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Keep a close watch behind your ear.

IN THE 1956 VERSION of the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, alien forces walk undetected among the town's people by quietly invading the bodies of residents. The only give-away that the librarian is no longer the librarian is a subtle little nodule that has developed behind his right ear. The pivotal scene in which that key feature is discovered is what pops to my mind whenever I find myself on the side of a conservative viewpoint.

The Washington Times, like The Wall Street Journal, is a newspaper that is forceful in its presentation and defense of conservative issues. It is a major player in the intellectual diet of the conservative movement.

I have been a writer on the Times's editorial page for five years. Occasionally I agree with my colleagues on one point or another.

Ordinarily, that observation would pass with no note. But when you are the lone alleged liberal in the company of conservatives, you think about these things. You worry about body snatchers. There were times when I worried whether a mutation had escaped my attention, especially after an editorial meeting where my head was nodding in the same direction as every other dome in the room. Those moments set me to pacing the carpet, fingering the back of my right ear, checking for protuberances.

We all have issues about which we have strong beliefs. At least we ought to if we are in the persuasion business. But nothing tests our allegiance to those beliefs more than politics and a dissonant view.

Most ordinary folks don't have to defend their beliefs. They simply gravitate to the company of people with similar views, largely avoiding challenge and confrontation. Within a cocoon of affirming voices, much that is horse pucky slides by unchallenged and unsubstantiated. The I-know-what-you-mean grunt, smile, or nod frees most people from articulating a compelling defense.

Well, that works just swell on the Washington champagne and brie circuit where who you know is more important than what you say, and no one is listening to your epistles anyway. It even works on some newspapers. But not so when the makeup of the editorial staff is configured to articulate the institutional voice of the publisher, whether it be liberal, conservative, or squishy. Try that wishy-washy on-the-one-hand-this and on-the-other-hand-that stuttering stuff in some editorial meetings and you will have certain of your body parts handed to you.

When I began working at the Times, Ronald Reagan was president and the Moral Majority was the Kitchen Cabinet. The rhetoric flew fast and furiously, and the ideology of the Republican right wing never failed to give me a cold, hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. Nonetheless, I joined the staff because I never could resist an invitation to stimulate my intellectual curiosity.

The affable, quick-witted page editor hoped to tickle discussion that was threatening to become parochial. To my amusement (in retrospect) I guess I was supposed to be the "liberal balance" on this staff of seven. Great plan! But let me tell you, my lonesome black female supposedly liberal self offered about as much balance as one can offer a bullpen with five ratchet-jawed pit bulls. The guys were quite aggressive, to say the least. Every meeting was a Maalox Moment.

But if I learned anything, it was how to cope and defend. I also learned that occasionally my colleagues and I genuinely did see things the same way. And then sometimes it only looked that way. Like the time one of the writers urged the South African government to free Nelson Mandela from prison. Looking bemused, the writer came over to my desk and said, "I never thought I would write a 'free Mandela' editorial." As he walked away I strained my eyes looking for growths behind his ear.

Then I read the piece. He had argued not that freeing Mandela -- who was in ill health -- was the right thing to do, but that if the ANC leader died in prison the world would blame the government, and South African officials unfairly would have hell to pay at the hands of the ANC.

I have learned that like any minority that has been kept down for a long time, conservatives want to be heard. Once they find the forum and the power, as they have for the past dozen years, they fight like beasts to hold on. So in their defensiveness anyone who resembled a threat (real or imagined) to their beliefs was not going to get much of a hearing. Such persons could just toddle on over to the dominant media culture for that platform.

Meanwhile, there was the moment to savor. After a time, the conservative movement seemed to lose its cohesiveness as disappointment with George Bush mounted. Conservatives started disagreeing with each other publicly, and I must say it was kind of fun watching the hairline crack in the movement gradually splay. The paleocons dissed the neocons and the neocons contemplated their navels. The conservative right blasted the moderates. Just figuring out why they were angry with each other was an interesting study.

My views always were more suited to the dominant media culture, although even there they would not be a square fit. Despite what are outward signs to others of liberal bearing (black and female) I happen to be moderate such that some traditional liberals might think me conservative. But I'm not moderate enough for conservatives to mistake me for one of them. I'm a moderate who believes in a woman's right to choose. I also believe people ought to suffer the consequences of their rotten behavior even if it means execution. If you'd asked me six years ago, I would have said I'm against capital punishment.

I didn't really find out these things about myself until I was in the company of opposites and forced to think about what I stand for. And I keep learning. As I formulate my beliefs and prepare them for defending, about once a week I tap my finger behind my right ear, just checking for growths.

NCEW member Allegra Bennett is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:defending one's belief
Author:Bennett, Allegra
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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