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.)

 

Michael Moore’s Bum Rap

“The most hated man in America” is how Michael Moore describes himself in his new book Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life. This self-characterization is not an exaggeration. For a time at least, there was probably more hatred directed toward him -from “patriotic” Americans – than toward Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein combined. A good indication is that during the 2004 election season, someone pointed out to him that while there had been one film released that attacked Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, there had been no fewer than six attacking him. The assault on his reputation is a superb illustration of just how successful a propaganda juggernaut can be.

The most intense period of hatred, to which he specifically alludes, is the few months following his 2003 speech accepting an Oscar for “Bowling With Columbine”.  Inviting his fellow nominees to join him onstage (they all accepted), he denounced George W. Bush’s “war” in Iraq. It was obviously a tense moment, because the usually eloquent and unflappable Moore slipped grammatically, saying “fictition” for “fiction” (he’d just used the word “fictitious”), sounding for the moment as linguistically inept as the politician he was referencing.

The reaction, as he recounts in the book, was immediate and WAAAAAY over the top. He arrived back home to find that loads of manure had been dumped in his driveway and signs posted warning him to leave the country. During the ensuing months, he was constantly subjected to threats, harassment and actual physical attacks.

Part of the explanation is that the Bush administration had done an excellent job of exploiting the 9-11 attack for political advantage, invoking it to justify everything from tax cuts for the wealthy to domestic drilling for oil. As Bush himself repeatedly reminded us, we were either with him or we were with the “terrists”. And a large portion of the American public, eager to be angry at someone, bought into it. Anyone who dared question the nation’s leader in even the smallest detail was likely to be branded as anti-American. (My, how times have changed.)

But that’s only part of the equation. Moore was a favorite tar baby of demagoguery even before the Oscar speech, and has continued to be so long after his vindication by the exposure of the Bush gang’s deceptions. As we’ve previously noted, the propaganda technique we call flag-waving requires right-wing extremists to condemn as unpatriotic anyone who does not support their positions. Moore certainly fills the bill, as he frequently criticizes Republicans and Randians. Apparently, he doesn’t even earn any grace points from the fact that he also often criticizes Democrats.

The official spin is that Michael Moore is himself an ideological extremist, a loose cannon, a venomous  polemicist – he has been called, for example, the “Ann Coulter of the Left.”  But nothing could be farther from the truth. Ann Coulter, and just about any other right-wing pundit you can name, revels in ad hominem smears and blanket demonizing of entire groups of fellow citizens – most notably Democrats and “liberals” (the latter often spat upon but seldom if ever defined). I challenge you to find a single example of Moore doing any of this. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

(La, de da, dum de dumm. Hmmmm ho ho…..)

Okay, I’m tired of waiting. Get back to me if you find one.

Moore never even returns in kind the vicious assaults leveled at him. He formerly aspired to become a priest; and unlike many other Christians, he actually practices what Jesus preached – even those annoying little bits about, um, loving your enemies and turning the other cheek.

One of the most vituperative of Moore-bashing websites, moorewatch.com (now apparently defunct) was operated by a fellow who’d harbored an obsessive hatred of Moore for years. When he announced to his readers that the site might go under because he was overwhelmed by his wife’s medical bills, Moore – then working, appropriately enough on “Sicko” – sent him an anonymous donation of $12, 000 so he could go on exercising his First Amendment right to spout hatred. Which he did.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, USA Today took an interesting approach to balanced coverage by hiring Michael Moore to cover the Republican convention (where John McCain made a point of singling him out so the crowd could boo him) and Jonah Goldberg of the ever-entertaining National Review to cover the Democratic convention. (Some day I must tell you about my own amusing brush with Goldberg.)

Moore was up first, and anyone expecting him to indulge in juvenile name-calling against either the convention’s attendees or George W. Bush was sorely disappointed. In fact, he made a point of complimenting Bush as a person, praising him in particular for his apparent success as a parent. His disapproval, then as always, was based on one thing: the man had done a miserable job at the position to which he’d been appointed, and should be replaced. Nothing personal.

Then came Goldberg’s turn, and not surprisingly he painted Democrats with a broad brush as corrupt, incompetent and evil. And of course took an obligatory swipe at Moore.

Taking swipes at Michael Moore, indeed, has become a very profitable industry, and a folkloric image of him has been constructed as a hypocritical, anti-American, socialist, manipulative, grandstanding moron and/or mastermind. Oh yes, and there must always, always be a schoolyard reference to his girth.

In 2008, a group of Hollywood Republicans, all five of them, made a film called “An American Carol” that was intended to be an agitprop spoof of Michael Moore and his work. (Insert comment here about Republicans being habitually a few years behind the times.) The flick often featured such side-splitting humor as the main character, representing Moore, getting whacked in the face. Stop it, guys, you’re cracking me up. Even if its approach to comedy hadn’t been so puerile, it was doomed from the get-go because it was founded on the premise that “Michael Moore hates America” – which, I kid you not, was the actual title of another movie. When asked about his reaction to “An American Carol”, Moore just good-naturedly replied, “I hope it’s funny”.

In the 2005 book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America, Bernard Goldberg (no relation to Jonah, astonishingly enough) lists 100 people (actually a lot more than that, since some of the people are actually groups of people, but what’s a little mathematical imprecision when you have an important statement to make) who, by challenging his beliefs, are destroying his country. Perhaps the most amusing inclusion is Eve Ensler, playwright of “The Vagina Monologues”, which uses the word “vagina” too much for Goldberg’s taste and by talking too much about people who have them, displays an anti-male, and therefore anti-American, bias. Guess who takes the honored spot of public enemy number one in his tome? If Goldberg hates Michael Moore, then Moore must hate America.

With all the propaganda directed at Moore, it’s natural to ask whether he himself is a propagandist by our preferred definition – i.e., whether he deliberately deceives in order to persuade. The short answer, Internet rumors notwithstanding, is no. But it’s a fair question, and we’ll take a more detailed look in the future. The point for now is that he sets a supreme example of civility in an age when it’s an uncommon commodity; and it would be hard to find a public figure having a greater discrepancy between media image and actual character.

(Posted, ironically enough, on Columbus Day – when Americans honor and glorify a greedy, ruthless, murderous conqueror who was also an incompetent navigator  who went to his grave never even realizing that he’d bumbled into a different continent.)