Media

Part 1: Conservative Dissent in the Blogosphere

Much has been written about the demise of print journalism since the advent of internet technology. Publication is no longer so costly and resource consuming that it is limited to a specialist industry. All forms of popular literature are more readily available to a broader cross-section of society, and the dissemination of analysis and opinion on social and political controversies is now relatively effortless, given the basic tools of internet connection. However, this period has also witnessed an apparent increase in public apathy and disillusionment over the state of political debate as well as the effectiveness of popular representation in the halls of parliament. Where the reportage of current affairs was once dominated by a professional class that enjoyed relatively high levels of respectability, today it seems to be suffering a decline not only in prestige, but also in public trust and even reliability. A similar trend can be observed with respect to the celebrities of the mainstream political establishment.

In his essay “An Elegy for Journalism” (Foreign Affairs, January-February 2010), Peter Osnos highlights the gravity of this crisis by claiming that “Journalism is an essential—even indispensable—element of any functioning democracy.” Electors in a modern liberal state are far too preoccupied with the routine of daily life to either be directly involved in political initiatives or intimately aware of the vicissitudes of government. To make an informed choice, they must rely heavily, if not entirely, on the second-hand information made conveniently available to them by the purveyors of “news”. Accordingly, institutions through which information is processed and presented to the public find themselves responsible not only for the maintenance of democracy, but also influential in the formation of popular opinion and public trends.

It is therefore reasonable to suggest that the decline of journalism will impoverish the democratic process by having a profoundly negative impact on the quality of political debate itself. If we are concerned about the public’s faith in the political process, the cultural trends that have dominated both these institutions of public power must be considered. In particular, how are we to understand the relationship between the professional and the “populist” media establishment, and how has this left its mark on the electorate and its attitudes to democracy?

In Andrew Keen’s book The Cult of the Amateur (2008) the author blames the decline in print journalism on the democratisation of media and the rise of an amateur class of pseudo-journalists.[1] He predates Osnos’s concerns by identifying this as a threat to “the integrity of our political discourse” because “amateur journalism trivialises and corrupts serious debate” and the “rule of the mob and rumour mill” will ultimately impoverish the marketplace of ideas. The reason why Keen appears only partly correct in his critique is because he seems to be operating entirely within the context of mainstream media culture, and therefore is unable to see beyond its prejudices. What follows is an attempt to illustrate this, and possibly provide a more comprehensive explanation for the present state of affairs.

One-eyed journalism and the blogosphere

Keen bemoans the promulgation of fraud and misinformation among “citizen-journalists” to whom the difference between reportage and opinion is separated by a very fine line, if at all. While the incestuous cross-linking of blogs can indeed create an information virtual-reality isolated from the outside world, the traditional media has not escaped similar criticism of spreading unsubstantiated rumour as fact, passing off speculation and opinion as news, obsessing over trivia and dwelling within the narrow confines of politically-correct “debate”. These problems are common to both worlds, distinguished only by the degree of their prevalence in each. Moreover, Keen’s error is further compounded by the comparison of blogs to his idealised vision of the traditional media, which is at once as romantic as it is naive:

Professional journalists acquire their craft through education and through the firsthand experience of reporting and editing the news under the careful eye of other professionals. In contrast, citizen journalists have no formal training or expertise, yet they routinely offer up opinion as fact, rumour as reportage, and innuendo as information. On the blogosphere, publishing one’s “journalism” is free, effortless and unencumbered by pesky ethical standards or bothersome editorial boards.

In Keen’s view, prior to the proliferation of internet technology, the “collective intellectual history” was the product of the “careful aggregation of truth”. Is he suggesting that the media no longer subscribes to this idea? Judging from the spirit of his work, it would appear he laments the loss of traditional media’s authority, while claiming that it is the network of opinion-driven websites that has betrayed the high standards once adhered to by professional journalists. In a similar vein, Osnos’s description of the amateur’s medium as a “flip, glib and entertaining opinion-driven commentary—the fast food that nourishes much of the blog culture” contrasts with his description of the professional:

Journalism is the craft of news gathering … it has evolved to encompass a set of standards and practices that make it … a reliable provider of facts and information … there is a premium on the experienced judgment of professional writers and editors. And this is what is at stake today.

Unfortunately, these assumptions about the culture of the mainstream press reveal a distorted picture of media competence. In “Amateur League” (Monthly, April 2010) Australian leftist Mungo MacCallum writes that “the old ideas of what makes a professional have become irrelevant. There is no real time for thought and analysis; what matters is delivery”. Here, MacCallum is not writing about blogs. He’s describing the culture of the traditional press, its news cycles, deadlines, and its insatiable need for immediate updates and reportage, all of which has been enhanced by its own entry into the realm of the internet and led to its obsession with banality. This has undoubtedly left its mark on the quality of journalism and also highlights that the distinction drawn by Keen and Osnos between the print and online news establishment is increasingly artificial and fading.

MacCallum’s description of the new concept of professionalism in media shows that the decline of the news industry is largely the result of attitudinal trends among journalists. “The world, of course, is seen by the commentariat as a side issue, yet another diversion from the real work, which is to answer whatever questions they see fit to pose,” he writes. Keen and Osnos’s characterisation of the traditional media therefore appears to be stereotypical of a bygone era. If the amateur bloggers manifest a certain disdain for the pampered privilege of celebrity journalism, those in the traditional press can display their own sense of self-importance and entitlement, as well as an inflated ego no different from the online libertines of the blogosphere. Furthermore, it is not difficult to imagine how the reliability of “news” would be affected if editorial boards were dominated by a culture of group-think devoid of any real ideological diversity. One could expect this to be far more damaging to the reputation of the traditional press than the activities of a samizdat online community. According to some insiders, this is precisely the case.

