Apostasy requires an audience, unlike just quietly changing your mind in the privacy of your own home. Apostates are publicity hounds and drama queens: It’s the nature of the breed. Take political apostates—what a showy bunch. Those strenuous public pirouettes and precarious ideological back flips: They definitely get your attention, but they’re exhausting to watch. Not to mention perplexing since often it’s not entirely clear what makes this flip different than the previous flop, aside from the complete self-confidence with which the new position is asserted. But as long as we all keep watching, it probably doesn’t matter.
Thanks must go to former right-wing-scandal-mongering-journalist–turned-liberal-activist David Brock for providing such interesting case study material over the last decade. Brock has made an excellent second career out of flamboyantly renouncing his first career, which was spent writing inflammatory, innuendo-laden smear jobs on the ultra-right AmericanSpectator’s political opponents—until conscience struck, circa 1997. And struck and struck: Brock can’t seem to stop retelling his conversion narrative. Public breast-beating, mea culpas, memoirs—it’s an apostasy archive by now. And here he is, back in the news again, on the same theme, unsurprisingly, this time as founder of a new Web site called Media Matters for America. Backed by $2 million raised from liberal contributors, the site promises to monitor and correct misinformation and lies from the conservative media “in real time.” In other words, one more opportunity to renounce those former colleagues and mentors before an assembled crowd.
Of course, Brock does have a lot to renounce. There were the years spent ferreting out sexual secrets and digging up dirt on liberals (inventing it when expedient, he later admitted). There were the riches and notoriety he accrued for these nefarious labors: an unheard of $500,000 three-year contract at the Spectator; the 14 weeks his first book, The Real Anita Hill, spent on the New York Times best-seller list after being touted gratis by all the right-wing talk radio hosts, when he was still a boyish 31. (Recall that Brock was behind the notorious “a bit nutty and a bit slutty” line about Hill, and you understand why he was so adored.) Then there was the slash–and-burn job on Bill Clinton in the infamous 1993 Spectator article, “His Cheatin’ Heart,” certain to earn Brock a footnote in the history books since amid the salacious details of Clinton’s sexual peregrinations was mention of a certain “Paula,” prompting Paula Jones to step forward. In other words, without David Brock, no Clinton impeachment. (At least not on the same contrived grounds.)
But then … something happened. After receiving a million-dollar book advance to do to Hillary Clinton what he’d done to Anita Hill, Brock somehow couldn’t. Instead he came up with a surprisingly compassionate portrait of a gawky, brainy, well-intentioned Midwestern girl who, swept off her feet by a charismatic Southern charmer, ends up sacrificing her principles for love. All this followed a preface declaring its author’s intention to repudiate the “crude caricatures” Republicans used to “frighten the electorate and play to its latent chauvinism.” These, of course, were the same Republicans who’d purchased Brock’s previous book in droves; their response, understandably, was to avoid this one like a disease. The book flopped, and his friends stopped inviting him to their parties: David Brock was no longer boy wonder of the rabid right; he was mud.
Oddly, Brock seemed surprised by this response, even wounded. He fired off an aggrieved protest to Esquire titled “Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man,” a lament about his fall from grace, wrapped in a shrill kiss-off to all those fair-weather friends. Conservatives wanted “red meat, not a serious biography,” he’d finally realized; they just weren’t up to his own intellectual standards. (Though he’d still be willing to grace their social events if only they’d stop disinviting him.) Next came an “open letter” to Bill Clinton, again in Esquire, apologizing for the incendiary Spectator article. It had been politically motivated “bad journalism” that now made him feel slimy. (Clinton accepted the apology through a spokesman.)
Brock’s few remaining supporters on the right barely knew what to do with themselves, they were so apoplectic. After Brock printed a slam on Republican heavy-hitter Roger Ailes, an emergency convocation of the Spectator’s board voted for his ouster, and in a heavy dose of poetic justice, everyone from Brent Bozell to William Buckley to Camille Paglia set about doing to Brock what Brock had once been so expert at doing to everyone else. They impugned his character, attacked his motives, and maligned his sexuality. Brock, who had been the first openly gay figure on the far right, cried homophobia; his critics strenuously denied it.
As we see, it’s been a lengthy, tormented relationship of mutual grievance and disappointment between Brock and the right. So, what to make of his new role, once again flinging accusations at those loathed former accusers—including, incidentally, at another showy and annoying political apostate, David Horowitz, himself a frequent and acerbic critic of Brock’s? Is there a political—or perhaps psychopolitical—lesson in all this? The most obvious one is that political apostasy has really gone downhill, intellectually speaking, if it’s come to this. Consider the first generation of neocons: Whatever you think of their ideas, at least they had ideas. Brock, by contrast, has one tune on autoplay: Conservatives lie. OK, maybe they do, but this isn’t a political idea, it’s political melodrama, peopled by villains and heroes. And this same brand of black-and-white thinking has propelled Brock’s journalism from the start—along with an alarming amount of projection to cap it off. Frequently accused of lying throughout his own career, Brock leveled the same accusation at Anita Hill. She had lied—and so dedicated was he to proving it that he made things up. A truth crusader’s job is never done.
Political convictions serve many purposes, self-exoneration not least among them. Such purposes may not be particularly transparent to those holding the views, especially not while flogging them before a crowd. But political affiliation is a complicated story for anyone—an autobiography of resentments, anxieties, and ambivalences; the wish for community versus antipathy toward it; the occasional flash of optimism. Brock’s own pained and self-flagellating memoir, Blinded by the Right, tells the formation story more vividly than most political memoirs do. Having been gay, closeted, and self-loathing most of his life, his own sense of persecution was what gave him an affinity for the paranoid politics of the hard right: The viciousness of that political style was a way of expunging his own feelings of self-hatred and personal injury. And as Brock notes, the closeted gay right-wing Republicans he encountered in Washington—apparently they’re legion—were invariably the worst racists, sexists, and anti-Semites.
This is a useful insight. But having made these points so eloquently, one wishes Brock could finally move on, rather than mucking around in this endless circle of accusation and “gotcha” games. Having renounced the right, somehow Brock just can’t let go: The term “love-hate relationship” cannot fail to come to mind. He throws them away, yet still keeps them near—so often the depressing pattern of familial dramas. Or there’s another disgusting but apt phrase that applies to such behavior: “Like a dog returning to its own vomit.” But most of the time, thankfully, the dogs don’t hold a press conference announcing the fact.