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.)

 

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Trayvon Martin; and the “Double Standard” Standard (Part 2)

My wife likes to joke that her special superpower is an extraordinary ability to state the obvious. That’s actually a very handy skill to have, since so many people have an extraordinary capacity for ignoring the obvious. This has become quite clear in the public discourse about the death of Trayvon Martin. The degree of outrage it’s provoked, and the subsequent amount of media attention, have been attributed to such things as media bias and nefarious “liberal” subversiveness. The real explanation is much  more conspicuous: the burden of history.

A Brief History Refresher, for Those Who Really Need It

There was a time when African-Americans could be shot, lynched, set on fire or beaten for any reason or no reason. This was not called hate crime. It was called wholesome entertainment.  And forget about anything resembling a fair trial if they were the victim of, or the suspect in, a crime.  All in the distant past, you say? Not nearly so distant as we’d like to believe.

Many Americans are alive today who can remember when a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till (pictured on right) was tortured and killed because he allegedly committed the grave offense of flirting with/ speaking to a white woman. (One report was that he simply whistled at her; but he frequently whistled, at no one in particular, to curb his stuttering habit.) His murderers were acquitted, then freely admitted the killing. And some can remember when African-Americans were gunned down for the crime of trying to vote, and the police would declare it to be a traffic accident. (This was before the development of more sophisticated means of eliminating the “wrong” voters.)

More recently (1964), five civil rights workers (three black, two white) were brutally murdered in two incidents in Mississippi –with the assistance of local law enforcement personnel! The two whites who had the audacity to support racial equality were just lynched; the blacks were savagely beaten before being dispatched. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Is it really so surprising that the police pummeling of Rodney King or the shooting of Trayvon Martin should spark such an uproar?

The other side of the coin is that blacks are far more likely than whites to be accused of, convicted of, and even executed for crimes than whites – particularly when their alleged victims are white. Furthermore, there is a much greater tendency to extrapolate generalities from an incident involving an ethnic minority. When a Caucasian goes on a shooting spree and kills a dozen people, you never hear anyone say, “Well, that’s just like a whitey”. But if a black person commits an assault of just one person, you’re likely to hear a number of people say, “that’s just like a (fill in epithet of your choice)”.

So given all of this, would it really be surprising if indeed some journalists were reluctant to play up offenses or alleged offenses committed by blacks against whites? If there really is a discrepancy in how those offenses are reported versus how extensively offenses are reported by whites against blacks (and I don’t know that there is), it could well be inadvertent, and if anything is surely a correction of an anti-black bias rather than an indication of “anti-white” bias.

We have to wonder what would have happened had the shooter been black instead of white. Well, maybe we don’t have to wonder; we already have the example of John McNeil. He fatally shot a man in Georgia, which has a “Stand Your Ground Law” similar to Florida’s. But McNeil is currently serving a life sentence. Did we mention that he’s black? Double standards, anyone?

Okay, okay. We’ve already made the observation that apparent instances of double standards usually entail some striking differences. So let’s look at the differences here. McNeil did not shoot the man on the streets. It happened on McNeil’s own property. He didn’t start the altercation the way Trayvon Martin’s killer did,  and he wasn’t following the man; the man was aggressively pursuing him – and indeed had been prone to threatening behavior toward other people, even to the point of stalking.  He was not unarmed like Trayvon Martin, but was carrying a knife. And unlike Martin, there’s no doubt that he was posing a threat – he even pointed a knife at McNeil’s son. But John McNeil is serving a life sentence. Did we mention the guy he killed was white?

Turning the Tables

But now let’s move from the obvious to questions that are perhaps not so obvious: Why the reaction to the reaction? Why the state of denial that racism still exists? Why the claims of “double standards” and “media bias”?  Why the intensive campaign to vindicate the killer and vilify the victim?

It’s surely no coincidence that most – well okay, approximately exactly all of this reactionism is being perpetrated by radical “conservatives”.  Some right-wing websites have even circulated an unflattering photo  falsely identified as Martin. Are these folks just being racist? Not necessarily, though it wouldn’t be wise to rule it out. Although “conservatives” often vehemently, even indignantly deny it, racism is an implicit building block of modern faux-conservatism. But please, don’t take my word for that. I’ll gladly defer to the ultimate authority on the topic: the most revered Founding Father  of the movement, the late great William F. “Billy Bob” Buckley.

Still, there are other factors besides racism that might explain why right-wingers like to pretend that everything is peachy-keen as far as race relations go.  For example, they generally oppose policies designed to remedy racial inequality – e.g. affirmative action. Of course, they will maintain that their reason for doing so is that such programs are ineffective; and sometimes they might even have a valid point. But I really suspect that this is not so much a motivation as is a fundamental resistance to addressing social problems in any form. Accordingly, such individuals are often in obstinate denial that racism exists – except among blacks!

The G Factor

But most significant of all, perhaps, is the fact that Trayvon Martin was killed with a g-u-n. And neo-“conservatism” is quite cozy with the gun culture, which tends to regard gunpowder as the ultimate panacea. After every school shooting du jour, they will pipe up in thunderous chorus to insist that guns were not in the least to blame, and those 27 people just as easily could have been killed by a pencil, and this kind of thing would never happen if only we had more guns in our schools. No, that’s not an exaggeration. People really say things like that.

So maybe, just maybe, they are attacking a dead kid and glorifying his killer because they want to defend the illusion that nobody ever gets killed with a gun except bad guys and the victims of bad guys – which ignores the nagging fact that one of the fastest ways to create a bad guy is to take a good guy and give him a gun. Maybe, just maybe, their real intent is to prevent people from reaching the “wrong” conclusion: namely, that a firearm is a lethal toy that never should end up in the hands of … well, a “fucking punk”.