Q: How did you come to be a conservative?
A: I've always been conservative as long as I can remember. I come from a middle-class Jewish family in New York and my parents were sort of FDR liberals. Perhaps in rebellion against that my brother became a conservative, he was 8 years older than I so I followed him. I was living in New York in the ‘50s. It was the age of William Buckley and the National Review and Ayn Rand. There were all sorts of conservative resources in New York. I used to go to hear these people speak. That's how it happened.
Q: Did you do some time in the Rand circle there?
A: Not really. I suppose you could say I'm another case of "it all began with Ayn Rand" because I read Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged pretty early in life. It had a big influence on me. I used to go hear her speak but I never met her or participated in any institutional Randian thing.
Q: Was [Ludwig von] Mises an important influence on you?
A: Oh yes. Again, it came through my brother who was studying at NYU Law School, specifically with a man named Sylvester Petro who was the great conservative Labor Law figure. The man who wrote the book on the Kohler strike and the only conservative voice in the area of Labor Law. He knew Mises and had his students read Mises. I picked up Human Action that way and read it, about age 15, maybe 14 come to think of it. Eventually I attended Mises's seminar.
Q: You were 17 then?
A: No, I was a child tragedy. You know, I was a child prodigy then I ended up being a tragedy [laughs]. I was 16 when I showed up at college.
Q: Seems like conservatives have often ignored popular culture, except to do passing belittlements of it. I read your book. You're taking popular culture pretty seriously. Why are you different?
A: First let me say that I think conservatives are making a big tactical mistake by ignoring popular culture. They really are losing a whole generation of students or are severely impairing their ability to speak to them by not being able to speak to students in their own terms. If for no other reason, conservatives ought to take interest in popular culture, along the lines of the cultural literacy argument, that to be able to relate conservative ideas meaningfully to today's students, you have to know where they're coming from and where they're coming from is popular culture.
But I'll go deeper than that and say that another mistake that conservatives make is: If they truly have faith in the free market, how can they not have faith in popular culture? That is, one of the chief remaining arguments of the Left that has any resonance is that capitalism debases culture. The Left has lost the economic argument; it's very hard to say that capitalism impoverishes people's material lives anymore. The Left has basically retreated to a cultural argument, that capitalism debases people's spiritual lives and that the culture produced by capitalism is base and degraded.