252 Admirable Autobiographies

For forty years Michael Novak has been a very visible and influential public intellectual, writing generally at the crossroads of politics and religion.  In his recent autobiography, Writing from Left to Right:  My Journey from Liberal to Conservative (New York:  Image, c. 203), he details his remarkable career, filled with insights into many of the most powerful men of our time as well as his own intellectual development.  Gracefully written, irenic and generous in presentation, his memoirs open for us vistas of understanding.  Though autobiographies are perhaps the most particularistic of all historical materials, Novak sees in his life broader patterns; thus:  “This book,” he tells us, “is about political and economic upheavals between the years 1960 and 2005, and the navigation through heavy waves that many of us chose.  This is not just my story, but the story of thousands, even millions.   Many more are likely to join us over the next decade.  Reality does not flinch from teaching human beings hard lessons” (Kindle, #100).  

All four of Novak’s grandparents came from the same part of rural Slovakia and settled in western Pennsylvania.  He was born and reared in Johnstown, a place in the Allegheny Mountains best known as the site of a disastrous 1889 flood.  Reared in a solidly Catholic, working class family, he early sensed a call to the priesthood and for 12 years immersed himself in studies for the religious life.  But in 1960 he “judged that my true vocation was in lay, not priestly, life” (p. 13) and resolved to become a writer.  Settling in New York, he finished and saw published his first book (a novel) and began reading widely in politics and economics.  Offered a position as a writer for an aspiring Democratic politician, he wrote a speech about “The New Frontier” that was never given, but the phrase made its way into a memorable address by John F. Kennedy, whose ultimate election proved deeply satisfying.  Politically, in accord with JFK, Novak was happily situated as a middle-of-the-road Democrat.  

Sensing the need for further academic preparation, he entered the philosophy department at Harvard in pursuit of a Ph.D.  But his professors were immersed in such things as symbolic logic whereas Novak was more interested in metaphysics and ethics.   While there he managed to publish several papers and two books, but he was hardly attuned to the main concerns of his professors.  He did, however, meet a visiting scholar, Gabriel Marcel, whose lectures “fanned the sparks in me of a lifelong interest in the ‘person’” (p. 27).  He also encountered, while at Harvard, the works of Reinhold Niebuhr and determined to write his doctoral thesis on Niebuhr’s Christian Realism.  His graduate studies were interrupted, however, when he was given the opportunity to spend four months in Rome, observing and writing about the second session of the Second Vatican Council.  In time he published The Open Church, momentarily aligning himself with the “progressives” who saw the Council as a vehicle whereby the Church could be significantly updated and improved.  “Within a few years after the Council, I found myself reacting more and more negatively to the large faction of the ‘progressives’ who failed to grasp the truly conservative force of Vatican II—its revival of ancient traditions, its sharper disciplines, its challenges to mere worldliness and mere politics” (p. 52).  His religious convictions an intellectual shift, as noted in the books’ title, from left to right.  

His position on the left, shared by many younger folks in the ‘60s, began when he began teaching philosophy at Stanford University, where he spent some of his happiest days.  Identifying with his students, he gradually embraced their anti-war radicalism and even left Stanford to help start an experimental college of the State University of New York at Old Westbury.  Designed to align with the ethos of the counter-culture—making students colleagues rather than apprentices—the experiment degenerated into “crazy, rebellious, and anarchic” chaos.  As Novak “faced the full implications of the deep leftist principles” (p. 93) he was, to put it mildly, appalled.  To imagine them applied to the nation—as envisioned by Tom Hayden and The Students for a Democratic Society—left him aghast.  

Soon departing Old Westbury, in 1970 Novak was hired by Sarge Shriver (whom both LBJ and George McGovern almost picked as vice presidential running mates) to work (as a writer) for the election of Democrats to Congress.  Shriver, of course, was married to Eunice Kennedy, so Novak entered and intellectually helped shape a significant faction of the Democrat Party.  “Shriver loved the vein of Catholic thought that wanted to ‘reconstruct the social order,’ ‘put the yeast of the gospel in the world,’ ‘feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted’—generally, that is to make a difference in the world” (p. 112).  In addition to working for Shriver, the prolific Novak wrote articles and finished a book, The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, anticipating themes enunciated within a decade by Ronald Reagan.  

