"Live" with TAE
Michael Medved was voted "most radical" in his Los Angeles high school class, then graduated from Yale and attended Yale Law School, where he knew Bill and Hillary Clinton. He was an anti-war protester and backer of Eugene McCarthy, after which he worked for Robert Kennedy's Presidential campaign. He was at the Ambassador Hotel when Kennedy was shot. Medved also took part in George McGovern's 1972 Presidential run, and while living in Berkeley, California worked briefly for the re-election of Congressman Ron Dellums, described as the "angriest black radical in Congress." Medved eventually became a film critic, and for 12 years co-hosted the popular PBS movie review show "Sneak Previews."
Along the line, Medved's politics--and life--began to change in dramatic ways. His latest book, Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons from a Controversial Life, just published, chronicles the events that transformed his worldview.
By the 1990s, Medved was a prominent conservative thinker and polemicist. Since 1996, he has hosted one of the nation's most influential radio programs: "The Michael Medved Show," nationally syndicated out of Seattle to a daily audience of more than 1.8 million people.
Michael Medved was interviewed for TAE by contributing writer David Isaac.
TAE: What made you write this very personal account of your political and spiritual odyssey?
MEDVED: One reason is because there's been this huge focus recently on so-called neocons. For a lot of people, "neocons" is basically a put-down way of saying Jewish conservatives. I myself am a Jewish conservative, but I don't consider myself a neocon. So I thought it was worth writing something for those of us, both Jewish and Christian, who might more accurately be described as theocons.
TAE: How do you define theocon?
MEDVED: As a conservative whose outlook has largely been shaped by religious commit-ment. One of the things that most irreligious or nonreligious Americans don't recognize sufficiently is that a huge theme of American religiosity, both Christian and Jewish, is that the individual goes through a rebirth, a recommitment, a return. That kind of transforming religious exper-ience is usually asso-ciated with a more conservative political outlook.
The President of the United States would be a prominent example of what we're talking about. I think that the clear basis for President Bush being more conservative than his father, and vastly more conservative than his grandfather Prescott Bush, is his extremely vital personal religious faith, which he says had a transforming impact on his life.
This is one of many things that the secularists don't get--the President's "I once was lost, but now I'm found. I once was blind, but now I see." This is the core story of American Christianity, the story of being born again, of having a new life, of coming home, of the prodigal son.
In other words, one of the things they'd throw at President Bush is that he was a frat boy, he drank too much, he was a playboy. Well, yes--he says so. And he went through a change. And part of what I'm hoping to do in my book is to talk about the fact that we have a parallel tradition on the Jewish side of things. Resh Lakish was a former thief and a lowlife who became one of the great rabbis of the Talmud. An amazing number of scholars and figures in the Torah are people who are converts to Judaism, who had no religious commitment at all, who turned their lives around.
TAE: Why is there a more open acknowledgment of religion in America today compared to when you were growing up?
MEDVED: The media are learning to their surprise today that this is a religious country. But I write in my book about discovering back in the 1980s--discovering with great joy and enormous encouragement and happiness--the thriving Christian counterculture. I've written about it a great deal. This counterculture is not a handful of people living very different lives. It really does represent the American majority in most states in the Union. There is a whole world out there of megachurches and Christian colleges and community Bible study groups and Christian childcare centers and charitable organizations and missionary activities. The people that inhabit that world are not the cartoon Christians you'll often see in movies who are missing teeth and drooling and chewing tobacco. They're not, as the Washington Post once said, "poor, uneducated, and easily led." Even in the most "enlightened" states, like Minnesota and Vermont, there is a flourishing presence of very traditional believers.
TAE: Is this return to religion a reaction to trends in mainstream culture?
MEDVED: Yes, it's a simple reaction, as it was for me, to the fact that the secular culture does not work. When my wife, who is a psychologist, wrote her book, The Case Against Divorce, she noted that in their personal lives nearly all Americans want to be conservative. It's abso-lutely true. Nobody wants to have a succession of marriages. Nobody wants to have kids who are exploring different psychedelic experiences or unusual forms of sexuality. No one wants to live on public assistance. Even people who are passionately committed to liberal ideas in public want to live as conservatives in private.
Milton Himmelfarb once said that typical Jews "are people who earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans." But none of those Jewish parents who vote like Puerto Ricans want their children to grow up like members of the underclass. One of my "aha" moments in my 20s was recognizing that all the things I wanted in my life--stability, love, community, friendship, sense of purpose--all of those things were vastly more accessible within a religious context.
TAE: Why has religion been such an important part of the current post-election discussion?
