The 17th-century republican political thinker, James Harrington, conceived of a rule for dividing spoils fairly. Generally referred to as the “pie game”–andpopularized by the political philosopher John Rawls–the idea is fairly simple. If you’re going to divide a pie between two people, one person should cut, but the other person should get first choice of which slice he wants. The wisdom behind such an arrangement is that self-interest is husbanded to the public good and fair play. Who knew that generations of little kids splitting candy bars had stumbled on a profound insight into the nature of a just society?
But I didn’t think of the metaphorical pie (mmm meta-floor pie) to talk about Harrington’s views on the separation of powers. Rather, it came to mind when reading Brian Anderson’s much discussed–and deservedly so–essay in the current issue of City Journal, as well as the reaction to it.
Now, I agree with a great deal of what Brian has to say. Indeed, if I may say so, I’ve said much of it myself. For example, he spends considerable time discussing the cultural significance of South Park’s anti-PC humor, making a very similar point to the one I made in my 2000 article on The Simpsons. His larger point about how conservatives are no longer losing the culture war is one I’ve raised more than a few times (See here, here, and here, for just three examples). And, in the larger sense I am immensely proud (“Well, you’re certainly proud and immense,” my couch just yelled) of the role NRO has played in the general trends Anderson discusses. When the history of all this–whatever “this” actually is–is written, the contribution of NRO to the remarketing of conservatism to a new generation will, I hope, get lengthy and favorable treatment.
Okay, I’m done tooting my own horn (“Good! That ruined Pee Wee Herman’s career”–the couch).
But considering how many folks on the web have touted Anderson’s article as something of a manifesto or watershed, I think it might be worth making a few contrary points.
WINNING MORE WITH LESS
Yes, yes, Fox News has its head and its heart wired together for some full-tilt boogie for freedom and justice. Absolutely: NRO remains the Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu waza Banga of the worldwide web. I couldn’t agree more that the blogosphere serves as a digitized sprinkler system of intellectual whup-ass against the elite media. Dan Rather has gotten so weird, any day now he’s going to simply sign off his broadcasts with “Look! Cows!” Etc. All those clichés are true.
But, in all of this euphoria some folks seem to be losing sight of something fairly obvious. Conservatives are still astoundingly outgunned and out manned. It’s bully for us that the Right is having so much success with the tools at our disposal–cable TV, AM radio, websites, blogs, mime–but the tools at our disposal are still far, far less potent than the tools in the Left’s utility belt.
Think about it: If we’d really won a culture war–with all of the aggrandizement of territory implied by such a term–wouldn’t our troops be raising our flags in a few more enemy forts? Sure, we’ve mounted a few heads on a few pikes. But Phil Donahue did most of his damage 20 years ago. By the time he suited up for MSNBC, he was less a formidable culture warrior and more like one of those WWI veterans who sits outside the VFW talking about putting the kibosh on the Kaiser. And, sure, David Brooks now writes for the New York Times, and hooray for that. But he’s still the “house goy” over there, ideologically speaking. Meanwhile, I don’t see Harvard, Yale, ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Hollywood, the Episcopal Church, or the Courts, getting demonstrably more conservative.
Which brings me back to Harrington’s pie. If conservatives have such a lock on the culture these days, as Al Gore, Al Franken, and others keep insisting, why don’t we just switch sides? The Left can have Fox News, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, the lavish offices of National Review and The Weekly Standard, as well as Sean Hannity’s and Rush Limbaugh’s airtime. The gangs at the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation will clear out their desks, give John Podesta the code to the Xerox machine, and tell Eric Alterman where in the neighborhood to buy the best gyros.
In return, we’d like the keys to the executive bathrooms at ABC, CBS and NBC, please. We’d like the cast of Fox and Friends to take over The Today Show’s studios (“and tell Couric to take her Cabbage Patch dolls with her!”). We want Ramesh Ponnuru as the editor of the New York Times and Rich Lowry can have his choice between Time and Newsweek. Matt Labash will get Esquire and let’s set up Rick Brookhiser at Rolling Stone (that way they won’t have to change their drug coverage). Andrew Sullivan can have The New York Times Magazine. Robert Bork will be the dean of the Yale Law School and the faculty of Hillsdale and Harvard will simply switch places. Cornell West will be airbrushed out of The Matrix and Harvey Mansfield will take his place (though convincing him say anything other than “you call that a haircut?” will be hard). NRO will get the bazillions of dollars spent by the editors of Salon and Slate, and those guys can start paying their authors with chickens and irregular tube socks made in Albania.
In other words, talk to me about how we’ve won the culture war when Dinesh D’Souza wins a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and Maya Angelou has to blog about it because no one at the New York Times will run her pieces.
