Reviewing the National Review, Part 2

falseprophet

Recently I’ve had occasion to drop in again and check out the lay of the land at the National Review. And it really hasn’t changed much since I first familiarized myself with it nearly two decades ago.

Chasing the Chappaquiddick Chap

What led me back there was that someone brought to my attention a “review” of the film Chappaquiddick by the NR’s “critic”, Kyle Smith. (I put those words in quotation marks because Mr. Smith focuses on supposed political, rather than artistic, merit.) The caption breathlessly proclaims that the film “exposes Ted Kennedy at last”. This in itself was enough to make me bust a gut.

These are folks who are fond of promoting the silly and ill-informed stereotype of Hollywood celebrities as shallow, coke-snorting, self-absorbed brats who are out of touch with the real world — a myth adopted so people like NR hacks can summarily dismiss, in genetic fallacy fashion, any non-reactionary cause those celebrities espouse.

Yet when the film industry produces a flick that “exposes” a librul icon, they are eager to hail it as a divine revelation of infallible gospel.

And Mr. Smith is just getting warmed up. The first paragraph of this “review” reads:

Chappaquiddick must be counted one of the great untold stories in American political history: The average citizen may be vaguely aware of what happened but probably has little notion of just how contemptible was the behavior of Senator Ted Kennedy. Mainstream book publishers and Hollywood have mostly steered clear of the subject for 48 years.

A quick check of Amazon shows that no fewer than a dozen books about the Chappaquiddick incident are available for purchase, as well as many more books in which the event is at least discussed. A quick check of IMDB shows that it has been the subject of at least two documentaries. What would it take to avoid the charge that Hollywood and the publishing industry are “steering clear” of the subject — obsessive reporting of it 24/7? Been there, done that.

Mr. Smith evidently wants his readers to believe that the tragedy was just swept under the rug by the librulmedia. (Perhaps this is what he was taught in one of those “conservative” college classes.) It’s characteristic of wingers to figure that if they can’t remember something, then it didn’t happen.

But as someone who was both alive and sentient at the time, I can assure you that there was nobody this side of Andromeda who simply ignored the incident. It hardly could have received more media saturation even had Mary Jo Kopechne been wearing a stained blue dress. And years later, when it was still a heated topic of discussion, I recall commenting to someone that the senator must have been driving one hell of a huge automobile considering how many people were so certain of exactly what transpired that they must have been passengers themselves.

Wingnuttery sort of makes sense if you’re willing to ignore (or concoct) enough facts. It isn’t enough that Smith calls Kennedy’s behavior “despicable” without mentioning that the senator was severely disoriented from his injuries, including a concussion.  He also declares, quite falsely, that Kennedy simply “rested” beside the water while Ms. Kopechne was drowning. In fact, despite his state of mental disarray, Kennedy made (as reported by The Boston Globe) at least “seven or eight” attempts to rescue her. But hey, who cares about pesky details when you have an ideology to promote.

The Big Fake-Out

While I was in the neighborhood, I also checked out another Smith masterpiece, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Outrageous Assault on Our Democracy. The topic is a serious one, something that people are rightly concerned about: i.e., the way Sinclair has forced its talking heads to parrot a canned statement about “fake news” that makes it clear the network is goose-stepping behind the 45th White House Occupant. It’s a development that many of those talking heads themselves are quite uneasy about.

Smith, however, snidely brushes it aside in a manner that is his clumsy attempt to wield irony, a technique he doesn’t quite seem equipped for. While superficially striking a posture of concern, he makes it clear that in fact he is a Sinclair goose-stepper himself. He’s also a deft side-stepper, skirting the real issues with statements such as his closing:

Whatever will become of this country if people use the media properties they own to simply say whatever they feel like saying?

Allowing his strained irony to tip over into sarcasm, he scoffs:

Judging by the truth as established by ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, PBS News, NPR News, CNN, MSNBC, and nearly every newspaper and newsmagazine published in the United States, the truth is actually quite similar to what the Left believes.