MEDVED: I think what brought it to the fore was a need for Democrats to excuse their defeat. It's easier for liberals to say that the country agrees with them on substantive issues, like foreign policy, Social Security, and so forth, and that it's only because the Republicans are able to manipulate the religion issue that people are fooled into voting for them. That's much less painful, if you're on the left, than admitting the country rejects me and everything I stand for because, basically, my ideas have helped screw up the country.
TAE: Is America becoming more religious?
MEDVED: We're leaning toward more open acknowledgment of the nation's religiosity. I don't think we ever went through a period in American history where the masses of Americans rejected, or were indifferent to, religious faith. What we did go through in the 1960s and '70s was the revolt of the elites. Traditionally, elites defined duty, honor, good behavior, and the like for the rest of the population. Today that has been reversed. Today if you're seeking strong concepts of duty, honor, discipline, and the kind of character that makes you a military leader, for instance, you're more likely to find that in a family named Gonzalez than a family called Winthrop.
This is one of the things my book is about. When I went away to Yale, having never visited the campus, I was 16 years old and starry-eyed about becoming part of this Puritan establishment. It was a personal dream of mine and I expected the place to demand high things of me. I wanted to learn the rules. The actual Yale I arrived at was very different. It was in the midst of abandoning all rules and all traditions.
One of the many reasons my daughter wouldn't even consider Yale was its forced reality of co-ed bathrooms. The good news is you can now send your daughter to Yale. The bad news is: not unless you want her to abandon all standards of modesty and self-restraint and dignity.
TAE: You met both Bill Clinton and John Kerry while you were at Yale. You disliked both. On the other hand you found Hillary Rodham a genuinely warm and sincere person. Has their later behavior confirmed or challenged what you saw then?
MEDVED: I thought at the time that Kerry was simply too pompous to go as far as he has. Usually politicians who are successful are people with some kind of spontaneous likeability. I had close contact with John Kerry, and his likeability factor is nonexistent.
I think Hillary will be more of a challenge in 2008 than a lot of conservatives think. She's really worked hard in the Senate. She's definitely moved to the center. And her voting record on military things is now conservative. If she's able to allow her native niceness to come out, she will be a formidable candidate.
TAE: A substantial number of once-radical baby boomers have changed their politics as you did.
MEDVED: Arrogant young pukes (and I use the term advisedly) like me and my friends at Yale could easily experiment with drugs and free love and dodging the draft and living on food stamps--thank God I didn't go too far in these directions, but I was guilty--mainly because we had parents with resources. People in the privileged classes can sniff at bourgeois values and still turn out O.K. because they eventually grow up. Where the bad ideas of the '60s had much worse effects is when they were picked up by people who lacked some of the disciplined upbringing or family support systems that we spoiled college kids could fall back on; 1960s-style liberation particularly interfered with the historic progress that African Americans were making after World War II.
TAE: What experience had the greatest impact in shaping your political turn to the right?
MEDVED: My four years living in Berkeley, California, one of the hotbeds of left-wing enthusiasms. In his tribute to Yeats, Auden says that, "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry." For me, mad Berkeley hurt me into conservatism. At one point, for instance, my home was burglarized, and following the case through the local court system filled me with a blazing hatred for the liberal pieties of the public defender. I ended up working very closely with police officers, and found I liked what at the time were called "the pigs" a lot better than most of my professors.
TAE: Your political conversion took longer than your religious conversion. You write that "I re-fused to give up on thinking of myself as a liberal because I didn't want to stop seeing myself as a good person." How have liberals done such a good job of associating themselves with virtue?
MEDVED: By emphasizing good intentions while ignoring bad results. This is one of those things where Judaism actually fits better to conservatism than Christianity, because one of the teachings of Judaism is that performing the commandment counts more than your intentions. Judaism believes in changing the heart by changing your actions. Christianity tends to emphasize changing your actions by changing your heart. In this sense, serious Judaism sets you up very well to reject the liberal scam that we are wonderful and nice people not because we actually help anyone, but because we want to help.
TAE: You write that a major part of the appeal of '60s radicalism was sex.
MEDVED: I think the most seductive thing about radicalism in the late '60s was that it was a way to get sex. Often just a way to get good-looking women to go to bed with you. That was why demonstrations were popular. Demonstrations were just a great way to meet girls.
TAE: You also had some countervailing family influences.
MEDVED: Yes, like my Uncle Moish, who always spoke English with a thick accent. He was influential to me. Moish had this obsession with John Wayne and his best-selling recitation of patriotic songs called "America, Why I Love Her." During the time I was working in the McGovern campaign, Moish vehemently disapproved. He thought we were all commies. My brother and I would come home from the McGovern campaign and he would put on "America, Why I Love Her" as a right-wing protest. He played a constructive role in keeping us from getting too far off track.
