Jack Kemp: “Fast-moving, lithe, handsome, exuberant, endlessly cheerful, he was the most exciting phenomenon to hit the Republican party since Teddy Roosevelt. A barrel-chested former football star every cilium in whose head was nailed in for keeps, he was certifiably a man of the people.

What’s wrong with both passages, when I parse them for meaning, is that there’s little of substance that can be distinguished through the steamy fog of their authorial adrenaline. Both are primarily constructed with expressives, but Frum’s has me scrambling pointlessly for the dictionary and later, once I’m clear that Mr. Kemp’s head isn’t radioactive, pondering the possibility that he’s had hair transplants.
Hirsch’s sentences, taken from a review of a biography of Emerson, are ultimately little more than a slightly egregious attempt to revivify the reputation of writer Hirsch feels has lately been neglected. Frum’s project is more self-ambitious, and the distortions are thus more reprehensible. Ten years from now, the accuracy of Hirsch’s description will likely remain worth arguing over. Frum’s passage has already descended, with its subject, into bathos, because it was a piece of temporal puffery. The book the passage is taken from, Dead Right, despite the presumably unintentional double entendre of its title, was aimed at propagandising the then-lively and ascendant conservative shift in American politics–and at aggrandizing and glamourizing its stars. It was a project without a shred of historiographic gravity anywhere in it; politik from its first adjective to its last. And it is, as all such writing must be, a steroid-drenched ocean of hyperbole, exaggeration and fifth –rate ideas.

Let’s get my agenda out in the open from the start. I don’t like David Frum. He is the son of Barbara Frum, who was, if not quite the national treasure some historians and flacks at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation believe her to have been, at least a decent, generous and occasionally luminous presence during the era of rising Canadian self-respect in the 1970s and 1980s. Frum Jr. was deeded a wealthy and expensively-educated insider’s view of what Canada was (and in some ways still is), along with the opportunity to follow responsibly in the parental footsteps.

It’s hard to say where things went wrong. In the mid 1980s into the early 1990s, Frum Jr. seemed to be on course, appearing here and there in the Canadian media as a sort of junior curmudgeon and balloon-pricker. CBC had him doing semi-regular spots on the right side of Morningside’s panels, which in Peter Grzowski’s regime was a fairly narrow edifice. He appeared on television, too, but the cameras didn’t like him, probably because he’s slightly marble-mouthed, blinks his eyes and makes faces while other people are talking, and because his cheeks are so chubby it makes cynical folk wonder if he not only hasn’t removed the hereditary silver spoon, but has been cramming Conrad Black’s dinner party silverware.

From there, not quite overnight but with dazzling rapidity, Frum showed up in the U.S. media, writing for the Wall Street Journal and working his way into a role as a pit bull for the Republican Party most radical element, a strange mixture of George Will without a love of baseball, and P.J. O’Rourke without a sense of humour.

The book that made Frum’s American venture was Dead Right, published in 1994. He followed that in 1996 with What’s Right: The New Conservative Majority and the Remaking of America (in which it appeared, from the jacket cover, that Frum was presenting himself, in a rumpled white shirt and tie). How We Got Here: The 70’s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (for Better or Worse) appeared in 1999, and is the only book I can remember that has two colons in the title. Each book has been progressively more devotional and propagandistic—not to mention more hysterical.

When I read Dead Right shortly after it was published in Canada in 1995, I spent the first 100 pages questioning whether he could possibly be sincere in what he was saying, or whether I was witnessing a work of careerist, boot-licking disingenuity that the author would quickly regret. I soon understood that Frum was sincere if not serious, and got more interested in what Frum was articulating than in looking for self-comforting ways to poke fun at his excesses. Through the purple prose I began to see that he can both think and write, and more interesting, that the phenomenon he was writing about was as substantial as his chubby cheeks. It very much needs to be understood by those of us who aren’t naturally sympathetic to the wealthy and right wing. Precisely what is stuck in David Frum’s moral craw, along with what motivates him to be this nasty is, to be honest, inscrutable to me.

