[star]The American Mind[star]

July 25, 2005

TAM Book Series: South Park Conservatives

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of what I hope is a continuing series of interviews with authors and their books. We no longer have C-SPAN's Booknotes, but I hope the TAM Book Series will partially satisfy book lovers interested in non-fiction books. Publishers and publicists if you have a book you think would be great for this series leave a comment or e-mail me at sean--at--theamericanmind--dot--com.

It's cliche to consider our youth the future. But cliches, while banal, do contain meaning. Young people and politics is always ripe as a book idea. Their views change and with them future political currents. Brian Anderson, senior editor of City Journal, ran with Andrew Sullivan's term "South Park Republicans" and produced South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias.

South Park Conservatives better describes an "attitude or sensibility" than a political philosophy. That's what I got from my interview with Brian Anderson. The foundation of modern conservatism starting with Edmund Burke was the conservation and slow reform of presently-existing institutions. Today's SPC's are more interested in conserving "life free from the intrusion of the PC police."

The essence of the book is how new forms of communication are bypassing the newspapers, magazines, and network television talking heads past generations relied on. Books, cable channels, talk radio, weblogs, and even comedy are letting people tired of stale, liberal views express themselves. Anderson was gracious enough to take part in an e-mail interview.

What are "South Park Conservatives" trying to conserve?

Andrew Sullivan coined the phrase "South Park Republican" a couple of years ago to refer to someone who is in favor of a strong military, is fiscally conservative, and is socially liberal, at least on some matters. I use the SPC term a little more loosely to refer to an anti-liberal—someone who may not be on board with everything supported by today’s Republican Party, especially when it comes to things like censorship and popular culture, but who looks at today’s politically correct Nancy Pelosi liberals and wants nothing to do with them. What the South Park Conservative in this sense wants to conserve is life free from the intrusion of the PC police.

In the book, I find lots of evidence for this attitude—and it’s far more an attitude or sensibility than a fully developed world view—among college students, many of whom want nothing to do with campus political orthodoxies, and in a current of social comedy whose archetype is the Comedy Central cartoon South Park itself, which satirizes not just conservatives but also, mercilessly, the Left.

Do these SPCs have any historical or philosophical underpinning for their views? This doesn't feel like Buckley-style conservatism.

As I say, as I’m using the term, it represents an attitude and not a fully developed philosophy of life or politics. But there’s no question this anti liberal spirit is a bit more anarchic and, yes, vulgar, than Buckley-style conservatism. One of the comedians I write about, Nick Di Paolo, a two-time Emmy nominee for comedy writing and the co-creator of the Comedy Central cartoon Shorties Watchin’ Shorties, told me he’s a big Buckley fan, but you wouldn’t describe his humor as Buckleyesque in tone—on the contrary!

What are your favorite weblogs?

I really enjoy and look in on the following regularly (I’ll exclude your fine blog, since you’re interviewing me, and this is off the top of my head): Power Line, NRO’s Corner, Andrew Sullivan, Polipundit, OpinionJournal’s Best of the Web, Instapundit, Captain’s Quarters, Professor Bainbridge (including his wine obsessions), Right Wing News, Libertas (the conservative film blog), Dan Drezner, Kausfiles, the Conservative Philosopher, Hugh Hewitt, Michelle Malkin, Chrenkoff (whose work on Iraq and Afghanistan is brilliant), the BrothersJudd, and the RadioEqualizer (invaluable on radio ratings). I’m a big fan of RealClearPolitics, Arts & Letters Daily, Frontpage, and TechCentralStation, and like everybody else with a computer, I read Drudge all the time.

One of the most gratifying things about the publication of South Park Conservatives for me has been the interest from bloggers and websites. Of course, I’m writing about the new media revolution, so it’s perhaps understandable that some of the pioneers of new media are interested in what I’m writing. Plus, there really haven’t been many books written yet on the blogosphere; it’s still too new a phenomenon.

Do you like the term "blog?" (Me, I hate it, and use it as little as possible.)

