Jonathan Krohn, the precocious 13 year-old who wowed attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference four years ago, is older, wiser and feeling the heat from his one-time admirers now that he's disavowed the revanchist prejudices he absorbed through conservative talk radio.
Krohn admits his speech to the CPAC convention about the "principles of conservatism" (respect for life and the Constitution, personal responsibility and less government) was "naïve," but also "something that a 13-year-old does" when he lives in a place like Georgia where people are "inundated with conservative talk" even before they've had a chance to form opinions of their own.
"One of the first things that changed was that I stopped being a social conservative," said Krohn, explaining his turnaround. "It just didn't seem right to me anymore."
I know just how Jonathan feels. One of the reasons I abandoned conservatism myself is that however logical or meritorious its arguments might be in the abstract, when you added real people into the mix the thought of ordering an entire society around such stark and unbending beliefs was horrifying.
One example: while I might disagree with their conclusions, I do respect on philosophical and theological grounds those people who think abortion is evil and a sin, even from the moment of conception. I can even admire someone doing the hard, time-consuming missionary work of winning over hearts and minds one at a time to their pro-life position. It's behavior inspired by moral conviction but which still respects individual free will, dignity and personal choice.
Yet, within the anti-abortion movement itself is the fertilized egg of fascism.
Imagine for a moment a new cabinet-level department -- call it the Ministry for the Protection of Life -- created when some future President Sarah Palin and Tea Party Congress finally disenfranchise enough blacks, Hispanics, elderly, college students and non-Christians to gain power. This new ministry is empowered to register all women who become pregnant. It then follows them with its army of MPL field agents throughout their term and to the moment of birth. And these agents are equipped with portable trans-vaginal, ultra-sound probes which agents are authorized to use during surprise inspections at a moment's notice.
What a horrible consequence to come from a "culture of life."
But that's the sort of epiphany Jonathan might have had as he "thought about it more" and realized the possible consequences of his abstract right wing principles becoming real.
Since life is complex, he said, "you can't just go with some ideological mantra for each substantive issue."
And so what had once looked "fresh and insightful" back when he was 13 now seemed like spam in a can: "A lot of what I said was ideological blather that really wasn't meaningful. It wasn't me thinking. It was just me saying things I had heard so long from people I thought were interesting and just came to believe for some reason, without really understanding it. I understood it enough to talk about it but not really enough to have a conversation about it."
A little learning is a dangerous thing. And once people start thinking for themselves, and demanding more than slogans and talking points, they are ruined forever as foot soldiers for the conservative movement.
"I have to explain to people over and over and over again that I'm not a conservative and I have my own ideas and I'm not just agreeing to everything that every conservative said, Krohn says.
Krohn now says he supports gay marriage, President Obama, Obamacare, and a woman's right to choose. And so, as Politico reports, Jonathan has been pilloried by the far right as a traitor to the cause.
"There have been a lot of people on the right who have attacked me viciously," Krohn told Politico. One commentator even went so far as to suggest that if he had been Krohn's father he would have left him in the woods as a baby to die.
David Frum, himself a prominent conservative apostate who has felt the sting of the right's scorpion tail, says the piling on against the 17 year-old has been "pretty ugly" but not surprising.
Frum points to Gregg Re of Daily Caller who, in a snark-filled screed, portrays the "self-styled child actor" as a political opportunist, whose "conformist embrace of non-conformism won him fast new friends" as he headed off to pursue a film-making and screenwriting career at New York University - "an institution known almost as much for its progressive slant and weed culture as its nationally-recognized film program."
Yet, says Re, in an effort to "make the right look bad," Politico "deliberately portrayed Krohn's shift from staunch 'tween' conservative to teenage liberal college-bound idealist as a brave and unusual move."
Re goes on to quote one attendee of the 2009 CPAC conference as exclaiming after being told about Krohn's political conversion: "Holy fucking shit. The kid was the most annoying 13-year-old I have ever met."