It’s an obeisant nod not only to the “liberal bias” myth and the “both sides” myth, but to the popular right-wing narrative that certain media outlets (most notably CNN) exhibit biases and inaccuracies of only one flavor. And it’s a foghorn false equivalence to suggest that the sporadic (and mostly inadvertent) journalistic lapses of these outlets — of both a “liberal” and a “conservative” nature — are on a par with constant, round-the-clock, deliberate dishonesty and distortion of an exclusively right-wing bent by the likes of Fox and Sinclair.  Mr. Smith seems to be utterly oblivious to the distinctions between bias, inaccuracy and dishonesty.

He also takes advantage of the opportunity to invoke that trusty old “Hollywood elite” myth with jabs at Jimmy Kimmel and John Oliver. Can he really be so clueless as to be unaware that most comedians are much better informed than the average citizen, much better informed than many politicians and putative journalists — and infinitely better informed than most NR hacks? Speaking of Kimmel, Smith indulges in another false equivalence by suggesting that ABC’s airing of Kimmel’s program over hundreds of stations is comparable to Sinclair headquarters dictating that its anchors parrot a boilerplate disingenuous and manipulative spiel.

And he sneers at veteran newsman Dan Rather, whom he labels as (wink, wink) a “widely respected source of nonpartisan media commentary”. Yes, this is the same Dan Rather who said…

George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions, and as just one American, wherever he wants to line up just tell me where..

…even as Dubya was gearing up to exploit the 9-11 terrorist attacks as a pretext for ramming through a whole raft of fanatical right-wing measures that were often quite unrelated to security. The same Dan Rather who later acknowledged that he failed, for years, to do his job by probing the supposed justifications for the assault on Iraq — a journalist undertaking that, I’m guessing, would have been regarded as hopeless and shameless librul propaganda by the good folks at NR. Most of us might be tempted to deprive Mr. Rather of his Librul Propagandist badge for this kind of neglect. But Mr. Smith knows better: he knows that anyone who fails to hew unwaveringly to standard right-wing talking points is so deep into left field as to be over the wall.

While he’s targeting Rather, Mr. Smith takes the opportunity to focus on a Facebook post that is (slightly) awkward in its wording, and declare that Rather has committed “grammatical lapses” and sneers, “You’d lose your ability to construct a sentence too if you sensed the risk as keenly as Rather does”. This from the same rag that not only touted the virtues of a tongue-tied “misunderestimated” simpleton, but now touts the virtues of an incurious despot who speaks “bigly” in three-word sentences, mostly with himself as the subject. It’s a glaring instance of genuine irony that seems quite lost on the redoubtable Mr. Smith.

Finally, he gets around to quoting the statement with which Sinclair is programming its talking heads, a superficially innocuous manifesto about shunning bias, false reporting, and an agenda in favor of Facts and Truth. Taken at face value, it’s a string of noble sentiments. But anyone who is at all familiar with Sinclair knows better than to take it at face value. Well, except for Mr. Smith, perhaps:

So Sinclair is against media bias, one-sided reporting and fake news? It asserts that truth is “neither left nor right”? Preposterous.

An even slightly perspicacious commentator might have observed that Sinclair’s very act of thrusting a cookie cutter declaration upon its mouthpieces is a damn good indication that it speaks with forked tongue.

And then he segues into the ultimate coup de grace to his own credibility:

Need I say more? These lunatics are actually playing into the hands of [the White House Occupant], who has also said he doesn’t think the media should run fake news.

Unless he’s much more adept at wielding irony than he appears to be, Mr. Smith actually believes that the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant — who rode to fame on the back of fake news, rose to the White House on the back of fake news, continues to profit from fake news, and spreads fake news with every breath — is actually a mortal enemy of fake news, just because he says so.

