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Gold Standard

A Pittsburgh-born conservative searches for a home

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It's no surprise liberals feel besieged these days, held hostage in their own country by people with alien value systems. But it could be worse: If we were conservatives, we'd really be isolated.

 

Just ask Philip Gold, a Squirrel Hill native, conservative ideological warrior and author of Take Back the Right: How the neocons and the religious right have betrayed the conservative movement. Real conservatives today, he says, "don't know whether to be manic or depressive or both." After all, Gold contends, George W. Bush has brought record deficits at home and starry-eyed crusades abroad. We have liberals for that. And, Gold says, Bush's package of "big government, big business and big religion" is the opposite of what Gold says conservativism should be about.

 

Gold's despair might sound odd to liberals, given last November's election. But he's been the odd man out ever since his childhood on Hobart Street.

 

"Growing up in Squirrel Hill, you know when you're poor," he recalls. From childhood, he says, he was "nauseated by liberal pieties" he heard from neighbors. While they talked about ending poverty on the other side of town, they scoffed at the poor kid just down the street. "It was like, ‘I don't want anything to do with these liberals, because they don't want anything to do with me.'"

 

But Pittsburgh also gave Gold a political model to aspire to: the first Pittsburgh Renaissance. "You had this heavily Democratic city, and all these Republicans in their world of Fox Chapel," he says. "But when people got together, they can accomplish miracles."

 

It was an early model of what Gold's book calls a "conservatism of aristocratic yet benign regard," a model he developed while attending Yale, serving in the Marine Corps and working for various think tanks. It's a model that stresses individual responsibility, sure. But unlike much right-wing rhetoric, it insists that calling for "personal responsibility" is no excuse for abandoning our own responsibilities: to treat each other fairly and provide genuine opportunity for all.

 

It's hard to imagine Gold, or his politics, coming from anywhere else. Western Pennsylvania has been a hotbed for two complementary yet competing political systems. On one side were working-class Democrats, who combined conservative social values with liberal stances on economic issues, and Rockefeller Republicans, fiscal conservatives who espoused tolerance and equality. Whatever the failings of Pittsburgh's political atmosphere, it once created useful political hybrids particularly suited to putting pragmatism before political ideology.

 

Outside Pittsburgh, though, Gold found that ideal betrayed. Conservatives, he discovered, had little vision of their own. "All they knew was, ‘If the Left is for it, we're against it,'" his book charges. "They abandoned humane virtue for the politics of mass resentment," fighting on the wrong side of civil rights during the 1960s...and of gay rights today.

 

In many ways, Gold is a textbook conservative. He advocates scrapping the Department of Education, and contends that if we really want to empower women in the Third World, we'd give them guns. But he also passionately opposes the war in Iraq and argues a moral, even "conservative," case for gay rights.

 

There's little room to discuss such complicated beliefs today. "We don't have conversations anymore; we just take pre-scripted conversations out of books," Gold laments. "It's part of this dumbing-down you see on Fox....The right likes to fight the left, and the left likes to fight the right."

 

The result isn't a dialogue; it's a kind of niche marketing in which we're sold only the ideas we want to hear. As Gold's book puts it, "[W]e find our culture...reduced to entertainment, and our entertainment to porn...and our politics to entertainment."

 

Even book sales are a matter of spin. With political books, Gold says, "The standard gimmick is...you send out people to buy them so they get on the New York Times bestseller list." That hasn't happened with his book. Partly that's because, as Gold admits, it's an uneven text with too much personal history. But partly it's because of the thing that makes the book worth reading: Its position can't be pigeonholed.

 

Still, Gold says, "A lot of conservatives have been telling me, ‘Yeah, you're right' or ‘I just don't know what to think.' They have nowhere else to go yet."

 

They could do worse than to return -- metaphorically, at least -- to the city Gold grew up in.

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