In his exposé Bias (2002), former CBS senior executive Bernard Goldberg catalogues a litany of examples of how truth has become a casualty to the political sensitivities of the editorial boards in both print and television media. He writes that “the liberal media elites are not an alien species. They’re part of the bigger liberal community.” In Colouring the News (2002) William McGowan writes that reporters “have all attended the same universities and all been exposed to the same politically correct pieties”. Likewise, former sixties radical Harry Stein confirms that “a great many of us who similarly emerged from the campus culture of the sixties did our bit—and then some. For as we came to populate and then dominate the nation’s newsrooms, we remade the news media in our image” (City Journal, Spring 2008).

What Keen describes as the “craft of news gathering’, its “careful aggregation of truth” has become no more than a shallow pretence to objectivity. In the words of McGowan, “without counterbalancing influences, the worldview and prejudices of the liberal-left leaning newsroom majority manufacture what become philosophical ‘givens’”. This means that one of the most important pillars of good journalism, an inquisitive but strongly sceptical outlook, is exercised selectively, social controversy is analysed through an ideological prism, blind eyes are turned to the indiscretions of the in-group and outsiders are pursued with extraordinary zeal. Tom Switzer, former Opinion page editor at the Australian and presently at Spectator Australia has made similar observations about the homogenous character of this fourth estate (Quadrant, October 2007). In Switzer’s experience, right-leaning journalists were:

isolated in the news-room; you were condemned for not conforming to the smelly orthodoxies of political correctness; and your political insights were not treated as a contentious contribution to the editorial conference, but as a flat earther’s fit of extremist nonsense.

He also recalled a senior journalist at the BBC who “once lamented he could not raise a cricket team of conservatives among staff at the British public broadcaster”. How the politicisation of the media leads to its ultimate demise should be self-evident to an individual of any political disposition. Claims to objectivity are hollow when journalists become advocates for a cause. A chronic lack of ideological diversity among the commentariat leads to fading public trust in “news”. This naturally leads to the gradual evaporation of the media’s authority as well as a popular reaction against the “philosophical givens” of the editorial board, or as McGowan puts it:

The increasing liberalism of the newsroom combined with more parochialism amplifies a disconnect from the rest of mainstream society … By siding so openly with the cultural left … the press has compounded the estrangement and anger of much of the electorate, unintentionally feeding the cultural and political backlash against that agenda.[2]

Even if we are to assume that the journalists of the traditional media are professional by definition, they don’t seem to be acting like journalists any more. MacCallum writes of this group, “almost all of whom see themselves not as commentators, but as players in the game, movers and shakers, one-eyed supporters of one side or another”. In other words, the profession of the traditional press has become the art of spin, not reportage. This can hardly be described as the consequence of a growing online body of user-generated media. Indeed, it is far more compelling to consider the rise of the blogosphere as a reaction to the growing illegitimacy of the mainstream press.

MacCallum qualifies his damning description of modern journalism by excluding “some honourable exceptions … confined almost exclusively to the broadsheet newspapers and the ABC”. Switzer may disagree with the particulars of MacCallum’s qualification, but what is important here is the fact that men from different wings of the political spectrum identify the same problem. The increasingly partisan blogosphere suggests that the public is unlikely to view the traditional media with quite the same awe and respect it once enjoyed. As the chasm between the public and the commentariat widens, the desire for a news medium that reflects the public’s values and concerns will correspondingly grow. It is therefore not surprising that the web was instrumental in exposing two of the most pervasive liberal myths of recent years: readers will now be familiar with the “Climategate” fiasco;[3] as this piece goes to print, another affair concerning yet another leak of e-mails, this time from a leftist web-forum “JournoList”, has been exposed, and along with it, any semblance of media impartiality has surely evaporated.[4]

As the levels of trust for the traditional media dwindle, it should be no surprise that the public will take matters into its own hands and seek refuge in a far less restrictive medium. This applies equally to dissent from both wings of the political spectrum. It explains the growth of the leftist online community as a reaction to the politics of convergence among parties of the mainstream. It also illustrates how the growth of conservative internet portals is as much a flight from the cycloptic nature of “professional” journalism’s editorial boards as it is from traditional editorial standards themselves; critics of the blogosphere seem strangely oblivious to this.[5]

The impact on mainstream politics

The trivialisation of “professional” journalism in a mass-democratic environment will necessarily lead to the banalisation of mainstream politics. MacCallum claims that “the more the politicians bow to the media idea of professionalism, the further they drift from the real basis of their profession: policy”. As a consequence, the concept of political professionalism “has almost nothing to do with the substance of politics and everything to do with the technique”. The technique MacCallum derides is the way government representatives need to engage with the media, the incessant “gauntlet” which leaves little room for the actual work of governance. “It is simply a matter of time and resources,” he writes, decrying that “most of the media are simply not interested in policy anyway—at least not in the substance of policy”. MacCallum understands the co-degenerative relationship of a failing media and political establishment, but his own biases have blinded him to one of the more obvious reasons how this has occurred.[6]

Since voting trends are shaped almost exclusively by the information made available to the electorate by news outlets, parties have a greater incentive to pander to the media than to deal with the concerns of their actual constituents. The dominance of liberal “intellectuals” in the press as well as politicians’ need to remain electorally viable will lead them to court these media elites by assuming “progressive” rhetoric before incrementally embracing the social policy agenda that naturally follows it. Leftist attitudes therefore become a default position: “Once liberal institutions are installed in society, a government that wishes to preserve them must be in some sense conservative,” writes Malcolm Fraser.[7] Note the tone of inevitability concerning the liberal institutions, and the caricatured image of the modern conservative in relation to preserving them. Defending the countercultural theories of the 1960s is therefore subsumed as part of “conservative’ praxis, and liberalism survives as a predominant force in modern mainstream politics across the entire political spectrum. Alasdair MacIntyre confirms:

The contemporary debate within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself.[8]

The last sentence is of course a reference to modern political correctness, its speech codes and gag phrases which stifle debate, choke the expression of dissenting thoughts, make a mockery of the liberal claim to “celebrate diversity” and stunt genuinely progressive social reform. Immersed in this environment, it is understandable that intellectual pressure will lead to the cognitive harmonisation of mainstream conservatives with the “progressive” elite. Without substantive political alternatives, democracy then becomes a purely procedural affair; a battle of brands and personalities instead of ideas and competing philosophies; the administrative technique of a multi-party yet mono-ideological managerial class. As a consequence, it is reasonable to predict a gradual drift away from the political and media mainstream by a growing portion of a disaffected electorate. This is especially the case for traditionalist conservatives who find it increasingly difficult to accept a “centre” that appears to be constantly relocating towards the left. The reason why terms such as “moderate” and “centrist” are often mocked as mischievous descriptions of an individual’s actual political tendency today is because, in the words of James Kalb, “what passes as battles between liberals and [establishment] conservatives are almost always disputes between different stages or tendencies within liberalism itself”.[9]

In this context, the growth of the rightist blogosphere should come as no surprise; nor should it be shocking to witness the improved electoral prospects of “controversial” political parties in Europe, or independent candidates, third forces and “minor parties” in the UK and Australia. Locked out of the traditional media establishment, many will rely largely on alternative news media and create their own forums of policy development and public relations which are not dominated by the sensibilities and taboos of the managerial class.

However, the most impressive grassroots populist movement to come to our attention in the last year is the “Tea Party” phenomenon in the United States. The established media’s reaction to it confirms the reign of a homogenous, unrepresentative political orthodoxy hostile to any expression that falls outside the liberal paradigm.

The new Tea Party

George W. Bush’s infamous comment that “there is no [conservative] movement” is bitterly recalled by grassroots conservatives without whose support Bush would not have been able to win the Presidency. In their eyes, this contempt for the Republican core constituency is not only symbolic of its ultimate betrayal, but also marks the point at which the allegedly right-wing “establishment” ceased to be the vehicle for a truly conservative domestic political agenda. Unable to punish disloyalty by supporting the Democrats, they have been forced to assert an independent political initiative outside the traditional party structure. The blogosphere continues to play an invaluable organisational role in this regard and the results have been impressive.[10] Ben McGrath of the New Yorker (February 1, 2010) reports that one Washington rally was estimated to have nearly two million participants. He quotes an activist as being “tired of talking at the TV” and stating that “this is as grass roots as it gets”. Summarising the climate of one rally, he writes:

If there was a central theme to the proceedings, it was probably best expressed in the refrain “can you hear us now?” conveying a long-standing grievance that the political class in Washington is unresponsive to the needs and worries of ordinary Americans. Republicans and Democrats alike were targets of derision.

On the other hand, Mark Lilla does not see it as a conservative reaction against modern liberalism but an essentially libertarian creature born out of the politics of individual autonomy. He notes in the New York Review of Books (May 27– June 9, 2010) that the principle of personal autonomy drove the moral liberalisation of the 1960s and the neoliberal economic policies of the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions twenty years later. In his view, a near universal acceptance of this underlying political philosophy (along with the over-bureaucratisation of government during the 1990s) led to the public “disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals”. In this respect, Lilla is correct to describe the Tea Party movement not as an anti-liberal creature, but an individualist, anti-authoritarian one; one which, according to Michael Kingsley (Atlantic, June 2010),  “allows anyone who is just existentially fed up … to feel right at home” or as Lee Harris puts it: “the Tea Party Movement is not about ideas. It’s about attitude” (Policy Review, June–July 2010).

To make things even more complicated, polling by the New York Times and CBS News has indicated that approximately two thirds of the Tea Party participants have a positive view of the large-spending policies of the previous Republican administration, while at the same time an overwhelming majority favour smaller, less intrusive government. This contradiction may be the result of political idolatry, where a strong current of support for those pilloried by the Left will not suffer in the face of the icon’s left-leaning policies. A more critical view would be that it represents a juvenile sentiment of demanding a level of state paternalism while decrying its cost. Thus the qualities that make the movement politically effective (difficult for opponents to pin down, stereotype and neutralise) are the same things that make it so hard to understand: a lack of coherent philosophical basis, inconsistent policies, goals and objectives, decentralisation and lack of a regimented leadership cadre.[11] Clearly, there are multiple forces at play in the formative months of the movement and it remains difficult to characterise.

Nevertheless, the marriage between those that oppose state liberalism and those that simply oppose the state, whatever its ideological hue, is destined to have an overall libertarian flavour. Compare this to a genuinely conservative anti-authoritarianism summarised by Chilton Williamson of Chronicles (April 2010):

The complaint against our present ruling class should be less that it is an ill-founded and decadent elite than that it is an anti-traditional and revolutionary one, dedicated to destroying everything that a genuine elite—an aristocracy—is keen to preserve, beginning with the welfare of the people and the future of the nation with which it was entrusted.[12]

For reasons outlined by Lilla, such an aristocratic sentiment is unlikely to be popular among the democratised, individualist citizenry of the modern liberal state. While this will not cheer traditionalists hopeful that the new “amateurs” may lead to public reappraisal of the present orthodoxy, the promise that it may at least shake-up the political status quo is nevertheless welcome.[13]

Either way, this is all very worrying to the establishment. Reflecting the disparaging tone in which the Tea Party movement is often referred to by the traditional press, Kevin Baker describes attendees at popular assemblies as “thugs” and their rallies with the pejorative sexual innuendo of “tea-baggers” (Harper’s, April 2010). This contrasts sharply with the respectful treatment of other populist movements in the same article.