If you really believe that, you are not merely ignorant. You really shouldn’t try to live on your own without full-time supervision. On the other hand, you have a lucrative career awaiting you at the ever-entertaining National Review.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Second Amendment Follies, Part 5: “Pre-existing Rights”

main_900

As we have seen in the previous installments, there is nothing in the Second Amendment that explicitly guarantees the right of an individual citizen to own firearms. But while arguing to the contrary, gunsters also hedge their bets by claiming that the amendment was not really meant to grant such a right but to reaffirm it; that, since many people owned guns in Revolutionary times, they obviously had a right to do so, and therefore such a right is still in effect today.  It was and is, so they say, a “pre-existing” or “innate” right. Many times they will even refer to it as a “God-given” right, as if that celebrated stone tablet had had a flip side on which was engraved, “Thou shalt be armed to the teeth with weapons to be invented millennia hence”.

There are really two separate but related issues here: tradition as precedent, and the presumed right of ownership in general.

The tradition of tradition

By “tradition as precedent”, we mean the conviction that just because something has always been done or was done in the past, that makes it acceptable, preferable or even mandatory.  This tenet is the backbone of conservatism and even neoconservatism. And it’s absurd on the face of it. As Tevye so famously discovers in Fiddler on the Roof, there are times when faith in tradition severely butts its head against harsh reality.

Surely anyone can readily tick off a list of activities that most people consider undesirable, yet have a very long tradition: murder, theft, rape, child marriage, racism, slavery, violent conquest, genocide and greed, to name just a few. Not only have all such actions been committed on an individual basis for countless ages, but most have been officially sanctioned by societies and governments at various times and in various places.  Indeed, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that tradition, far from being ample justification for continuance of an action, is more likely to be an indication that an action should be curbed.

There is an old saying to the effect that your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. And quite often, one particular action that could be regarded as a right (or at least as permissible) under one set of circumstances could be justly prohibited in a different social context. If you only rode your motorcycle on deserted roads, it well might be that you would have a right to ride as fast as you wanted, without a helmet.  But if there is a chance that other motorists will be using that road, then it is incumbent upon you to consider the lifelong impact upon their lives that your unhelmeted, dumbassed death might occasion.

If you live in a cabin on an isolated mountaintop, then you might have every right to burn your trash and take target practice in your yard. If you live in the heart of Los Angeles, that’s another matter altogether. So even if we assume that Americans in the Eighteenth Century had a right to own guns, that wouldn’t mean that the same is true in today’s radically different world.

Reason and the evidence of history indicate that if people followed what is sometimes called The Golden Rule, we’d all be much happier and better off. But they don’t, and won’t. Which is why we have laws.

Of course, the existence of laws and governments results in an occasional clash between legal rights and what we perceive as innate (“God-given”) rights. Homosexuality, for instance, has very frequently and universally been the target of repressive regulation. And we’d normally assume that a family has a right to have as many children as it wishes. But the government of China, fearing catastrophic overpopulation, decided that there should be no more than one child per family (in most cases), which seems to be a violation of said right.

On the other hand, one could argue that such an innate right does not really exist in circumstances under which large families would pose a burden to society (bear in mind that “society” is just another name for “other people”).  Furthermore, it’s at least understandable if not justifiable that a couple in any country should be prohibited from having more children if they have been horribly abusive to the ones they already have.

In any case, whether it’s a matter of innate rights or legal rights, mere tradition alone is clearly not an adequate justification for any activity.

Nine-tenths of the law

But what about the right to own property in general? Surely in a free society you have a right to own your house, your land, your automobile, and — why not — your shooting implements, without any authorization from the government. Don’t you?

Actually, the same principle applies. Let’s not forget that for the vast majority of human history, there was a presumed innate right to own other human beings. It was not until fairly recently in our evolution that we collectively began to realize that slavery was not merely a swing of the fist, but a punch to the nose of human decency. And few people would maintain that a citizen has a right to own a nuclear warhead. Guns are designed for essentially the same purpose on a smaller scale.

