Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Blog interview: Brian Anderson and "South Park Conservatives" 

Brian Anderson is the author of a delightful new book titled "South Park Conservatives: The Revolt against Liberal Media Bias" (you can buy the book here, and here you can read my review). Recently I had a chat with Brian about the rise of the new media and the right-of-centre cultural counter-revolution,

I remember reading in the early to mid 1990s many an opinion piece from a prominent conservative activist or commentator bemoaning the fact that our side has effectively lost the culture war. What happened?

One big thing that happened - and it's the central theme of my book - is the explosion of new media, which had undermined the liberal near-monopoly over the institutions of opinion and information. It's now increasingly possible for right-of-center ideas and arguments, ranging from libertarian to socially conservative, to get a fair hearing and win adherents, though of course there are considerable tensions disagreements on the Right. You've also seen, in part made possible by the new media, the emergence of a withering anti-liberal humor, exemplified by the Comedy Central cartoon South Park, standup comedians like Nick Di Paolo, internet humorists like Scott Ott of
Scrappleface and Chris Muir of Day by Day, and talk show host and comic Dennis Miller. I'm not arguing that all these comedic efforts are conservative - South Park, for instance, mocks the Right from time to time, and is one of the most obscenity-laden shows on television - but that they've got little time of the day for liberal elites and their politically correct worldview. That's a striking shift in popular culture, and it has been quite recent - I'd locate its birth in the mid to late nineties. It's a sign of how liberalism is losing political and cultural traction.

How are the liberals reacting to the challenge? Is there a counter-counter-revolution in the making?

"South Park Conservatives" is filled with examples of liberals raging against the new media, which has been one reaction. A more recent effort has been to get up to speed within the new media - so you have the launch of left-wing Air America a year ago or so; Al Gore TV on the horizon; and lots of left-wing blogs and Internet sites. That's a healthier reaction, though the troubles Air America is experiencing to date suggest the Left might go back to the rage-against-the-new-media approach. Many on the Left understandably yearn for the days when the New York Times and the network newscasts established the range of acceptable opinions.

Generational change plays a large part in the cultural counter-revolution. Why do you think Generations X and Y seem to be more conservative, or at least less liberal, than their elders?

The failed historical legacy of the American Left - its inconsistent and at times feckless response to fighting the enemies of America, the failure of its economic programs, its anti-social obsession with rights at the expense of public safety, its victimology, its surrender to vested interest groups, its elevation of individual gratification over the family - has produced a backlash, in my view.

City Journal colleague Kay Hymowitz has been writing about this in our pages, with regard to the family and romantic mores. A lot of younger Americans grew up watching their own families or the families of their friends getting torn apart as Mom or Dad took off to find themselves. There's a great scene in a South Park episode in which young Stan's parents decide to get a divorce. Stan confronts his mother, who has found an obnoxious new boyfriend, Roy. "Stanley, you know you're the most important thing to me, right?" she says, seeking to reassure her son. Stan replies: "then get back together with dad for me." Mom gets cold: "Now, Stanley, you have to understand how divorce works. When I say you're the most important thing to me, what I mean is: You're the most important thing after me and my happiness and my new romances." That's biting social observation, and for lots of young Americans, it hits home.

The Fox network is perhaps the greatest success story in the rise of what you describe as "South Park conservatism". Since the costs of entry into the media market are so prohibitive, is Fox destined to remain a lone ranger, or can you see more of direct competitors emerging for the liberal media giants?

Fox News is indeed a remarkable success story - and it's still less than a decade old. It completely dominates cable news, and now one in four adult Americans claims to get news from it. I don't share the view that it is a wing of the Republican Party, as liberals are always charging. Every time I turn it on, there are liberals galore yammering away. I believe CBS MarketWatch media critic Jon Friedman gets it right: "The success of Fox," he notes, "is not the result of Fox being right-wing. It's because they did such a good job of reaching out to the right-wing TV audience."