The Tea Party has attracted far more ire from the mainstream commentariat than other grass-roots movements. MoveOn, an allegedly non-aligned, independent lobby group that by some strange freak of coincidence always finds itself campaigning for left-of-centre politicians and progressive causes, has never been treated with the same degree of suspicion by professional journalists.[14] ACORN, the highly controversial umbrella group of community organisations whose professed non-partisanship has not yet extended to supporting a single conservative cause or candidate, has not attracted the same level of journalistic inquiry outside the narrow confines of the few specifically right-leaning print news outlets and columnists.[15] Meanwhile, in a rather bluntly titled piece (“Hate”, Newsweek, April 19, 2010), Evan Thomas and Eve Conant compare former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a woman now strongly associated with the Tea Party after her resignation as Governor of Alaska, to anti-Semitic populist agitators of the US inter bellum period.[16]

The only distinction that could be drawn between the Tea Party and other organisations such as MoveOn and ACORN is that the former fit within the Alinskyite definition of “pressure from below” whereas the Tea Party appears to be an unwelcome phenomenon to those applying “pressure from above”. In other words, there is an ideological proximity between the Alinskyite grass-roots movements and the present mainstream political and media elite, but none between that elite and the Tea Party which appears to be a reaction against all three. As McGrath states:

The Tea Party Movement, identified by some commentators as the first right-wing street protest movement of our time, may be a reflection of how far populist sentiment has drifted away from the political left in the decades since the New Deal.

The selective scepticism of “professional” journalists betrays their own vested interests and allegiances. One could be forgiven for believing that the political and social awareness of the press is trapped in some parallel reality. Consider the following from Michael Kinsley’s report published in the Atlantic (June 2010): “The press, both alarmed and delighted by this political force that sprung out of nowhere, is eager to prove its lack of elitism and left-wing bias by treating the Tea Party activists with respect.” Come out of “nowhere”? Treated with “respect”? “Eager to prove” its “lack” of leftist bias? These are amazingly ignorant comments for an allegedly professional journalist to make, and suggest that the modern “amateurs” so feared by Keen have a legitimate grievance not only against the political establishment but against the press as well; both of these are too closely connected to consider separately. Such media blindness also does nothing to mitigate the growth of contemporary rightist populism.

A more explicit example found its way past the editorial board and into the pages of another issue of Harper’s (July 2010). There, Ken Silverstein describes “today’s Arizona legislature, which is composed almost entirely of dimwits, racists and cranks”. To what did this US state owe Silverstein’s vitriolic diatribe? His main grievances appear to be its economic prudence, refusal to subscribe to the “progressive” welfare state program, enforcement of immigration laws and the banning of minority ethno-nationalist propaganda from the educational curriculum.[17] That the state is one where “the Tea Party is arguably the ruling party” no doubt doesn’t do Arizona any favours in Silverstein’s eyes.

But even if such policies are indeed reprehensible, Silverstein’s patronising analysis betrays not the ignorance of the grass-roots who provide the momentum for the state’s reform agenda, but the refusal of progressive ideologues to understand that in politics too, every action will have an equal and opposite reaction. To put it differently, if the Tea Party has an air of over-reaction, it is because it has been born out of the electorate’s slow-burning frustration with the “progressive” radicalism of the establishment’s social and economic policies. Matthew Continetti writes in the Weekly Standard (June 28):

Any large political movement is going to have its share of people who push the ideological envelope. It’s going to have some cranks who break the rules of political decorum. In times of economic crisis and political ferment, tempers are going to become heated.

Strangely, the apologists for ACORN and MoveOn seem to be singing a different tune when it comes to conservatives protesting against modern liberal programs. The reason for the media’s lopsided treatment of grassroots movements is due partly to its apparent refusal to accept that dissent does not always occur on the Left. This, of course, is a direct result of the ideological prism through which it regards social controversy.[18] Baker’s description of the Tea Party movement as a rabble of “right-wing pseudo-Populists” strongly suggests that a mass movement that rejects the progressive agenda isn’t really a movement of the people, and those attending rallies don’t really qualify as members of the public. Despite a McLauchlan & Associates study, which found that 53 per cent of the US electorate views the movement favourably, and a more recent Harris poll which found that less than a quarter of adults opposed it,[19] the closest Baker comes to ascribing to it any legitimacy is by denouncing it as a form of “counter-Populism”. It is difficult to understand how a mass movement can be counter-popular without implicitly admitting that the public has become split into two diametrically opposed political tendencies, each of which carries a degree of genuine popular legitimacy: one which evidently enjoys the patronage of such prestigious establishment journals as Harper’s, and another, which according to Baker “hark[s] back to a mythologised past”.

Here, another curiosity leaps at the reader: Baker spends a good portion of his essay illustrating the radical manner in which liberals have changed US society, yet the past, with all its abolished institutions and allegedly anachronistic ideas about human nature, is “mythologised’ by the right as if that which conservatives lament losing never really existed to start with. This celebration and denial of the degree of social change cannot be possible without the elites’ own mythologising, and the cognitive dissonance has become part of the dominant narrative among the professional media establishment. Those observing the continued loss of authority professional journalism and mainstream politics has been suffering should not be surprised the electorate will look elsewhere to satisfy its need for an analysis of current affairs. In this climate, the “cult of the amateur” so feared by Keen appears to be an inevitable development.

