Slouching Toward Phoenix

Conservatives gather at a swank, sunny resort to remind themselves how terrible the world is. The occasion is Dark Ages II, and it deserves the name.


Talk about odd fusions. You'll find none more implausible than the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, a resort hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s. Somehow, the famous architect and his acolytes got it into their heads to combine outsized art deco with a brush of native Southwest. They pulled it off, too. The Biltmore was an immediate success. Hollywood stars like Clark Gable swarmed to it during the winter months. After 60 years, the Biltmore still works and delights the senses.

Over New Year's weekend I flew to Phoenix to see if another odd fusion might work: the fusion of libertarians with social conservatives into a coherent coalition. The setting was the Dark Ages II conference at the Biltmore. You may have heard of Dark Ages. It was hatched last year at a Miami resort. The name itself is a witty rejoinder: The founders wanted something fun and clever to upstage that mewling sob-fest called the Renaissance Weekend, held to polite applause every New Year's weekend in Hilton Head, South Carolina, starring the Clintons and a thousand other Third Way bubbleheads. Dark Ages, by contrast, promised cigars, strong drink, Robert Bork, and lots of warm Phoenix weather. Who could resist?

Saturday, December 28. Opening night. The reception crowd in the Biltmore's Gold Room seems thin, well short of the 350 people the Dark Ages organizers had touted. But why quarrel? It's early, and enough starboard ballast is on hand already. I spot The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, and, yes, he's talking to that old '60s pink, now reformed, David Horowitz. Dark Ages cofounder Laura Ingraham takes the microphone to welcome us. Ingraham is a spectacle. On MSNBC, she stars as the right-wing chick, a blonder and hipper version of the species' alpha gal, Mary Matalin. (Somewhere, liberal television producers are sniggering in their Chardonnay about this strange creature they've created, the right-wing chick.) Ingraham is striking, loud, commanding–and funny. Welcoming the attendees, she deadpans a few howlers on Ebonics, AK-47s, and Bill Clinton's penis. The crowd enjoys it, and Dark Ages II is off to a good rowdy start.

Next morning, Sunday, begins with a plenary session called "Should Government Care About Culture?," moderated by Arianna Huffington. Huffington is in fine heft. She looks less exotic than before, less chic, a little doughier, more like a headmistress. Her once red plume of hair has been bobbed short for TV.

First on the panel is Grover Norquist, who gives his usual speech about defunding the left. I've always liked Grover's straightforward pitch. Cut a government program, any program, and, QED, you will slap the left harder than the right. Burly and bearded with 1980s-style owl glasses, Grover is possessed with a nerd's intensity and certitude. Alone, Grover predicted the Republican landslide of 1994. (See "Happy Warrior," February.)

Christina Hoff Sommers, author of Who Stole Feminism?, is up next. The academic left, Sommers says, is conducting a war on science and logic. Bad enough that this 200-year- old Rousseavian tree is rotted, dropping its branches on Western Civ curriculums like firebombs. Worse, it has ruined a generation, turning out chowderheads unfit for real jobs. The chowderheads turn to government. Which now means that the government, and its amen corner in the taxpayer-sponsored arts and media, teems with young dodo-brains overtly hostile to science and technology, reason and logic. These are evil things, tools of enslavement. The consequences? Exhibits funded to teach fifth graders about technology are turned into hand-wringers about Three Mile Island and the Challenger disaster.

Sommers appears a sweet soul. Though a professor, she has the look of a psychologist you'd confess deep things to. As she reports these anti-rational fevers and lunacies to the Dark Ages audience, she looks sorrowful.

She is followed by the Family Research Council's Gary Bauer. Like many conservative-libertarians, I am truly conflicted about Gary Bauer. Many REASON readers will laugh at this, but I take Bauer (and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson) seriously and with respect. I've seen lots of phonies and poseurs in my time–some here at Dark Ages II–but Bauer is sincere. I'd trust him to raise my children.

But not to regulate the Internet. Unfortunately, right now, on the dais, Bauer is pumping hard for exactly that. Bauer's talk is gathering steam…"pornography"…"our children"…"only a few clicks away"…and, worse, the audience is sweating with him. The more Bauer squeaks, the more one feels Internet bloodlust rising up in the audience.

A woman from Oakland doesn't like Bauer's trajectory any more than I do. But, free of my inhibitions (e.g., cowardice), she grabs the audience mike and explains that, as a mother and conservative, she is satisfied to let capitalism protect her kids with filters, agents, blocking software, fair market pricing of bits, and the like. No need for censorship. Let the market work. The Oakland woman is cheered–by me and about three others.

Bauer shoots back something about the insufficiency of markets. After all, capitalism gave us rap video, porn. Capitalism can't police itself. He is cheered by the other 300. Internet bloodlust! Soaring on the audience's approval, Bauer cranks it up. The conservative vision…will fail!…if it leaves behind social conservatives. You analyze the votes of every conservative win. Look who got you there. Reagan Democrats. Social conservatives. Forget them at your peril.

