Reviewing the National Review, Part 1

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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.)

 

What Can We Learn From the NFL Protests?

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You’ve no doubt heard that former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been on the receiving end of a great deal of bile because of his kneeling protest of racism during the pregame playing of the national anthem — a ritual that now has been taken up by many other professional and school athletes as well. You’ve no doubt heard many people say that these actions are, somehow or other, disrespectful toward the nation, the flag, and veterans.

Fans have turned on Kaepernick and burned his jersey in protest against his protest, and even boycotted NFL games.  They’re willing to accept wife beaters and girlfriend beaters and animal abusers and DUI drivers and druggies and even killers. But silent protesters for civil rights? Not so much.

One little trick that we’ve witnessed quite a bit is comparing Colin Kaepernick and company to Tim Tebow, who was criticized for kneeling in prayer before a football game.  Which is another glaring false equivalence such as you might expect in these situations. There are at least 5 reasons why Colin Kaepernick is not Tim Tebow.

  1. Tebow made a public display of his religiosity. Kaepernick made a public display of his commitment to justice.
  2. Tebow acted on his own behalf. Kaepernick acted on behalf of millions of disadvantaged.
  3. Tebow did something he could have done literally almost anywhere else. Kaepernick did something he could have done only in a very limited number of situations.
  4. Tebow received criticism. Kaepernick received hate mail, death threats and vicious attacks from sleazy politicians and media figures.
  5. Tebow’s action was ultimately good PR that probably boosted his career.  Kaepernick may have sacrificed his career in order to make a statement.

The reactions to the NFL protests have followed essentially 3 lines of (very erroneous) thought, concerning the following topics:

A. The National Anthem Itself

The impression the jingoists would give you is that the song we now call the national anthem was handed down by God Herself, notated on stone tablets.  While “The Star -Spangled Banner” is an old song, its status as national anthem dates back only to 1931, at least officially. (It had been the unofficial anthem for a good half-century before that). Francis Scott Key wrote the words in 1815, long after the Republic was established. And those words were set to the melody of an old drinking song, “Anacreon in Heaven”. A British drinking song, no less.

B. The Tradition of Standing

Nor is the tradition of standing while this little ditty is performed rooted in antiquity. The practice goes back only to about 1891, and was established not so much as a display of patriotism, but as a way of alerting people that the song was being performed.

C. The Tradition of Standing Before Football Games

This also isn’t nearly as timeless or as engraved in stone as some would have you believe. NFL players have always had the option of being on the field for the national anthem, but it has never been required — at least not until 2009, when it became a requirement for televised games only.

The (over)reactions from some sectors of the American public to these protests has been disturbing for many reasons. And it has laid bare some some sobering facts about American society, some problems that urgently need to be addressed. Here are eight of the main ones:

1. There has been far more reaction than reflection.

People who respond with anger or hate toward individuals like Colin Kaepernick seem to be on autopilot. They react in a way that they’ve been programmed to react. And that programming is not accidental. It’s been systematically hammered into them for years by a highly lucrative outrage industry.  One might say (though it’s a bit of an oversimplification) that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who reflect and those who react. And there is absolutely no doubt that the reactors are currently controlling American society. The prevailing mode of discourse, if you can call it that, is to react first and do research never.

2. The events have been seized as an opportunity for polarization.

If you follow just about any online discussion of the protests, it’s a good bet that sooner rather than later, you’ll hear someone lament about how them librulz are destroying America with these protests. Reactionaries have been desperate to (inaccurately) portray these acts of civil disobedience as a politically motivated campaign generated exclusively by, and for the benefit of, the Left.

Right-wing punditocrat Dinesh D’Souza took it the tactic to its most boneheaded extremes thus:

The Democratic Left, symbolized by Kaepernick, seeks to portray themselves in resistance to oppression. In this view, Trump represents the party of oppression (bad America) and they represent the party of liberation (good America). Kneeling at games is intended to convey a refusal to go along with American racism and oppression.

Yet historically, this gets things upside down. Who is the actual party of racism and oppression? The Democrats. Who is the actual party that resisted oppression? The Republicans.

Aside from the presumption that Kaepernick somehow “symbolizes the Democratic Left”, D’Souza performs a clever little bait-and-switch here, beginning with “historically” and then slyly switching to “is”. As anyone who did not sleep through ninth-grade civics class knows, the Republican and Democratic parties of today are quite different from what they were “historically” — and a huge part of that difference concerns race relations.

3. The Simplistic View of Patriotism

Reactionaries tend to view patriotism as a matter of displaying all the right symbols and symbolic actions: flying a flag in your yard, wearing a flag lapel pin, and having flag decals (both U.S. and Confederate) on your truck.  Thus, if you don’t engage in all the requisite rituals, like standing during the anthem, holding your hand over your heart and thinking heavenly thoughts, you may be branded as anti-American. True patriotism, however, entails a commitment to candidly addressing the nation’s problems, including racial injustice.

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And how ironic that this level-headed lesson on patriotism should come from a country where, not so long ago, patriotism was defined by goose-stepping and swastikas and a disturbing salute.

4. The confusion of personal preference with universal directive

Many people have felt it appropriate to respond to the protests by pointing out that by god, they always stand for the national anthem.  “I stand” has become a popular meme, as if letting people know that you prefer to stand somehow resolves the whole discussion and negates the reasons for staging the protest. But the protest was never about anyone else’s right to stand during the anthem. And there is a vast difference between preferring to stand yourself and believing that everyone else should stand; and a really huge difference between believing that everyone should stand, and believing that everyone should be compelled to stand. That difference is the distinction between a supposedly democratic society like the United States Of America and an authoritarian society like North Korea.