Nevertheless, he should not expound too much of his energy worrying about its detrimental effects: with sufficient experience and commitment, today’s amateur will become tomorrow’s professional. The utility that blogs have demonstrated in facilitating debate and opinion on otherwise taboo subjects can be compared to the Tea Party’s potential to rejuvenate opposition politics by reinvigorating participatory democracy. The practical effects on the process have already been felt. James Antle of the American Spectator (March 2010) describes how the objective of the “Not One Penny to the National Republican Senatorial Committee campaign” has been to punish the Republican hierarchy by boycotting Party-endorsed members for its “systematically favouring moderate candidates in GOP”. Likewise, the National Review (February 22, 2010) quotes US Senator Jim DeMint, who established the Senate Conservative Fund, that electors should not “have to settle for milquetoast Republicans who don’t care about anything but getting elected”.[20]

Pressure from the movement has already forced some high-profile Republicans out of the party. But while there does not appear to be any automatic Tea Party support for authentically conservative candidates,[21] Continetti suggests the movement has nevertheless illustrated the “dual nature of conservative populism”: one which remains reformist yet sceptical to the motives of the reformers, and another, which rejects the status quo as irredeemably corrupt and unworthy of preservation. This illustrates the curious marriage of the “silent majority” with the “reactionary counterculture”, which are respectively characterised by hope and despair.[22] The prejudice of the mainstream media has predictably driven this lobby to a forum where it can represent itself on its own terms, or what has become known in online parlance as the “right-o-sphere”.

Yet, the effort to belittle and slander this new wave of activists on streets and cyberspace has not mitigated their impact. Though the Tea Party phenomenon has a decidedly “right-libertarian” flavour, even leftist opinion has acknowledged the serious threat it constitutes to the equilibrium of a dominant two-party system. Writing in the far-left Z Magazine (February 2010), Bill Berkowitz cites a recent Rasmussen “three-way congressional generic ballot test survey” which concluded that if an election were to be held in this atmosphere, a Tea Party candidate would come second, beating the Republican.[23] He concedes that if the movement’s radical elements were to be excised, it could become a formidable and permanent fixture on the political scene.[24]

The impact described here could not possibly be the work of minority extremist elements operating from the political fringe, yet that is how they continue to be portrayed by large sections of the mainstream press. Chip Berlet of the Progressive (February 2010) cautions political centrists about the use of inflammatory labels when describing dissident movements, since this “suggests that only certain people are capable of participation in ‘serious’ policy debates”.[25] That only certain people’s opinions are to be taken seriously is precisely the subtext of Baker’s essay; it is the consistent attitude of professional journalists who editorialise instead of report on issues deemed controversial according to liberal criteria; it is the snobbishness with which Keen and Osnos relate to the blogosphere. In the light of this, how, one wonders, do they expect an increasingly disenfranchised public to react in the long run?
 

Part 2 of “The Rise of Conservative Dissent in the Blogosphere” is here…


[1] Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur (Nicholas Berealy Publishing, 2008). Keen discusses many issues concerning online technology and its impact on traditional media and the entertainment industry. This dissertation will focus on his critique of blogs only. Its critical tone should not be interpreted as an overall condemnation of Keen’s arguments in relation to, for example, ‘wiki’ technology, online identity fraud or intellectual property infringement, which this writer believes to be axiomatic.

[2] William McGowan, Coloring The News—How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism (Encounter Books, 2002) pp 228, 243. The ideological disconnect between the managerial class and the public has been noted by various commentators. The best description of how the ‘progressive’ left has managed to dominate the cultural and academic institutions of the West remains Roger Kimbal’s two books Tenured Radicals (Ivan R Dee, 1990) and The Long March (Encounter Books, 2000). In due course, the cultural and academic dominance would translate to dominance over the political mainstream. See further: Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals (Random House, 1971); the writer relies on the Vintage Books, 1989 edition.

[3] For more information, see: Chris Berg and Sinclair Davidson ‘Climatgate: What We’ve Learned So Far’ IPA Review 61:3 (December 2009); Christopher Lord Monckton, ‘Caught Green-Handed’, Science & Public Policy Institute Occasional Paper (7 December 2009); Matt Ridley, ‘The Global Warming Guerrillas’ Spectator Australia (6 February 2010); Sinclair Davidson, ‘Climategate Hits the IPCC’ IPA Review 62:1 (March 2010).

[4] The material has been published in instalments by Tucker Carlson on The Daily Caller at <dailycaller.com/buzz/journolist>. The subject web-forum itself has since been shut down.

[5] The blindness is not monopolised by establishment media personalities or the broad-left. In his own review of Keen’s book, Robert Stove seems to endorse Keen’s treatment of the popularity of blogs without a word for what has driven their proliferation or why the prestige of traditional media has suffered: R J Stove, Book Review: The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen National Observer No 74 (Spring 2007) p 66 et seq. It is not enough to merely identify and ridicule symptoms. The crisis of faith in the professional journalist class and the correspondingly growing cynicism over ‘establishment’ politics, is not a trivial affair and demands greater attention.

[6] While the writer does not deny that he has considered these issues from a rightist perspective, MacCallum’s own political inclinations must also be born in mind. In one of the last books he wrote during the Prime Ministership of John Howard (his four terms are understood to have been Australia’s most conservative period of government), MacCallum compared him to faeces that could not be flushed down a toilet; that, from a senior and much respected member of the Canberra press gallery: Run Johnny Run (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2004) pp 4, 286. The book commences and concludes on this puerile metaphor.

