Essayist Wins Repute for Deconstructing Dogmas of the Left

Article excerpt

NEW YORK - One of Heather Mac Donald's more memorable Christmases occurred at her home in Los Angeles during the 1960s when her brother, a budding revolutionary at the University of California at Berkeley, brought home a bunch of Chairman Mao posters as family gifts.

"It was the classic idiotic rebellion," she says ruefully. "I was, by default, a liberal because in this culture, if you're not affirmatively conservative, you're a liberal without thought."

Miss Mac Donald is one of the most potent voices for conservative intellectual thought in the country, commenting on everything from the Rev. Al Sharpton to welfare cheats.

Her new book, "The Burden of Bad Ideas" (Ivan R. Dee, 2000), is a collection of her essays that appeared in the City Journal, a quarterly publication of the Manhattan Institute. The book has caught the attention of urban planners, academics and especially politicians.

According to columnist George Will: "No journalist now writing about urban problems has produced a body of work matching that of Heather Mac Donald."

Hudson Institute President Herb London says, "Like so many of us, she's a liberal who was intellectually mugged by reality."

Miss Mac Donald, 44, is not a member of the leggy blonde brigade that serves up volumes of verbiage on TV talk shows. A tall, dark-haired, slim woman with no makeup, she appears occasionally on television, but more often writes unseen, working at her desk on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

In conversation, she has the wide-eyed look of one who is perpetually amazed by what she considers the philosophical lunacy of mainstream culture.

"I wasn't a movement conservative," she says, "but then I sat down to write about welfare, talked to people and saw how it had totally destroyed their lives."

When she began her studies in linguistics and comparative literature at Yale University in the 1970s, soon-to-be-popular theories on race, gender and diversity were already in full sway.

"To me, the greatest good in life was to be an academic, to be able to study in the great libraries and read German romantic poetry and Wordsworth," she says. Instead, "post-structuralism" (alternately known as deconstructionism or post-modernism) prevailed, a theory that held truth as illusive, at best. "Text" was all that mattered, went the mantra, and the search for facts was a futile exercise.

So pervasive is the influence of the deconstructionist/relativist ideology that an essayist in the New York Observer last month concluded that President-elect George W. Bush (Yale, class of '68) is a post-modernist. Why? Because he opposed recounting the Florida ballots, thereby exhibiting a distrust of ever knowing the truth.

After studying apostles of deconstructionist thought, such as Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida, Miss Mac Donald graduated summa cum laude from Yale in 1978. Two years later, when she received her master's degree in English on a Mellon fellowship at Cambridge University, the transition from deconstructive language to identity politics already had been made.

"I finally realized that my whole college education had been a waste," she said in a recent interview. "Now you have literature professors bragging they never read books. People write law review articles about the stiffness of their hair. It's all, `Let's beat up on the whites because they enslaved people of color.' "

She briefly returned to Yale in 1980 for graduate work, only to be repelled by the growing radical feminism and race-baiting there. In an effort to explore further the meaning of "texts" - what words and authors actually mean - she studied for a law degree at Stanford University, writing for the law review. …