Yet in America in recent years, this mindset has been increasingly manifest. We have a coalition of “values voters” who believe not only that they are the only ones who have values, but that everyone else should be forced to live by their values. Among other things, this has spawned the perennial and staggeringly stupid War On Christmas myth, cooked up because some people take offense at other people having the audacity to be of good cheer in a non-approved manner.

5. The discourse has been dominated and exploited by demagogues.

Reactionaries and hucksters and reactionary hucksters, all the way up the food chain to the White House (“fire the son of a bitch”), scored a touchdown with their audiences. They have been uniformly nasty against not only professional athletes who protest, but also high school and even elementary school students for exercising a constitutional right. (There’s nothing that spells patriotism like trashing a bunch of 8-year-olds, eh?) The opportunistic idiocy of the punditcracy was perhaps best encapsulated by Graham Ledger at OAN (aka the Moonie Network):

these uneducated, partisan, racialist football players are somehow righteous for promoting violent anti-American fascist groups, for turning their backs on the country that gave them their lifestyles, and are displaying so much contempt for we the people… The message is disrespect for this nation, which is making these spoiled babies rich. The message is, the owners in the NFL care more about their petty little politics than they care about us, we, the people. It’s not the anthem or the flag that’s being disrespected here, it’s you. It’s me.

It’s an especially nice touch to re-brand protesters against fascism as fascists themselves.

6. Straw men and red herrings galore

Those who don’t want to hear the protesters’ message have tried to bury them beneath an avalanche of straw men and red herrings, proclaiming that Kaepernick and company are “being disrespectful” , “displaying contempt” and “biting the hand that feeds them”, etc.  In other words, they offer the bizarre claim that protesting against racism is tantamount to protesting against America. And the very fact that so many people accept this absurd false equation is a protruding indication of the real problem: racism has become so deeply and subtly embedded in the fabric of American society that people tacitly accept it as a normal component of America.

It’s also trendy to point out that these athletes are highly paid; and this is often followed by the suggestion that their salaries automatically make them rich brats; and in exchange for this bounty they should just look the other way and keep their mouths shut about injustice.  You’ll get no argument from me on the point of athletes being overpaid; but that’s utterly irrelevant here, since rich Americans are just as entitled to exercise the First Amendment as are poor Americans. And contrary to what the reactionaries would have you believe, these football players are not “whining about how they are being treated”. I have never heard a single one of them claim that he himself has been unfairly targeted by police. Instead, they are speaking up on behalf of more anonymous, ordinary American citizens who have been thus targeted. It’s the famous putting their careers on the line to defend the voiceless; this is what the reactionaries consider being “whiny rich babies”.

And some people have gleefully mentioned that blacks kill other blacks and also that blacks kill whites. None of which negates the core complaint about police disproportionately targeting blacks.  And the fact that so many white people are so desperately seeking a way to negate it is a further indicator of the problem.

7. False narratives

Not content merely to put a false spin on the facts, reactionaries also have no problem with simply making up facts. One of them is that Black Lives Matter promotes violence. Utterly untrue. Another is that BLM and other anti-racism activists “don’t care about” blacks committing crimes against other blacks. Also not true.  In fact, the very concept of “black on black” crime is more rhetorical than realistic. But the fact that something is untrue doesn’t keep a lot of people from believing it. And repeating it. Over and over again. Alas.

The fact that “black on black crime” is even an issue, while the equally prevalent “white on white crime” is not, is yet another indication of the real problem.

8. The passionate pursuit of absurdity

Veterans are a frequent pawn of reactionaries, who love playing the “I love veterans more than you do” game.  Naturally, then, they have used veterans and military personnel as props to support their rage and hatred directed toward NFL protesters. In doing so, they completely ignore the fact that a great many veterans resent being used as pawns and props, particularly for something like this.

 

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In fact, a group of 35 veterans posted an open letter in support of Colin Kaepernick — a letter to which many other veterans have added their concurrence — which says, in part:

Far from disrespecting our troops, there is no finer form of appreciation for our sacrifice than for Americans to enthusiastically exercise their freedom of speech.

But the objectors still claim to know better, even though they’ve never quite explained the logic behind the belief that the protest is “disrespectful”. The best they can do is reiterate that veterans have “sacrificed themselves for our freedom”. What they are suggesting, then, is that because veterans have sacrificed themselves for our freedom, we should honor that sacrifice by coercing other people into behaving the way we want them to.

Unfortunately, this type of absurd and self-contradicting premise is all too common in contemporary American discourse. In fact, it seems that the more passionate the argument, the more absurd the premise. And that’s a very dangerous situation. It’s the kind of zeitgeist that might lead to… oh, the election of a president who is a figurehead for neo-Nazism.

A positive note

But let’s end on a positive note. An incident occurred recently that illustrates how possible it is to bridge the gap on even a heated conflict such as this. And it occurred in the unlikeliest of locations: a rally in support of the current White House occupant.

A group of representatives from Black Lives Matter showed up to counter-protest. Predictably, they were met with hostility, and with all the standard pre-programmed soundbites: “All lives matter”; “You hate cops”; “You don’t care about blacks killing blacks”. “If you don’t like America, get out”. Etc., etc.

But then something unexpected happened. For whatever reason, the speaker at the rally invited someone from BLM to take the stage and address the crowd for two whole minutes. Maybe he figured that the BLM speaker would make a fool of himself. But that’s not what happened. The BLM speaker was absolutely masterful, and actually managed to make friends of some of the T—p supporters. It was a stunning achievement that should serve as a sign of hope for us all.