After brunch, I take a walk to clear my head. I really must work on my pro-market arguments. I change clothes and hike from the Biltmore along a canal past the old Wrigley mansion, and then toward Squaw Peak. Tonight will be a debate between The American Spectator's executive editor, Wlady Pleszczynski, and David Horowitz. At issue: "Is the Left Winning the War–Or Is It in Retreat?"

I have no doubt that conservatives–at least conservative-libertarians–are winning, and big. For all the steam over Ebonics, this sad little sideshow is dwarfed by how fast the Internet is propagating the English language worldwide. If you like Western Civilization and the American Way of Life, you have to love that. I do. Even liberal CNN assures me the Berlin Wall is still down, and nowadays global capital markets are forcing every country, state, and city into a keen competition for capital and smart people.

That's hugely good news. Capitalism is spreading like wildfire. And capitalism is inherently moral. It celebrates diversity, not of color or gender, but of something far deeper: individual talents and tastes. It asks people to work hard, show discipline, practice thrift, and serve their fellows. Capitalism gives more than it takes. It encourages the winners to reinvest, thus spreading their wealth in the most deserving fashion. How is that not good? How is capitalism's riotous spread worldwide not a clear sign of winning?

Squaw Peak is a deceptively hard climb. The trail soon becomes a series of never-ending tall steps carved into rock. The 70-degree weather suddenly feels hotter than that, and I have forgotten to bring a water bottle. But I like an honest sweat. Reaching the top, 2,850 feet, is not easy, but of course that is precisely why it feels so good. Honest effort, tangible reward. You can't lobby or carp your way to the top. Nobody lets you start halfway up. Maybe that's why competitive athletes tend to be libertarians and conservatives.

Back at the bottom, the air is smoggier. Pollster Frank Luntz walks onstage to kick off the Wlady vs. Horowitz debate. With the 1996 election receding into memory, Luntz has let his beard grow wild and his stomach flop over his belt. He looks like a lumberjack in search of a pancake and sausage house. Luntz introduces the debaters and announces the rules: Oxford style, during which anyone in the audience can interrupt at any time.

Horowitz begins. Horowitz, most people know, is one of the 1960s left's biggest defections. During his tenure as editor of Ramparts magazine, members of the Black Panthers in Oakland murdered his former secretary. Horowitz was outraged–first by the murder, second by the spectacle of his colleagues on the left defending the Panthers against all evidence. Today Horowitz lives in Los Angeles, in the belly of the Hollywood-liberal beast, where he runs something called The Center for the Study of Popular Culture, publishes books and pamphlets, and otherwise torments his old friends. He is a gifted polemicist and a stylish writer. At the podium he looks confident. His eyes twinkle.

His talk does not twinkle, however. To Horowitz, it's a war out there, a jihad, one in which we conservatives are outclassed, outmanned, and losing in a landslide. The left controls the media. Colleges. Public schools. The judiciary. Every day, the left gets out of bed with visions of liquidating the right. Yes, kill. Forget your sweet reason, your high-minded principles, your conservative think tanks, your clever little opinion journals. You think this is a debate. The left knows in its gut this is war. I know. I was one of them. They are killing us. We are losing.

Poor Wlady doesn't have a chance. For as cocky and bombastic as Wlady can be in print, up on the stage he is quiet and reasoned. His English gets thrown by his Polish vowels. Wlady calmly says that, as a son of Eastern Europeans, he damn well knows what losing is all about. Here in America, it isn't war–just a free people having a debate. It's of a different scale. Sure, the left may score the odd little pipsqueak cultural win here and there, but it is no big deal, David… "No beg dill….Ruh-lex, Devid. Vee ar-r-r vinning. The Bearleen Voll ded foll. Freddom iss vinning efferyvhere. You descradut ar-r-r genns by zo vildly izzaggerating."

Horowitz tears him apart. The audience cheers him while hissing at Wlady–poor Wlady–Wlady the Impaled. Freedom and capitalism can't protect us from Hollywood, from vile rappers, dope pushers, pedophiles, porn pimps, bestiality…on the Net…snuff videos!…our children!…only a few clicks away! The crowd loves it. The Biltmore Grand Ballroom is rocking! Internet bloodlust! At that point, a man with aviator glasses, sensing the flood tide, exercises his Oxford rules right and stands up and says, no, Mr. Horowitz, freedom is winning. You want evidence? California just voted against affirmative action, against higher income taxes, and for legal medical prescriptions of marijuana. That does it. Gary Bauer immediately stands up and shouts: "If you are for marijuana, you are at the wrong conference!" Many cheers. The man with the aviator glasses yells back: "That's freedom, whether you like it or not!" Bauer stands on his toes and cups his hands like a megaphone: "That's not freedom. That's anarchy!"

