This is a new classic in the genre I like to call “the anthropology of conservatives.” You know the drill: A soy-latte liberal ventures beyond his local Trader Joe’s and “discovers” some fascinating and curious aspect of the conservative world. (“Who are these strange people protesting our heroic new health-care plan? Are we witnessing the rise of American fascism?”) Although work in this field occasionally rises to the level of art, it more often founders at the level of banality. Sadly, that is the case with Jordan Smith’s startling discovery: Imprimis, which he believes to be a little-known journal, one with “samizdat status,” … with a readership about the size of Newsweek’s.
Salon’s befuddled Smith starts off with an observation almost on par with that apocryphal Pauline Kael response to Nixon’s election (“I can’t believe it! I don’t know a single person who voted for him!”) writing: “The conservative newsletter Imprimis has nearly 2 million subscribers, which is surprising because almost no one has ever heard of it.” Obviously, those 2 million subscribers have heard of it. (Have 2 million people heard of Jordan Smith?) The largest audience in talk radio—Rush’s—has heard of it. It’s advertised on lots of talk-radio shows, most of which have audiences many times larger than Salon’s readership. Let me begin a list of the people who had not heard of Imprimis until recently: Jordan Smith. (Somebody check with Pauline Kael.)
Smith notes that Imprimis is published by Hillsdale College, and he writes: “Its 1,300 students tend to see it as a bastion of righteousness in a sinful world.” Really? Name one. (Don’t worry; I’ll wait.) I know a fair number of Hillsdale students, and I have heard not one describe the college that way. (I occasionally have heard them describe the school and its administration, and a few of its professors, in colorful terms, none of which was “bastion of righteousness.”) Did Jordan Smith actually speak to a single Hillsdale student? My guess is: No, he did not. But, if so, whom? If not, what is the source of that claim? Come on, Smith: Anthropology requires rigor! Either source that claim or turn in your pith helmet.
Imprimis, for those of you who don’t know (and who are not named Jordan Smith), is a collection of speeches, put into print. This, strangely, led Smith to write: “The editors evidently believe that speech-givers are responsible for their own fact-checking. But readers of Imprimis are not made aware of this assumption.”
Here is Imprimis’s own description of its material: “The content of Imprimis is drawn from speeches delivered to Hillsdale College-hosted events, both on-campus and off-campus.” So, yeah, readers know that it’s a collection of speech transcripts, not a magazine of commissioned articles or a gazette of original reportage. There’s a long tradition of publishing speech transcripts—American newspapers even used to publish the transcripts of Sunday sermons, which presumably weren’t fact-checked. When the New York Times prints a transcript of the State of the Union address, the editors do not call up the president and say, “We need to make some changes in the third paragraph. Also, are you sure that the state of our Union is strong? Maybe ‘stable’ would be a better word. We’re sending this to rewrite.”
Of course, Imprimis must be accused of printing “lies,” because “Conservatives Lie” is an article of liberal faith. Here is the example Smith gives of a lie printed in Imprimis: Rep. Paul Ryan gave a speech, reprinted in Imprimis, in which he offers an interpretation of Obama health adviser Ezekiel Emanuel’s published thoughts on the politics of medical decision-making, and Ryan’s take is at odds with the interpretation offered by the (cough, cough) non-partisan Annenberg Public Policy Center. Also, Dr. Emanuel says his words were—can you imagine?—“taken out of context.” Maybe they were. Maybe Ryan got it wrong. (I don’t think so, but, maybe.) To publish a transcript of a speech of this nature is not to lie. To disagree with the interpretation offered by factcheck.org is not to lie. (The particular passage at issue reads: “Conversely, services provided to individuals who are irreversibly prevented from being or becoming participating citizens are not basic and should not be guaranteed. An obvious example is not guaranteeing health services to patients with dementia.” Dr. Emanuel says he was writing about these ideas, not advocating them. “This is clearly not written in my own voice,” he explains. Fair enough, but it’s not as though Ryan’s interpretation of these statements is wildly implausible, much less a lie.)
Toward the end, Jordan makes it obvious what really is at work here: envy. He writes:
It is difficult to name a liberal counterpart to Imprimis. [Donald] Critchlow says there was once a string pamphleteering presence on the left, starting with Communist Party publications in the 1930s and 1940s. . . . Whether blogs will ultimately render old-style pamphlets like Imprimis obsolete remains to be seen. What’s clear is that Imprimis has helped connect would-be conservatives across the country with conservative thought. As Democrats seek to extend their 2006 and 2008 successes into the future, they may want to consider the old American tradition of pamphleteering as a way of keeping voters engaged. The Imprimis model might be a good place to start.
Of course there is a liberal counterpart to Imprimis: Newsweek, which has a similar circulation but publishes the thoughts of less interesting people.
If you’re really interested in old-school pamphleteering, here’s a good place to start.