Shrill and Shriller

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As a publishing trend, the New Economy didn’t survive the stock market collapse. But the politics of the bubble are more popular with book-buyers today than ever. Some changes have occurred, of course: the bestselling books of the nineties swaggered with optimism. They were absolutely convinced that the free-market system had somehow won the Internet or “globalization” or the Nasdaq or the freely expressed choice of the people of the world or some other awesome force of historical inevitability, all alternatives to the social order preferred by Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover had been nullified—for every society and for all times.

Ann Coulter dismisses the Enron story as a transparent distraction pumped out by the scheming liberal media.

The free-market faith is still with us; what’s gone is the optimism. Today conservative authors speak to us in tones of angry discontent, nicely complementing the monthly statement from Charles Schwab that shows our account off by 60 percent since the start of the year. The popular conservative books of 2002 and 2003 are positively furious with the world, lashing out at everyone who has made life unpleasant for Americans in recent years—with one exception: those who puffed the New Economy bubble. In fact, one of the last year’s best-selling angry books—What’s So Great About America (Regnery, 2002), a defense of American institutions whose real object is to associate liberals with Muslim terrorists—sprang from the fecund word-processor of none other than Dinesh D’Souza, whom we last encountered as the author of The Virtue of Prosperity, a work of New Economy theology that he had the bad luck to publish in the fall of 2000.

While D’Souza’s earlier volume was full of inventive justification for laissez-faire capitalism, his current effort offers but one simple assertion in this regard: laissez-faire capitalism was the true target of the 9/11 terrorists; therefore laissez-faire capitalism deserves the reverence of all good patriots. And that pretty much settles all questions economic for the new generation of conservatives.

Ann Coulter, for example, dismisses the Enron story—the second-largest corporate bankruptcy in history, remember—as a transparent distraction pumped out by the scheming liberal media. G. Gordon Liddy, in a book bearing the wistful title When I Was a Kid, This Was a Free Country (Regnery, 2002), asserts—despite mountains of evidence and judicial findings—that the California electric deregulation disaster can be entirely attributed to state interference in free markets. Other than that, nothing. If they can’t talk about the Dow’s stately ascent to 36,000, they don’t want to be bothered with economics at all.

After the last comparable stock market collapse Americans wanted to hear a great deal about economics. In particular, they developed an appetite for books vilifying the corporate world. Best-sellers of the 1930s like The Robber Barons and America’s Sixty Families traced the ugly history of the great private fortunes; The Coming Struggle for Power looked forward with relish to capitalism’s judgment day. The crash and subsequent depression effectively destroyed conservatism in America for the next thirty years.

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This time around, what Americans hunger for are books vilifying liberals. “Liberal Lies About the American Right” is the subtitle of Ann Coulter’s best-selling book, Slander (Crown, 2002). “Winning the War of Liberty Over Liberalism” is the subtitle and stated objective Sean Hannity’s best-selling book Let Freedom Ring (Regan Books, 2002). “Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Borders, Language, and Culture,” is the subtitle of Michael Savage’s best-selling The Savage Nation (WDN Books, 2003). We may be living through a once-in-a-lifetime foul-up, the sort of situation that demands activist government and an expanded welfare state, but what these authors are after is the final destruction of the party identified with activist government and the welfare state. And their grassroots popularity should not be doubted. When I tried to borrow Coulter’s manifesto from the public library of Johnson County, Kansas, I was told that even though the library had prudently chosen to stock seventeen copies, the waiting list was thirty-eight names long.

Hard economic times, it seems, now drive Americans even further away from liberalism. Interestingly, none of the books I’ve mentioned, except for Liddy’s, indicts liberals for their economic views. Rather, what liberals are guilty of is lying, fornicating, spreading propaganda, sowing divisiveness, disrespecting the flag, and, of course, stabbing our armed forces in the back.

Clearly liberals are bad news, a menace to public safety. In an interview with the New York Observer, Coulter expressed a heartfelt desire to live in a “world without liberals.” She has some rather uncivil ideas about how to bring that Utopia about. “If Americans knew what [liberals] really believe,” Coulter writes in Slander, “the public would boil them in oil.” (In the previous paragraph, with the blithe blindness to contradiction that marks the true believer, Coulter had warned against the danger of a liberal Inquisition.) “We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too,” she said in a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2002. “Otherwise they will turn out to be outright traitors.” (Coulter’s new book—too new to be included here—is called, simply, Treason. She will no doubt be accepting applications for firing squad positions as you read this.)

