Reactionary or Sage?

March 26th, 2008

David Klinghoffer's article struck a chord with me ("How Brown Turned Me into a Right-Wing Religious Conservative," January/February). Having arrived at Brown in 1982 with centrist political sensibilities grounded in fiscal responsibility and an almost libertarian view on social issues (which I largely retain today), I found myself a bit shell-shocked by the dominant paradigm of far-left-of-center conformism.

As a student, I did not always agree with Klinghoffer's Brown Daily Herald columns, but admired his ability to endure pariah status as the price for proffering an alternative viewpoint. I had an experience similar to to the one Klinghoffer describes as his being barred from a Third World Center meeting with Howard Swearer because he was white. During my junior year, I had the good fortune of taking Barbara Tannenbaum's sought-after public speaking class. One of the exercises was to pick a topic that would elicit a hostile reaction from the audience. I chose racial set-asides in public-university admissions, and argued that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell was right in overturning racial set-asides as unconstitutional reverse discrimination. This was not a deeply held personal belief; it was an exercise for a class. Yet during the class and afterward, I found myself vilified. The incivility I experienced for publicly considering that the other guys might have a point was a bucket of cold water on the notion that Brown was a place of tolerance and open intellectual inquiry.

It is heartening that ostracism was a positive catalyst for Klinghoffer to find truth and meaning in the Judeo-Christian tradition and give voice to those views. My own reaction was to limit true discourse to the relatively few environments at Brown where it felt safe to freely discuss all sides of important issues.

Paul Gallagher '86
Oakland, Calif.


A classic reactionary tactic is to blow up an anomalous incident into a gross generalization, so it is hardly surprising that David Klinghoffer '87 takes a slight, real or perceived, and turns it into the basis of his political philosophy. It's like the oft-repeated right-wing canard that the occasional, though infrequent, missteps of government agents make them all a bunch of jack-booted thugs.

We now know a lot about Klinghoffer's (literally) sophomoric infatuation with his Orthodox girlfriend, which alternates with patronizing asides about her politics (poor woman) and "addled" liberalism (whatever that means). Apparently these conflicted feelings, combined with a need to find a reassuring father figure, led Klinghoffer to God and William F. Buckley Jr. (though not necessarily in that order). Maybe he's right. I am in open conflict with my parents (who both happen to be Brown/Pembroke alums) over their politics. It's not that I don't love them; it's just that their increasing conservatism is toxic and abusive. One need look no further than the current astonishingly depraved administration in Washington for proof.

That might be music to the ears of a professional provocateur like Mr. Klinghoffer, but I hardly think it's what God had in mind.

Fred Baumgarten '79
Sharon, Conn.


The leftist environment of the Brown campus in the late 1980s that was so helpful to David Klinghoffer in his political and religious journey was less nurturing to those Jews who arrived at Brown further along in their religious development. As a newly observant Jew, I was snubbed for the rest of my freshman year by my RA in Keeney quad after I made the mistake of justifying my absence from the unit's third homosexual sensitivity meeting with a reference to the Bible. In my sophomore year I found myself leading the protest against a piece in the Brown Film Bulletin that depicted orgiastic sex performed on a Torah scroll. And throughout my time at Brown I regularly had to defend Israel from extremely one-sided criticism or outright vilification from both Jews and non-Jews.

It was these sorts of experiences, as much as the inadequate religious Jewish representation and infrastructure on campus, that led me to seek a more supportive Jewish environment at Harvard for my junior year and later at Yale for graduate school. The rich academic environment, however, brought me back to Brown for my senior year and challenged me to question some of the tenets of my economics concentration, an environmentalist rethinking that spurred me on to higher degrees and a career in environmental science and social science. Klinghoffer writes: "Political conservatism often leads to religious tradition." But religious orientations should also lead to embracing conventionally liberal domestic agendas that champion the disadvantaged and downtrodden in the human and natural world. A good example is environmentalism, which in its concern for sustainability and conservation is also fundamentally conservative. I hope that Klinghoffer recognizes the truth of this and does not shrink from challenging his fellow political conservatives in the United States to abandon typically anti-environmental agendas and become "conserving" conservatives.

David Goldblatt '91
Zurich, Switzerland


Musing about David Klinghoffer's journey of self-discovery, I wondered whether my experience of the city had something to do with my own eventual religious conversion.

I came to Brown with a lot of bravado but no spiritual conviction and embraced semiotics as the only philosophy that explained to me my well-disguised feelings of alienation and despair. Through semiotics I discovered that I had grown up in a world of oppressive, authoritative patriarchal signifiers. No wonder I (and my compatriots) felt so crappy! Depression turned to militancy as I ardently deconstructed the reality around me.

I'll never forget the hefty, shiny-skinned evangelist near the Biltmore who piercingly said to me as I waited for a bus one day: "God sees everything you do! He wants you to change your life!" Although at the time I dismissed this man as delusional, I see now that Providence was at work on me. It is in Providence that I learned and lived out my deconstructionist precepts, and in Providence that I heard the message that would eventually come true.

Maybe Hegel was right. There is a dialectic. The pendulum swing Klinghoffer experienced at Brown happened to me as well, though it took longer: I became a born-again Christian at twenty-six. Now, at forty-nine, I think I have reached a synthesis of semiotics and Christianity. The ultimate creator, God, is also the ultimate deconstructionist, dismantling our illusions of ego, power, and image in order to create something new. In Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female" (Galatians, 3:24). There is only love. I don't care how long it's taken me to figure that out. I'm grateful to the education at Brown that started the process and the seeds that were planted in Providence.

Elizabeth Juka Cuthbert '81
Hagerstown, Md.