Here’s Frum’s executive summary of the situation he wants to rectify: …The faster the welfare state’s costs rise, the more the economy that supports the welfare state stagnates, in large part because of the disincentives created by the welfare state’s high taxes, but also because the welfare state’s temptations sap the brutal acquisitive drive that propels economies forward. As the government sectors of the world’s two dozen welfare states have swelled, their growth rates have slowed, their unemployment rates have risen, their poor have behaved in increasingly pathological ways, and–of greatest immediate interest–their public accounts have become more and more disordered.

This is a very strange depiction of contemporary political and social reality. Never mind the forests of gigantic corporate towers that have emerged from under the suddenly permissive thumb of Big Government to rupture the skylines of every city in North America in the past thirty years, dwarfing public edifices in their size and glamour. Forget the continuous swell, since the 1980s, of unproductive corporate cannibalisms that have rendered governments unable to tax the corporate sector. Ignore the cut-throat lobbies that render governments unwilling to do so. Forget the Savings and Loan and stock market scandals, along with the rotten fish stench of corporate accounting, the outrageous salaries paid to executives of unprofitable corporations, the ill-considered offshore lending binges by the banks that governments have been paying for while the IMF uses the incurred debts to strangle the underdeveloped world. In David Frum’s mind, the villains destroying our way of life are Big, Bloated Government, high taxes, a permissive education system, and a too-generous social net. And, of course, don’t forget the uncooperative, ungrateful, self-determining non-entrepreneurs who benefit from Big Government: poor people, minorities, artists and everyone else who doesn’t wear business suits in the bathtub. And anyway, isn’t sapping brutal acquisitive drives a good idea? What happens when nations don’t do that? Don’t you get Nazi Germany? Or Enron?

That said, to be dismissive in the face of the staggering simplicity of Frum’s executive summary would be as foolish as continuing to indulge the left’s vice of thinking that people on the political right are merely reactionary, stupid, ill-informed and/or deranged. As typified by people like David Frum, the intellectual right isn’t reactionary or ill-informed. It is wildly aggressive and equipped with well-documented if self-serving research. And I don’t think for a minute it is stupid. As for being deranged, isn’t that a condition defined by imposed—and arbitrary—norms? Who’s to say who’s crazy, given the history of the Twentieth Century? And even if people like Frum have lost their minds, can’t they accuse the left of being catatonic with at least an equal degree of accuracy?

When Dead Right was published, one could have hoped that Frum’s celebrity as a mouthpiece for U.S. radical conservatives would be temporary: the xenophobes would surely discover he was a misplaced hacker and hewer, and send him back across the border where he came from. But only a fool would have believed that what Dead Right propagandised, in both the specific, cosmic, and maybe the demonic sense, was temporary or trivial. What the resurgent right wing in American politics represents in the history of political culture, and the sort of polity it was trying to move the U.S. toward was merely gathering its forces. Today, we’re firmly under its thumb.

Frum distinguished four types of conservatives in Dead Right. His list is worth summarizing, both for what it contains and what it leaves out.

Frum identifies Optimist conservatives as those who believe that the road away from what he calls the "redistributive state" should be legislative and governmental, and ought to include a general liberation of the entrepreneurial élan they believe made America great in the first place. These were the Republicans we heard about in the media at the time: Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp, Texas senator Phil Gramm and many of the luminaries of the Reagan/Bush Sr. administrations. These folks, unlike some of their more radical brethren, didn’t want to completely dismantle the state. They just wanted to subject it to enough political and fiscal liposuction (one of Frum’s unconsciously self-targeted terms) to make it stop interfering with the God-given rights of wealthy Americans to live tax-free and with enough unregistered weapons in each of their homes to ward off a military attack by the combined armies of the Third World. In practice, their policies tended to produce what we saw during the 1980s and early 1990s: the dereliction of public institutions, giving away the capacity to govern in any active way to the corporate sector and wealthy minorities, and letting the state shrink from neglect, while the unleashed entrepreneurs used their famous nose for the buck to root out profits—and to uproot and ridicule nearly everything that’s decent and good about America.

Frum was clearly annoyed with these “Optimists” because while they were in power they’d mainly borrowed a lot of money to distribute to their allies and friends, and impoverished the state and its apparatuses without shrinking its debts or rebuking its growing client base for their dependencies. Mr. Frum, in case you haven’t picked it up, was well to the right of the Reagan/Bush Sr. Republican Party when he wrote the book.

