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The Perils of the Op-Ed Column and Suicide Girl Conservatism

October 14th, 2009 · 10 Comments

I feel like you don’t see quite so many good old fashioned blog rants anymore, so it’s sort of nice to see Freddie DeBoer let one rip over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. The first part is a long criticism of what Ross Douthat’s been up to since taking his gig at the New York Times, of mixed validity. I can’t say I found Ross’ argument that Obama should’ve turned down the Nobel in his most recent column particularly convincing either, but it seems a little much to get “livid” at the headline “Heckuva Job, Barack.” For one, columnists generally don’t write their own headlines, and I assume whoever did write it was just reaching for the most notorious example in recent memory of an unmerited accolade, not suggesting some deep equivalence between the awfulness of an inapt award and the botched response to Katrina.  Nor do I find especially ludicrous or incoherent the notion that it can be emotionally or psychologically difficult to do what’s ultimately in your long-term best interests; I thought that was supposed to be the peculiar failing of Chicago School economists.

That said, I haven’t found the columns to date as interesting as I invariably did the Atlantic blog either. No doubt that’s partly that, as Freddie suggests, Ross is in the awkward position of having to reestablish his conservative bona fides in a venue where plenty of people are doubtless combing for cause to brand him a RINO, while simultaneously trying to appeal to the modal Times reader, rather than a self-selecting audience of people who’ve gone out of their way to read his blog. Which is a hell of a tightrope act. Partly I’m sure it’s just matter of a writer needing some time to adapt to a different format. Mostly, though, I suspect it’s  that the format itself is something of an atavism—a holdover from a superseded information technology. There’s just a pretty small domain of things to write that  (1) will appeal to a general audience, (2) are actually interesting, and (3) both merit and are adequately expressed in 700-800 words without hyperlinks. I’m sure I read plenty of blog posts about that length that are interesting, but they’re often at places like Volokh Conspiracy or Boing Boing, which cater to particular types of reader and wouldn’t necessarily fascinate the Man on the Clapham Omnibus. Stuff of genuinely broad appeal tends to be of the “I had this one neat thought” variety that fits into a paragraph or two, or in-depth stuff that demands feature length.  What I’d actually love to see is Ross writing regular essays for the Times Magazine or Esquire or some such

Anyway, the latter half of Freddie’s post is a bit of a potpourri, again of mixed merit. Partly it’s a fair but familiar complaint about conservatives loudly distancing themselves from Bush, but who seemed conspicuously less enthusiastic about pressing their dissent, say, five years ago—though some of this may be attributable to what we call “learning,” and to that extent I’ll consider it a salutary development. But there’s a more subtle point that it’s easy to miss between table thumps here. It’s not that opinion writers should have bad consciences about not being party activists, or that a fondness for Edmund Burke actually makes one “responsible” for whatever some racist loons shout at a town hall, which would be silly, but is also an easy way to read the claim on a first pass.  Rather it’s that there’s an actual conservative base out there supporting the political actors, they’re not going away anytime soon, and if the conservative movement’s going to pull out of this toxic death spiral, someone who’s not an imbecile or a psychopath is going to have to identify with them enough to lead them out of the fever swamps. Someone has to play Prospero here and say: “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.”

The temptation for someone who wants to see a sane conservative movement is to think that if only you can sufficiently distance yourself from the crazy shouty people—the ones on the radio and the ones in their audiences—you can rope together the more moderate conservatives with a big chunk of independents and forge some new untainted coalition.  But no, you go to politics with the base you’ve got, not the one you might wish you had—you’re actually going to need at least some of the crazy shouty people. Presumably there’s a limit, and there are voices you do need to marginalize if conservatism itself isn’t going to be marginal—the Michael Savages and Orly Taitzes. But if there’s value to pointing out that Rush Limbaugh is a crass blowhard, it’s also a little too easy. And there’s a beguiling risk of just becoming a new media’s Suicide Girls counterpart to the AM/Fox set: Edgier, with some piercings and wicked tattoos, but still basically wank material. Which was the problem with having the blowhards at the wheel: Oppositional identity politics is not a substitute for a serious governing agenda.

