The Libertine Right

Has September 11 made right wingers defenders of decadence?

For connoiseurs of ideological fratricide, the last nine weeks of rhetorical infighting between the pro-war and anti-war Left has been particularly delicious.

First, Christopher Hitchens growled that "it no longer matters" what his old chum Noam Chomsky now thinks. Then, former Students for a Democratic Society president and tenured radical Todd Gitlin skewered Palestinian scholar Edward Said as a "soft anti-American," while Seattle Coalition devotee Marc Cooper of The Nation called his anti-globalization flock "morally repugnant."

From somewhere near the political center, Andrew Sullivan kept merciless score of the "sensible" liberals vs. their "appeasement" counterparts, while Atlantic editor and Washington Post columnist Michael Kelley hailed the whole ruckus as the "rebuilding of a responsible left."

All fine and good, but what about the right? If the left has rediscovered the virtues of blue-collar courage, military backbone, and American exceptionalism, surely the right has experienced some self-revelations since September 11.

The first and most obvious tenet to be almost completely ejected from what might be called the right-wing mainstream was Buchananite isolationism, on the practical grounds that it's hard to hunt down terrorist cells in 60 countries while disengaging militarily from the world. United Nations back dues, long hostage to cranky congressional unilateralists, were quietly released on September 24. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) is retiring, and it seems unlikely whoever represents the Republicans in his stead will share his minimalist foreign policy views.

Another much-noticed shift is Americans' new trust in federal power, which, as David Brooks pointed out in a recent Weekly Standard cover story, makes small-government activists queasy. "The greatest political effect of this period of conflict will probably be to relegitimize central institutions," Brooks wrote.

Outside the Beltway, a more interesting question will be how September 11 affects social conservatives. Confronted by religious fundamentalism at its most murderous extreme, even many god-fearing right-wingers no longer seem to have the stomach for the harsher battles of the Culture War, and are doing unto Pat Robertson what Hitchens did unto Chomsky.

When the Rev. Jerry Falwell blamed September 11 on the American Civil Liberties Union, feminists, gays and "abortionists," some of the sternest rebukes came from conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly. When Anthony LoBaido suggested on WorldNetDaily that perhaps New York really was the "head of the 'Great Satan,'" The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto condemned the column as an "obscene anti-American screed."

"The attacks exposed the bright line dividing morality and evil for all to see, and the faults of American social liberals many of us on the Right criticized for so long seem utterly immaterial to that divide," wrote Republican campaign operative Patrick Ruffini on his Web site. "The fact that the Taliban stone homosexuals should only make us more ardent in their defense at home and abroad."

Right-wing attitudes toward gays clearly experienced a significant shift after the September 11 deaths of gay firefighter Fr. Mychal Judge, and Flight 93 hero Mark Bingham. Patrick Phillips, an ex-GI and self-described member of the "Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy," says these events changed his mind about allowing gays to serve openly in the military. "If Mark Bingham (a gay Republican, I might note) could step up and help make sure that Flight 93 didn't smash into anything more populated than a farm field -- well, it's time to admit that I was wrong," Phillips said in a post to my own Web site.

Moira Breen, a 43-year-old Republican who publishes a weblog called Inappropriate Response, says the last few weeks have shown her the dangers of allowing a strict public morality to dampen the pursuit of happiness. "Any society that doesn't respect the creativity and the energy -- and the longing for a hot time on the town -- of youth will become a monstrosity," Breen told me. "We're criticized for entertaining ourselves into catatonia, and we should take that criticism to heart, but fun matters."

Not only does fun matter, but decadence is making a comeback as a weapon in the arsenal of armchair warriors. As Salman Rushdie noted in the Washington Post, bin Laden's boys "are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women's rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex."

Rushdie, of course, is a man of the left. But Patrick Ruffini sums up a similar right-wing sentiment: "September 11 has caused many liberals to shift rightward. What has it done to the Right? If anything, we've become more liberal....In the last few days, I have talked about free-spirited licentiousness as one way to seduce the Muslim world, endorsed the global-mindedness most often exhibited by the urbane NPR set, and marveled that reaction from liberal communities hasn't been worse."

That last point may be the most revolutionary development of all. Long after the brief "national unity" has given way to the usual political squabbling, newly warmongering liberals and libertine conservatives may remember how much sensible common ground they found after September 11. It will be harder than ever to demonize one-half of the electorate, and surprising new coalitions may be possible.

To what end? Already, right and left are joining together to condemn the terrorist-producing regime in Saudi Arabia. Attorney General John Ashcroft is taking heat from both sides for expending precious energy preventing assisted suicide in Oregon.

Which isn't to say that the hand-holding will last forever--or even all that much longer. As David Brooks noted, President Bush "would not even think of raising divisive social issues" right now. Yet whatever military action is taken next promises to inflame public opinion more than Afghanistan has. Left and right--and their proxy parties, the Democrats and the Republicans--still have different basic philosophies about governance.

Like the attacks on the Taliban, the right-left rapprochement has gotten off to a fast start. But, like war itself, it's far too early to predict how it might turn out in the end.

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