WHEN CONSERVATIVES ARE SERVED
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- A few days ago I heard a speech about the role of the alternative media in American politics. The example presented by the speaker was the network of rebellious tabloid newspapers that dot our cities, but it occurred to me that there has always been a different, more serious form of alternative media in this country.
In truth, much of what I have written about in this column involves that form. The New Republic and The Washington Monthly are among the alternative media. They try to go deeper than the daily news media and in so doing, often pioneer lines of inquiry that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Often enough, they also become leaders in media criticism as they dissect the conformist story lines being rehashed by unimaginative writers, such as the theme, repeated ad nauseum, of Al Gore's penchant for exaggeration (repeatedly debunked by The New Republic).
We speak of magazines, slick and pulp, weekly and monthly, that take a serious interest in politics and serve them up to a serious-minded readership. The tradition goes back at least as far as Thomas Paine, who published the pamphlet Common Sense on the eve of the American revolution. It has continued in various forms ever since.
National Review is that staunchly conservative journal founded by William F. Buckley in 1955. It is as serious as serious can be, even as it engages in wry humor, art criticism, political criticism and cultural criticism. That's a lot of criticisms, but it is what National Review was founded to do, and in this sense National Review is just as much the alternative media as The Washington Monthly or any of the tabloid papers that publish fevered stories connecting the Sept. 11 attacks with proposed oil pipelines across Afghanistan.
Without flogging the comparison too much, National Review has been a voice for a particular kind of conservatism during long eras when the press, the presidency, and the country have been otherwise. Buckley and his crew have slogged along, all these 49 years, keeping the faith and selling their line.
A sample can be viewed at www.nationalreview.com. National Review Online is not precisely the flavor of the print version, but it is sufficient to get the political gist.
National Review, it almost goes without saying, supports President Bush and opposes Senator John Kerry. It opposes abortion, supports a strong military, and at the moment it seeks to convince us that the Iraq occupation is a good thing.
My May 3, 2004 issue has a piece by Richard Lowry extolling the process and people at a Marine boot camp. There is a piece called "Outsource, Outsource, and Outsource Some More," by Daniel T. Griswold, which concludes, "More fundamentally, restrictions on outsourcing would slow the dynamic progress of the U.S. economy and the growth of more prosperous and pro-American middle classes abroad. Let's hope the demagoguery against outsourcing wanes before the politicians can do real mischief."
Obviously this is not your usual liberal or even middle of the road magazine. Its mission is to defeat liberalism and promote its own brand of conservative thought.
Those of the hard-Left persuasion will find National Review particularly unappealing, because it manages to deliver its message in a way which might be described as urbane, or perhaps even genteel. Buckley and his editors have managed to enforce a level of conduct that for the most part imparts the message without quite getting nasty.
That doesn't mean it doesn't go for the throat sometimes, but even when it does, it generally manages to stay entertaining. Here is the first paragraph from the column "Happy Warrior," by Mark Steyn:
Watching Bob Kerrey, who seems to be emotionally unhinged, and Richard Ben-Veniste, the lamest specimen of showboating hack, badgering Condoleezza Rice the other day, I understood more clearly why the Islamists despise the West. The 9/11 commission represents the very worst traits of American government: arthritic, retroactive, portentous, posturing, pseudo-legalistic, victimologically inclined, and utterly irrelevant to what we old-fashioned types still like to call the real world. By contrast, the Hutton inquiry in Britain was a model of intellectual focus and presentational restraint.
The list of adjectives alone is worth the price of purchase, and they are delivered almost in alphabetical order.
What makes National Review worth reading is that it rises above mere shilling for the current administration, even as it rose above mere character assassination against the last. What National Review has in common with The New Republic is that both have some respect for the truth, even as they pummel and cudgel their way through the political battleground.
In practice, this means giving the opposition the credit it is due, even as the debate is carried on. It means being willing to think more broadly, even to the point of conceding things that the opposition might quote out of context. Here is how David Pryce-Jones begins an article called "Clashes," about the need to adapt our Iraq policy to what he sees as the disagreeable reality: "The murder of four American civilian contractors in Fallujah, and then the instant defilement of their corpses, is conspicuously barbarous. So is the maltreatment of hostages, and the threat to burn them alive. Barbarous but not surprising: People who have been brutalized as thoroughly as Iraqis commit brutalities as though that were normal. Context determines behavior."
This is getting pretty close to situational ethics, or at least to the equally non-conservative view of the criminal, that "He had a difficult upbringing." To understand is at least to understand, even if it is not to forgive. Pryce goes on to develop his argument in a conventionally conservative way, but this little episode of realism stands out for its candor. It is also remarkable for the fact that, had it been written by a liberal, it would be grist for the Sean Hannity's and Rush Limbaughs of the world, as it could be taken out of context as justifying the desecrations.
For me, reading the National Review is something of a guilty pleasure. I can enjoy the intellectual pleasure of following the arguments and wrestling with the implications. I often disagree with National Review's arguments, but it is usually because I don't accept some of the fundamental premises that underlie the Buckley philosophy.
In other cases, I find their arguments convincing, even as they refute some liberal fashion of the day. Isn't this, after all, the deeper purpose of reading the alternative literature - to broaden one's scope and get better at thinking and knowing?
It is possible to do this with National Review because it manages to maintain an air of civility and to provide some modest amount of entertainment value.
There isn't space or time to explore the cultural part of National Review, but suffice it to say that the book review section is eminently readable and it has long been known for its film criticism, particularly when John Simon used to do a column regularly (I still refer to a long-ago Simon demolition of the film Manhattan).
There is one point that needs to be made because it is of overwhelming importance. In a nation which is divided almost equally between Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, blue states and red states, there are going to be political tensions. Sometimes, we as a people need to be together. The divisive tactics of the Far Right, particularly its attack-radio contingent, make that harder. It is important that conservatives and liberals manage to communicate in a way in which we can read each others' journals and debate the great issues of the time without descending into the modern media version of a new civil war.
The fact that someone like me can read National Review, sometimes disagreeing, sometimes agreeing, but usually not going away mad, is the important lesson here.