According to Ann Coulter, “the left” commands such “mind-boggling resources” that it is able to persuade the public of just about anything it wishes.

But just who are these damnable pests, these liberals? Even Coulter won’t say for sure, since doing so would present an obvious narrative problem: How can you complain so bitterly about liberals and blame so much on liberals when liberals have pretty much been routed from American political life? The age of the liberal consensus ended with a bang in 1968, thirty-five years ago, after the Republican Party figured out how to split off huge chunks of the old Roosevelt coalition. Republican candidates have won, mostly in landslides, in six out of the nine presidential elections since then. Since the Mondale disaster of 1984 virtually no American running for high office has described themselves as a liberal. The word itself has become electoral poison. Bill Clinton, who figures in each of these texts as a liberal of Luciferian cunning and charisma, actually came out of that wing of the Democratic Party which pushes constantly for surrender to the GOP on the economic front. As did Al Gore, and Joe Lieberman, and Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe. And even these “new Democrats” can’t win elections to save their lives.

Nevertheless, each of the angry conservative books of the last few years turns on the bizarre conceit that conservatives are the victims of systematic persecution by all-powerful liberals. According to Ann Coulter, “the left,” which she also calls “the well-organized conspiratorial left,” commands such “mind-boggling resources” that it is able to persuade the public of just about anything it wishes. Liberals are just as firmly in control of the nation as they were in the 1960s; they are still culpable whenever anything goes wrong. And how do we know that these liberals have all this power? Because, as each of those books proves beyond a doubt, liberals call conservatives names. Sean Hannity, for example, offers page after page of snippets from speeches and remarks on TV, occasionally interjecting deploring statements of his own such as, “The rhetoric never stops, and sometimes its tone gets absolutely out of hand.”

Ann Coulter, for her part, takes the trouble to collate the liberal name-calling into neat chapters organized by theme: There’s one in which conservatives are assailed for being stupid, another in which they are derided for being racist, and so on. Although economics doesn’t matter to her, she is able to find something immensely significant and revealing about the phenomenon of liberals badmouthing conservatives in letters to the editor and TV talk shows: Liberals call conservatives names, she reasons, because they “think the good life consists of being able to sneer at other people as inferior.” The fact that liberals are imperious. Liberals think they are better than other people. “They are United States senators, New York Times editors, news anchors, and TV personalities,” she writes. They are also nearly everyone in book publishing, book writing, and retail book selling; nearly everyone in movie making and movie reviewing; nearly everyone in education; and nearly everyone in journalism.

In short, liberals are the elite. They are the ruling class.

The strange quiescence of the American public in the face of recent corporate shenanigans is a topic of no inconsiderable pundit wonder these days. We have recently endured a catastrophic stock market collapse and numerous other record-setting examples of free-market failure, and yet Americans are in no mood to take revenge on the culprits or even to halt their long, failed experiment in deregulation, deunionization, and privatization. On the contrary, we just handed over control of the Senate—and with it, the last of the three branches of government—to the Republicans, the party of the free-market system and the rich. Here is David Brooks telling readers of the New York Times why this happened: “Many Americans admire the rich. They don’t see society as a conflict zone between the rich and poor.” American is a place “incredibly inhospitable to class-based politics.”

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In fact, Americans have an insatiable appetite for class-based politics. David Brooks’s career is proof of it. Without class-based politics there would be no Limbaugh, no Hannity, no O’Reilly. Clever books and essays about Bobos and blue states and NASCAR Dads would find no readers. Without class-based politics, our TV and AM radio would have all the color and hubbub of the Canadian Broadcasting Company. No, Americans are nutty for class-based politics. What is missing is a certain side speaking its piece. Where is the drumbeat against Bush’s budget? Where are the tumbrels for our corporate malefactors? Class-based politics rules prime time, but it only takes one form: plangent and endless griping about culture.

Class, to hear the best-selling and most watched experts on the subject tell it, is a matter not of wealth or financial position, but of attitude, learning, and taste. This peculiar conceit has been a staple on the American Scene since the Great Backlash began in 1968; it is on full display on the Fox News Channel every night of the week; it runs throughout our business magazines and our charismatic churches; it rivals the self-help genre in our bookstores. It is everywhere, bristling with the righteous anger of the downtrodden, the disrespected, the ignored. In the absence of any other variety of class animus, it is the default language of populist dissent, circa 2003.

