The Conversion Odyssey

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John Dos Passos has a mesmerizing name.

The “John” doesn’t fit the “Dos Passos,” does it? Shouldn’t be Juan Dos Passos?

But John Dos Passos was one of the Four Horsemen of American literature in the first half of the 20th century. And all four horsemen were Nomads, according to generational historians Howe and Strauss.

The Nomads Wander Left to Right

I’m a Nomad, too. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos. We’re all Nomads. According to Howe and Strauss:

Nomad generations are born during a spiritual awakening, a time of social ideals and spiritual agendas when youth-fired attacks break out against the established institutional order. Nomads grow up as underprotected children during this awakening, come of age as alienated young adults in a post-awakening world, mellow into pragmatic midlife leaders during a historical crisis, and age into tough post-crisis elders. By virtue of this location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their rising-adult years of hell-raising and for their midlife years of hands-on, get-it-done leadership. Their principle endowments are often in the domain of liberty, survival, and honor. Their best-known historical leaders include Nathaniel Bacon, William Stoughton, George Washington, John Adams, Ulysses Grant, Grover Cleveland, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. These have been cunning, hard-to-fool realists—taciturn warriors who prefer to meet problems and adversaries one-on-one. (Example among today’s living generations: Generation X.)

Yeah, that’s exactly who I want to be. (Not sure I always live up to the rep, though.) Eric Greitens is a Nomad, too. So was Whittaker Chambers. Same for Max Eastman and James Burnham.

I realized last night during a call with a friend (even if they don’t want me calling them my friend anymore) that I’ve failed to inform my readers about guys like Dos Passos, Chambers, Eastman, and Burnham. These guys were commies back in the 30s (some into the 40s), but they ended up writing for or editing The National Review–ya know, Bill Buckley’s conservative magazine.

I realize that some of my latter-day conservative friends no longer consider Buckley a conservative. Some consider National Review a “squish” rag. But back in 1954, Buckley was about the only game in town. I wasn’t around then, but I’ve read a fair amount about the times, and Buckley was the Ted Cruz of his day. Heck, Buckley probably spoke more Spanish than Cruz–English was Buckley’s second language. (He taught Spanish at Yale as an undergrad.) Buckley was the guy who said “I’d rather be ruled by the first 500 people in the Boston telephone book than by the faculty of Harvard College,” or something like that. Buckley got what we’re about. And he paved the road we drive on.

What Buckley understood better than many modern day conservatives is the value of converts. He hired them.

Hug a Convert Today

Converts give legitimacy and street cred to our movement. They infuse the right with vigor and energy. After a time, after they’ve learned the formulaic prayers, they keep us true to our cause. Lex orandi lex credendi.

Converts keep us our eyes on the prize. They’re not weighted down with theory. They know the theory is just a path to the prize.

Our prize is a prosperous and peaceful nation where people are free to pursue their dreams and enjoy the rewards or suffer the consequences of their choices. We know that people left to their own devices will live better lives than people dependent on others for their keep.

Sometimes cradle conservatives (like me) forget those ends. We’re so well schooled in the theory that we think the theory is the objective. It’s not. The theory is nonsense compared to the end. The only time we need to worry about theory is when people forget the end–not when they forget the theory.

Converts remind us that the theory is important, but it’s not a goal. The goal is free, educated people who own their own lives.

Some of my friends seem not to like converts. 

Maybe converts present a threat to them. Maybe my cradle conservative friends are famous for the intention of their theory and don’t want to be measured by their results. That’s human nature.

But we need converts. Mostly because conversion never stops. People who start moving left to right or right to left tend to keep moving. Here are two examples:

David Horowitz really converted from Marxism to conservatism in 1974 when the Black Panthers allegedly murdered his friend Betty. But he didn’t recognize his conversion for some time. And, at first, he was just a sort of middle-of-the-road, disaffected liberal. But he kept moving right and ended up one of the most militant anti-leftists alive. (Read his book Radical Son for more.)

John Dos Passos started questioning his communist leanings in 1934, but in 1936 he still went to Spain working for the Comintern (Soviet spy ministry) to make a propaganda film for the Spanish communists. It was there that his friend José Robles was murdered by the communist party for not being communist enough. Dos Passos told his friend Ernest Hemingway, “The question I keep putting to myself is what’s the use of fighting a war for civil liberties, if you destroy civil liberties in the process?” Hemingway shoots back, “Civil liberties, shit. Are you with us or are you against us?” At that point, Dos Passos knew he was no longer a fellow-traveller, but he wasn’t sure what he was. By the 1950s, he was editing National Review for William F. Buckley.

Which Brings Us to Eric Greitens

As far as I know, the leftists in Greitens’ life didn’t assassinate a friend of his. So his break is less dramatic and harder to pinpoint, like Reagan’s. (Does anyone know when exactly Reagan became a conservative?) Without that moment-in-time experience, people have difficulty knowing when they left the left (or the right). Their roads to Damascus have no sign that reads “you are leaving your old ideology.”

Asking Eric Greitens “when did you become a conservative” is like asking a child “when did you become a virgin?”

The question is not a quest for truth, but an accusation. And it’s an accusation that keeps conservatism mired in the bogs of political margins. It’s a question asked by people who fear the truth more than they seek it.

Embrace the converts or die as a movement. It’s as simple as that.

  • Bill, this article got a little heavy for me in places, but the “Embrace the converts or die as a movement.” came through loud and clear. You hit the proverbial nail on the head!