The Corner

Gorillas in the Mist Dept

I found this Washington Post story thanks to Mark Hemingway over at the Media Blog (kind of generic name that. About as literary as “food store,” “alcohol consumption place,” or “feedlot”). It’s about young conservatives feeling left out of “generation Obama.”

It’s early February, and the happy hour at the Union Pub on Capitol Hill is jammed with an unlikely slice of young Washington strivers: conservatives, libertarians, free-market/small-government types, anyone right of center. People, in other words, in their 20s or early 30s who actually groan at the label Generation Obama.

As a critic of generational stereotyping since the days when “Gen X” was considered cool and edgy, let me agree with Mark and simply say that if you describe yourself as part of “Generation Obama” unironically, or if you don’t groan when someone tries to sum up your identity by lumping you in “Generation Obama” then you are in all likelihod a loser.

Anyway the Post piece mixes two of my biggest journalistic cliché peeves, generational stereotyping and “conservatives in the mist” reportage. Here’s how I described the latter back in 2003:

I was recently watching a BBC wildlife documentary on the Discovery Channel. The narrator — a British fellow with an accent like Gandalf the White — described the scene:

The male approaches the pack. His intentions are clear: assert dominance, conquer, rule. Sensing trepidation from the younger males and curiosity from the bitches — who at this age are in a perpetual state of heat — the would-be leader-of-the-pack seizes his opportunity. He puffs out his chest and lets loose with a booming roar: “Hey, have you read the latest issue of National Review?”

Okay, I’m lying. Or, as Steve Glass or Jayson Blair might say, I’m “fabulating.” (My couch just yelled from the other room: “Actually, Jonah, technically speaking Blair would say he’s ’stickin’ it to Whitey!’ but I get your drift.”) But, my point is, whenever I read liberals reporting about the goings-on of conservatives I always get the nature-documentary vibe. A liberal reporter puts on his or her Dian Fossey hat in order to attempt to write another installment of Conservatives in the Mist. I’ve followed this particular brand of reporting for years, it’s almost a fetish of mine. Most attempts fail. Of these lesser varieties, there’s fear (“Troglodytes!”), mockery (“Irrelevant troglodytes!”), condescension (“I had to explain to them they’re troglodytes.”), bewilderment (“Why don’t they understand they’re troglodytes?”), astonishment (Dear God, they’re not all troglodytes!”), and a few combinations of all the above.

But sometimes they even succeed, to a point. Thus, like the real Dian Fossey, they manage to saunter into the leafy thickets of conservatism, and are welcomed into a band of gorillas. They hold out the equivalent of a banana or maybe a fistful of grubs for long enough and eventually we come sniffing around. We’re intrigued by the creature lavishing attention on us. And the reporter eventually begins to feel as though he has been accepted into the band. Eventually, we conservatives grow comfortable enough around them to return to our old patterns. We scratch and fight and do our gorilla things and the chronicler dutifully takes notes. The notes eventually make their way into an article for the New York Times or The New Yorker or Vanity Fair.

Anyway, the Post piece isn’t particularly egregious on this score. But as Mark notes, it really shouldn’t surprise the Washington Post that in a country where 47% of the people didn’t vote for The One, that some of them are under 30. If the Post actually hired some of the young conservatives described in the piece, they might actually know this. (They might also know that Will Wilkinson, Julian Sanchez and (I believe) Megan McArdle — three names plucked from a months’ old David Brooks column — do not describe themselves as conservatives,).

What I do find amusing though is that the MSM has been running these stories for 30 years now, at least, and the reporters are still always shocked to find these conservatives in the mist in their midst. When the Right runs the town, we’re strange, alien creatures. When the Right is out of power, we’re strange, alien creatures. And at every point in-between as well.

Update: From a reader:

Dear Jonah: There is a problem right in the lede of that Ian Shapira piece. She calls the group of young conservatives sipping beer at a D.C. bar “unlikely.” Why are they “unlikely”? It’s a D.C. bar, but more to the point, 18-29 year-olds went 66%-31% for Obama over McCain. It wasn’t 90-10. If 2-to-1 odds means “unlikely,” you’ve just found …. Conservatives in the Mist! Thanks for posting that one.   

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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