City Paper is not for tourists
Last Friday, Dave Sessions at Patrol reviewed the various conservative websites that began publishing in 2008 and early ’09. He references only Culture 11 and Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood, but I got the impression that he was speaking to anti-left media everywhere. His thesis (buried in the second graf just below a stinging mockery of the RNC’s tactics for building a youthful online base) is this: “Why are conservatives so clueless when it comes to letting anything flow from their actual love of the medium?”
And actually being brave enough to have new ideas is an entirely different matter than saying “we need to have new ideas.” Getting new ideas — or much more, understanding popular culture — isn’t a matter of starting up a new business or writing some magic words…
In the case of this burgeoning “new young conservative media,” I think we still see a lot more bristling suspicion and resistance than we see actual innovation or groundbreaking thought. If you’re going to start another magazine in a world that already has more than enough, you need a reason better than “getting the conservative answer out” or “countering the liberal establishment.”
I agree that most politically conservative journalists are more concerned with differentiating their criticism from that of the mainstream media than they are with writing good criticism, but I wouldn’t couch my reasons as to why in the language of innovation versus stagnation. For one thing, journalists do not set the cultural agenda, their subjects do. The most innovative thing any journalist can do with regards to culture is to follow new ideas, reconsider old ideas, and explore unexplored ideas. Journalists Who Happen to Be Politically Liberal get this, and have been writing about Hollywood, Lowbrow, television shows, hip hop, pop art, porn, rock, and drugs—all of which cemented liberal journalism’s eye for newness—since day one.
There are several arguments that explain why conservative journalists are having a tough time breaking into online cultural journalism. The first reason is that they’ve been looking down their noses at lesser expressions of art and entertainment for as long as liberals have been embracing the same. The vanguard of conservative cultural criticism, Hilton Kramer, founded The New Criterion in the early ’80s because he felt the New York Times’ standards of criticism were declining, both in the movements it covered and in the way it covered them. And while I doubt that many (if any) of the youngish contributors at Culture 11 or Big Hollywood are familiar with Kramer’s founding philosophy—they’re writing about why they hate fake breasts and how hard it is to be a Republican singer-songwriter, after all—they are nevertheless the inheritors of his superiority complex. Their instincts—against which the editors at Culture 11 are wisely pushing—are to shun anything academic, including critical theory, and to transcend the immoral (and sometimes amoral) world that a subject creates for itself. A great example of these two defaults in action was the conservative reaction to Million Dollar Baby, which critics attacked for both mirroring and fueling America’s “Culture of Death,” while declining discussion of its pacing, the way it was shot, or the finer points of its plot—all basic criteria for measuring the quality of a film. In short, after decades of bemoaning art’s decline and pining for pre-Modern movements, conservatives simply don’t have the chops for writing about culture.
Another problem, and one that is tied closely to the above, is that conservatives insist on defining their work as Conservative, and thus write about culture, art, and entertainment only insofar as each serves, neglects, offends their politics. This was Sessions’ original objection, one that he said mirrors certain Christians’ none-to-subtle efforts at “impact[ing] the culture.” The underlying assumption is that there’s something intrinsically liberal about the current state of A&E criticism, and that this component has a blatant manifestation (eerily, only conservatives have the special goggles required to see it). But like I suggested above, I think the real truth of this is that liberal journalists have never passed up an opportunity to engage the culture. Essentially, they know the beat really, really well. (Barack Obama hagiography, which has inspired countless journalists to pen insipid odes to Shep Fairey and his emulators, has turned out to be a rather unusual exception to my theory.)
But the biggest impediment to conservatives getting the hang of this culture thing is that the readers of conservative publications don’t expect any better of the people who produce them. Look at the National Review’ Online’s clunky, Pope-Approved(!) blog posts, or the New Criterion’s Anglophilic love affair with all things musty and, well, musty—both outlets receive nothing but praise from readers who mistakenly believe, perhaps after years of consuming the same stale writing, that it doesn’t get any better. Big Hollywood’s reception by conservatives has been equally mystifying, as with the exception of a few contributors—libertarians all—the writing at Andrew Breitbart’s new site is grammatically, thematically, and critically terrible.
For the above reasons, conservative/libertarian critics like Matt Labash, Conor Friedersdorf, and Tim Cavanaugh are rarities, while smart liberal critics come in discounted value packs of 20. Oddly enough, a random sampling of the aforementioned writers’ works wouldn’t give you a very good impression of their political orientations, which is perhaps the most compelling reason why conservative journalists should place aesthetics ahead of ideology.