You get the point. The bitch-and-moan brigades of American liberalism fume that the Right has achieved ideological parity–or at least competitiveness–and assume the Right has some unfair advantage when the fact is that they’re the ones with the unfair advantage. They’ve just become increasingly inept at exploiting it (though let’s not underestimate how much damage they’ve done already). We have a few magazines, a few think tanks, some websites, and a handful of cable comedians and cartoons. They have the entire Ivy League–never mind, most of the professional academic, legal, and artistic associations, the museums, etc. Harvard’s endowment alone is almost surely greater that the combined funds of the entire Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, including our foundations, think tanks, journals, and bowling leagues.
MAYBE THE LEFT JUMPED THE SHARK?
Of course, we should be very proud about how much more we’re doing with so much less, but seen from this light we might also consider the possibility that our “victory” in the culture war has more to do with the Left’s self-immolation than anything else. After all, as Anderson notes, Fox News still has far fewer viewers than even CBS. Though that might partly be explained by the fact that many of CBS’s viewers can’t get the orderly to change the channel on the nursing home’s TV.
It’s obvious that they still control the commanding heights of the culture but maybe their intellectual artillery shoots blanks? For example, John Podesta, who’s started the new liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, keeps saying that they still need to figure out what their ideas are. You’d think someone who so self-consciously models his efforts on the conservative movement’s successes would realize that the ideas usually come before the groundbreaking for the building to house them. If you build it, they will come, may have worked in Field of Dreams, but it doesn’t work that way when it comes to the battle of ideas.
This probably explains why the Left is so terrified by Fox News. Sure, liberals used to say, let the conservatives have their little magazines and equal-time soundbites, what’s the harm? But Fox is a mass-market outlet working outside the conventional wisdom of contemporary liberalism. It is the first mainstream cultural institution in nearly two generations–save perhaps for the U.S. military–where intelligent non-liberals actively try to undermine the assumption of the liberal elite.
As a side note, while I agree Fox News is conservative, I think its conservatism is overemphasized and its anti-cosmopolitanism is underemphasized. You see, Fox doesn’t apologize for being an American news organization–much like many news organizations of the 1940s and 1950s and completely unlike almost all other leading journalistic enterprises today (See “Enlightened Times“). The thinking of the elite liberal media establishment can be summarized thus: They’ve convinced themselves that “objectivity” requires that they never offend foreign murderers or their sympathizers by suggesting America might be right about something. Globalization has only accelerated this miscalculation and its dire consequences.
The threat posed by Fox News was confirmed when liberal advocates for “media diversity” condemned the one and only major news outlet which contributes to real diversity. Even if you think Fox is horrendous, it is impossible to claim it doesn’t contribute to media diversity.
CONTRA-SOUTH PARK REPUBLICANISM
One last thing: I’m not so sure how much I buy into this “South Park Republican” business. Take it from the man who suggested during the Florida recount that “Hanging Chad” was a great name for a necrophilic gay porn movie: I’m all for un-PC humor. But mocking the Left is not the same thing as building up the Right.
I think it’s great news that conservatives don’t just laugh solely at Latin puns and P. G. Wodehouse readings (though I’d hate for conservatives to turn their backs completely on that stuff). And I am delighted that the right-wingers are no longer the kids who are “accidentally” given the wrong address for the best parties. And a full Duff-Man “booyah!” for South Park’s jokes about cripples, I guess. But mightn’t this be just another sign that the Left is spent rather than a sign that the Right is triumphant? And, more important, isn’t that the way conservatives should want it?
Political conservatism is supposed to be a partial philosophy of life, it’s not supposed to be our 24-hour-a-day content provider for joy and meaning and mirth. I don’t know that I want a bunch of intentionally right-wing cartoons or TV shows out there any more than I want intentionally left-wing ones. Moreover, I don’t know that you can extrapolate from the fact that some Republican kids like South Park that, therefore, there’s any such thing as a unifying set of beliefs among them. After all, there are plenty of Democrats who like South Park too (and libertarians and paleocons and neocons and Fabian Socialists). I’m all for fighting culture wars, but my idea of success isn’t to replace an un-fun, un-curious, untruthful program of ideological social engineering with a right-wing version of the same. I guess my problem with “South Park Republicanism” is that it strikes me–much like the “Crunchy Con” stuff–as an attempt to make “good things” conservative and “bad things” liberal. I do think there are serious generational differences with today’s crop of college conservatives, but maybe we can find something more substantial to hang them on than a head count of the self-described Republican kids who laugh every time Kenny’s killed on South Park.