This publication demonstrated his “declaration of independence from the cultural left” (p. 124), a rather painful move inasmuch as it presided imperiously over much of the nation’s intellectual life.   Novak also had to acknowledge that Left-wing Democrats were taking control of the party and locking it into a pro-abortion, anti-Jewish/Christian, multicultural agenda.  And he also began re-thinking his loosely socialistic economic positions, prodded by Richard John Neuhaus and Peter Berger to consider the empirical evidence of the actual good wrought by capitalism around the world.  “Socialism, I was beginning to infer, is not creative, not wealth producing.  It is wealth consuming (it consumes the wealth of others); it is parasitical” (p. 149).  LBJ’s “Great Society,” along with most all welfare states, have clearly failed to fulfill their promises.  

Fortuitously invited to join (as a theologian) the American Enterprise Institute in 1977, Novak secured “a front row seat at the great economic debates of the next three years” (p. 174).  He found the “supply side” economics, as espoused by Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan, surprisingly persuasive.  He was appointed by President Reagan as the U.S. as ambassador for the UN Commission on Human Rights and published (in 1982)  what his probably his most influential book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, to provide an ethical rationale for free enterprise.  When she met him, Margaret Thatcher exclaimed:  “‘I have so wanted to meet you.  I have been reading your book.  You are doing the most important work in the world.’”  “‘Exposing the moral foundations of capitalism,’ she went on, ‘is so important.  Then fate of the poor all around the world depends on it’” (p. 218).  That truth was confirmed by Vaclev Havel, who with  a handful of friends met secretly to discuss the book, chapter by chapter, and determined to implement its principles in Czechoslovakia.  

“In my lifetime,” Novak says, “I have been favored to meet and often work with many great political leaders, presidents, artists, and builders of brand-new industries in new technologies of the Electronic Age.  I especially prized working with Reagan, Thatcher, and Vaclav Havel.  But of all the great human beings I have met—and even been invited into friendship with—none is closer to my heart than John Paul II” (p. p. 298).  This leads to a warmly-written chapter on “the Pope who called me friend.”  John Paul II had apparently read Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism as he prepared his social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, in 1991.  Invited, on several occasions, to dine and discuss ideas, as well as celebrate mass with the Pope, culminated, in a profound way, Novak’s life as a Christian writer.  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

For many years Melanie Phillips was an acclaimed reporter and columnist—“a darling of the left”—for the Guardian, probably the leading leftist newspaper in England, “the paper of choice for intellectuals, the voice of progressive conscience, and the dream destination for many, if not most, aspiring journalists” (#347).  Thus she titles her judicious autobiography Guardian Angel:  My Story, My Britain (New York:  emBooks, c. 2013).  As a serious writer she has ever sought to tell the truth and follow the evidence wherever it led.  This, however, challenged her ideological assumptions, and in time she found a journalistic home in more conservative quarters.  Consequently, looking back on a career of “charting social and political trends for more than thirty years,” she declares “there were now two Britains:  the first adhering to decency, rationality and duty to others, and the second characterized by hatred, rampant selfishness, and a terrifying repudiation of reason” (Kindle, #23).    There were obviously battles waging, so her memoir “is the story of my culture war:  the account of my battles with the hate-mongering left” (#28).  

Reared in London as an only child in a working-class, somewhat dysfunctional Jewish family, she found solace in “the magical world of books,” excelled in school and entered Oxford University, where she studied English Literature and “dabbled in student politics and mildly left-wing circles” (#309).  Inwardly insecure, she often compensated by thrusting herself to “the center of the stage in order to validate my existence by the approval of an audience” (#314).  Needing employment, she fell into a training post with a suburban newspaper and began learning to do journalism and was named Young Journalist of the Year.  This led, in 1977, to a staff position on the Guardian.  She was 26 years old and shared, for many years, the staff’s conviction that they, speaking for the liberal left, “were the embodiment of virtue itself” (#406).  They espoused “a set of dogmatic mantras.  Poverty was bad, cuts in public spending were bad, prison was bad, the Tory government was bad, the state was good, poor people were good, minorities were good, sexual freedom was good” (#449).  Still more:  by the ‘90s  post-modernism had infiltrated journalism under the label of “attachment” journalism.  “Truth was now said to be an illusion; objectivity was a sham; journalists who tried to be dispassionate were therefore perpetrating a fraud upon the public.  The only honest approach was for journalists to wear their hearts on their sleeves; this was not called bias, but honesty” (#999).  