Re even threw Krohn's mother under the bus, calling her "an aspiring actress and middle-school drama teacher" who coached her son for the publicity it got them.
"Krohn was smug, condescending, and obviously completely ignorant of what he was saying," Re quotes another attendee as saying. "When I spoke with him, I got the impression he was merely repackaging what someone else had told him. He was smart, but almost Stepford Wife-like in how it seemed like he was being used. It was creepy. ... He kept talking about the book he had written and how many radio shows he had been on."
After a pause, wrote Re, the source added: "To be clear, the fact that he was being used did not make the kid any less of a douche."
Jonathan Krohn is now in good company.
The attacks against him now that he has betrayed right wing orthodoxy remind me of when William F. Buckley Jr.'s son, Christopher, endorsed Barack Obama for president back in 2008.
After Buckley broke ranks, the editor of the National Review magazine that Bill Buckley co-founded in 1955 called Buckley's son Chris "cretinous" and canned him on the spot. This led the younger Buckley to say: "I retain the fondest feelings for the magazine that my father founded, but I will admit to a certain sadness that an act of publishing a reasoned argument for the opposition should result in acrimony and disavowal."
A year later, David Frum learned the hard way the price of diverging from the right wing conservative party line when he was let go as a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for challenging Republicans on their obstructionist strategy on health care reform.
And then there is shock jock Michael Savage. Savage went on the air after Chief Justice John Roberts surprised conservatives last week by joining the Supreme Court's liberals to rule Obamacare constitutional and said: "Let's talk about Roberts. I'm going to tell you something that you're not going to hear anywhere else, that you must pay attention to. It's well known that Roberts, unfortunately for him, has suffered from epileptic seizures. Therefore he has been on medication. Therefore neurologists will tell you that medication used for seizure disorders, such as epilepsy, can introduce mental slowing, forgetfulness and other cognitive problems. And if you look at Roberts' writings you can the cognitive disassociation in what he is saying."
Savage reminds me of those old Soviets who used to send dissidents to mental hospitals since opposing communism was obviously crazy.
And when, as Paul Krugman notes, the presidential nominee of the Republican Party is forced by his conservative base to "bitterly denounce the Supreme Court for upholding the constitutionality of his own health care plan," you can understand why someone like Frum would say Republicans are prisoners of a "mindset of subordination and conformity."
It's a mindset that reveals itself whenever conservatives lash out in frustration and rage at liberal critics who they denounce as being hypocrites for not living up to their own liberal principles of tolerance and open-mindedness -- by unconditionally surrendering to right wing orthodoxy.
Recently, for example, the Washington Examiner's Senior Political Columnist, Timothy P. Carney, wrote about the "closed-minded dismissal of opposing views" that he says is now "a core strategy of the Left" as liberals "ignore, dismiss and ridicule conservative and free-market views."
What is telling about Carney's remarks is that as thin-skinned as conservatives seem to be about criticism of their ideas, Carney does not have much faith in either the veracity or efficacy of those ideas or else he would have put up a better fight for them against liberal criticism. Instead, again and again, Carney cites the mere fact of a liberal criticism against a conservative "idea" as being its own refutation, as if disagreement of any kind is uncivil and out of bounds. Conformity in the name of open-mindedness?
We all know the game being played here. Carney doesn't defend conservative ideas. He defends the conservative groups that embrace them. Carney isn't interested in promoting a genuine, good-faith debate between liberals and conservatives. His aim is to promote conservative group solidarity by stoking resentments through the age-old tactic of picking a fight and telling people that they --- or their intelligence, their honor, their dignity, or the good name of their mamas -- are under attack by some targeted "outsider."
Convince enough conservatives that liberals despise them just for who they are, and disrespect their ideas -- well, just because -- and you never, ever have to engage with liberal arguments or refute them on their merits.
Bottom line: It would be a whole lot easier to take conservative ideas seriously if conservatives took ideas seriously themselves.