Liberals are “elitists who are hostile to our values,” writes Sean Hannity in the course of a screed on the (imaginary) liberal campaigns against the Pledge of Allegiance and the Declaration of Independence. “That’s the whole point of being a liberal: to feel superior to people with less money,” seethes Ann Coulter.

Only when you appreciate the powerful driving force of snobbery in the liberals’ worldview do all their preposterous counterintuitive arguments make sense. They promote immoral destructive behavior because they are snobs, they embrace criminals because they are snobs, they oppose tax cuts because they are snobs, they adore the environment because they are snobs. Every pernicious idea to come down the pike is instantly embraced by liberals to show how powerful they are. Liberals hate society and want to bring it down to reinforce their sense of invincibility. Secure in the knowledge that their beachfront haciendas will still be standing when the smoke clears, they giddily fiddle with the little people’s rules and morals.

Republicans drink beer, go to church, and own guns; they are, ipso facto, the true representatives of the common man.

To instantiate this thesis Coulter turns to what’s on TV. See, there’s all sorts of filth. See, there’s the literary crowd hobnobbing with criminals. We know the “liberal elite” hate the common people because of what they broadcast, what they write in their precious magazines. We know that the GOP is the true party of the workers, since the hard-bitten Republican leader Tom DeLay is “more likely to have a beer with a trucker” than the wealthy Senator Barbara Boxer of California. We know it because the two social possibilities of American life are mimicking the liberal “beautiful people” of Hollywood or embracing “the working-class hillbillies who go to NASCAR races,” that favorite litmus test of the populist right.

Apparently, there is no bad turn a conservative may not do unto his road dawg in the working class, as long as cultural solidarity has been cemented over a beer. Ann Coulter’s case is instructive. A daughter of the creamy New York suburb of New Canaan, she grew up in what she describes as a happy right-wing family headed by a lawyer who, in 1984, helped engineer a landmark union decertification (i.e., total destruction of a bargaining unit) for greater glory of the Phelps Dodge mining interests. This coup was one of the earliest fruits of the anti-union policies of the Reagan administration, which over the years have done so much to shrink the power of organized labor and to rain down blessings on the inhabitants of New Canaan and their upper-bracket brethren across the nation.

Coulter was there at the union-busting creation—”for the union to be going on strike at that point was just absurd,” she says—but she insists nonetheless that discussions of that aspect of social class are simply a figment of liberal propaganda. To believe that “Democrats are the Party of the People and Republicans the Party of the Powerful” is to embrace a “preposterous conceit,” a historical fiction that Coulter simply cannot begin to fathom. In saying this Coulter is not referring to the cold shoulder that Bill Clinton’s New Democrats have turned to the labor movement: Like most conservatives, she believes that Clinton was in fact a man of the radical left. What she is referring to is, again, the fact that the haughty hedonists of Hollywood are largely Democrats. Republicans, on the other hand, drink beer, go to church, and own guns; they are, ipso facto, the true representatives of the common man. Economics simply do not count in her world. Applying this logic to the hot topic of campaign finance laws, Coulter finds that everyone else has the story upside down. Soft money doesn’t distort things in favor of the wealthy; what it does is permit “ordinary people to participate in public political debate by contributing to political campaigns.” This is why “liberals are terrified” of soft money: They are haunted by the specter of the common people rallying to their right-wing heroes.

Having annexed the language of social class, Coulter proceeds to sketch out a map of the culture industry that, in its bleakness and mechanical determinism, makes the Daily Worker look subtle. Other conservatives like to talk about “bias” in the news; Coulter, on the other hand prefers sterner phrases like “the opinion cartel” or “the monopoly media.” The media isn’t just slanted imperceptibly to the left: It’s a propaganda tool, pure and simple. “Liberals explicitly view the dissemination of news in America as a vehicle for left-wing indoctrination,” she tells us.

