What Is True/Slant?
275+ knowledgeable contributors.
Reporting and insight on news of the moment.
Follow them and join the news conversation.
 

Apr. 22 2010 - 12:52 pm | 4,134 views | 0 recommendations | 20 comments

The Fraud That Conservative Entertainers Can Never Acknowledge

In a recent post, Ross Douthat wrote that “conservative domestic policy would be in better shape if conservative magazines and conservative columnists were more willing to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.” Jim Manzi took this as a direct challenge, penning a post at National Review’s group blog, The Corner, that persuasive demonstrates epistemic closure in Mark Levin’s bestseller Liberty and Tyranny.

This upset Kathryn Jean Lopez, who defended Mr. Levin, arguing in part that it is unfair to treat him as a “mere entertainer.” This is odd, since Mr. Manzi actually treats him as a book author whose arguments warrant a substantive reply. But anyway.

The subject I want to grapple with is Mr. Douthat’s characteristically thoughtful response to Ms. Lopez:

Let me suggest an alternative theory — namely, that the only way to defend a book like “Liberty and Tyranny” against Manzi’s critique is to argue that Levin should be judged primarily as an entertainer, rather than as a rigorous political thinker. There’s nothing wrong with politically-inflected entertainment, whether it’s right-wing or left-wing or something much more unclassifiable. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating these entertainers, admiring their success, and enjoying the way they skewer people and causes you dislike. But to insist that they’re also worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors in their own right, worthy of keynote speeches at CPAC and admiring reviews in highbrow journals, is to make a category error that does no favors to the larger causes that you and they support. It sets up contrasts that redound to the benefit of your opponents (Rush Limbaugh versus Barack Obama, or Glenn Beck versus Obama, are both binaries that favor liberalism), and invites a level of scrutiny that the entertainers’ work simply can’t support. Both politically and intellectually, American conservatism would be better off if Levin’s fans responded to Manzi’s post, not by objecting that he didn’t take “Liberty and Tyranny” seriously enough (he did take Levin’s arguments seriously, and that’s precisely why his criticisms were so scathing), but by saying “relax, it’s only entertainment.”

Mr. Douthat’s analysis is smart, as far as it goes, but it ignores the reasons why neither Ms. Lopez nor Mr. Levin can acknowledge (if they even believe it themselves) that Mr. Levin’s radio show or his book are “only entertainment.” Consider the promotional blurb put out by Simon and Schuster, Liberty and Tyranny’s publisher:

Mark R. Levin now delivers the book that characterizes both his devotion to his more than 5 million listeners and his love of our country and the legacy of our Founding Fathers: Liberty and Tyranny is Mark R. Levin’s clarion call to conservative America, a new manifesto for the conservative movement for the 21st century.

And later in the same blurb (note the unintentionally accurate first bit):

As provocative, well-reasoned, robust, and informed as his on-air commentary, Levin’s narrative will galvanize readers to begin a new era in conservative thinking and action. Liberty and Tyranny provides a philosophical, historical, and practical framework for revitalizing the conservative vision and ensuring the preservation of American society.

This language is in keeping with the way Mr. Levin himself talks about the book, and the way its fans receive it. Thus in order to claim Liberty and Tyranny as mere entertainment, he would have to admit that all the claims about it being a “new manifesto for the conservative movement” and “a practical framework for revitalizing the conservative vision” are cynical, fraudulent claims.

As it happens, I know many fans of talk radio personalities. Almost without exception, these people regard the consumption of politically themed radio shows, Fox News, and books by conservative authors not merely as entertainment, but as civic participation. Often times these people’s hearts are in the right place — they are burning with an earnest desire to improve America, to inform themselves about its political debates, and to support folks they regard as public intellectuals representing them in political discourse.

Visit the Facebook page or fan forum of any popular talk radio host and you’ll see overwhelming evidence that this characterization is accurate. It isn’t uncommon for Mark Levin’s fans to explicitly thank him for safeguarding liberty against tyranny, Bill O’Reilly wrote a book titled “Who’s Looking Out for You,” and Rush Limbaugh regularly asserts his importance as a bulwark against Democrats and their agenda.