Summing up

But aren’t there indeed basic, innate human rights that cannot be justly compromised by any legislation? Well, sure. The Founders of the Republic summarized them very nicely: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. That may sound like a short list, but it actually covers a great deal of territory. It includes, for instance, such basics as food, clothing, shelter and medicine. But do guns fall in that category? Perhaps for a limited number of individuals in a limited range of circumstances. But to declare that there is a “God-given” right for all citizens to be armed is a very big stretch indeed — particularly when the evidence indicates that guns do considerably more harm than good.

You certainly have an innate right to defend yourself from harm.  So how, you may ask, do you defend yourself without a gun?  We just as easily could turn the question around and ask how can you even consider guns a viable element of self-defense when they are statistically so ineffective and even, evidently, downright counterproductive. (As a person who once was mugged at gunpoint, I say with confidence that one reason I am alive today is that I wasn’t armed.) But the short answer is, you use your head instead of your trigger finger. It’s hard to be more specific than that, because techniques and strategies will vary by the individual. But in any case, it’s naive and foolhardy to assume that a right to self-defense means you should be armed. And it’s ill-informed to believe you have an innate right to be.

In short, the right that Americans now enjoy (if that is an appropriate word) to own firearms does not come from the Constitution. It does not come from God or any synonym thereof. It does not come from tradition or reason. It does not arise from a need. It proceeds solely from the fiat of “conservative” justices.

 

Reviewing the National Review, Part 1

Natreview

As you may be aware, right-wing fanaticism in the U.S. comes in several overlapping varieties, each catered to by its own set of delusional and manipulative media outlets.  The largest segment is the Good Old Boy Faction, centered in the Deep South, which revolves around blatant bigotry and manufactured outrage; it finds its main voice in Fox “News” , OAN and talk radio. Then there is the Tin Hat Brigade, which never met a conspiracy theory too kooky to swallow — at least if it’s about someone named Clinton or Obama; its outlets are also the above, as well as Breitbart, Alex Jones, NRATV, et al. And a relatively small but supremely influential sector is the Smug Pseudointellectual Coterie, which tries to excuse or gloss over the beliefs promulgated by the other two groups, often while selectively citing some Eighteenth Century theorist and/or pretending that Ayn Rand is actually worth reading. Its most powerful media organ is almost certainly the ever-entertaining National Review.

The NR was founded in 1955 by William F. Don’t-You-Dare-Omit-My-Middle-Initial Buckley Jr., a poster boy of white privilege who became the godfather of modern “conservatism” (i.e., neoconservatism — see the difference here). Its objective was to provide this “conservatism” with a voice he felt it had been lacking in American culture, a claim he made with a perfectly straight face.  Unlike most reactionaries, Buckley was highly educated, articulate and suave — indeed he played those qualities to the hilt. Even as a teenager watching him on TV, I was amused by his haughty demeanor and stuffy lip-licking pretentiousness.

But a jackass that can bray in different languages remains, nonetheless, a jackass. And Buckley’s displays of pomposity could not conceal the speciousness of his arguments or the faultiness of his facts. Despite his efforts to mask the bigotry at the core of conservatism and “conservatism”, it sometimes oozed to the surface, not only in his beloved political journal, but in his own words.  Peel away the slick veneer of William F., and you find the grubby persona of Billy Bob. In one of the televised exchanges with his frequent verbal sparring partner, Gore Vidal, he called Vidal a “queer” (a major slur back then); and he was to the end an opponent of gay marriage.  A partial list of his other extensive crudities, courtesy of Rationalwiki:

  • Buckley’s career began in 1951 with the publication of God and Man at Yale, an attack on his alma mater that urged the firing of professors whom he felt were insufficiently hostile to socialism and atheism. Despite this early assault on academic freedom, Buckley in later years routinely took offense at what he saw as liberal “political correctness[8]
  • Suggested that prostitutes and addicts with AIDS be tattooed so as to warn others.[12]
  • Supported Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism, which he never seemed to regret.[23] Freedom if it’s only your freedom, right?
  • Prior to [officially] renouncing his racist views in the mid 60’s, he used the National Review to support segregation. He even wrote an article in support of white supremacy, and he never really apologized for the article.[24]

Not only did he “never apologize” for his white supremacist screed of the Fifties, he reaffirmed his commitment to its tenets when questioned about it in a more enlightened era decades later.