[7] Malcolm Fraser, ‘Liberalism—The Philosophy That Shapes Government Policies and Actions’, Address to the State Council of the Liberal Party of Australia, South Australia Division (5 December 1980). A digression for the benefit of foreign readers: Fraser was the Liberal Party Prime Minister of Australia between 1975 and 1983, taking office after the Crown dismissal of his predecessor, Labor’s Gough Whitlam. Francis James declares that ‘[t]he disinterested foreigner would generally judge the Australian Liberal Party, at first site anyway, to be the antipodean equivalent of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom […] we are—or at any rate claim to be—a conservative party’: ‘Gentlemen and Players’ in Ray Aitchison (ed) Looking at the Liberals (Cheshire, 1974) p 82. On the issue of Fraser’s place in this scheme, Paul Kelly writes: ‘Fraser’s termination of the so called golden age of Whitlam progressivism imposed a stereotypical lens through which his actions were viewed. It was the orthodoxy that Fraser must be a social policy conservative. Yet his record forces a different conclusion—Fraser championed multiculturalism, backed Asian immigration in the shadow of white Australia, pioneered Aboriginal land rights, pursued environmental causes and reformed the family support system. Each was a new step for the Liberal Party. In retrospect Fraser appears as a leader who believed in a compassionate conservatism, a notion that would have drawn ridicule in his time’: ‘John Malcolm Fraser’ in Michelle Grattan (ed) Australian Prime Ministers (New Holland, 2000) p 378. On the contrary, to describe as ‘conservative’ (‘compassionate’ or otherwise) any programme that fundamentally reengineers society on this level would be considered ridiculous at any time in political history. To whom is this ‘compassion’ directed, and precisely what does such an agenda seek to ‘conserve’? These misconceptions are the product of Kelly’s own stereotypical lens, which is unfortunately typical of most political commentators in Australia today, the most conservative of which are merely right-liberal in their outlook. Unsurprisingly, this confusion has perhaps led some in the past to describe Fraser as a ‘right wing anarchist’: Dean Wells, Power Without Theory (Outback Press, 1977) pp 127-181. Fraser was a staunch critic of the Howard Administration (1996 to 2007) as well as the Opposition’s programme under Tony Abbott; he resigned his life membership of the Party in December 2009 after realising that it ‘is no longer a liberal party but a conservative party’ and that ‘he cannot come to terms with [its] current policies and attitudes’: Laura Tingle, ‘Angry Malcolm Fraser Quits Liberals’ Australian Financial Review (26 May 2010) p 10. See also Laura Tingle, ‘While Fraser Waited, he was Resigned to Resigning’ Australian Financial Review (29 May 2010) p 1. On the recent ideological shift within the Liberal Party: vide infra comment re Australia’s Tea Party ‘moment.’

[8] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice, Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, 1989) p 392. Similarly, Steven Kautz writes that ‘[c]lassical and contemporary liberal teachings, in some uneasy combination, dominate our political discourse’: Liberalism and Community (Cornell University Press, 1995) p 23. Kevin Baker, whose essay is critically discussed later, writes of the US political establishment of the 1980s: ‘Liberal philosophies, liberal convictions, and liberal standards of civil society were now predominant and often unassailable. Even the mightiest icons of the right wing […] did not seriously challenge the basic assumptions of the liberal state’: ‘The Vanishing Liberal—How the Left Learned to be Helpless’ Harper’s Magazine 320:1919 (April 2010) p 3. Vide infra n 18 re the nature of contemporary liberalism.

[9] James Kalb, The Tyranny of Liberalism (ISI Books, 2008) p 8. Similarly, Kwame Appiah writes that the same fundamentally liberal assumptions are blindly accepted by ‘nearly all members of nearly all of the mainstream political parties of Europe and North America’: The Ethics of Identity (Princeton University Press, 2005) p xi. The phenomenon of so-called ‘moderate’ leaders in political parties that have a right-of-centre legacy is sufficient evidence (vide supra n 7 re ‘compassionate conservatism’). The fact that a formerly conservative Tory Party can enter into a governing coalition with a political third force which has the temerity to lecture the Labour Party on how it isn’t progressive enough, should put any doubt to rest (eg: Nick Clegg, The Liberal Moment (Demos, 2009) p 31 et seq). See also: Simon Walters and Brendan Carlin, ‘Tories Ditch Policies as Fast as They List Them: “Cameron Wanted to Bury Party Right” Say Lib Dems’ Mail Online (16 May 2010, 3:42PM) <www.dailymail.co.uk>. Consider also the description of a self-proclaimed ‘moderate’ liberal Republican as ‘a firm Conservative’ by Connie Bruck, due primarily to his emphasis on individual autonomy as a governing political principle: ‘The Political Scene—Right Fight’ The New Yorker (7 June 2010) p 36. Compare this to a recent panel debate on Australia’s public broadcaster, where a green activist questioned the taboo over bestiality and challenged a ‘conservative’ panellist by asking: ‘I thought your party stood for individual freedom’. The respondent, of course, could mount no principled rebuttal: Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ‘For Lovers of Animals’ Q&A (14 June 2010) <www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda>. Here, the focus on radical individualism suggests that the libertarian spirit poses the greatest challenge to modern statist liberalism, and as discussed later, is the dominant paradigm even in the populist revolt against the established political class. Unfortunately, its capacity to reverse the destructive effects of liberal social policy is hopelessly poor due to the emphasis on a libertine moral relativism shared with the ‘progressive’ left.

