Tag Archives: Conservatism

Highbrow vs. Lowbrow

Sonny Bunch had a smart comment on the latest Culture11 postmortem:

Yeah, but this is a problem with the culture writ large, not just in conservative spheres. Example: In my day job, I’m a film critic at the Washington Times, and my boss just came over and talked about the DVD reviews that generate web traffic (workout DVDs) and the ones that don’t (Criterion DVDs). I bet if you look at sales numbers you’d see a similar trend (and you certainly see a similar trend at, say, Amazon when comparing run of the mill tripe to quality DVDs, like those produced by the Criterion Co). It’s tough to discuss highbrow (or even middlebrow) stuff and be popular.

A fair point. But if you’re a magazine of ideas like National Review or a national newspaper like the Washington Times, there’s something to be said for acquiring a certain highbrow cultural cachet. In much the same way that capturing the 20-35 year old male demographic is more important to ad execs than American Idol-type mass appeal, becoming an important cultural barometer can be more lucrative (and certainly more influential) than churning out tons of workout DVD reviews. The importance of a publication like the New Yorker, for example, can’t be explained by sales figures alone.

I’m sure it’s pretty tough to hit that cultural sweet spot, but appealing to a mass audience has its own limitations. I can’t really take Big Hollywood seriously after reading Dirk Benedict analogize the new BSG series to castration. Is a site that features posts like “Jack Bauer and the Pope” ever in danger of become a real hub for engaging cultural criticism? Or is it simply a culturally-tinged version of RedState or Little Green Footballs? Culture11, at least, had the potential to become an important, right-of-center intellectual publication. The significance of that type of outlet can’t always be measured by comparing traffic statistics.

Liberals seem to be better at appealing to a highbrow cultural audience, probably because their subscribers are already thinking along the same cultural and political wavelengths. But I think there is an audience out there for serious cultural criticism from a right-of-center perspective. Take it away, Mr. Poulos:

“The right has a lot to learn from people who are completely outside of it,” he explained later. If they did that, they “might actually win some latecomers, people who have lived unhappy or unsatisfying lives. And if they show up at the door of the right and say, ‘Gosh, my super-transgressive life is sort of unrewarding, maybe I’ve exhausted this mine of self-indulgence and personal freedom and saying ‘fuck the man,’ and the right is completely disinterested in engaging those people, I think they’re missing out.”

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Larison Brings the Funny

Here:

The contrast Homans makes between C11 and Big Hollywood is instructive, and tends to confirm my rather jaundiced view of the inverse relationship between success and quality. Essentially, on one site you would find intelligent cultural criticism, and on the other you would find a lot of the cultural whining that seems especially concentrated among actors who have a political grudge with the rest of their own industry. In the former, there would be smart takes on new films by Suderman, for example, and in the latter you get Dirk Benedict complaining about how feminism corrupted the new BSG or Breitbart going off on another one of his insane rants. One site was challenging, the other flatters its audience’s prejudices. Naturally, the second one survives and thrives.*

And as if on cue, National Review’s John Miller chimes in, pointing to NRO’s laughably bad lists of conservative rock songs (Blink 182’s “Stay Together for the Kids” is number 17) and conservative films (300? Really?) as examples of serious right-of-center cultural criticism.

But shoving round cinematic pegs into square conservative holes is not serious cultural engagement – it’s wishful thinking. This, of course, is precisely the approach that Culture11 sought to correct by dealing with the culture as it is, not as NRO thinks it should be.

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One of them

I was a bit perplexed by this Brad DeLong entry, which purports to criticize Ross Douthat for expressing reservations about hooking up with a girl in college:

From Ross Douthat, Privilege, bottom of p. 184:

One successful foray ended on the guest bed of a high school friend’s parents, with a girl who resembled a chunkier Reese Witherspoon drunkenly masticating my neck and cheeks. It had taken some time to reach this point–“Do most Harvard guys take so long to get what they want?” she had asked, pushing her tongue into my mouth. I wasn’t sure what to say, but then I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted. My throat was dry from too much vodka, and her breasts, spilling out of pink pajamas, threatened my ability to. I was supposed to be excited, but I was bored and somewhat disgusted with myself, with her, with the whole business… and then whatever residual enthusiasm I felt for the venture dissipated, with shocking speed, as she nibbled at my ear and whispered–“You know, I’m on the pill…”

What squicks me out is (a) that the real turnoff for Ross Douthat is that she has taken responsibility for her own fertility and gone on the pill, and (b) that Ross Douthat does not take this to be a learning moment–is not self-reflective enough to say “Hmmm… If there are other men like me who are turned off by women who take responsibility for fertility control, isn’t that likely to be a cause of more abortions?”