What can one do? It’s not the most elegant of words, admittedly—it sounds like a gastro-intestinal eruption of some kind. But it’s the term that has stuck and it won’t go away now, so we might as well get used to it. And sometimes there is an eruptive, gastro-intestinal quality to blogging!

Why do Lefties like Cass Sunstein fear more media choice? Isn't more choice more liberating? Do they fear a diminishment of their status?

Sunstein’s argument can be summed up in a sentence: "People will get the news they want, not the news they need"—the news we need being that delivered by the old, liberal-dominated media. In the twenty-first century republic.com, this argument runs, we’ll all enclose ourselves in ideological bubbles, the truth be damned. Democracy will suffer from cyber-balkanization.

I find this stunningly arrogant, elitist view, though other liberals have echoed it repeatedly.

I think the logic of the Internet in particular makes this worry wildly overstated. In my book, I quote the Yale law prof and blogger Jack Balkin, who spells out that logic: "[M]ost bloggers who write about political subjects cannot avoid addressing (and more importantly, linking to) arguments made by people with different views," he explains. "The reason is that much of the blogosphere is devoted to criticizing what other people have to say. It’s hard to argue with what the folks at National Review Online or Salon are saying unless you read their articles, and, in writing a post about them, you will almost always either quote or link to the article or both." In other words, the blogosphere is much closer to an electronic agora than a world of ideological bubbles.

When liberals make this argument, I tend to hear frustration over the loss of their monopoly over the institutions of opinion and information: "Oh, if only we could go back to the days when CBS News and the New York Times handed down the news from on high, and all the not-too-bright folks out there would accept it as given." Those days—thankfully—are gone for good. I love Jeff Jarvis’s formulation: news is becoming much more of a conversation. And that’s healthy. South Park Conservatives is above all a celebration of that new reality.

Do you see a stratification forming in the blogosphere where big-name weblogs primarily link to other big-name weblogs? Is that bad or a sign of a maturing medium?

I think you will see new sites and bloggers rising to the top, even as some of the big names scale down a bit, as Sullivan has recently done. Keep in mind that 12 percent of adult Americans are now reading political blogs, which is remarkable for a medium that barely existed five years ago but is also just a beginning. I think that percentage will continue to rise in the years ahead, and who knows which blogs will capture the interest of the expanding blog readership?

With the rise of best-selling conservative books, some people still think big bookstores (Barnes & Noble, my employer, for example) are being biased. Why do you think that?

I don’t think the chains themselves are biased at all—just walk into a Barnes & Noble or a Borders and you’ll usually see conservative books piled up everywhere. And of course Amazon offers easy access to all books, conservative ones included. The chains have really helped right-of-center authors because they’re profit-driven and don’t have an institutional politics in the way many independent bookstores do, which tend to be run by left-wingers.

Chain bookstore employees are a different matter. Recall the postings on the Borders employee union website last year, in which store clerks recommended "forgetting" to stock Unfit for Command or finding the copies mysteriously damaged and sending them back to the publisher. "I don’t care if these Neanderthals in fancy suits [read: conservative book buyers] get mad at me," spluttered one Borders worker. "They aren’t regular customers anyway. Other than ‘Left Behind’ books, they don’t read. Anything you can do to make them feel unwelcome is only fair." Now that’s a perfect example of what I call "illiberal liberalism"—suppressing ideas and arguments rather than allowing an intellectual marketplace to flourish. What would John Stuart Mill think?

Is there a stereotype for a college conservative today? What is it?

I spent a lot of time talking with college kids who placed themselves on the right for this book, and it became immediately clear that no stereotype really holds any longer—certainly not that of the bowtie-wearing, clean-cut young Republican of yesteryear. They’re likely to be blasting Eminem and watching South Park, even as they work, say, to form a pro-life group on campus.

What role is religion playing in the rise of college conservatism? Doesn't that conflict with South Park vulgarity?

There has been a striking religious upsurge on college campuses over the last decade—MIT actually has more than a dozen Christian fellowship groups active on its campus, to take just one example. A recent UCLA survey found that three-quarters of college juniors helped develop their identities, and 77 percent of college juniors claim to pray. The aggressive secularism of the Left today would make it hard for a lot of these kids to get on board. But there are many factors feeding the rise of college conservatism—the political correctness prevalent on many campuses, for instance, drives many students nuts. What bright kid is going to have anything but contempt for sensitivity workshops—what mind-rot!

