The problem of what, or whom, to read
About ten years ago, a friend of mine who works in public life made an announcement at lunch: “I’ve been reading newspapers and magazines since I was a kid. I’m very well informed. From now on, I’m not going to read anything I’m not going to agree with. At this stage, I’m entitled.” I grinned at this, and was tempted to go my friend’s way. I still am. But I know there must be fiber in our diets. We cannot just consume journalistic and political ice cream.
Being a conservative, I should seek out “progressive” opinion. But I have had a tough time of it. I have long tried to have a go-to lefty, someone who will give me the best arguments of the other side. The problem is, I keep running into simple invective and sneering.
For a while, I made it a point to read Michael Kinsley, the vaunted purveyor of “smart liberalism.” Bill Buckley appreciated him, making him a regular on his television show, Firing Line. I appreciate him too, I guess — but he said such nutty and unfair things about George W. Bush during the Iraq War, I did not keep up with him. Possibly, I missed out.
I made it a point to read Richard Cohen, every column of his. But here again, the Iraq War was my Waterloo. It’s not that I disagreed with Cohen, or with Kinsley. What’s the point of reading the other side if you want to be agreed with? It’s that they too often struck poses and sneered and played to their crowd (as I saw it). They would not take the other side, namely me and my allies, seriously. They made cartoons of us.
In a column of my own, I vented some frustration. “Richard Cohen,” I said, “imagines conservatives who do not exist. He seems unwilling to debate, or consider, conservatives as we truly are. He is a caricaturist, and I’m looking for a columnist.” I should pause here to say that I’m picking on Cohen for a reason: He’s just about the best of them. If he were run-of-the-mill, I wouldn’t bother.
At a conference abroad, I met Anthony Grayling, the British philosopher and journalist. This was in 2004 or 2005. Grayling assumed that I was on the left, like most everyone else (including him). When he found out I was not, he could not have been friendlier. We talked over the issues on that occasion and subsequent ones. Here was a man I could “do business with,” to borrow Mrs. Thatcher’s language about Gorbachev. I determined I would read Grayling, which the Internet makes easy to do. (The Internet makes it easy to read anyone.) I fell off the wagon, somehow. Maybe I should get back on.
Early in life, I read nearly everything under the sun, as young people should. I looked at The Nation, Mother Jones, and In These Times on the left, and National Review, Commentary, and The American Spectator on the right. I found myself drawn to one side, obviously. And gradually my reading narrowed. I didn’t make a decision to give up certain publications. I just did, barely aware of it.
Actually, I can tell you when I gave up The New Yorker — it wasn’t that long ago, relatively speaking. I can tell you almost like a reformed alcoholic who remembers the date of his last drink. It was in late 2002, when the magazine published a review of a movie called “8 Mile.” The star of this flick was Eminem, the rapper, and it was set in his hometown of Detroit. I myself grew up in the orbit of Detroit. I know this particular milieu fairly well.
A lot of conservatives objected to Eminem for his vulgarity, his depravity — you know, the usual. But The New Yorker’s critic wrote, “People who are convinced that Eminem is destroying America might want to consider the delicacy of the white-black friendships in ‘8 Mile.’ (Perhaps the spectre of such friendships is what right-wingers actually hate most.)”
I was not the type to be easily stunned, and I am even less stunnable now. But I must say, those sentences stunned me. I thought, “Is that what they think of us? Do these New Yorker types know us so little? Have they ever met any of us? Do they ever get out?” And “if they won’t bother with us, why should I bother with them?” It wasn’t one lousy film review that repelled me; it was a pervasive attitude.
False accusations of racism, I think, are what is most repellent about the Left. They seem unable to stop throwing white sheets over us. Show me a lefty who won’t tar his opponents with racism, and I’ll show you a virtual hero! That man is my friend for life. Do conservatives have similar nasty habits? If so, they, we, should cut them out.
For about 20 years, starting when I was in college, I read the New York Times every day, from cover to cover (or the newspaper equivalent). I would no more have gone without reading the Times than I would have gone without dressing myself. It was automatic. Buckley once wrote that going without the Times would be “like going about without arms and legs.” (He said this as a prelude to some complaint about the paper.)
In 2004, I wrote a piece called “Going Timesless: Who dares give up the ‘newspaper of record’?” The answer was: Plenty of people. And not just crotchety conservatives, but nice mainstreamers, too. I canvassed a number of writers and public figures. A veteran Washington reporter told me that bias and partisanship infected “every nook and cranny of that paper.” Not just the news reports but “the arts pages and the food pages and the headlines and the photo selection and the captions” — everything.
At the end of that piece, I wrote that “some of us can’t wean ourselves away” from the Times, “and may never.” Yet wean myself I did. Though not really consciously: I just read less and less of it until I read almost nothing. I like to read the obits, however, via the Times app on my phone. I have this in common with the late Robert Bork — not the app, but he, too, gave up everything in the Times except the obits.
Don’t think that conservatives who concentrate on the right-leaning press have lives of peace and quiet. Oh, no. You can spend 90 percent of your time stewing about the failings of other conservatives. Your own side can exasperate you more than the other side. Conservatives are very good at infighting and splintering. There are always people who present themselves as the One True Conservative, next to whom everyone else is a heretic.
Democrats, oddly enough, sometimes think that Republicans and conservatives are a monolith. At least they pretend to do so. We’re all lined up like Rockettes, while they are gloriously independent. President Obama peddled this notion to a group of his donors in 2009: “Democrats are an opinionated bunch. You know, the other side, they just kinda sometimes do what they’re told. Democrats, y’all thinkin’ for yourselves.” (The president, like most of us, enjoys slipping into the vernacular from time to time.) My experience of Republicans and Democrats has been completely different. We righties do an excellent impression of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, or the Trotskyites and Shachtmanites.
Everyone should have a balanced media diet, I suppose, but maybe not too balanced. Some narrowing down, some imbalance, is permissible, especially after ample experience. How long should you keep reading Mother Jones if a) you know what’s in it and b) you think it’s all bunk? (The same goes for National Review or other conservative publications.) Buckley would occasionally say, “The purpose of an open mind is to close it on some things.” He was paraphrasing Chesterton, I’m sure: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
We are always warned against “preaching to the choir.” But, as I once heard Midge Decter say, preaching to the choir gets a bad rap: It is very, very important. The choir needs consolation, reminding, bolstering — the sense that they are not alone. I could not agree more, mainly as a choir member, but also as a sometime preacher.
I further make this contention: It’s more important that lefties seek out right opinion than that righties seek out left opinion. “Liberalism” — though I choke on the corruption of that word — is in the air we breathe. We all go to school, and most people go to college, I think, and many of us go to grad school. We all go to the movies and watch television shows. Liberalism is almost the soundtrack of our lives. The conservative case often has to be sought out.
All this said, it’s possible for a conservative to ghettoize himself, in the journalism he reads. I confess to being surprised by Mitt Romney’s loss to Obama in the last election — certainly by the margin of that loss. And I was irked at being surprised. Was I in a conservative bubble? Did I need to get out more? I resolved to change my media diet: I would cut out some candy and add some fiber. This resolve lasted several weeks — until I fell back into old habits.
A new year is upon us, however, and one could make resolutions. For many years, I have been told by a British conservative friend that the Guardian, whatever its ideological coloration, is “the only serious newspaper in Britain.” Maybe I should look at this famous left-wing daily online. But there is always a column by Thomas Sowell or Charles Moore or Mark Steyn to read — delicious, and nutritious, too.
– This piece arose from a shorter piece by Mr. Nordlinger in the British monthly Standpoint.