The second group Frum posited were the moral conservatives like Bill Bennett, the Wall Street Journal’s Charles Murray, Irving Kristol and their political fool Dan Quayle, the latter of whom Frum had enough tactical perspective to make fun of. Moral conservatives believe in "family values" and in thumping hard on the poor so they’ll become, if not smarter and more hard-working, at least a little more docile, law-abiding and less of a financial burden to the over-taxed wealthy classes. Frum seems to share most of these values himself, tending to see social security as character corrupting, and wanting to return to the social practices of 19th Century when there were no homosexuals, no oddly dressed black people and no proud ethnics spoiling decent people’s fun with their impudence. At the same time, he’s critical of the inability of moral conservatives to choose between their authoritarian instincts (they like the idea of large police forces) and their libertarian paranoia over majoritarian intrusions. Like the optimists, moral conservatives don’t seem much concerned with economic issues beyond wanting the "redistributive state" to redistribute the wealth upward, particularly if the wealthy recipient is connected to a fundamentalist Christian church.

Frum’s third grouping—which he calls nationalist conservatives–are men like Patrick Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh and others who would be happy to see most of the things the moral conservatives crave, but they’d also like to rejig the distributive structures so that America comes first in the international marketplace, and decent white Americans come first economically and politically in their own back yard. They’re openly ready to turn the United States into two distinct cultures, one white, wealthy and Republican, and the other mostly non-white, lazy, poor and outside barbed-wire enclosures wishing they could get inside to enjoy the “real” America. Maybe because he’s Jewish, Frum is critical of nationalist conservatives for their occasionally-flagrant racism and their isolationism, but you also get the sense that he admires their "let’s kick some serious ass," approach despite those misgivings.

Finally, there are the neocons, who Frum depicts as disgruntled liberals who couldn’t take any more of the multiculturalism, (particularism, in Frum’s argot) liberalism, vandalism and other social impertinences that characterized the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era. On balance, neocons are wealthier than most other conservatives, and less interested in moral and political issues that don’t relate to their personal and economic security. You get the sense that Frum doesn’t trust or like neocons, or at least that he finds their pragmatism a problem. He comes close to blaming the political failure of the Reagan/Bush Sr. era (i.e. the Clinton presidency) on the neocons’ love of comfort and lack of commitment to conservative values, and he does it vociferously enough to make it easy to forget that his origins rest amongst them. There’s no loathing like self-loathing, I guess.

Interestingly, there is no functional religious right in Frum’s schematic of conservatism, and he spends the book’s best chapter arguing the point. That surprised many readers, because, as he admits, there are 50 million fundamentalist Christians in the United States. He argues that their factionalism and their goofiness simply doesn’t permit them to form a coherent political movement or even an effective lobby, citing as evidence how swiftly Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign blew apart in his first 1992 primary. Whether this is still true is open to debate. The religious right may or may not be pulling George W. Bush’s strings today, along with the spooks from the oil patch and the intelligence community. If we knew if Bush believes in anything besides oil profits, those mysteries would be easier to calculate.

But then who, within the conservative spectrum, does Frum fully identify withies with? Here, as elsewhere, he’s assiduously politik. In Dead Right he pumps the purest superlatives at, or close to, the magazines he’s been writing for in the last few years, most prominently the Wall Street Journal, whose pronouncements he quotes on numerous occasions. And whilst gently chiding for being too "ministerial", he has consistently kind words for other conservative writers: William F. Buckley Jr., Midge Dector, Peggy Noonan, George Will. You can tell these people like him, too, because most of them said so on the book’s jacket copy. Among the elected political voices he had a particular fondness for Texas Senator Phil Gramm, who he described as "the most articulate and impassioned pro market voice in the Senate", noting that you can’t conduct "real" conservative politics without a healthy mean streak. Interestingly, nearly all of Frum’s republican stars from the Clinton years have since faded or been banished. Gramm retired in 2002, and will spend the rest of his career removing the egg-splatter from the Enron fiasco, Kemp peaked with the 1996 Vice-Presidential nomination and is now merely one voice among the shouting horde of right-wing internet columnists, and Newt Gingrich slithered away during Clinton’s scandals for undisclosed transgressions that appeared to be far more damning than the several clandestine blow-jobs Clinton was almost impeached over.