[10] See for example the heavy reliance on this technology by rightist activists, as described in Rebecca Mead’s ‘The Wayward Press—Rage Machine’ The New Yorker (24 May 2010). There, a prominent Tea Party organiser is reported to have ‘urged his listeners [at a Washington rally] to hold their cameras and cell phones aloft, in a demonstration of their new-media resources. “Look at that, mainstream media, you bulls[**]t artists, you hateful b[******]s” […] “If you are not going to report the story, then we are going to report the story ourselves”’ pp 29, 32. Similarly, to Lee Harris, the Tea Party activists ‘bitterly resent the rigid censorship exercised by this elite over the limits of acceptable public discourse’: ‘The Tea Party vs The Intellectuals’ Policy Review No 161 (June-July 2010) p 9.

[11] Patrick Allitt, ‘How to Succeed in Politics’ The National Interest No 108 (July-August 2010) p 36; Chilton Williamson Jr writes that ‘The Tea Party […] is not an agent of political change [it is] a collection of loosely affiliated raiding parties, not an organised army fighting for a determined goal. Thus the need seems to be for the eventual identification of some such goal, and the creation of a political movement capable of achieving it. Unfortunately, the times are probably not ripe for these developments’: ‘The New American Mob’ Chronicles Magazine 34:7 (July 2010) p 18; Michael Kinsley, “My Country, “Tis of Me’ The Atlantic 305:5 (June 2010) p 42; Harris op cit p 4.

[12] Chilton Williamson Jr, ‘Sam Francis’s Mad Tea Party’ Chronicles Magazine 34:4 (April 2010) p 21. As suggested in n 9 supra, the libertarian creed is as much anti-traditional and therefore revolutionary as modern liberalism.

[13] It is worth noting that some refuse to embrace it as a genuine expression of middle-class dissent or conservative renewal. One criticism is that it has become co-opted into the mainstream by the dominance of high-profile Republicans such as Sarah Palin: John Derbyshire, ‘No Life on MARs’ The American Conservative 9:4 (April 2010) pp 9-11; vide infra n 23 dicta of Michael Dougherty. Nevertheless, the establishment right is conscious of the fact that Palin ‘is a possible bridge to the fractious and suspicious tea-party crowd’: Gabriel Sherman, ‘The Revolution Will Be Commercialised’ New York (3 May 2010) p 31. Accordingly, it may be cautious by dealing with it at arm’s length: Mary Katharine Ham, ‘Grand Old Tea Party’ The Weekly Standard 15:23 (1 March 2010). While some believe that her leadership will redefine feminism (Michelle Cotts, ‘Pink Elephants’ The New Republic 241:4882 (13 May 2010) pp 5-6; Sherman op cit p 33), others fear that it will in fact redefine conservatism by incorporate aspects of the social-liberal agenda the right has opposed for decades. Writes Paul Gottfreid: ‘[Palin] is certainly not a hard rightwinger. She approves of antidiscrimination laws and directives that are intended to help women’ and that she ‘has never been known to take a strong stand on immigration’: ‘An Airhead from Alaska’ Salisbury Review 28:3 (Spring 2010) p 23. See also Peter Brimlow, ‘Where Does Sarah Palin Stand on an Immigration Moratorium’ in Peter Brimlow (ed) 2009 Anthology (vDare.com Books, 2009). Lawrence Auster and Laura Wood have also written extensively about this and related matters at their respective blogs, View from the Right <www.amnation.com/vfr> (eg: ‘Palin supports radical feminist law—so her “conservative” supporters support it to’ 15 September 2008; ‘The simplest explanation why Palin will never be a credible Conservative leader’ 9 February 2010) and The Thinking Housewife <www.thinkinghousewife.com> (eg: ‘The Conservative Feminist Sisterhood’ 9 April 2010). Thomas Fleming suggests that the total capitulation of Rand Paul to the commentariat’s outrage at his comments concerning the legislation of the Civil Rights Act is emblematic of the movement’s actual failure: ‘Lighting a Candle’ Chronicles Magazine 34:7 (July 2010) p 10. Fleming’s critique is legitimate if those successfully exploiting the wave of Tea Party fervour nevertheless operate under liberal paradigms of acceptable discourse, and thus defeat the movement’s raison d’être.

[14] Some US authors specifically partisan to the Republican Party have covered these issues. Readers may be interested to note the following in relation to MoveOn: John Fund, Stealing Elections—How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy (Encounter Books, 2004), p 133; Bryan York, The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy (Three Rivers Press, 2005), generally; David Horowitz and Richard Poe, The Shadow Party (Thomas Nelson, 2006), Chapter 10; David Freddoso, The Case Against Barack Obama (Regnery, 2008), p 225. Readers should not be put-off by the unnecessarily bombastic title of York’s book (a pun on Hillary Clinton’s inflammatory claim in 1998 about the existence of a ‘vast right wing conspiracy’ against her then husband and US President).

[15] Their existence is no defence against the claim that the mainstream press is biased towards liberal positions because the work of these few researchers is hardly representative of the political trends within the established media. Readers may be interested to note the following in relation to ACORN: Fund op cit Chapters 3, 4 and also pp 93, 94, 149-150, 166, 191; Horowitz and Poe op cit Chapters 3, 6-7; Freddoso op cit pp 149-150.

[16] Evan Thomas and Eve Conant, ‘Hate’ Newsweek (19 April 2010) p 29. Contrast with Paul Gottfreid et al at n 13 supra. In light of the different characterisation of the movement, consider the suggestion, that in fact ‘the Tea Party movement is not as radical as liberals fear or as conservatives hope’: James Antle, “The Tea Party: A Mixed Bag’ Chronicles Magazine 34:7 (July 2010) p 13.