I do think there's further success to be had for other enterprises that reach out to that audience - and not just in news and opinion programming but also in entertainment, where so much of television programming remains broadly liberal in sensibility. Entry costs are a problem when it comes to news coverage, obviously, but there's no reason more conservative-minded reporters and producers can't be hired by other networks. In fact, it's already happening on cable: MSNBC airs Scarborough Country every night, hosted by the genial former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, and you have Dennis Miller on CNBC. I think you'll soon see greater numbers of non-liberal or even conservative screenwriters and directors getting work in the entertainment industry too. The market rewards are too great to be ignored permanently, even if Hollywood is reflexively liberal.

Conservatives dominate radio, liberals suck at it; TV is still largely a liberal domain; and I would call the Internet 50-50. What accounts for these differences between the various media?

Political talk radio just hasn't worked for the Left, and Air America's weak ratings to date don't point to any imminent takeover of the airwaves by liberals. Political talk radio arrived in the late eighties as an alternative to - a revolt against, as my subtitle puts it - the liberal tilt of the media mainstream, including public radio, it's important to add. It provided an outlet for views, many of them populist, that liberal elites deemed beyond the pale, outside the mainstream - even though the talk shows were giving the real mainstream a voice!

What need was there, though, to listen to, say, Mario Cuomo's brief-lived radio show - he was going to be the liberal answer to Rush Limbaugh - when you could get the same snobby condescension on the New York Times editorial page, CBS News, or NPR? I love Cuomo's explanation for why liberals fail on the radio: we write with "fine-quill pens," he says, while conservatives write with "crayons." Unpack that arrogant, elitist observation and you get a quick picture of why today's Democratic Party is having trouble winning elections once you get away from the coasts.

Cable television is no longer a liberal domain, even if the fading networks remain one. Pick up your remote and zip across the cable (or satellite) channels at night and you'll see Sean Hannity and Scarborough and Miller and right-of-center talking heads amply represented, and South Park too, no friend to liberals.

The Internet is about 50/50, though I'd say many of the really influential blogs and sites are broadly, if sometimes uneasily, right-of-center: Instapundit, Andrew Sullivan, PowerLine, FrontPage, NRO, and so on. Recent surveys say about 12 percent of Americans - 26 million people - are reading political blogs, and they break down about evenly between Democrats and Republicans, so it makes sense bloggers and sites break down about evenly too.

How do you see the future of the blogosphere?

I think it will continue to grow, so that many more millions of Americans will be reading blogs. Blogs are influencing, and will influence even more extensively in the future, other areas of life than just politics. I'm reading music blogs these days, and there are a growing number of sports blogs, gossip blogs, blogs for everything one can imagine. It's a wonderful explosion of free speech, of passion and idiosyncrasy, of insight and stupidity: democracy in action. The kind of collective wisdom of the blogosphere - its ability to locate and make readily available a wealth of local know-how, to speak like a Hayekian - will have salutary effects on all media, since a Fox News or New York Times that rushes to print or air false information will get called on it. You'll see more crossing over from blogs to other media outlets - as in your own writing on Afghanistan and Iraq for OpinionJournal.

My only worry is that regulations might stifle this wonderful democratic development. The prospect of extending FEC regulations to the blogs represents a serious threat to free speech. I guess, too, that there may be something to Camille Paglia's recently observation that blogs can encourage sloppy writing and a breakdown of the ability to sustain a well-thought out argument. But I'd have to say the blogosphere and Internet has given City Journal, a pretty highbrow magazine overflowing with thoughtful, long essays, a lot more readers. So the blogs haven't diminished the interest in reading serious long-form journalism, at least not in our experience.

In many ways, the book publishing industry has proved to be the most open to putting out a conservative product on the market. Networks and newspapers will not be that easy - partly because to allow in more non-liberal viewpoints would be to admit there is a bias there to start with, and that would destroy their self-image as objective purveyors of "nothing but the facts". But what about the entertainment industry - why is it so resistant to making the same capitalist decision that the book industry did?

