Politics & Policy

The Rage against the Machine — Understanding the Milo Phenomenon

(Photo: Adam Hicks/Dreamstime)
The folk-hero Right lives, eats, and breathes defiance in the face of leftism’s overwhelming cultural dominance.

Last week Bryan Curtis, the editor-at-large of the The Ringer, Bill Simmons’s interesting new sports and pop-culture website, wrote a much-discussed piece called “Sportswriting Has Become a Liberal Profession — Here’s How It Happened.” It was refreshingly self-aware in the way the best writing from inside a liberal bubble can be. Here was a man of the Left dropping any pretense of objectivity and declaring, “Today, sports writing is basically a liberal profession, practiced by liberals who enforce an unapologetically liberal code.”

He went even further: He questioned the career “viability” not only of Trump-supporting sportswriters but also of establishment conservatives. Curtis asked, “Could someone even be a Paul Ryan–friendly sportswriter  —  knocking out their power rankings while tweeting that Obamacare is a failure and the Iran deal was a giveaway of American sovereignty?”

Curtis is woke liberal, so he’s just fine with all this. Sure, he’s tolerant enough to leave room for a “David Frum or Ross Douthat of sportswriting,” a person with “wrong-headed but interesting arguments.” But here’s the caveat: Curtis is tolerant “as long as nobody believe[s] them.” If the Ross Douthat of sportswriting developed a real following, would the profession unite to excise the political malignancy?

I bring up Bryan Curtis and sportswriting because you simply can’t understand Milo Yiannopoulos (or, for that matter, Ann Coulter or Donald Trump) without understanding the level of conservative rage and frustration at the leftist takeover of our nation’s leading, ostensibly “neutral” cultural institutions, and the corresponding arrogance and ignorance that spews from the nation’s commanding cultural heights.

In the academy, in mainstream media, in pop culture, in large corporations, and now even in industries with heavily conservative audiences (like sports), workplace after workplace is stocked almost exclusively with men and women of the Left. That’s why even mainstream media outlets that try to be fair often fail. That’s why so much of pop culture grotesquely caricatures, say, people of faith. They don’t encounter thoughtful Evangelicals ever, much less at work (or as part of the creative process). That’s why companies launch progressive crusades. Their internal constituencies demand that the company be as woke as they are, and it gives their (nearly) uniformly liberal workforce a sense of mission beyond “mere” profit-making.

The law of group polarization works its magic. Articulated by Cass Sunstein in a 1999 paper, the law posits that “in a striking empirical regularity, deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments.” In plain English, this means that like-minded groups grow more extreme over time, and that like-mindedness sometimes pushes groups toward so-called cascades — where they move quite rapidly to new consensus. (Think, for example, of the incredible speed at which it became bigoted to declare that men can’t get pregnant.)

Those on the receiving end of group polarization experience a wall of ignorance and intolerance. Spend much time on an elite campus, and you’ll be amazed at the sheer paucity of conservative voices. Entire faculty departments don’t include a single conservative voice. The result is a community that often can’t conceive of a single, non-bigoted reason for classical conservative social views.

There is no good answer to this group polarization, but conservatives have generally tried three different approaches: Reason with the machine, replace the machine, or rage against the machine.

Conservatives who reason with the machine are those who aim to join elite institutions and thrive within them. Numbered in their ranks are the precious few consistent conservatives who can gain tenure, or land column space at major newspapers, or write screenplays. The path is narrow, and few can walk down that road. It typically involves admission to an elite institution, a level of accomplishment that exceeds that of your more liberal peers, and then a delicate dance within that institution — where you express yourself enough to maintain your voice but not so much that you trigger an overwhelming internal backlash.

Then there are the conservatives who seek to replace the machine. In essence, this means creating parallel institutions that compete with elite liberal outlets for religious, cultural, and political influence. This is the conservative think tank or the conservative college. This is talk radio, Fox News, or The Blaze. This is contemporary Christian music or Christian filmmaking such as God’s Not Dead. This is National Review, the Weekly Standard, or Commentary.

Finally, there is the rage against the machine. This is the outlet for conservative fury — the pent-up frustrations at liberal arrogance and ignorance. This is the folk-hero Right, and it lives, eats, and breathes pure defiance. It picks fights with the Left for the purpose of creating a predictable overreaction, and then it uses that overreaction to prove its critique. Its lifeblood is its fighting spirit. Its oxygen is liberal fury. This is Milo’s world. This is Ann Coulter’s world. Yes, this is Donald Trump’s world.

To successfully rage against the machine, the formula is clear. First, you use the parallel conservative institutions such as talk radio, Fox, or conservative publishing to gain a following. Once the following is large enough (and your speech provocative enough), the mainstream media will take notice. If you can then wade into hostile ground and take on your worst critics with the right mix of wit, flair, and sheer defiance, the resulting YouTube clips and Fox appearances will further build your reputation. Rinse, repeat, and soon enough you’re an industry unto yourself.

All too many tenured conservatives hold their ideological brethren in contempt, longing for a movement as reasonable and measured as they are.

To be clear, all of these approaches are important. There is no single magic bullet for engaging the culture and winning the battle of ideas. But each approach has its shortcomings. A by-product of reasoning with the machine is often arrogance and ineffectiveness. All too many tenured conservatives hold their ideological brethren in contempt, longing for a movement as reasonable and measured as they are, yet they often ignore and minimize their own compromises along the way. Moreover, they are often but a small conservative drop in an ocean of leftism — a reality that can create a sense of futility and despair.

Replacing the machine risks the mirror image of the group polarization of the Left. Conservative institutions are vital, but conservative cocooning is dangerous, and — let’s be honest — not all conservative institutions are quite up to the quality of their liberal competitors.

Finally, the rage against the machine: While serving the important purpose of calling out hypocrisy, expressing anger at real injustice, and inspiring conservatives with examples of true intellectual courage, it carries with it the risk of puffery, self-promotion, hucksterism, and shock for the sake of shock. One answers political correctness with wit and verve, yes, but all in service of the truth. One does not defeat political correctness with lies and outrage. Instead in the long run, lies and outrage only feed the beast.

People have deep and understandable affection for those they believe are effectively fighting for them. That’s the source of the bond between lawyer and client, between a politician and his base. That’s the source of the bond between Milo and his followers. He is “fearless.” He “destroys” feminists in the same way that John Oliver “destroys” Fox News. Fight the enemy, and your fans will forgive a multitude of failures.

People have deep and understandable affection for those they believe are effectively fighting for them.

There’s biblical wisdom that applies. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Be angry, but do not sin.” There is nothing wrong with anger at injustice. There is nothing wrong with fighting intolerance and ignorance. In a hyper-politicized world — where your politics are becoming directly relevant to whether you get hired to report on the pick-and-roll — there are few refuges left.

Conservatives need to fight, but we must fight with honor to advance honorable goals. Otherwise, the culture war will be fought over ruins, with cultural rubble the victor’s only spoils.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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