And they were, Phillips laments, very much the vanguard of the cultural revolution that has totally transformed Britain!  Her disillusionment with the Left began when she honestly followed the evidence while researching and writing articles on a wide variety of subjects—immigration, education, environmentalism, marriage and family, feminism, multiculturalism, health care, Israel and foreign affairs.  Though only nominally Jewish, she found to her surprise that her colleagues on the Guardian branded her as a Jew who could not deal dispassionately with Israel.  Indeed, anything but a pro-Palestinian stance was anathematized by Britain’s leftists, who routinely equate Israelis with Nazis!  “The more I read, the more horrified I became by the scale of the intellectual and moral corruption that was becoming embedded in public discourse about the Middle East—the systematic rewriting of history, denial of law and justice and the corresponding demonization and delegitimisation of Israel” (#1669).  

As a mother of two, she became increasingly distressed with the nation’s schools, which had demonstrably been “hijacked by left-wing ideology.  Instead of being taught to read and write, children were being left to play in various states of anarchy on the grounds that any exercise of adult authority was oppressive and would destroy the innate creativity of the child” (#738).  When she dared suggest that teachers should actually teach something, the left’s reaction was vitriolic—she was instantly branded “right-wing” and ostracized by many colleagues.  By 1990 she “realized something very bad indeed was happening to Britain.  What was being described was more akin to life in a totalitarian state.  Dissent was being silenced, and those who ran against the orthodoxy were being forced to operate in secret; still more, the very meaning of concepts such as education, teaching, and of knowledge was being unilaterally altered, and thousands of children, particularly those at the bottom of the social heap, were being abandoned to ignorance and institutionalized disadvantage” (#812).  Her alienation from the Left “was not so much political as moral.  The left was rejecting all external authority and embracing instead moral and cultural relativism—the idea that ‘what is right’ is ‘what is right for me’, and declaring any hierarchy of values illegitimate” (#878).  

Aligned with her critique of education, Phillips’ sharpest point of disagreement with the Left devolved from her defense of the traditional family.  All the evidence proved that children flourished best in intact homes, where mothers and fathers shared responsibility for rearing them.  Divorce, single-parenting and step-parenting all harm children.  But despite the data, the cultural left triumphantly validated such behaviors.   The facts were never cogently debated, only denied.  She was by no means refuted, only reviled.  Ultimately she concluded “that the destruction of the traditional family had as its real target the destruction of Biblical morality.  I thought I was merely standing up for evidence, duty and the protection of the vulnerable.”  But her foes saw clearly “that the banner behind which I was actually marching was the Biblical moral law which put chains on people’s appetites” (#980).  

When she began investigating the claims of environmentalists, including the furor over global warming, she immediately “smelled charlatanry.”  Determined to follow the evidence, she found none!  Instead what posed as environmentalism simply “brought together deeply obnoxious strands of thinking” hitherto evident in the anti-Western, anti-capitalist frothing of leftist ideologues.  “To me,” she says, “the clear message of environmentalism was that the planet would be fine if it wasn’t for the human race.  So it was a deeply regressive, reactionary, proto-fascist movement for putting modernity into reverse, destroying the integrity of science, and threatening humanity itself” (#892).  Her position was reinforced by discussions with dozens of first-rate scientists who demonstrated that “the science” was not at all “settled” and the alarmists’ views were often akin to a “scam.”  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

During the past decade Joseph Pearce has emerged as one of the better writers dealing with literary figures—Literary Converts; Wisdom and Innocence:  A Life of G.K. Chesterton; C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church; Tolkien, Man and Myth; Solzhenitsyn:  A Soul in Exile.  Bradley Birzer, the author of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, says:  “Pearce writes with historical insight on one hand and poetic imagination on the other.  Perhaps our greatest living biographer, Pearce has the uncanny ability to get into the minds, hopes, fears, and motivations of his subjects.”  Having written at length and with discernment about others, in Race with the Devil:  My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love (Charlotte, NC:  Saint Benedict Press, c. 2013) he now tells his own life story.  

