1. Short take: ugh, don’t read his article, it’s a waste of time and indirectly supports his poorly presented idiotic views. I’m writing because better conservative media exists: that’s what this blog is.
2. John Derbyshire’s “How Radio Wrecks the Right” has some significant flaws. I didn’t really want to write on it – I had seen it before aldaily linked to it – but now I feel compelled to say something.
The most significant flaw stems from his attempt to make conservatism dogmatic theology. I kid you not – that’s the only import this passage has:
…are there some downsides to conservative talk radio? Taking the conservative project as a whole—limited government, fiscal prudence, equality under law, personal liberty, patriotism, realism abroad—has talk radio helped or hurt? All those good things are plainly off the table for the next four years at least, a prospect that conservatives can only view with anguish. Did the Limbaughs, Hannitys, Savages, and Ingrahams lead us to this sorry state of affairs?
They surely did. At the very least, by yoking themselves to the clueless George W. Bush and his free-spending administration, they helped create the great debt bubble that has now burst so spectacularly. The big names, too, were all uncritical of the decade-long (at least) efforts to “build democracy” in no-account nations with politically primitive populations. Sean Hannity called the Iraq War a “massive success,” and in January 2008 deemed the U.S. economy “phenomenal.”
Conservatives can reasonably disagree on those things; the objection, from Derbyshire, has to stem from liking the Bush administration for purely populist reasons. He doesn’t make that case: he just dismisses one set of views as if he knows better. Notice Derbyshire’s incredibly crude swipe at Iraq: “politically primitive populations?” Is this really how you want to characterize the country that’s lost more people in the War on Terror than any other? That’s not just populist, that’s outright bigotry, and you’re not doing the Right any favors with that. Moreover, Phil Gramm was arguing that the economy was far stronger than people thought during the campaign; there’s a perfectly solid line of argument emerging now saying that the Obama administration’s continual talk of how bad things are is making things worse.
I don’t want to be a Bush administration apologist, but I think one thing any intellectual has to admit is how hard things are practically speaking. Ideas are easy to throw around from a column or a paper. But try working with a State Dept. and CIA where only 20% of the staff support your policies. Try working with “conservatives” who see any problems on your part as a failure to advance their ideology. Try working with Democrats and needing to make sure their interests are represented, esp. as they won midterms in 2006.
The larger point is, Derbyshire needs to make a case for intellectual conservatives having a diversity of views, not just his views.
This most significant flaw, from above, makes the actual “substance” of his article very problematic:
In place of the permanent things, we get Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar. Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right. But however much this dumbing down has damaged the conservative brand, it appeals to millions of Americans. McDonald’s profits rose 80 percent last year.
There is a lowbrow liberalism, too, but the Left hasn’t learned how to market it. Consider again the failure of liberals at the talk-radio format, with the bankruptcy of Air America always put forward as an example. Yet in fact liberals are very successful at talk radio. They are just no good at the lowbrow sort. The “Rush Limbaugh Show” may be first in those current Talkers magazine rankings, but second and third are National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” with 13 million weekly listeners each. It is easy to mock the studied gentility, affectless voices, and reflexive liberalism of NPR, but these are very successful radio programs.
“Studied gentility, affectless voices, and reflexive liberalism” is way too kind. I read The Nation and The American Prospect and a host of openly Leftist publications, and I’ll be honest: NPR’s problem is its dishonesty. Yeah, there are times they’ll talk about the work Chomsky’s doing in linguistics, or interview an author or playwright, but I don’t see American liberals getting any smarter because of this. In fact, all I see is more arrogance and just an outright dismissal of those on the Right. There’s a complete inability on the part of the Left in this country to formulate what would be the best objection to any given stance they have.
Derbyshire then goes on to say, without any irony, that “liberals can’t do populism.” I’m not sure he and I live in the same country. He also claims that Colbert, Stewart and Maher aren’t exactly lowbrow populists, but masters of irony. I think he’s off the deep end here: Bill Maher is ironic? To some degree, yes, of course. But is that his defining trait? All three of the hosts mentioned set up people in “gotcha” scenarios: that’s not irony. That’s the worst form of populism, where truth (which the host has but never articulates, of course) only exists by destroying the credibility of others. Routinely all three hosts use any sort of perceived hypocrisy to unleash populist rage and mockery at anyone who might claim to know anything they disagree with.
Derbyshire conflates how something is marketed with whether it is lowbrow or middlebrow. Truth be told, Limbaugh’s editorial in the WSJ arguing for the halving of the corporate income tax was way more direct and interesting than anything Colbert, Stewart, Maher or NPR say. He wasn’t blaming anyone for anything, he just wanted growth, and put forth a suggestion in line with classical economic theory. Most importantly, he actually took a stand: he didn’t just curse at the President or say everything was spin.
This brings us to the crucial point: Derbyshire is at best trying to argue for intellectuals as people divorced from the truth. He sometimes shows interest in how things are said, not what is said:
Why can’t conservatives do radio like that [BBC Radio 4]? Instead we have crude cheerleading for world-saving Wilsonianism, social utopianism, and a cloth-eared, moon-booted Republican administration. [boldface mine]
I want better talk radio too, so I’m being generous here and emphasizing “crude cheerleading,” and ignoring the fact that he went after specific positions. And I’ve made purely elitist arguments before: I still think it was a travesty when the Washington Post put Joshua Bell in the subway and no one cared about what was going on. (Yeah, people have to rush to work, but not everyone is rushing to work in the DC metro.) But again, if you want to make this case, you can’t just stereotype the positions of talk radio because of how they sound to you: it’s not like Derbyshire is offering any nuance himself here.
Derbyshire lets his true colors fly when he starts allying with the Ron Paul crowd and implies that the attacks on Dr. Paul are nothing but smears. There’s not a chance in hell that argument will stand serious scrutiny. It is true that populism is dangerous, and that talk radio does prevent the Right from seeing their intellectual origins. I’ve said the Left can’t articulate the best arguments against their position, and a Right only beholden to talk radio certainly can’t.
But I don’t know that John Derbyshire is capable of serious critique, either. This piece has nothing intellectual in it: it’s pretty much an ad hominem attack. I’ve set forth a criterion for what I want Americans to do (i.e. be able to appreciate different sets of arguments); Derbyshire has only mentioned names and compared one aspect of our media to BBC X. The “middlebrow” intellectual conservatism he wants is a front for advancing what would be called paleoconservative ideas, i.e. isolationism, protectionism, etc. I’m not necessarily against some of those things, but if you’re going to argue people should be more intellectual, it means you need to be clear on how they can disagree with you.
If he were interested in ideas, he’d go back to his old columns, where he used to talk about things like his coursework in the UK and how unfocused he finds the curriculum at an American university. I’ve read parts of “Prime Obsession” and enjoyed them greatly. Don’t put forth views as much as information.
And put your money where your mouth is, Mr. Derbyshire. I’ve been writing and putting forth my work for years now, because I believe we can have a better political discourse. You’ve got way more attention than I’ll ever have from one stupid article, and all you’ve demonstrated is that you’re just as responsible for the collapse of the Right as anyone else.