Simple reality also kept me from straying too far. "Liberal" became a dirty word in America not because of Republican ad campaigns, but because anybody with eyes could eventually see that liberalism just doesn't work.
TAE: You have a chapter in your book titled "For the Most Part, Conservatives Are Both Nicer and Happier Than Liberals." Why do liberal ideas often connect to unhappiness?
MEDVED: Contemporary liberalism is based on the idea that the world is coming to an end. You can't embrace liberalism if you're optimistic about the world in which you live, or grateful, or cheerful. Liberalism today is based on gloom. This is not a gloomy or failing country.
Yet the Left believes we need to radically remake everything from our family structure to our economic system, because we're in the midst of a national epidemic of greed, and evil, and all-around badness. This whining has never been less appropriate for any people in the history of the planet than it is for Americans of the twentieth century.
TAE: Many Bush opponents had surprisingly emotional and apocalyptic views of this election. Why?
MEDVED: The main reason those people are so fearful of President Bush, who after all is a nice guy who clearly loves his country and is trying to do the right thing, is because of religion. Take John Ashcroft, who was not extreme as attorney general. People on the left hate Ashcroft less for substantive reasons than because he's religious, because he's written religious books, because he sings hymns.
The real energy among Bush haters has to do with the idea that Bush is some kind of "religious fanatic." The hatred for religion is quite visible in the Jewish community. There are a lot of Jewish people who just hate the Orthodox. I think part of it comes from a deep-seated fear that the religious folks might be right. For me, having staked my life on religious faith, if I'm wrong and it turns out I'm just a bunch of decomposing chemicals, big deal, I haven't lost anything. I still had a good life, probably a much better one because of my faith. But if someone on the secular left is wrong, then that's a very big problem.
TAE: Is the Left's anger today any different from the attitude of the McGovern supporters, with whom you were familiar, after his loss?
MEDVED: It is and I'll tell you why. Nixon was re-elected in a particularly crushing way, but Democrats maintained control of both Houses of Congress. There was a sense that the Supreme Court was liberal. There was a sense, certainly in the Senate, that the anti-war movement with Senators McGovern and Hatfield was gaining influence. I think what has produced a lot of today's hysteria is the idea of Republicans everywhere: the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court.
Also, Kerry wasn't really the choice of the Left. The Left is now saying, "We made a devil's bargain to support this guy rather than our favorite, Howard Dean, and we still lost." That's also part of why people are freaking out and saying they are going to move to Canada.
More power to them, by the way. I enjoy visiting Canada, but the idea of living there seems depressing to me for precisely the same reason that living in the United States feels exhilarating. I mean, if Canada ceased to exist tomorrow that would be very sad, and not a good thing for the 35 million Canadians. But for the rest of the world, it would be a shrug of the shoulders. If the U.S. ceased to exist tomorrow, it would be a guarantee of 1,000 years of darkness for all of humanity.
TAE: What are the chances that the Democratic Party will reach out sincerely to the values voters and cultural and religious conservatives that they have turned off?
MEDVED: The chances are nil. The race for the next Democratic nomination for President is going to be between Senator Clinton and either Howard Dean or Al Gore to her left. If through some manipulation, or splitting of the left wing of the party, a true moderate slipped in as the Democratic nominee, the Michael Moore wing of the party would break off. I don't see George Soros, Michael Moore, the Hollywood Left, and all the true believers they mobilized this time suddenly folding their tents and saying, "O.K., we're done."
In this last election, the Democrats sent out John Cameron Mitchell to campaign door-to-door in Ohio. Mitchell, who is known only to film buffs, did a movie a couple of years ago called Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a musical about a transsexual who has had an incomplete sex-change surgery. Honestly, the movie's about as disgusting as any you could ever see.
And the great American political party of Andrew Jackson relied on this cross-dresser to go door-to-door because he's a "celebrity." John Cameron Mitchell recently announced he's more energized than ever to go in 2008. That's bad news for Democrats. It's bad news for Democrats that Michael Moore is coming up with another movie. Democrats keep placating their wild, wild Left, and that will continue to cause them problems.
TAE: Bush gained some ground with the Jewish vote this election, but not much, despite his strong support for Israel. You note that Jewish and liberal identities "connect instinctively with each other," that to your mother "abandoning the Democratic Party compared to leaving your faith." Do you see any way this Jewish liberal reflex could be changed?
MEDVED: Yes, the best way to obliterate this mistake that Judaism equals liberalism is to teach Jewish people about real Judaism. One out of nine Jewish voters in this last election identified himself as Orthodox, and within that group Bush got 69 percent of the vote.
