Canadians, Jews, and blacks: It sounds like a category for Jeopardy! or maybe a ranking, from worst to best, of the book topics which sell well. But it’s also a pretty comprehensive list of the “ethnic” groups who dominate American comedy. Throw in gays and fat guys and you’ve probably covered 80 percent of all successful stand-up comics and comic actors.
Why is that? I don’t know for sure, but I’ve always thought the best explanation is that these groups tend to be somewhat alienated from mainstream American culture. Canadians, for example, imbibe American pop culture without being fully part of it. That’s why they can spill over our border (with nary a peep from Pat Buchanan) and take the best funnyman jobs from hard working, “middle American” comics. The full list of comedic Canadian interlopers is endless: Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox, Ivan Reitman, Mort Sahl, etc.
Alienation is the source of so much humor (and art and philosophy) because it allows you to observe the silly paradoxes, hypocrisies, and false pieties of daily life. You need to understand what you’re commenting on without fully being a part of it. That’s why nerds end up being so successful as writers, directors, comics, etc. Sean Kelly, a founding editor of the National Lampoon and creator of the magazine’s “Canadian Corner,” explained to the New York Times in 1993, “You’re part of the culture,” he says, “but you’re observing that culture.” Paul Schaefer, Dave Letterman’s Canadian bandleader, compared the Canuck comedian phenomenon to the British Rock invasion. Much like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the Canadians “had an even more intense reverence for America than the Americans themselves.”
Anyway, I got to thinking about that while reading Paul Glastris’s cover story in The Washington Monthly this morning. I found it to be a real eye-opener. Apparently, the “conservative press” has no reluctance doing whatever it takes to win while, according to Glastris, the liberal press is constrained by its integrity, sense of fair play, and higher intellectual standards. Glastris writes, “to the conservative press, intellectual consistency is for, well, intellectuals. What’s more important is to stiffen the resolve of GOP lawmakers to fight the Manichean battle against liberalism.”
Let me concentrate on the media criticism because A) he mentions me by name and B) Glastris’s mistake is fairly simple: He doesn’t get it. For example, while paying me the compliment of putting me in more elevated company than I deserve, he writes:
Conservatives such as Robert Novak, Kate O’Beirne, and Jonah Goldberg are ideological warriors who attempt with every utterance to advance their cause. Their center-left counterparts, people such as Juan Williams, Margaret Carlson, and E.J. Dionne, simply don’t have the same killer instinct. While their sympathies are obvious, liberal pundits are at heart political reporters, not polemicists, who seem far more at ease on journalistic neutral ground, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, rather than in vigorously defending Democrats.
Well, first of all, Bob Novak criticizes Republicans all the time. So does Kate. And, I know that I’ve never considered myself a spokesman for the GOP. If I need to, I can furnish loads of quotes of me criticizing Republicans generally and Bush by name. But that’s secondary. Glastris’s real error is that he draws up the teams incorrectly. Juan Williams, Margaret Carlson, and E. J. Dionne, as liberal as they obviously are, are objective reporters by training while I’m not and never claimed to be (though I’ve done a fair share of reporting).
In this sense, speaking just for myself, my real counterparts are people like Molly Ivins, Michael Kinsley, Eric Alterman, Julianne Malveaux, Frank Rich, and other folks who are opinion journalists and critics but not reporters.
Whether or not I’m being modest or immodest putting myself at their level is beside the point, I will stake my integrity or intellectual consistency against theirs any day of the week. Many of the liberal opinion pundits found at the Nation — and, yes, even at The Washington Monthly — are often far more partisan than the conservatives and far more eager to go for the jugular. Hell, Julianne Malveaux publicly hoped that Clarence Thomas would eat so much fatty food, he’d drop dead. If that’s not going-for-the-jugular punditry, I don’t know what is.
In fact, Glastris’s mixing of apples and oranges reveals how fundamental his misunderstanding of the situation is. The reason Right-wing pundits are drawn from the ranks of the conservative opinion press while Left-wing pundits are drawn from elite newsrooms is that there are virtually no conservatives to be found in elite newsrooms. E. J. Dionne, Juan Williams, Margaret Carlson, David Broder, Jack Germond, Gloria Borger, Anthony Lewis, Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd, Eleanor Clift, Jonathan Alter, Bob Keller, Nicholas Kristoff, and Bob Herbert — to name just a smattering of America’s tiffany liberal pundits — were all at one time (or still are) conventional reporters.
Meanwhile, looking at the last ten years I can think of only one major non-liberal pundit to rise through the ranks of mainstream newsrooms, the irreplaceable Michael Kelly. Indeed, with the exception of Bob Novak, I can’t think of a single big-league conservative pundit who didn’t get where he is without going through the conservative press or some other nonconventional route. George Will, Pat Buchanan, William F. Buckley, the whole NR crowd, Tucker Carlson, etc.