As for vulgarity, I think most younger Americans, religious ones included, take it in stride. They’ve grown up with HBO, hip-hop, R-rated movies, and Bill Clinton getting cheap sex in the White House and having every pundit in the country talking about it. That’s why I think it unwise to push for the extension of FCC regulations to cable and satellite media, as some GOP pols have proposed. It’s a quick way to alienate a lot of younger Americans who might otherwise like Republican ideas on social security and even the proper role of the judiciary.

How fast did it take you to write and publish the book? Are new technologies making it easier to get conservative books published?

It took me about eight months to a year to write the book—but I have a demanding job at City Journal, which slowed me down a bit. The new technologies are making it easier for conservative authors to publish books—in fact, there’s never been a better time to be a right-of-center author. Just a few weeks ago, Simon & Schuster, another powerhouse New York publisher, announced it was launching a conservative imprint, joining Penguin’s Sentinel and Crown Forum as new conservative publishing ventures. The rise of the new media has allowed right-of-center authors to find audiences for their books without relying on the New York Times Book Review, which in the past hasn’t treated conservative books very well (I remember Katha Pollitt’s sneering review of Allan Bloom’s profound Love and Friendship several years back as a particularly low moment; with Sam Tanenhaus editing the review these days, it seems to be getting more balanced.) I’ve done scores of talk radio interviews, blog interviews, and cable news appearances for this book.

What happened to Andrew Sullivan? The man who was the most eloquent proponent of President Bush's war policy ended up endorsing Sen. John Kerry.

I think Sullivan has followed his conscience, though I regret where it has taken him. His position on social issues, gay marriage in particular, made it increasingly difficult for him to support the Bush administration, and he has grown increasingly critical of how we've done things in Iraq.

His sense of what conservatism means owes much to the great British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, but that skeptical, secular conservatism, as Irving Kristol once explained in an interesting essay, is in significant tension with America's "exceptional conservatism," which is both religious and optimistic in its main variants. Thus, it's possible to see how Sullivan gravitated toward Kerry. He's writing a book on conservatism, which will doubtless discuss these issues.

Once weblogs moved beyond spaces for tech geeks conservatives quickly dominated in numbers and readers. Why do you think that happened? Is that the case currently or has the Left risen up to the Right's challenge? Do the Left and Right treat weblogs differently? Are there any parallels to magazine publishing?

Conservatives were ahead of the curve in exploiting the new medium of blogs, and quickly established a strong and influential presence within it. The right-of-center blogs were offering perspectives-especially on September 11 and its political aftermath-that were being slighted by the mainstream media, so it's no surprise there was a significant audience for it.

Left blogs have been increasing their "marketshare" in recent months, which I think has mostly to do with the political climate in the country. The Democrats have been imploding politically, and there are a lot of angry, frustrated left-wingers out there looking to vent.

Conservative intellectuals constantly cite thinkers like F. A. Hayek, Edmund Burke, and others. You don't see the same from Liberal intellectuals. Does the average, well-informed Leftist have as well-developed an intellectual foundation as your average well-informed Rightist? Other than John Rawls--who I would argue many Leftists are not familar with--who are Leftists' big inspirations?

You're absolutely right. There is a lasting body of political reflection from conservative thinkers. Left-leaning thinkers don't seem to have as many living sources in this sense. Who reads Walter Lippmann or Harold Laski today? Even Marx is read more for historical interest than for truthful observations on the functioning of society. On the contemporary scene, an intellectually inclined Leftist might look to Richard Rorty or Antonio Negri, Habermas and Foucault maybe, but there would be little agreement on a well-developed intellectual foundation.

You told me, "A recent UCLA survey found that three-quarters of college juniors helped develop their identities." Do you mean Christianity or religion "helped develop their identities?"

The survey mentioned religion, not Christianity, but presumably most of the students in question were Christians.
Posted by Sean Hackbarth in Books at 06:22 PM | Comments (0)