Combine that with what Ross Douthat’s dismissal of Belle Sawhill’s point that free-as-in-beer (but not free-as-in-no-hassle) birth control appears to prevent 1/5 of abortions–and there is an awful lot here not to like, and an awfully good reason to think that Tyler Cowen or Kerry Howley or Virginia Postrel or any of a large number of other candidates would be an infinitely better choice for the job.

And, of course, there is the other point: here is a Reese Witherspoon look-alike who has offered Ross Douthat the extremely precious gift of wanting to make love to him, and he writes her into his book in this way with what look to be sufficient identifying details.

Perhaps I’m misreading the excerpt DeLong highlights (I haven’t read Privilege), but it seems to me that Douthat is giving voice to a fairly common sentiment on college campuses across the country – that is, the regret and disillusionment that inevitably follow any ill-conceived hook-up. Given the context, I don’t think this is an attack on female contraception as much as it is an attempt to grapple with the problems of devaluing sexual relationships. It’s particularly ironic that DeLong refers to the encounter as a “precious gift” – I’m quite sure there’s nothing special about drunkenly fooling around in an absent parent’s bedroom.

Now, I’m not sure how I feel about all this, but I’m glad that someone out there is at least trying to grapple with these issues in an intelligent and sensitive manner. I should also mention that discussions like this one were noticeably absent from my (recent) college experience, and I don’t think any of DeLong’s proposed replacements at the Times – all writers I admire, by the way – offer a comparable cultural perspective.  A lot of people have suggested that Douthat’s brand of reformist conservatism is a bit too close to Brooks’ big government tendencies, but one of the reasons I look forward to reading his column is that it provides a platform for a brand of cultural conservatism that rarely gets mentioned in the major metropolitan dailies (much less discussed respectfully).

Over the past few years, many of the most interesting and challenging writers I’ve encountered have all shared certain socially conservative tendencies (or at least attempt to engage cultural traditionalists with some regularity). I’m not particularly religious and I don’t share a lot of their core assumptions, but I’m consistently challenged by their writing and now regret that it’s taken me so long to discover such a rich vein of argumentation. Many people, I think, would benefit from at least being exposed to this intellectual tradition, and giving a New York Times column to a smart young social conservative is a strong first step in that direction.

(Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan)

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Better Gatekeepers, Please

TNR has a fun piece on the decline and fall of the (in)famous Pajamas Media blogger network:

Instead, many of the laid-off bloggers have found a different way to express their angst about Pajamas Media’s business strategy: They’re calling the owners of PJM sell-outs. “The initial purpose was to support citizen-blogging as a counterweight to the MSM, but they’ve been getting away from that for years now,” says Goldstein, echoing statements I’d heard from other bloggers like Guy Rado, Rusty Shackleford,and others. “My biggest criticism is that they’ve become what they’re fighting against.”

A voluntary association of freedom-fighting bloggers was a romantic notion, but I think the Pajamas Media experiment is an apt reminder that media gatekeepers – editors, fact-checkers, reporters – serve a pretty useful function. Before blogs (B.B.?), the balance of power heavily favored  the media establishment, but now I’m afraid the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Ironically, the brains behind Pajamas Media have belatedly recognized that an amorphous blogger alliance is a) too prone to crazy conspiracism and b) can’t produce interesting stories with any degree of consistency, and has since reoriented their business model around several A-list Internet commentators. The problem with this isn’t that Pajamas Media is suddenly emulating the dread MSM’s approach to reporting and editing – it’s that they’ve chosen the wrong gatekeepers to helm the new enterprise.

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Rush Week

I wanted to steer clear of commenting on Rush Limbaugh’s latest, if only because I don’t really pay attention to the man’s show and have no desire to involve myself in the emerging free-for-all. But a commenter at E.D. Kain’s place raised an interesting point: Limbaugh’s attacks on new policy ideas are driven by a genuine fear of ceding too much ground to the Left, as many conservative reformists are increasingly willing to accept some measure of centralized, state-oriented action.

There is an air of plausibility to this argument, and I admit there’s something attractive about the idea of battening down the hatches, weathering the current storm, and then emerging from below decks with the pure, unadulterated ideals of Republicanism still intact (whatever they may be). But there are a few obvious flaws to this line of thinking.

Freddie deBoer (among others) frequently argues that Republicans have trouble governing because they’re not equipped to govern. In other words, a movement that objects to the very existence of an Environmental Protection Agency or a Commerce Department isn’t well prepared to run the same organizations it spends so much time criticizing. Viewed in this context, Bush’s cronyism becomes understandable (if not excusable), because few Republican wonks were lining up to staff FEMA or the Department of Transportation in 2001.