Reared in a rather conventional middle-class home near London, Pearce had little exposure to or interest in religion as a child, though there was a residual Christianity here and there.  His father, amazingly well self-educated (and to whom the book is dedicated), was the strongest influence in his life, and he has “nothing but gratitude to him for all the good things he taught me and all the love he bestowed upon me” (Kindle Loc #276).  He did, however, have a strong anti-Catholic bias rooted in a general misunderstanding of the English Reformation and its aftermath” (# 295).  And he was also was quite hostile to the immigration policies of Great Britain which were transforming the land he loved into a multicultural jungle.  Yet unlike “the philanthropist who proclaims his love for Man but despises men,” his father “loved men but despised those who spoke in the abstract about the brotherhood of man” (#310).  Consequently, “the extent to which I love my fellow man is attributable, under grace, to the example my father gave me.  My love of poetry and history has its roots in his love for these things.  My omnivorous hunger for knowledge is a gift that he gave me.  The path of the autodidact, which he took through life, is the path that I have followed also.  I am happy to have followed in my father’s footsteps, though equally happy that I ceased to do so when I came to realize he we was not always walking in the right direction” (#357).  

Following the elder Pearce’s father’s example of learning on his own, young Joseph read widely—far beyond his classroom assignments—and developed a consuming passion for politics.  Indeed, at the age of 17 he published an article entitled “‘Red Indoctrination in the Classroom,’ which critiqued the Marxist orientation of my high school education” (#458).  Still more, he became active in the National Front, a political party noted for its highly racial agenda.  This involved him in numerous street demonstrations and occasional fights with militant Marxists.  Determined to advance the cause he founded Bulldog, a magazine designed to incite racial hatred and targeting young people with the National Front message.  This made him a highly visible and controversial figure and he began to work fulltime for the Party in 1978.  In time he was twice arrested and imprisoned for “hateful” articles he had written.  

Looking back on this period of his life, Pearce says:  “The animus of my political creed to which I subscribed was not animosity towards aliens but a love of my own people, albeit a love that became an idol, a false god that I worshipped at the expense of my own spiritual wellbeing” (#799).  Providentially, he began to discover, though a variety of experiences, a better way that began with an awakening to beauty.  For instance, visiting the family of a friend in rural England sparked within him “a fuller and better vision of the beauty of life, particularly country life, to which I had been largely unaware until then” (#774).  Away from city lights he clearly saw, for the first time, the stars in all their majesty.  “Having my eyes awakened to such beauty was a baptism of the imagination—a baptism of desire—which I now see as foundational to my path to religious conversion” (#789).  

He was also nourished by the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who sowed “seeds of faith and hope in my understanding of reality and exorcise the demons of nihilism and pessimism that lurked in the darkest recesses of my soul” (#1049).  (Much later, while writing a biography of Solzhenitsyn, he was privileged to meet him—a rare encounter granted when Solzhenitsyn learned Pearce sought to emphasize his Christian convictions.)  His love of pop music exposed him to Elvis Presley, whose gospel recordings played a vital role in opening Pearce to the Gospel!  And then he was (much like C.S. Lewis, decades earlier) “surprised by Chesterton”!  First fascinated by some of his “distributist” economic ideas, he the stumbled into the works of G.K.C. and would never be the same again!  In Chesterton he “found a new friend who would become the most powerful influence (under grace) on my personal and intellectual development over the following years” (#1729).  

Such influences—in concert with an inner “baptism of desire” that sharpened his hunger for truth—prepared him for some unexpected changes while serving his second prison term.  It was, for him, the dark night of the soul described by St John of the Cross.  Longing for freedom, disillusioned with his political work, and strangely drawn to theological inquiries and halting efforts to pray, he emerged from prison determined to change his life.  He began visiting a small Catholic chapel and sensed therein the answer to his heart’s disquiet.  In time he converted to the Church began to live in accord with her doctrines and ethics, finding self-sacrifice the key to the good life.  Rather than writing racist screeds he began to consider Christian materials and wrote a biography of his beloved G.K. Chesterton.  “Whereas my previous writing had led people astray, I hoped that my gifts as a writer could now help lead people to the truth”