In 1988 Buckley sneered at the presidential candidacy of former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis on the grounds that he had no experience in Washington. Twelve years later, he was hawking former Texas Governor George W. Bush and sneering at those who questioned Junior’s lack of experience in Washington. It’s unbearably painful to contemplate the Gordian knot such an erudite gentlemen as Buckley must have twisted himself into in order to get behind a witless wastrel who didn’t know that Social Security was a federal program, and thought that “persevere” was the same word as “preserve”. For that matter, the elder Bush, whom Buckley touted over Dukakis, was not exactly an intellectual titan himself.

The torch is passed

Buckley is gone now, but well before his departure, he inspired others to carry on his great work at the ever-entertaining National Review.

Over the years, the NR has provided a frequent platform for the likes of Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, John Derbyshire, and countless others more or less equally vile. For most of its personnel, however, the problem isn’t so much vileness as cluelessness and naivete. Which brings us to Jonah Goldberg.

Not only a frequent contributor but for a time the online editor, Goldberg was an excellent choice to assume the mantle of eloquent advocate for vacuity. (Except that his elevation to the post violated The Master’s expressed dictum that the editor should be a “believing Christian”. But hey.) He’s even authored a book called  Liberal Fascism that is every bit as inane as it sounds.

Jonah entered my life shortly after that disastrous 2000 election. Like other thinking and concerned citizens, I was quite disturbed by not only the caliber of the individual who had attained the office of the presidency, but also by the manner in which he did so. And I really, really wanted to understand how so many people could support not only one, but both. So I resolved to try to find whatever justification there might be (and that I possibly might have overlooked) for the views and attitudes of the American right-wing culture at the turn of the millennium. And it seemed to me that the best way to do that was to read the NR. Which I began doing regularly.

But my quest for a revelation was entirely a bust. In fact, I ended up more bewildered and appalled than ever. For all its pretense at scholarly depth, this reactionary rag just dressed up the same seedy wingnut talking points in a glittery ball gown: that the Second Amendment enshrines a citizen’s right to pack heat — and any attempt to reduce the number of people guns kill is pure Gestapo; that abortion is murder — and outlawing it is the best way to make it go away; that American media has a liberal bias; that liberals are simultaneously socialists, communists and fascists; that racism is either extinct or no big deal; that America should be a fundamentalist theocracy; that the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor; that Ronald Reagan was a Great Communicator and a Strong Leader of Impeccable Character who brought back patriotism, ended the Cold War and cured insomnia; and that Ayn Rand is actually worth reading.

The NR declared that obviously American media have a liberal bias, because there are more news stories about “gun control” than about guns. Never mind that (a) guns are normally not very newsworthy until they kill someone, and (b) gun-totin’ “conservatives” themselves are more interested in reporting and hearing about “gun control” than anyone else. The cover of one issue featured a smirking George W. Bush — who declared that his electoral victory was “political capital, and I intend to spend it” and taunted congressional Democrats to “get on board or be left behind” —  proclaiming that his most endearing quality was his “modesty”.

At one point one of NR’s readers wrote in to ask for recommendations about where college kids could attend “conservative” classes. Rather than admonish the reader for trying to polarize knowledge (which “conservatives” frequently do by wailing about academic “liberal bias”, which is more imaginary than real), the editors obliged by actually making some suggestions about where to do just that. To these folks, there are liberal facts and there are conservative facts (also known as alternative facts); and they feel they are entitled to be saturated and protected from reality by the latter, whether it be in the media or in academia; and any professor who fails to do so is guilty of trying to indoctrinate students into communism. (Thumbing through a “conservative” high school science textbook, I once came across this statement: “We can be sure the earth was created exactly as the Bible tells us.” This is no doubt the kind of science “conservatives” want to see in university textbooks as well.)

