The Corner

Attack of The Social Cons

A few hours ago, I glanced at a few websites that criticized NR from a traditionalist perspective. David Mills thought it wrong of us to run an article by Deroy Murdock that made what one might call the Britney Spears argument for gay marriage (heteros have trashed the institution, you social conservatives don’t object to it, why object to same-sex commitment?) Joe Carter criticized us for running that article, another by Catherine Seipp that argued that Playboy wasn’t so bad and noted that the author freelances for Penthouse, and a third by Jennifer Nicholson Graham that (in Carter’s view) “denigrated charitable giving.”

I disagreed with these guys, but it was nice to hear attacks on the magazine from that direction rather than the usual fare (attacks on us from liberals and libertarians for our socially conservative views). Anyway, a few hours later, as I was about to log off and go to bed, I figured I would check in on Mark Shea’s blog—he’s usually right, and always (I thought) worth reading.

At the top of his blog, I found more criticism of NR. To summarize the complaints: 1) NR has defined some people out of respectable, mainstream conservatism for their foreign-policy views and for (sometimes weak allegations of) anti-Semitism and racism, but never for lack of moral conservatism. Shea brings up David Frum’s anti-paleocon article here. 2) We run articles supporting abortion, pornography, etc., but never anything against the Iraq war or for higher taxes. 3) We don’t think moral/family issues really matter much. 4) We are willing “to overlook–with a few half-hearted bleats to the contrary–the ever more egregious things that Andrew Sullivan writes to undermine the traditional family. After all, he’s all for bombing Baghdad and cutting taxes.” The best Shea can say for our moral conservatism is that it’s better than nothing.

NR has from its earliest days reflected both traditionalist and libertarian impulses, seeking sometimes to reconcile and sometimes to balance them. People who are more purely libertarian or traditionalist will always find things about the magazine that bother them, or find its philosophy inadequate. That’s fine (or at least an argument for another day).

But I would remind these guys that National Review editorializes consistently and runs articles regularly against gay marriage, abortion, cloning, euthanasia, illegitimacy, divorce, day care, and gender integration in the military. Do social conservatives control so many editorial offices that it is wise of them to attack those allies they have? Is there, for that matter, any national publication of comparable circulation and prominence that has taken these positions? That has argued for the Federal Marriage Amendment as often? On cloning, the Standard might tie with us, but I doubt it.

I think these critiques get a few things wrong factually. There have been articles on NRO and in NR against the war or skeptical about it, although these have admittedly been few. See, for example, anything by Andy Bacevich or Adam Garfinkle. To my knowledge, NR has never read Ann Coulter out of respectable conservatism; we merely stopped running her column after a public dispute about our editorial practices. The idea that Andrew Sullivan is “all for” cutting taxes is news to me—last I read, he was for hiking estate taxes massively. I criticized him for it. NR’s editorials have criticized him a fair bit—and I don’t think he regards that criticism as half-hearted. He also regularly criticizes our editorial line as far right, theocratic, etc. (I will admit that when Sullivan goes seriously wrong, as he did when discussing the Catholic church and slavery, my view is that the appropriate response is to offer a substantive critique rather than to discuss his anatomy as Shea does.) David Frum’s famous/infamous article did not, in fact, read Buchanan and the like out of mainstream conservatism merely for opposing the Iraq war.

But leaving those things aside, there is no denying that the critics have a real difference of opinion with the magazine. That difference concerns the magazine’s editorial line less than its editorial policy. Should we refuse to publish articles that dissent from aspects of social conservatism? I don’t think that is a question that conservative principles can by themselves answer.

Nor can I say I have any great answer to the question. In general, I would say that we should not devote scarce space to articles that make arguments against our own positions positions when those arguments are made well and often elsewhere. For that reason, I probably wouldn’t have run that particular column of Murdock’s (unless we have some agreement to run all his columns). Arguments against tax cuts are not in short supply, either. I’d say the same about arguments for “abortion rights,” and can recall only one recent instance where we’ve run something on the other side—as an aside to an article. An argument that the partial-birth abortion ban violates conservatives’ federalist principles, on the other hand, would be worth running (and worth refuting, as I have attempted to do).

I think there has been, on the part of the critics, a failure of perspective. As for Shea’s claim that NR adheres to a “Mammon First/Family Second” conservatism, or his rather breast-beating declaration that he will stick with “the Faith” rather than with “conservative ideology,” I think that sort of thing should be beneath him.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.