[17] In relation to the state’s controversial anti-illegal-immigration law which is presently under challenge: the legislation, SB1070 authorises law enforcement authorities to confirm the immigration status of persons already lawfully apprehended, if the authorities have a reasonable suspicion that that status may be irregular. Effectively, it allows them to enforce what is the direct equivalent of federal immigration law. Moreover, ‘[i]f requiring non-citizens to carry proof of legal residence on their person makes a country a Nazi-style police state, then the US has been one since 1940’: W James Antle III, ‘Mission Attrition’ American Spectator 43:6 (July-August) p 15.

[18] The inherently ‘revolutionary’ nature of leftist politics translates into an incessant narrative of ‘change’, ‘pushing boundaries’, and generally challenging traditional aspects of society. Unsated by the advances made in the culture wars, the liberal remains bitterly dissatisfied with any new social realignment even after ‘progressive’ reforms are aggressively and successfully implemented. Consider the editors of Harper’s Magazine and the cover art for the issue containing Bakers essay: they go so far as to suggest that the liberal activist in fact no longer exists. The traditionalist may be tempted to agree: if the liberal activist has ‘vanished’, it’s because her work has been done: there is no need for old-school radicals when their radicalism has become mainstream. Here, the liberal’s lament betrays a restless addiction to the idea of revolution per se, the yearning for an emotional catharsis that demands ever extreme rituals of transgression to provide an adequate fix (nb: the discussion on the Q&A television programme mentioned at n 9 supra).

[19] Kinsley op cit p 42. Nevertheless, it should be noted that this surge of goodwill is not unshakable; John Derbyshire notes a poll conducted by the Washington Post which found that support ‘among GOP policy wonks showed favourable-unfavourable views of the Tea Partiers moving from 41-39 percent on March 26 to 36-50 on June 6’: ‘Prol Tax’ The American Conservative 9:8 (August 2010) p 36.

[20] John J Miller, ‘Senator Tea Party’ National Review 62:3 (22 February 2010) p 34.

[21] Such as John Hostettler, who ‘had voted against the 1996 budget deal to end the government shut-down, the unconstitutional Violence Against Women Act, No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and the Iraq War. Hostettler also opposed [the Troubled Assets Relief Programme].’ Furthermore, many of those riding the wave of populist discontent are faux-conservatives, such as Scott Brown who is pro-abortion, pro socialised health care, opposes auditing the Federal Reserve, supports the extension of ‘war powers’ as well as the export of liberalism, and has even ‘rehired some of [Edward] Kennedy’s immigration policy staffers’: Antle op cit (July 2010) pp 14, 15.

[22] Matthew Continetti, “The Two Faces of the Tea Party’ The Weekly Standard 15:39 (28 June 2010) pp 19-20, 21, 24.

[23] Bill Berkowitz, ‘Tea Party Movement—A Fertile Ground for White Supremacists?’ Z Magazine 23:2 (February 2010) p 13. The McLachlan & Associates study, on the other hand, found that most Tea Party activists would vote Republican while a significant enough proportion would support a third party, split the conservative vote, and deliver a victory to the Democratic candidate: Ramesh Ponnuru and Kate O’Beirne, “The Coming Tea Party Election’ National Review 62:3 (22 February 2010) p 36. Likewise, Michael Dougherty doesn’t think that the Tea Party is a serious threat to the established political class: ‘Despite the real idealism of some of its activists’ he writes ‘the Tea Party is nothing more than a Republican-managed tantrum […] if the GOP feels a modicum of contrition, the runaways will come home. That plan is working perfectly’: ‘Tea Party Crashers’ The American Conservative 9:4 (April 2010) p 8.

[24] Berkowitz op cit p 14. The first victory for the Tea Party movement appears to have been the nomination of a ‘political outsider’ to run against the Democrat Senate majority leader in the next US elections: Brad Norington, ‘Tea Party Off Republican Leash in Primary Elections’ The Australian (10 June 2010, 12:00AM) <www.theaustralian.com.au>. That report predictably described the movement as ‘radical’, ‘ultra right’ and ‘far outside the political mainstream’ by passing off lunar elements as equally representative of its overall character. It is interesting to note however that some sympathetic quarters have actually embraced the ‘radical’ label, albeit defined according to essentially anti-statist terms: Myron Magnet claims that the movement will succeed only insofar as it ‘embrace[s] the radicalism of [its] own radically American creed’: ‘The Tea Party Challenge’ IPA Review 62:2 (June 2010) p 34. Compare this to view that ‘Americans are profoundly unrevolutionary people’: Patrick Allitt, “How to Succeed in Politics’ The National Interest No 108 (July-August 2010) p 44. Something should be said here about the use of language. Firstly, it is obvious that the abuse of emotionally charged terms such as ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’ shows no sign of waning. Secondly, those same terms do not appear to possess a universal definition or value. Depending on what is meant by a ‘radically American creed’ and ‘profoundly unrevolutionary people’ the views of Magnet and Allitt do not have to be necessarily at odds: if the unrevolutionay nature of a people is its disdain for social experimentation, and if the radicalism is the focus on individualism and personal autonomy, both views are in harmony with each other.

[25] Chip Berlet, ‘Taking Tea Parties Seriously’ The Progressive 74:2 (February 2010) p 27. Since many progressives themselves find the Democrat establishment as disappointing as the Republicans are to Baker’s so-called ‘pseudo-Populists’, it shouldn’t be surprising that at least some on the principled left would take the Tea Party’s grievances seriously despite its ideologically offensive character.

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