Happy Meal Conservatism
This is an appropriate time to turn back, once again, to one of my favorite John Derbyshire pieces published waybackwhen in The American Conservative: How Radio Wrecks the Right. A long excerpt:
Taking the conservative project as a whole—limited government, fiscal prudence, equality under law, personal liberty, patriotism, realism abroad—has talk radio helped or hurt? All those good things are plainly off the table for the next four years at least, a prospect that conservatives can only view with anguish. Did the Limbaughs, Hannitys, Savages, and Ingrahams lead us to this sorry state of affairs?
They surely did. At the very least, by yoking themselves to the clueless George W. Bush and his free-spending administration, they helped create the great debt bubble that has now burst so spectacularly. The big names, too, were all uncritical of the decade-long (at least) efforts to “build democracy” in no-account nations with politically primitive populations. Sean Hannity called the Iraq War a “massive success,” and in January 2008 deemed the U.S. economy “phenomenal.”
Much as their blind loyalty discredited the Right, perhaps the worst effect of Limbaugh et al. has been their draining away of political energy from what might have been a much more worthwhile project: the fostering of a middlebrow conservatism. There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism. It’s energizing and fun. What’s wrong is the impression fixed in the minds of too many Americans that conservatism is always lowbrow, an impression our enemies gleefully reinforce when the opportunity arises. Thus a liberal like E.J. Dionne can write, “The cause of Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, Robert Nisbet and William F. Buckley Jr. is now in the hands of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. … Reason has been overwhelmed by propaganda, ideas by slogans.” Talk radio has contributed mightily to this development.
It does so by routinely descending into the ad hominem—Feminazis instead of feminism—and catering to reflex rather than thought. Where once conservatism had been about individualism, talk radio now rallies the mob. “Revolt against the masses?” asked Jeffrey Hart. “Limbaugh is the masses.”
In place of the permanent things, we get Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar. Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right. But however much this dumbing down has damaged the conservative brand, it appeals to millions of Americans. McDonald’s profits rose 80 percent last year.
There is a lowbrow liberalism, too, but the Left hasn’t learned how to market it.
Anyways, to clarify a few things. First off, I don’t think the talk-radio right is ‘dangerous’ or that the video in the last post is actually representative of Glenn Beck. I think what talk radio and Fox News is is basically lowbrow conservatism – which is fun, as Derbyshire notes, but ultimately unsatisfying – at least for someone like me. Is it dangerous? No, not really. Can too much talk of how afraid we should all be of Obama and liberals and so forth infect an already unbalanced person’s mind and cause them to go over the edge? Quite possibly, and in someone like the Unitarian church shooter it appears that it did. But this doesn’t mean we should censor it or do anything about it – it’s just the way of the world. Hate speech laws are pernicious and politically dangerous. We have to get on with living.
Beck isn’t dangerous. Ann Coulter isn’t a threat to democracy. Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin aren’t doing things that will lead directly to anyone’s death. Well, except for championing foreign wars, but plenty of people on both sides of the aisle championed these wars, and currently it’s the Democrats who are fighting them.
On the right to bear arms.
Also, a lot of the commentary on Arizona gun laws is a bit odd. I say this as someone who really dislikes guns, mind you, and wouldn’t shed any tears if we awoke tomorrow morning to find that all the guns in the world – including those many in the hands of murderous governments around the world – had vanished.
Of course that won’t happen, so instead I believe it’s important to defend the right to bear arms. Kevin Williamson has a good post on why stricter gun laws wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference in the Loughner shooting. Certainly not allowing openly carried weapons at political rallies would not have made one iota of difference. Loughner did not openly carry his gun, and only brandished it in order to use it – something that is already very much against the law.
Nor did Loughner have a criminal record, or anything that would have flagged him as someone who should not possess a weapon. And saying that the mentally ill should not be allowed to own guns opens a really huge bag of worms that I’m not sure people ought to wade into at the moment – and even if there were laws preventing the mentally ill from owning guns, at the time of the shooting, Loughner had never been diagnosed with any mental illness.
The craving is for banishing randomness and the inexplicable from human experience. Time was, the gods were useful. What is thunder? The gods are angry. Polytheism was explanatory. People postulated causations.
Demystification of the world opened the way for real science, including the social sciences. And for a modern characteristic. And for charlatans.
A characteristic of many contemporary minds is susceptibility to the superstition that all behavior can be traced to some diagnosable frame of mind that is a product of promptings from the social environment. From which flows a political doctrine: Given clever social engineering, society and people can be perfected. This supposedly is the path to progress. It actually is the crux of progressivism. And it is why there is a reflex to blame conservatives first.