I think the financial pressures were greater on the book industry, and Regnery (my publisher) proved in the nineties that conservative books could really sell. Part of the reason right-of-center titles could rocket up the bestseller list is the existence of new media. As Tom Bevan of RealClearPolitics, reviewing my book,
recently observed, conservative authors no longer have to rely on a good review from the New York Times Book Review or an appearance on Today to find an audience for their books. There's talk radio, Fox News, blogs and Internet sites - a whole universe of interested reviewers and interlocutors. I've been delighted to do e-interviews with bloggers, because it's a literate, media-savvy, politically engaged readership you're reaching.

When asked why there aren't more conservative academics on our campuses, the liberal academia likes to answer that there simply aren't enough, say, conservative English or sociology scholars to hire. Certain occupations and pursuits - journalism, writing, arts and entertainment - seem to naturally attract non-conservatives. Even if given the opportunities and outlets, will we be able to find enough right-wing comedians, film-makers, entertainers, etc. to fulfill the demand?

I think demand is starting to create supply - and will do so more in the future. There are tremendous opportunities available for smart people who aren't peddling typical liberal fare. It might be tough making an initial breakthrough, but there's an audience waiting. I think film will be the next big conservative conquest. You're already seeing the outline in the success of movies like The Passion, The Incredibles, and - in a radically different way - Team America: World Police.

Another aspect of the conservative counter-attack in the culture wars is the growing popularity of Christian entertainment, whether in books (the "Left behind" series being the most prominent), visual entertainment ("The Passion") or music (the rise of the Christian rock). Can Christian conservatives and South Park conservatives work together in culture wars?

Well, obviously there are tensions - quite significant ones. One of my contentions in South Park Conservatives, though, is that a free media has benefited the Right in all its varieties, including Christian forms. You're absolutely right: Christian pop culture is flourishing - and the big-budget Hollywood adaptation of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe could be a blockbuster on par with The Passion. Christian cable stations and radio shows draw big audiences, creating an effective means for Christians to get the word out about the music and books and movies they've created or affirm. There are scores of God blogs now, reaching ever bigger audiences.

Yet ultimately there's no way for the Republican Party to retain political power, at least on the national level, unless it also appeals to folks who may not be on board with everything the Christian Right stands for. In this light, looking to the media, I think it would be a significant mistake for conservative legislators to push for the extension of broadcast regulations to cable television and satellite radio, in the hope of stamping out indecency. That would be a quick way to alienate a lot of younger Americans who might otherwise be sympathetic to the Right's broader policy goals. Keeping Tony Soprano from swearing on HBO isn't a smart way to roll back judicial activism or make sure the war on terror is fought aggressively - truly important struggles to win. I was troubled to see some groups on the Right complaining about Laura Bush's hilarious stand-up routine at the correspondents' dinner the other day. That kind of humorlessness is politically disastrous in today's America.

Do you think that as the media "consensus" collapses there is a danger that people's media habits will become increasingly ghetto-ized, as each group in society (liberals, conservatives, conservative Christians, etc.) will increasingly only be getting their news, ideas and entertainment from "their" media sources and any sort of commonality and communality will be lost?

This is an argument advanced most intelligently by the liberal political theorist Cass Sunstein in his book Republic.com. In my view, it's an overstated worry. First of all, the media consensus of the past was biased to the Left, so it's not as if it achieved some perfect sense of community and objective neutrality. Certain voices, certain ideas--mostly those on the Right--had a hard time getting a fair hearing, or even any hearing at all in the mainstream media. That's why the new media revolt I write about in SPC has been so consequential. Second, at least with the blogosphere, you've got much more of an agora going on than an ideological ghetto--even when criticizing, say, a Frank Rich column, you're going to link to it, quote from it, dissect it, so your reader gets to check what you're saying against the original. National Review and The New Republic occasionally do opinion duels. After we began making City Journal articles available on line, we're flooded with letters from left-wingers. Now a lot of them are of the "you are evil Nazis" variety; but some are pretty thoughtful. Finally, it's worth noting that 48 percent of Fox News's viewership does not consider itself conservative. Even talk radio isn't ghettoized in the sense Sunstein and others fear.

What's next on your plate?

I've got some ideas for an article, and maybe a book, on cinema, and would like to do something on sports. But we'll see.


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