Are liberals any fun?

I’ve often thought that conservatives seem to have a lot more fun than liberals. In my first semester at college, in a class called “The Press and Society,” we watched Manufacturing Consent (1) (we also watched This Is What Democracy Looks Like, Outfoxed, and Control Room — in retrospect, I feel sorry for the freshman Bush supporter who once loudly vented her frustration at our professor mid-lecture). The documentary included an old clip of him sparring with William F. Buckley over U.S. foreign policy. Even though I probably agreed more with Chomsky than Buckley, I couldn’t help but sympathize more with Buckley, whose playful detachment from the argument seemed much more attractive to me than Chomsky’s drip-dry seriousness. It planted a suspicion in my mind that I’ve had trouble shooing away: Is it more fun to be conservative than liberal?

Watching the clip now, I think I was right. For some reason, liberals and leftists rarely come off as fun. The 40s/50s era FDR/Truman liberals tended to be horn-rimmed eggheads (Adlai Stevenson, Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger). As for the ’60s-era leftists, they’re either insufferable flakes (Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey) or humorless Maoists (the New Left, the SDS crowd, that annoying roommate of yours). So, with a few borderline exceptions (Gore Vidal, who’s more of an Old Right conservative; Hunter Thompson, more or less a left-leaning libertarian), I can’t think of any notable liberals or leftists I’d like to hang out with. (Obviously I don’t include neoconservatives — I can think of few people I’d enjoy hanging out with less than Norman Podhoretz.) Whereas conservatives, from Buckley to Evelyn Waugh, almost always seem to be having a good time.

As Dinesh D’Souza put it, in a passage he seems to have recycled over several books and articles:

I remember some of those early dinners at the (Jeffrey) Hart farmhouse. We drank South American wine and listened to recordings of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, of Robert Frost reading his poems, and Nixon speeches, of comedian Rich Little doing his Nixon imitation, George C. Scott delivering the opening speech in Patton, some of Winston Churchill’s orations, and the music from the BBC version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. There was an ethos here, and a sensibility, and it conveyed to me something about conservatism that I had never suspected. Here was conservatism that was alive; that was engaged with art, music, and literature; that was at the same time ironic, lighthearted, and fun.

And why shouldn’t they have fun? They’ve got a fully formed way of looking at the world, and one that they more or less agree on. Liberals, meanwhile, have no single intellectual history to look back on, make careers out of disagreeing on trivia and minutia, and feel it’s their duty to avoid offending anyone except conservatives. No wonder they’re so uptight.

Of course, I’m not a conservative. My heroes are republican eccentrics with bad hair (Abraham Lincoln, Robert La Follette, Eugene McCarthy, Ralph Nader). All of them tend to irritate liberals (who think Lincoln a gutless moderate, prefer the first Roosevelt to La Follette, prefer Bobby Kennedy to McCarthy, and think Nader gave us Bush). But I imagine they’d be more interesting to hang out with.

1. I can’t resist noting that there is, in fact, another Noam Chomsky documentary that is billed as, I’m not kidding, “the best Noam Chomsky documentary since Manufacturing Consent.” Clearly, a new genre to be ranked with the “Police Academy” sequel and the Elvis movie.

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