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Radical Son

In the autumn after my mother died, I visited the cemetery where I had buried her alongside my father in the Long Island earth. The soil on her grave was grown with grass and had begun to be almost indistinguishable from his, joining them again, a couple in death as they were in life. Picking some pebbles from the path beneath me, I placed them on their headstones, tokens of remembrance, according to the Jewish custom. My mother’s bore the inscription “Always,” a song which had become her favorite in her last years in California, and which symbolized to me the steadfastness with which she had stood behind her family and especially myself. My father’s, which I had put up five years earlier, was already beginning to weather. I had directed the mason to inscribe it with the words “Life Is Struggle,” a favorite quote from his mentor, Karl Marx. It was a struggle he had lost long before we finally laid him to rest.

This return to origins, if only symbolic, was a way of measuring the distance I had come. It often seemed as far as the poles themselves. By the time I was a parent myself, my own parents were already strangers, so remote in experience that I hardly looked to them for counsel. And yet, at times, it had not seemed that far at all. There was not a moment in my adult life—not even now that they had been returned to their primordial dust—that they failed to assume in my imagination the aspect of fifty years before, when I felt they could see through me as though I were glass and provide all the comfort I needed. It seemed to me a metaphor for life itself, which sets us free only to bring us relentlessly back to earth.

Feeling my parents’ presence again, I tried to imagine myself as I had appeared to them when they were alive. But, try as I might, I could not put myself in their place. I could not imagine how they saw me, how they felt the personal agonies I endured, or how they understood the metamorphosis I underwent: the murder that had changed my life in midcourse; the breakup of the family I had loved so intensely and worked so hard to create; the pilgrimage I had made from the snug progressive ghettos they inhabited all their lives to an America they barely knew and ultimately rejected.

I thought about the way I had become a stranger to them politically, joining the other side in a cold war against a faith they had embraced as humanity’s best hope. I was like Whittaker Chambers in their generation—a young man inspired by the high-minded passions of the Left who had broken through to the dark underside of the radical cause. Like Chambers, I had encounters with totalitarian forces that involved betrayal and death, and even a Soviet spy. Like him, I had been demonized for my second thoughts by a culture sympathetic to the Left and hostile to its adversaries. I, too, had to face the savage personal attacks by my former comrades that were designed to warn others to remain within the fold.

Like Chambers, I had become the most hated ex-radical of my generation. And like him, I had discovered that the enemies against whom I once battled so furiously were more fantastic than real. I also discovered that I was not alone. Second thoughts turned out to be a natural process that others, less publicly visible than myself, had also pursued. Eccentric as my life seemed— at times even to me—it was not isolated, but more like a piece of the epoch itself.

As a result of my experience, I have often thought of how different a life looks from the outside in. Of the name that identifies me but describes someone else; the external details that convey little of who I am, yet represent me. The problem is not unique to myself, but the serpentines of my life have made its progress unusually difficult for others to follow. Even allies who applaud the present acts of my public self often reserve suspicions of the private man whose experience they do not share and whose intentions they do not fully trust. As for the comrades I have left behind, who are still at odds with what I have become, it is as though I have ceased to exist. To them I can never be someone who felt what they felt, dreamed what they dreamed, suffered, and learned through pain. Seeing me as one of them would pose questions too humbling to face: What second thoughts might they have had too? What illusions would they have to give up now? Instead, they prefer the easier path of denial, and revile me as a symbol of one who left them. Worse still, of someone they fear to become.

I am now as prominent on the conservative side of the ideological divide as I once was in the ranks of the Left. But the conservatives I have joined are unlike the enemies I once imagined. The name itself does not begin to identify who they are. Or who I am. The collapse of Communism and the progressive future reveals how the moral language of politics has been hijacked by radicals. The fallen angels of the progressive left—Marxist and socialist—have been exposed as the reactionary ghosts of an oppressive past. It is the ideological adversaries of the Left who float on the wave of a future that is free.

Among my new comrades-in-arms, many began with second thoughts, having started out as Sixties radicals like myself. Indeed, in the last few years, the nation as a whole has begun to draw back from the radical decade and its destructive agendas. What I had learned, one way or another in the course of my journey, other Americans seem to have learned as well. Irving Kristol, who had second thoughts before me, has observed that every generation faces a barbarian threat in its own children, who need to be civilized. This is the perennial challenge: to teach our young the conditions of being human, of managing life’s tasks in a world that is (and must remain) forever imperfect. The refusal to come to terms with this reality is the heart of the radical impulse and accounts for its destructiveness, and thus for much of the bloody history of our age. My own life, which has often been painful and many times off course, is ultimately not discrete—a story to itself—but part of the narrative we all share.

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