Limited government, free market reform, decentralization – these can’t be wished into existence. They require some sort of blueprint for implementation. To take a simple hypothetical, say you want to abolish the Food and Drug Administration because you believe the market will do a better job of regulating product quality and safety. Leaving aside the validity of this claim, it’s worth remembering that there are still serious practical barriers to abolishing an entire federal department.

For example, the market may be unable to instantly regulate product quality after decades of federal supervision. The idea of independent consumer guides arising in place of the FDA is certainly plausible, but there’s probably going to be some lag between removing federal oversight and the development of self-regulating market mechanisms.

So what do you do? Do you appoint an interim oversight committee to sort things out? Do you gradually phase out the FDA’s regulatory duties? Or do you simply move on and accept the risk of disease, injury, and even death from defective products?

Of course, no one is proposing the immediate abolition of the FDA, but it’s easy to imagine similar pitfalls stymying other efforts at small-government reform. For all this talk of returning to Republican roots, it’s also worth remembering that conservatives and libertarians are not defending the status quo – and rightly so, because on many of the day’s major issues (healthcare comes to mind), the status quo sucks. Plausible small government policies don’t appear out of thin air, and criticizing new ideas is a surefire way to discourage any coherent alternative to technocratic liberalism from emerging.

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Cosmopolitanism, Rightly Understood

Through the good offices of William Brafford, I’ve discovered the Gadfly, which seems like a pretty neat publication. I do take issue with this post, however:

There is very little of interest in the modern sophisticate, for he is himself interested in very little. The aesthetic sensibility of cosmopolitanism is something akin to five colors of paint mingled aimlessly on a canvas (in fact, that is quite literally his artistic sensibility, to judge by much modern art)–difference is eventually subsumed into a vague and dreary sameness. Under the reign of cosmopolitanism, the fruits of culture become merely interchangeable units of pleasure: “What shall we have for dinner tonight?” asks the sophisticate. “What game shall we play? In what dance shall we dabble? What factory-made relic of which sacred icon shall we purchase to place on our mantle?”

As a critique of urban hipsters obsessed with the latest in Ethiopian cuisine, I think this is spot-on. But cultural dilettantism is emphatically not the same as cosmopolitanism, which implies an appreciation of foreign culture that goes beyond naming a few Belgian craft beers off the top of your head. Think “sand-mad Englishmen” or the Foreign Service’s Arabists – these are people who sought to understand themselves through understanding the Other.

I admit I’m rather biased, having benefited greatly from growing up overseas. But there’s something deeply unattractive about the sort of self-satisfied parochialism that holds any knowledge of the outside world inevitably demeans our appreciation of hearth and home: “To love the deep emptiness of a blue winter sky, or a gnarled oak dangling a tire swing from its twisted fingers; to prefer bacon and eggs really and truly to a croissant: these are the first stirrings of a truly human existence.” I confess a certain weakness for croissants, but that hasn’t compromised my ability to appreciate a hearty Southern breakfast. If anything, exposure to a world outside the United States has done wonders for my understanding of our storied national inheritance. How does one celebrate one’s home without understanding its unique place in the world? How many jaded expatriates have gone abroad and then come back, exclaiming “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone!” Obnoxious hipsters raise everyone’s hackles, but real cosmopolitanism sharpens rather than dulls our appreciation of  where we come from.

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Wow

It’s rare to stumble across an unambiguously racist comment on a putatively mainstream political website, so I was pretty shocked when this popped up  (emphasis mine):

Setting aside the fact that Israel is a friend to the Western world while many Palestinians would prefer to see us dead, that Israel wants peace and the Palestinians want genocide, and that the Pals are a pathetic, parasitic, backwards, savage, unsympathetic people who wouldn’t know what to do with a state if they had it, consider the message that is sent when the world backs these sort of tactics.

The word “racist” gets thrown around with aplomb these days, so it’s important to distinguish between bog-standard blogospheric vitriol and a few cold, hard facts. Describing the Palestinian people as uniformly savage and parasitic is about as racist as you can get.

A few months ago, William Brafford wrote about my least-favorite political disclaimer: “Yes, I’m a conservative, but not that kind of conservative.” I won’t pretend that my disgust with the movement’s ugly underbelly is somehow representative of the Republican Party’s welldocumented troubles with the youth vote, but the fact that a movement organ will publish something like this without batting an eye says something extremely disturbing about the state of American conservatism.

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