David Klinghoffer's article celebrates the spirit of rebellion that led him to his political and spiritual awakening. Yet in the same article he states that he wholeheartedly approved of someone's arrest for the symbolic act of burning a U.S. flag. How he can justify this blatant hypocrisy is completely beyond logic or comprehension. I might find Klinghoffer's political views to be offensive, but I would never suggest that he be arrested for expressing them.

Spencer M. King '82
Boulder, Colo.


I can't help thinking that, in the end, Klinghoffer gave Brown, if not modern-day college education, a perplexing pass, not to mention way too much credit for his personal transformation. There was a time when the humanities at Brown represented the right kind of intellectual "provocation" for a young adult. I suspect that time has passed. Unless it's for a degree in one of the real sciences, I wouldn't do it, David. Something tells me Thayer was not your road to either Damascus or Piety Hill.

Raul Vela '80
San Antonio, Tex.


We should neither worry nor rejoice too much about Klinghoffer's claim that his education at Brown turned him into a religious right-winger. Based on his own description of his motives for change, it is clear that he is a genuine reactionary. Had he gone to Liberty University, say, or Bob Jones or Patrick Henry, he would now be an admirer of Richard Dawkins, write angry letters to the Nation, and be equally pleased with himself. The sub-text of his message is: "Hey, look at me." Which, of course, makes him a perfect writer for the National Review.

James M. Smith '60 PhD


David Klinghoffer tries to pass as moral and spiritual, but he comes across as hollow. He is a narcissist, and his conservatism is psychodynamic rather than principled. He appears to enjoy masochism as he delights in his defiance of Brown's norms and his attempts to manipulate unrequited lovers. Had he attended a school like Oral Roberts University, he would have ended up as an atheist. Had his love objects been from working-class traditions, he would be writing for a union newspaper. Apparently Brown offered him little beyond a powerful education to hone his writing skills. The feature that follows his in the BAM offers a direct contrast: the amazing, engaging, and genuine Eric Rodriguez '08. His story offers a humble salve to Klinghoffer's grandiosity and reminds me of Brown's value.

Mark Liebman Morris '78
New Orleans


David Klinghoffer missed the point when he declared, "An atmosphere of provocation and challenge does not necessarily lead to one political or religious end."

As an alum who has worked to restore our alma mater's academic integrity (, I found Mr. Klinghoffer's notion profound and certainly accurate. But it does not apply to Brown. The University is not a place worthy of much credit for fostering intellectual provocation, but rather a campus that has been compromised for the sake of personal creed, and at the expense of academic principles. We are, after all, speaking of the University that denies ROTC a presence on its campus, that sponsors homosexual sex-binges within its most prestigious buildings, and 94 percent of whose faculty members are registered Democrats.

Brown has morphed over the years into a campus that harbors intellectual laziness and appeals to humanity's lowest common denominators, sinfully wasting the tuition and intellect of thousands of students. Like the Christendom of Europe, Brown is a skeleton of academia—a beautiful and convenient fa√ßade, but not much more.

So it's odd that Klinghoffer, a self-avowed religious conservative, concludes that Brown has become an anathema to the Western academic tradition, yet is willing to give Brown a crack at debasing his children. "I'd still send my kids to college there," screamed the subtitle to Klinghoffer's piece, thereby celebrating and enabling the philosophical sealing-off of a renowned institution of higher learning.

Travis Rowley '02
Saunderstown, R.I.


In their book Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, philosopher of science Barbara Forrest and biologist Paul Gross expose the crypto-fascist agenda of David Klinghoffer's Discovery Institute. Klinghoffer's inane rant on his own political evolution is just another example of Discovery Institute propaganda.

The Discovery Institute zealously embraces fascist practices against its critics, ranging from promoting lies, omissions, and gross distortions of scientific research to ad hominem attacks on such prominent critics as Brown biology professor Ken Miller to, finally, even censorship.

If there is any redeeming virtue in Klinghoffer's essay, it is his concluding observation, emphasizing the value of a good education like Brown's that is "grounded in independent thought." It is an observation that his Discovery Institute peers would reject, as they most likely view Brown as yet another bastion of secular-humanist liberalism. It's also an observation that Klinghoffer himself doesn't follow, judging from the title of his forthcoming book, How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to be a Conservative. Religiously devout scientists like eminent ecologist Mike Rosenzweig and, of course, Ken Miller, demonstrate the philosophical and religious fallacies that comprise Klinghoffer's inane thinking through their commitment to separating their superb scientific research from their devout religious faith. Did Klinghoffer truly learn the value of a Brown education? Judging by his essay, the answer, regrettably, must be no.

John Kwok '82
New York City


I am a center-left, atheistic moderate because of a lifetime of reading and thinking, but mostly because of an obvious genetic predisposition. (My father is an inveterate fence-straddler.) Back when I was taking semiotics classes in the mid-1980s, nurture was getting the upper-hand in the nature/nurture debate—at least among the students, who were almost Maoist about their faith in re-education. But a lot of science has intervened since. Brown clearly provided the right environment for David Klinghoffer's conversion experience, but just as clearly, I assert, he must have been predisposed for such a strong reaction. Klinghoffer might do well to consider his contrariness, his iconoclasm, even his spiritual yearning as an important connection with biological parents he has otherwise, apparently, never known.

Andrew P. Speno '88
Cincinnati, Ohio


David Klinghoffer was dead in this world until a lightweight bit of sophomoric idiocy awakened his true identity: he seized a lucky instance of the right-eous indignation that would become his lifelong calling. His enjoyment of the racial slight he perceived himself suffering says it all. Real injustice isn't fun. That he equates his one-time snub with actual historical oppression is embarrassingly self-important. Happily for a contrarian, Klinghoffer does not typify whites or Jews or conservatives. The only group he represents is arrogant blowhards.

Mark Schofield '98
Brooklyn, N.Y.

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March / April 2008