None of which is to say that Conor Friedersdorf and David Frum—though the latter certainly has a few things to apologize for—aren’t doing God’s work. What’s sound in Freddie’s argument is sometimes drowned out by a frustrated yawp: There are all these awesome cudgels with which to whack conservatives these days, and yet there are all these damn conservatives who refuse to line up for a whacking! I’m sympathetic, but division of labor is important, and for the moment I think the deconstructors are serving the function they need to. If I understand what Conor is doing, he’s not trying to be a Karl Rove or a Bill Kristol—I doubt he’d be very good at it if he were, and in any event I doubt conservatives are ready for that at this point. The better analogy might be Irving Kristol—the John the Baptist for whatever comes next. Conservatism in its present state is too fucked up to salvage in the short term. For now what we want are a bunch of divergent visions and internecine critiques rendering the concept of conservatism sufficiently contestable that a few years from now, someone can fuse together enough of the various strands to make some kind of coherent coalition capable of holding a majority, and plausibly call it by that name.  At that point, it will be necessary for someone to “take responsibility” for a new conservative movement; right now I think we should be content to watch them pump a few more shotgun shells into the zombie carcass of this one.

Tags: Horse Race Politics · Journalism & the Media · Sociology



10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 jre // Oct 14, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    When you find your way out of the wilderness and your cell phone works, give John Rogers a call.

  • 2 gtra1n // Oct 15, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    I’m astonished by your assertion that writing a good regular newspaper column is limited to a small domain of things general readers are willing to read about, much less be interested in, and that a writer would be hamstrung by a 700-800 word limit. That may be appropriate for an apology for Ross Bouthat’s work, but really, that is an exceedingly limited view of writing, and thinking.

    As a thinker, Douthat is anodyne and deracinated from the deep expanse of lived reality, and as a writer he is dull, weak and clumsy. Considering the number of non-dogmatic, interesting thinkers and competent writers out there, Douthat’s gig clearly has to do with the usual chimera of balance and not actual quality. Like it or not, Douthat is amongst a peer group that include Kempton and Pfaff, and if he can’t handle the format, that’s his responsibility, not that of the column in which his words are printed.

  • 3 Mark // Oct 15, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    I think Douthat’s greatest failing is his deep separation from reality. A good example: he writes scoldingly about sex, but he doesn’t have the wealth of experience in the area to draw from that most of our lawmakers have.

    He opposed affirmative action in a recent column (as though it’s on the top 10 list of important issues right now) but failed to recognize that having a lawyer father who went to Stanford and a private school education that included Harvard might indicate that a different type of affirmative action has played a role in putting him where he is today. Again, a sheltered background has kept him from understanding the reality of this country.

    Surely there is a conservative writer in this country with a brain in his head who could communicate something interesting to the Times’ audience. Perhaps that’s asking too much.

  • 4 Silver // Oct 15, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    That’s a hell of a long post when you could have just said, “Douthat still sucks, it’s just more apparent now that he’s not writing for political junkies.”

  • 5 Freddie // Oct 15, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    A rant it was. It deserves a follow-up, for some further reflection.

  • 6 RK // Oct 18, 2009 at 2:48 am

    Well said.

    I like how Ross has been attacked on the one hand for the embarrassing sex scenes in his book and simultaneously accused of lacking all the right experiences by Mark (who knows this how?). Naturally, actually reading his book would reveal that Douthat understands very well what intergenerational inequality is—that’s what his book is about!

    Since Mark doesn’t actually include any criticisms of Douthat’s column, I can only conclude that he thinks people whose fathers went to Stanford shouldn’t be allowed to write about affirmative action. Or at any rate, not if they’re white and against it.

  • 7 Conor Friedersdorf - Metablog – The Many Projects of American Conservatives - True/Slant // Oct 27, 2009 at 6:58 pm

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  • 9 ¡Douthat Libre! // Nov 17, 2009 at 10:45 am

    […] finally gets a blog at the Times. Glad to know you guys are listening. Now let’s talk about […]

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