What Frum left unsaid in all the stroking and adjective flinging of Dead Right was that the conservative movement isn’t a movement at all. It was—and remains—every bit as factionalized as the left has always been, and the factions are as weird and mutually destructive. The main division in 1995 was between conservatives fixed on the pursuit and expression of cherished rights—a fixation that has faded in the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11—and a newer, and more irritable faction of authoritarians who appear to have decided that they’re, uh, dead right about what they believe and are willing to beat the crap out of whoever gets in their faces, whether it be uppity minorities wanting their rights, or Saddam Hussein. Obviously, the latter faction is now in control, even if the whole isn’t much more coherent than in 1995.

But if this gaggle of bickering meanies is all there is to conservatism, where does the jet-fuel it runs on come from? Well, I hate to admit this, but there’s something seductive—whatever one’s politics—about the simple-minded solutions conservatives have offered to the problems all Western societies face, just like there’s something charming about Frum’s boyish aggression. While the left has found itself, over the last decade, in the ugly position of defending a status quo that wasn’t satisfactory to it in the first place, conservatives have been given a virtually unopposed license to offer mob-pleasingly Darwinian solutions to growing national debts, rising levels of social violence, the rebarbarization of the young, and to the numbing failure of our education systems to do much of anything except molest our children and warehouse the growing army of adults who have been rendered superfluous by technology.

It is over the issue of delivery that one must pay close attention to Frum and to others like him. Frum posits most of the conservative simplifications approvingly, occasionally with vehement exhortations to go further—and always with a slick chattiness that gives the comfort of fashion and intellectual respectability to proposals that are too crude to work, and occasionally so cruel that they border on Nazi Fascism. The popular conservative simplifications blame the symptoms for the maladies, and stop only a little short of suggesting that if the symptoms (read the poor, the disorderly and the heathen) are suppressed or eradicated, the maladies will go away—and the wealthy will be able to go to and from their banks and cocktail parties in peace. Again and again Frum blames the poor for their own misfortune, and for most of the difficulties of the state and the economy as well. When he isn’t doing that, he’s menacing the preferentially proud, immigrants, and everything else outside the standard demographic of fifty years ago.

At one point in Dead Right, perhaps unintentionally but perhaps from some deeper instinct, Frum decodes both the conservative agenda and his own program by noting that "Animosity is always someone’s opportunity." He’s right about this. It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that the wealthy classes have discovered how to be aggrieved and angry, or that they’re out to kick those who they perceive as having rained on their parade. What is surprising is that privileged, well-educated kids like David Frum are comfortable—or at least unself-conscious—sitting at the steel tip of the conservative boot. Isn’t it accepted wisdom that well-educated, wealthy people are supposed to be at least a little socially generous?

If you can ignore Frum’s overzealous lusting after the sound of his own voice stroking his pet peeves, you can distinguish in his intellectual opportunism a strange sort of heartlessness. At one point in Dead Right he quotes, approvingly, the Wall Street Journal as saying …These weaker or more vulnerable people, who in different ways must try to live along life’s margins, are among the reasons that a society erects rules. They’re guardrails. At another point notes that There seemed to be widespread disappointment that the stock market crash of 1987 had not ushered in a new depression. Just as Europeans had grown weary of peace in 1914, Americans at the end of the 1980s were gorged on wealth.

I mean, whoa, there! Whoa! The poor as guard rails? For what, and for whom? Doesn’t that mean Frum believes, unconsciously or not, that the wealthy are life’s BMWs? And which Europeans had grown weary of peace in 1914? Wasn’t that the interbred upper class militarists and their generals, and not the “guard-rails”, who were weary because they spent their lives scrabbling for food and shelter? Were those peace-weary nobles really the same kind of people as those Americans who were "gorged on wealth" in the 1980s and ready, in the 1990s, to bash the guard rails into the deep blue yonder just to make themselves feel more alert and fit? Does Frum understand what he’s saying?