To build a stronger conservative bloc among voters of all stripes, we need two things. First of all, get everybody married. Bush won six out of ten votes among married people with children. One of the reasons Republicans have done so badly in the black community is family structure. Getting people married and helping people stay married is a great way to build the conservative movement. Second, encourage religious commitment. Among people who go to church regularly, 70 percent supported Bush. That same pattern is true in the Jewish community.
Real Judaism has two central thrusts: One is replicating in your life the values and practices that your grandparents honored. The other is taming human nature with law, emphasizing doing your duty rather than following your heart. Both of these will lead you to conservative conclusions, which is why Jewish liberals who try to remain religious have to go through all kinds of pretzel-like philosophical and ideological contortions.
TAE: Many Jews have what you call "an irrational paralyzing fear of Christianity." You argue that a more Christian America is actually good for the Jews. Why is that so, and why do Jews find this so hard to understand?
MEDVED: Most Jews find that hard to understand because they define Judaism simply as a rejection of the divinity claims of Jesus Christ. They've reduced our faith to the un-Cola. That didn't work for 7-Up, and it doesn't work for us.
Many young Jews are attracted to Buddhism and Hinduism, yet there is elevated Jewish fear toward missionary efforts from Christians. That's bizarre, because the uncomfortable truth that Jews don't want to hear is that Christians in this country have been welcoming and supportive of Jews. Why do Jews not want to hear that? Because it takes away their main claim of identity. If your main claim of identity is, "We're not this," then that thing you're not has to be viewed with contempt.
But when you look at the contributions of Christianity to humanity, to civilization, to art, to governance, why feel contempt? Here's the terrible irony: Most Jews are suspicious of Christians because they believe--erroneously today--that Christian theology demands anti-Semitic attitudes. It doesn't. Modern Christianity is philo-Semitic, it's nourishing of our faith.
And the biggest reason a more Christian America is good for the Jews is because a more Christian America is good for America. It makes America both better and stronger. And a healthy America is good for the Jews, who have thrived here as nowhere else.
But some Jews think if they accept the benevolence of Christianity they are left with no basis for their Jewish identity. If Christians are basically good guys, and there's nothing particularly honorable or necessary about saying we're not Christians, then you're left with an empty definition of Jewishness. This is why it's so important for Jews to go back to the source and learn a more positive view of their own Jewish life.
TAE: You defended Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. You took a lot of heat from other Jews for this.
MEDVED: The amount of wolf crying here is dangerous. There are real anti-Semites in this world, most of them Islamic at the moment. To identify people as anti-Semitic who are not, even when they go to elaborate efforts to avoid offending the Jewish community, is deeply irresponsible. I spoke with Mel Gibson again two days before the election, and he asked me, "Did any of the Jewish critics ever acknowledge that there were none of the anti-Semitic reactions to The Passion that they predicted?" Of course there was nothing. Nothing in the United States. Nothing in Europe. Nothing in Latin America. In Norway there was a neo-Nazi who said he was deeply stirred by the film--he confessed to the police that he had trashed a synagogue five years before, and wanted to apologize for it. Careful opinion surveys showed people had more positive attitudes toward the Jews after seeing the film than beforehand. This is one of those stories where's it's possible to look at the predictions, look at the results, and say, "O.K., one side was right. One side was wrong."
TAE: You say that a major reason Hollywood heavyweights attack religion in their films is because their peers consider doing so to be rebellious and somehow artistic.
MEDVED: Oh, absolutely. Religion is one of the few subjects on Earth everyone agrees is serious, and in Hollywood you will be taken more seriously by attacking religion than affirming it. Just as a tiny, contemporary example, compare the fawning responses of film critics to the new movie Kinsey--where the bisexual, pedophilic sex researcher is a courageous reaction against his hateful preacher father--to the critical attacks on The Passion.
TAE: Do you see any positive trends in Hollywood's portrayal of cultural issues?
MEDVED: Right now I think The Incredibles is a wonderful movie. I think it's terrific that Team America: World Police made fun of the Hollywood Left, even though I wish they had done so with less "F" and "S" words. Obviously I think that the success of The Passion is very encouraging. It demonstrates in a resounding way what I've been arguing for 20 years, which is the underserved presence of a huge religious audience.
The opposition to The Passion is not because the movie is anti-Jewish, which it's not; the opposition comes from the fact that the movie is pro-Christian. And the attitude of a lot of people in the entertainment industry is, "we're having so much fun, and the Christians want to close the party."
Indeed, very good read.
Good read. Thanks for that, I would have never pursued that on my own.
I liked that term, too.