On immigration, I argue that building a barrier across our southern border—an idea many liberals find offensive—will actually help us prevent the horrible abuses that many illegal immigrants suffer in our society. On environmentalism, I talk about the tradeoffs that almost always exist between environmentalism and economic growth. If we refuse to acknowledge those tradeoffs or pretend they don’t exist, we will harm the people who are struggling the most in our economy. And on the War on Terror, I warn of the dangers of letting political correctness confuse ourselves about who we’re fighting and why. We need to acknowledge that we’re fighting a worldview that any self-respecting liberal should find disgusting, and we must be wholly unapologetic about fighting it.
In each case, I try to argue from the perspective of those the liberals champion: the poor, the disadvantaged, the oppressed. Liberals are more focused on who they’re for and conservatives are more focused on what they’re for. I try to show that what conservatives are for is the best way to serve and protect who liberal are for.
FP: You argue that that the War on Terror creates a conflict between liberal feminism and liberal multiculturalism. Can you talk a bit about that?
Cohen: I use the example of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the very brave Somali-born feminist who has fought for the rights of women in the Islamic world. Her fight for women’s rights should make her a hero on the left. But she has not been embraced by the left, because they think she is too judgmental about the Third World culture that she was born into. It is as if the sin of being judgmental—especially about a non-Western culture which is automatically conferred nobility by the left—trumps the sin of brutally oppressing women. The left needs to learn that in order to protect victims of the worst oppression around the world, we have to overcome our hang-up about being judgmental against non-Western cultures.
FP: Why do you devote such a large part of your foreign policy chapter to Israel?
Cohen: The War on Terror is often portrayed as a clash between the Islamic world and the West, and the Israel-Palestine issue is often portrayed as the central issue in that clash. That’s completely wrong on both counts. Islamists are not just fighting the West; they’re fighting non-Muslim communities wherever they live in close proximity to them—in India, in Nigeria, in Cote d’Ivoire, in Sudan, in Thailand, in the Philippines, in Timor Leste, and so many other places. Radical Muslims are fighting not only Christians and Jews, but Hindus, Sikhs, and animists; not only whites, but blacks, browns and Asians. Israel-Palestine has nothing to do with any of that.
But I also wanted to focus on why the left should support Israel’s right to exist, and how the right to exist entails the right to defend itself. I focus on how the Jewish minorities in Islamic Middle Eastern countries were among the most oppressed people on earth. When people like Helen Thomas tell Jews to “go home,” would she condemn these Jews to oppression and death in Middle Eastern countries they suffered in for centuries? Israel is a tiny sanctuary for these Jews in the region that they have called home since ancient times. Just as over seven million Hindus and Sikhs were displaced so that Muslims could have their own state within colonial India, a much smaller number of Palestinians and Jews were displaced so that both could have their own state in colonial Palestine. Leftists who do not question the existence of Pakistan and Bangladesh—or of Jordan, for that matter, which was created by partitioning off the bulk of colonial Palestine for a non-Palestinian monarch—are applying a double standard when they question the existence of Israel. Leftists caricature Israel as a symbol of oppression, when the truth is that Israel is a symbol of resistance to oppression. As such, liberals should support Israel and its right to defend itself.
FP: The last chapter of the book is entitled “A Hopeful, Youthful, Idealistic and Optimistic Conservatism.” What does that mean?
Cohen: Words like “hopeful,” “youthful,” “idealistic” and “optimistic” go against the liberal stereotype of conservatism, but the stereotype isn’t accurate. In the book, I outline why conservative policies reflect a belief in human potential, a belief that society will prosper if we empower people rather than government. Conservative policies trust people to make their own choices. Liberals—and I say this with affection—can be more prone to be control freaks, operating out of fear that things will go horribly wrong unless government usurps responsibility from us at every step. When I really thought through the differences between conservatism and liberalism, and the assumptions about human nature and potential that underlie each, I came to the conclusion that conservatism was indeed more hopeful, youthful, idealistic and optimistic. Conservatives can have compassion for people just as liberals can, but conservative policies show more respect for and belief in the people we have compassion for.
In the book, I acknowledge that people can be conservatives or liberals for different reasons. Some conservatives actually fit the stereotype that liberals have of them—just as some liberals fit the stereotype that conservatives have of them. But the conservatism that I outline in the book is the most common brand of conservatism, and it is aptly described by the title to my last chapter.
FP: What does this book do that has not been done before?
Cohen: Well, what has been done before—many times, by writers much more accomplished than I am—is the description of a personal journey from liberalism to conservatism. When I describe my own journey in the first three chapters of the book, though, I have a very specific purpose in mind. I try to get back inside Liberal Dave’s head, both to give lifelong conservatives insights into how liberals think and to get liberals to recognize Liberal Dave’s thought patterns in themselves. If I can get my liberal readers to recognize Liberal Dave in themselves—and I facilitate this by not trashing Liberal Dave—then they might stay with Liberal Dave on his journey as he discovers unsettling contradictions about his belief system. And they might stay with Liberal Dave as he overcomes his resistance to taking conservative thought seriously. And who knows, they might stay with Liberal Dave on his entire journey to ConservaDave. But even if they don’t get that far, I think it’s very helpful to explain conservative policies in terms that liberals can relate to. It will hopefully get them to better respect where conservatives are coming from, even if they don’t ultimately come to agree with them.
FP: What do you hope your book will help achieve?
Cohen: I’d love to see this book start a national conversation on the differences between conservatism and liberalism—and what they have in common. If we can get past the demonization and the stereotypes, we might actually be able to find some common ground. I suggest in my book that it would be a useful exercise for everyone—be they liberal or conservative—to go through the exercise that I went through. Challenge your assumptions, question your beliefs. Genuinely try to see where the other guy is coming from. After having done that, you may end up at exactly the same point in the ideological spectrum as where you started. Or, like me, you may end up on the other end of the spectrum. Either way, you’ll be a better, more informed citizen for having gone through the exercise.
I think it’s particularly important for young people to go through this exercise. I’d love to see this book taught in college!
FP: David Cohen, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
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