This kind of heartlessness is annoying in and of itself, but it is exacerbated by Frum’s naiveté. Despite his occasionally surprising erudition, he seems utterly ignorant of the econopolitics that is at the heart of the conservative resurgence. It makes him ignore, or maybe merely overlook, the power nexus within the tangled conservative movement, the nexus that lies within the banking community and bond markets, and with the elements of the banking community that has quietly kidnapped the international banking system over the last decade—and effected a massive transfer of assets from the public sector to the upper (and often criminal) reaches of the managerial classes.

I think that this is naiveté and not disingenuousness, but that said, I need to point out that naiveté is the comfort only of fools. Frum’s strain makes both the animosities he holds and the opportunities he’s pursuing just that much more dangerous. It suggests that he believes that the world is created inside his head before it has any objective existence. That accounts, at least in part, for the curious lack of perspective he exhibits: he thinks everyone, in the end, is just like him, and he doesn’t have sufficient social curiosity to find out if it is true. That, of course, is the true privilege of the wealthy and oblivious.

Circumstantial evidence that Frum’s deepest fault is naiveté can be drawn from the fact that several books beyond Dead Right David Frum continues to have trouble convincing anyone he’s s an adult, even though he’s now in his early 40s. I’m not sure why this is so. Maybe it’s the sophomoric glee he takes in performing his ideological and intellectual tricks—things like putting the word “right” in the titles of each of his books. Maybe its his goggle-eyed appearance, or maybe its because he’s been pretending he’s 50 since he was in his early 20s. But whether or not he’s an adult, it’s no longer difficult to take him seriously. Among his proven strengths are the nimbleness of his intelligence, and his refusal to be demoralized when he or his causes get kicked. And whatever one thinks of his politics, he hasn’t wasted the privileges life has granted him: two degrees from Yale, another from Harvard’s Law School, and he’s clambered in up to his neck wherever he’s been. If the left had a few intellectual campaigners as cunning and sturdy has he is, it might be able to defend its values a little more successfully than it has.

Frum’s move to the U.S.—and to U.S. politics—in the late 1980s went off as if the cultural divide between Canada and the United States didn’t exist, and that interests me. His marriage with Danielle Crittenden is a more comedic version of the same untroubled segue. The two quickly became a juvenile parody of a DC power couple. Crittenden, the daughter of Toronto Sun publisher Peter Worthington, evidently possesses an even dimmer sense of irony than Frum. Her innumerable pratfalls, not the least of which was her hilariously inept Internet novel Amanda Bright @Home and the mass e-mailing that ascribed the “Axis of Evil” slogan in U.S. President Bush’s post September 11th State of the Union address to Frum (and quickly lost him his post as one of Bush’s speech writers) have made the pair something of a Beltway joke.

But Frum is a man utterly untroubled by a sense of irony, or by the things he doesn’t know. He seems not to have altered an opinion in his entire career, or to have found occasion for cynicism either in his private life or his outlook on the world. None of the embarrassments—political or personal—appear to bother him. After his wife sabotaged his speechwriting gig, he knocked off a quick biography of George W. Bush titled The Right Man. When it appeared in late 2002, the critics duly noted that was without insights or egregious mistakes, but that it managed to keep the faith and not make Frum any enemies among his own people. That’s clearly what counts for Frum.

He shows up regularly in Canada at conservative events, mainly to cheerlead for American policy and to exhort Canada’s stumblebum right wing to unite against the Communist liberals in Ottawa, and seems blissfully unaware that it is one vast lunatic fringe. He seems unfazed by the fiasco of Stockwell Day’s short tenure as leader of the Canadian Alliance, during which Day opined that because the Bible says so, there were dinosaurs roaming the earth 4000 years ago. Maybe because the U.S. right is drenched in lunatics, Frum evinced no sense that the inability of Canada’s right to agree on anything substantial has been a disappointment. His certainty of belief never wavers, never seems affected by the human condition. He’s a young tom-cat in a herd of cats, so how could he notice? And maybe he believes in 4000 year old dinosaurs. Why wouldn’t he?

April 3, 2003 4326 w.

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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