Now the air is really charged! A man in a wild polyester electric-blue sports jacket leaps to the mike. He announces himself as Chuck Boom, a comedian, and host of The New Gong Show. He tells the Dark Ages crowd that doing comedy in small clubs has opened his eyes. People out there in the hustings really like those Democrats-suck jokes. That must tell us something. Ordinary folk. Reagan Democrats. Laughing their heads off at health care jokes, slayed by all those NAFTA screamers….rolling on the floor! Heed the message! The audience applauds and Chuck sits down.

Seeing an opening, G. Gordon Liddy–no less!–stands up and says, "You can't kill ideas. But you can sure shoot the people who hold them."

A lady about 85 shuffles to the mike and says we are losing. Period. But we can win the war if we just shut up and get to work.

Next up is an older man with a stupendous comb-over hairstyle. Big bushy gray hair, brushed out flat with barbed wire and tire irons. Long frizzy ropes yanked from below his ear, rappelled up the side and thrown across the top, then lacquered down. A Las Vegas pompadour. Homosexuals are the problem, he bawls out. In the schools. On TV. Boy Scouts. Everywhere. Pushing their homosexual agenda. Oddly enough, the bad-hair Demosthenes is standing next to The American Spectator's scandal monger, David Brock, who is openly gay. Wearing jeans and black shoes, Brock sits with arms folded, looking bemused.

By now a Dark Ages Gresham's Law has kicked in, and every conservative kvetcher at the mike is pushed out by another one more feverish. This goes on for about five minutes, until even Luntz, who has listened to them all during his career as a professional pollster, can't stand it any more. He looks at his watch. He informs the crowd that The Great Dark Ages II Oxford Style Debate must come to a close.

Luntz lets Arianna Huffington have the final word before we get to vote on the resolution: on whether conservatives are winning or losing the cultural wars. Huffington signals her support for Horowitz. American culture is going to hell. Liberals are to blame. And wimp conservatives too afraid to speak out don't help. But a darker force is at work, too, says Huffington, and we must admit this and deal with it. Its name is Narcissism. It is eating away at our souls. Americans are selfish and they spend the whole day thinking about-themselves.

Arianna Huffington on Narcissism. You couldn't have scripted a better ending than that. Now Luntz asks for a vote. All those who think conservatives have won the war, stand up. I stand up. I glance around the Biltmore Grand Ballroom. I am the only one standing! Luntz rephrases his questions. "I don't mean won, you know, like it's final or anything. Just winning more than we are losing. If you think that, stand up." Assured by Luntz's qualifiers, about 50 more stand up, including my wife. Two hundred and fifty stay grimly put.

I wish I could tell you who else stood up–did Bill Kristol stand up? Laura Ingraham? Clint Bolick? I know Bauer and Huffington were glued to their seats. But, alas, I couldn't bear to turn around and see. All I could think of was fleeing the room.

The next day. Many heavy sessions over in the Grand Ballroom. But my wife and I decide to skip them and sleep in. I take another walk to Squaw Peak. It is a glorious day, and the climb seems easier. Families are out, and a little girl no older than 5 manages to make it to the top, her daddy beaming with pride.

Back at the Biltmore, I shower and venture down to the concierge and buy a pair of tickets to that night's Phoenix Suns basketball game. And what a fine game it is. Though the Suns started the year 0-13, star guard Kevin Johnson has returned and the team is on a 10-6 roll. America West arena is packed and rocking with 18,000 loyal Sun fans. What an arena, what an unabashed cathedral of commercialism! I count 62 food stands, 46 luxury boxes, and about 40 electronic billboards ringing the stadium, pumping out the ad copy and the adrenaline, pushing everything from Dodge trucks to Sedona getaways to Burger King Whoppers.

Animal spirits are high at the America West arena. The Suns have turned the corner and, just yesterday, made a major trade to acquire Jason Kidd to someday replace the aging Kevin Johnson, who, at 32, still puts on a heroic show every time he touches the ball, a 6-foot-2-inch skinny man unafraid to drive to the basket past men a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier. Now there is an optimist, a faith-based supply-sider if I ever saw one. The Suns beat the Kings by 12. I haven't enjoyed a ball game so much in years.

The next day, the clouds are out, and the temperature is back in the 60s. Still, I calculate it is brighter outside compared to the dark clouds emanating from the Biltmore Grand Ballroom. Again, I skip a Dark Ages session called "V-chips, Boycotts and the Media: Rethinking Censorship," and hike up to Squaw Peak. Each time it gets easier–the good old learning curve has kicked in, that wonderful phenomenon that smiles on your efforts and saves your hide time and again, whether in peak climbing, or commerce, or so many other things. Back in the room, I turn on the TV and tune to the Sun Bowl. I know I'm skipping yet another Dark Ages session, and even feel a twinge of guilt about it. Then I see something that astonishes me. My alma mater, Stanford, is kicking the bejesus out of Michigan State, 38 to 0. What joy!

My wife walks in, excited from a shopping spree. "Who's winning?" she asks. I smile broadly: "We are, in a rout."

Rich Karlgaard ( is editor of Forbes ASAP.