Craving a smidgen of illumination, I wrote to the editors of NR Online about some of the idiotic statements it had published, and to my surprise, I received several replies from Jonah Goldberg, the online editor in the flesh. I give him credit for at least making an attempt to bridge the communication gap with one of them librulz, and perhaps he honestly was doing the best he could. But he didn’t exactly appease my horror and disgust any — quite the contrary.

When I commented about the many, many, many, many shady GOP election shenanigans in Florida in 2000, he replied that he knew there were no irregularities because a journalist pal in Florida had told him so. He was dead serious.

He wrote a piece bemusing that “liberals” protest so much about GMO’s but seem to be quite okay with stem cell research. I gently pointed out to him that, first of all, objection to GMO’s was by no means exclusively or even primarily, a concern of the left (most of the left-leaning folks I know consider it much ado about nothing, as I do myself). And second,  how often do you hear of anyone consuming a petri dish full of stem cells?

Desperate to find any excuse he could to ridicule the “kumbaya crowd”, he even wrote an article about the leftist excess known as … wait for it… vegetarianism. Which he assailed with “facts” that he must have obtained from a “conservative” professor. Whereupon some of his readers informed him that they were both vegetarian and “conservative”, so STFU already.

Meanwhile, one of his fellow columnists penned a smug self-congratulatory piece about how he had made peace with being a “crunchy conservative” — i.e., a right-winger who appreciates “health food”. In classic winger fashion, he focused on the impact upon his own well-being and pocketbook, steering clear of the impact his choices might have for the rest of the planet.

While indulging in the usual right-wing nonsense about abortion, Jonah opined that “liberals” don’t seem to have any clear belief about when life begins. I responded that on the contrary, most “liberals” seem to just figure life begins when it actually begins: i.e., with birth. And even if anyone could prove otherwise, and establish beyond a doubt that a fetus is a fully entitled person that has a right to live, it wouldn’t necessarily follow that said fetus has a right to live inside another person’s body. And I noted that the very fixation on when life begins is a major tangent than has no bearing on the more crucial questions of what factors contribute to abortion and what measures can prevent it. I asked him why, given the counterproductive chamber of horrors that resulted when abortion was banned in the past, he presumed it would be any more effective in the future.

Moreover, I invited him to indulge with me in a little thought experiment. Imagine, I suggested, that the government actually succeeds in decreeing that life begins at conception. Will it then begin issuing certificates of conception instead of birth certificates? And in order to make certain that such conceptions are accurately documented, will it begin monitoring them? Is that the kind of role he envisions and desires for the Big Bad Government he professes to be leery of?

But such an attempt to provoke a more thought-provoking discourse than the NR probably had seen in a decade would just meet with a response like, “Sorry, I just can’t take this seriously.” Which is, alas, the big problem with people like him. They have no trouble being dead serious about birtherism, voter fraud, “deep state”, climategate, “socialized medicine”, “death panels”,  gun confiscation, the “War on Christmas”, and Planned Parenthood “selling baby parts”. But facts and possibilities that pierce their smug “conservative” bubble? Sorry, can’t swallow that.

He exchanged emails with me several times, probably because he was consumed by the right-wing obsession with confrontation and one-upmanship. But finally he stormed off in a hissy fit and wouldn’t come out of his trailer again. And what prompted it? I had sent a message in which I casually commented that I generally had found Jews to be more tolerant than Christians. You’d think that Jonah, being certifiably Jewish himself, would have been pleased by that. But while wingnuttery may exist for the exclusive benefit of the male WASP culture, it has managed to entice a number of individuals outside that caste (token minorities, etc.) into passionately defending it. And thus he replied in a venomous snit riddled with uncharacteristic errors of grammar and spelling, as if I’d sprayed graffiti on the Statue Of Liberty.

The honeymoon was over. But truth be told, I was ready for it to be over. I had begun to realize that if you’ve read one NR article, you’ve pretty much read them all.

(See Eric Alterman’s astute commentary about NR on the occasion of its 60th anniversary.)