The only “conservative” at the Times is William Safire and he got his start working for Nixon. Presumably if the New York Times had a single conservative in its ranks it would have tried to hire from within. The fact is, however, the paper of record purges its conservatives, it doesn’t reward them.
The example of Safire raises another funny point. Liberal pols have a much easier time getting gigs in elite journalistic organizations than conservatives do. Tim Russert, Hendrick Hertzberg, Hodding Carter, Bill Moyers, Jeff Greenfield: These guys don’t just become journalists, they actually become icons of journalistic probity. Meanwhile, conservatives leave Republican administrations and filter back into the conservative media. I’m not so much asserting that Russert is biased as bemoaning the assumption that conservatives are (of course, Moyers is a condescending lefty of staggering proportions).
Consider Glastris’s anger at another former Democratic aide turned establishment journalist. He writes,
George Stephanopoulos is supposed to be the liberal counterweight to George Will on ABC’s “This Week.” He performs the role well when he chooses to….Just as often, however, Stephanopoulos’s palpable desire to be accepted as a journalist leads him to value-neutral how-the-game-is-played analysis, or to gestures of unreciprocated fair-mindedness (“You know, I have to agree with George Will on this one”).
Poor liberalism. A soaked-to-the-bone liberal like Stephanopoulos has to cope with the headaches of switching between partisan and objective journalist, while it’s pretty much inconceivable that a conservative would be welcomed into the fold enough to even have that problem. Everything George Will says, typically, has the adjective “conservative” slapped on it. But the uninitiated viewer has to figure out if what Stephanopoulos is saying is “liberal opinion” or just straightforward “analysis” (a problem many viewers have with the mainstream press every single day). And this, according to Glastris, puts conservatives at an advantage. Weird, really weird. Paul, conservatives have learned to be “ideological warriors” because they’ve been fighting uphill, outgunned and outnumbered, for so long.
Alienation on the Right
Which brings me back to that seemingly irrelevant riff on Canadians at the top of the page. Glastris has a lot of interesting ideas, but the problem is that he’s, well, too partisan. Glastris’s entire argument seems to be based upon the belief that two wrongs make a right. He says, “the good news is that to beat the Republicans, the Democrats don’t have to fight like them. They simply need to remember how to fight like Democrats.” But his examples of how good Democrats fight, are for the most part, examples of intellectually dishonest hacks. He even concludes his essay by saying that Bill Clinton should suit up and become the party’s standard-bearer, an idea of such sand-pounding bone-headedness it staggers the imagination. By all means, push Bill Clinton into that briar patch.
The fact that he can see Bill Clinton as an intellectually honest Democratic pitchman shows how exhausted liberalism is. Glastris recognizes that the Democratic party’s ideological fires are barely more than cool embers these days, but he doesn’t fully grasp why. Let me help.
What does liberalism want that it doesn’t already have today? More insured people? Yawn. Better pay for teachers? Wahoo. Better prescription-drug coverage for….><Sgdyip9eyu97362jjxx///////////////////……… Whoops, sorry. My forehead plunked onto the keyboard because I passed out from the inevitable boredom of these arguments.
I’m not saying there aren’t important fights to be had over these issues but, face it, liberalism is here. With the possible exception of gay marriage, there is no ideologically exciting prize for liberals to even keep their eyes on.
Liberalism is on defense, because it basically has everything it wants. The language of the Clinton Democrats is inherently, small-”c,” conservative. Bill Clinton wanted to “save Social Security.” Al Gore promised to put anything not nailed down in a “lock box.” Environmentalists want to “preserve” the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, abortion zealots wanted “protect a woman’s right to choose.” Even lefty radicals want to “Stop” globalization, capitalism, corporate stigma against the unwashed etc.
Conservatism is on the offensive ideologically, not because we have less intellectual integrity than the Joe Conasons or Robert Scheers of the world (I mean, come on!), but because we are on the offensive. Period. Conservatives of all stripes — neocons, paleocons, libertarians, even the McCainiacs — want to change some, most or all of the fundamental assumptions of the culture and the politics it produces.
So does the radical Left, but they don’t like anything about America. They speak a foreign language and cheer our enemies. But conservatives, like those Canadian comedians, love America and speak its language; we feel alienated enough to see what’s wrong with the status quo (and make fun of it) but feel close enough to the basic goodness of America that we can speak with passion about how to fix it. Mainstream liberals feel the passion perhaps and they love America too, but they don’t read the New York Times or listen to the drooling prattle coming out of the Hollywood “intelligentsia” and feel the alienation, or the old-fashioned anger, conservatives feel. Which is why their ideas are invariably defensive and, let’s face it, boring.