I am not sure whether these people are aware that they are mere entertainers, or if they really believe that their talk radio shows or red meat books or whatever are “worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors in their own right” — and I am sure we’d all be better off if Mr. Douthat prevailed, and they were considered mere entertainers. But imagining that this is even a possibility ignores overwhelming evidence that their very existence as popular entertainers hinges on an ability to persuade listeners that they are “”worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors.”

That is why the constant failures of these men to live up to their billing is so offensive, destructive, and ruinous to conservatives — and it suggests that one line in Mr. Douthat’s post requires a qualification: “There’s nothing wrong with politically-inflected entertainment, whether it’s right-wing or left-wing or something much more unclassifiable,” Mr. Douthat wrote, and I’d add, so long as its producers don’t fraudulently claim it is more than that. There is something wrong with producing politically themed entertainment, and pretending that it has more intellectual rigor than is in fact the case, or that it is an earnestly offered statement of the truth, or that it actually grapples with its subjects.

Liberty and Tyranny perpetrates that fraud in its section on climate change, and I suspect that is why Jim Manzi was so offended by its misleading, willfully ignorant content — he knew that as an expert on the subject he could see the book for what it was, whereas most of its readers would trust the author and his framing of the book in a way that would leave them woefully misinformed.


Comments

Active Conversation
20 Total Comments
Post your comment »
 
  1. collapse expand

    I wonder if part of the problem is that there is not a career path for a right-leaning entertainer.

    In other words, in order to gain recognition, Limbaugh, Levin, etc. had to take the path of legitimate conservative commentators, and went from there to be entertainers.

    Someone like Jon Stewart can be an entertainer first, and then branch from there to offer commentary. And when he’s called on the commentary, he can dodge it with, “hey — I’m just a funny man!”

    Would it be possible for a conservative Jon Stewart to achieve recognition *as an entertainer*? Or would the gate-keepers regard him as “not funny.”

    I’m not saying that there’s a horde of conservative entertainers who are as funny as Jon Stewart that are being held back by the liberal media. Just that it seems like the “entertainer first, conservative commentator second” career path isn’t wide open, and this might be why we’ve seen the emergence of conservative commentators/entertainers who are trying (and failing) to fill both roles.

    • collapse expand

      Hello johnmcg,

      The problem is that the general public does not find conservatives to be very funny. Humor is often found in upsetting or exposing the contradictions of existing social norms. Since conservatives by definition defend existing social norms, they just don’t have the natural inclination to find humor, much less make it available to the masses.

      Mort Sahl is a good example. When he was young and rebellious he was very popular, breaking all sorts of rule about what could and could not be said of done. He attacked the social hypocrisy of his day. He paved the way for he likes of Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory. When he got older and conservative, he was no longer popular. Defending the past and hypocrisy is just not funny.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        The existing social norm of today is political correctness, and that is owned by the left generally. So a conservative such as PJ O’Rourke can be extremely funny breaking through that.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Hello brick60,

          I was speaking of the general public. I am sure conservatives find conservative comedians quite amusing.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            Hi David:

            Well if you look at the hottest HBO comedy specials say: Linda Lampenelli, Sarah Silverman, Jim Jeffries, it’s very non-politically correct comedy. It’s not exactly George Will up there with a bow tie, but it’s a rebellion against PC orthodoxy established by liberals.

            I’m not a social conservative at all. But observing the environment my time at university in the early 90’s, the earnest leftist profs preached PC. Humor, I was taught by them, was a form of power over others.

            I think many people under 50 years old think the people lacking humor are the earnest lefties.

            Take a look at your pown post. Could anything talking about comedy be as non-humorous?

            In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            Sorry, mildly intoxicated when writing the Brick60 1:42 post. (Above or below, depending on where they put this.) Many typos.

            Lesson: Don’t drink and type.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        You really think conservatives are behind most current social norms? Political correctness? Sexual liberty? Non-judgement?

        Actually, since Obama is in power, this seems to be more of a problem for left-leaning outlets like the Daily Show. I find them the least funny when they take on things like Tea Party rallies. It sort of feels like a big brother giving a wedgie to his little brother.

        To put my commentary another way, I think that conservatives tend to defend the intellectual chops of entertainers like Levin because Levin cannot stand as simply an entertainer (either because he’s just not that good an entertainer or that there’s no place for a right-leaning entertainer).

        So, for someone with like Levin with some skill as an entertainer, there is a tendency to gloss over or minimize his intellectual shortcomings.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Hello johnmcg,

          One must distinguish between what a comedian has to say with how well he or she says it. Mr. Levin, at the end of the day, has nothing really to say. His problem is trying say nothing in an funny fashion. This is not impossible but very difficult.

          There is a school of comedy what basically says “If you say it really loud, it must be funny”. The late Sam Kinison was particularly effective at this, as is the entirely too early Adam Carolla. However, if one listens to what they actually say, it really is not all that funny.

          This is analogous to the “entertainers” of the right do. They say brash and outrageous things but what to does it all add up to? There is ultimately no substance to it. It is sound and fury, signifying nothing.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Mr. Friedersdorf,

    The real problem here is that conservatives do not actually have any serious policy ideas. They are still serving up the same tired old stuff they have since the 1970’s – Cut Taxes, Increase Spending on the Military, Cut Services, Family Values, Individual Responsibility blah, blah, blah. All of this has now been exposed as window dressing, cynical sound bits devoid of meaning. The Republican under Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and George W. Bush went on wild spending sprees, running huge debts and deficits, while letting their pals in Wall Street burn the shop down. They had no problem with “Welfare for Wall Street”, no individual responsibility for them.

    All of the brash, brainless shouting from the Right is not because they have had a moment of youthful exuberance but because they have nothing else. What would these people say if they were not name calling and waving their hands about.

    There is an old bit court room advise that goes “When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law. When the facts and the law are against you, pound you fists on the table and shout real loud”. This where the conservatives are. What is the alternative?

  3. collapse expand

    That is why the constant failures of these men to live up to their billing is so offensive, destructive, and ruinous to conservatives — and it suggests that one line in Mr. Douthat’s post requires a qualification: “There’s nothing wrong with politically-inflected entertainment, whether it’s right-wing or left-wing or something much more unclassifiable,” Mr. Douthat wrote, and I’d add, so long as its producers don’t fraudulently claim it is more than that. There is something wrong with producing politically themed entertainment, and pretending that it has more intellectual rigor than is in fact the case, or that it is an earnestly offered statement of the truth, or that it actually grapples with its subjects.

    Lots of people pretend their own opinions and statements are more intellectual rigorous than they really are. I myself do it every day. That is why a reputation for intellectual rigor and honesty cannot be claimed, it must be earned among a group of peers.

    The biggest enabler of the Epistemic Closure on the right is the MSM. They do this by giving voice to these “entertainers” on political news shows and pitting them against intellectually rigorous opponents in the name of “balanced journalism”.

  4. collapse expand

    It might be wise, too, to see what kind of response comes from Levin. I have to admit, I’ve never listened to Levin’s radio show, and I haven’t read his book, but I will be interested in reading his response. As for Beck, while he’s going way out their with the God-talk, at least he asks experts on his show, admits he doesn’t have all the answers, and he asks these experts to debate the issues. He understands he’s an entertainer, but he also believes he has a purpose, which is fine, and he at least gets educated people on his show to talk about the issues — and he admits it when his beliefs are proven to be incorrect. Limbaugh simply puts it out there, take it or leave it, and anyone listening to him could hardly mistake him for a Hardvard professor.

  5. collapse expand

    They have their hands full talking about the fraud of obama reid pelosi rham…and the other democrat shit bumms in DC who are out to destroy the USA……

Log in for notification options
Comments RSS

Post Your Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment

Log in with your True/Slant account.

Previously logged in with Facebook?

Create an account to join True/Slant now.

Facebook users:
Create T/S account with Facebook
 

My T/S Activity Feed

 
     

    About Me

    Conor Friedersdorf is a writer, a Californian by upbringing, and a nomad at present. Refresh his page often.

    See my profile »
    Followers: 140
    Contributor Since: June 2009
    Location:Various cities, and sundry spots between them.