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And the power of these media liberals is awesome indeed. According to Coulter the culture industry doesn’t just misjudge the outside political world; it is a liberal tool for controlling the outside political world. Take for example the tale of the lecherous Senator Bob Packwood, a Republican who happened to be pro-choice on the abortion question, and who, Coulter claims, therefore enjoyed lavish praise from the media and a free pass on his compulsive harassment of female employees. “The fairy tale between Packwood and the media, however, came to a tragic end the second feminists didn’t need him anymore,” Coulter argues. Clinton had been elected, there the Senate was no longer needed to prevent pro-lifers from becoming Supreme Court justices, therefore the media destroyed him. Coulter produces no journalistic confessions or other direct evidence to back this assertion, relying instead on the fact that one even came after the other—that Clinton’s swearing-in was followed (two and half years later) by the media frenzy that ultimately led to Packwood’s resignation. There can obviously be no coincidences in the well-ordered world of the media high command, ceaselessly and inexorably picking off the enemies of liberalism whenever the opportunities present. So Coulter simply takes the point as proved and goes on from there “If the media’s puppets ever diverge from the party line or otherwise become dispensable, people will start to notice things . . . The media will tolerate any disreputable behavior in order to win. Principle is nothing to liberals. Winning is everything.”

But winning what? Coulter’s theories are riddled with dozens of holes, distortions, and errors, but as a system her thinking is plausible up to this point. What are the liberals’ motives? What is it the liberal media wants to win?

In the old-school media critique, of course, the answer was always money. What twisted the news was always the power of advertisers, the profit-seeking publishers, the obscene demands of Wall Street.

Coulter may throw around terms like “cartel” and “monopoly” when describing the culture industry, but these are strictly metaphorical. She is most certainly not calling on some trust-busting attorney general to take a sledge hammer to General Electric or AOL Time Warner or the Murdoch interest. Never! In the backlash world, remember, economics need not apply.

The idea that market forces might have some negative cultural effect strikes Coulter as so farfetched she cannot be bothered even to discuss it.

Coulter comes closest to telling us what it is liberals want to “win” in her discussion of the book publishing industry, for which she reserves particularly spiteful denunciations. That there are epidemic problems in book publishing is a fact nobody denies: Far too many books today are poorly written, poorly copy edited, and poorly fact-checked even while publishers hand out lucrative advances to undeserving celebrities like Jack Welch. As it happens, these problems have been examined in some detail by Andre Schiffrin, the head of the New Press, who traces them convincingly to the industry’s corporatization. Quality publishing houses, Schiffrin points out, run by literate people who are concerned with public enlightenment, who are content with small margins, and who are willing to nurture unknown authors while they work their way up to profitability, have virtually disappeared from the American scene, swept away by the ruthless bottom-liners of Bertelsmann, Borders, and Barnes & Noble. The slow, inexorable death of quality publishing in America is no secret or mystery: In fact, as I was writing this story, Random House (part of the Bertelsmann empire along with Doubleday, Knopf, and Anchor) saw fit to fire the editor of its flagship line and merge it with a publisher of cheap paperbacks, strictly for reasons of profitability.

Coulter deals with all this by laughing at it. The idea that market forces might have some negative cultural effect strikes her as so farfetched she cannot be bothered even to discuss it. The problems of publishing arise, rather, from sheer, willful liberalism, trying to reproduce itself for no purpose larger than its own existence. Publishers pay big advances and hustle out shoddy books simply because they are liberals, and because they want “to provide [other] liberals with lifetime sinecures.” Business-page news stories on Random House may not mention as selling points the unit’s possibilities as a money sluice to liberals, but if Coulter is to be believed, that is its sole purpose nonetheless.

How does Coulter know this? Because a number of conservative books which eventually sold well were at first rejected by certain mainstream publishers. The conspiracy extends to book reviewers: Coulter quotes from hostile reviews of conservative books and juxtaposes them with so-there remarks about how well books sold. The conspiracy extends to bookstores: Coulter recounts how a single shop in Harvard Square didn’t give prominent display space to The Real Anita Hill (whose author, as it happens, has since recanted a good part of its contents) but how it still sold better than the book purporting to refute it.

It is tempting to dismiss all of this as another manifestation of super-touchy conservative crankiness, something akin to G. Gordon Liddy’s best-selling lamentations of the lost joys of leaf-burning and bird-killing. After all, there is in truth no author, conservative or liberal, who hasn’t been disappointed by the response of his work of editors and reviewers and bookstores. What’s more, as anyone in the publishing industry can attest, there is today tremendous pressure on editors to accept and hustle into stores precisely the sort of griping conservative tract of which Slander is the preeminent example. It is the corporate-cultural trend of the moment, just as waxing hallucinatory about day-trading or e-commerce was the favorite flavor of 1999.

But the liberal bias critique is far more than just another gripe with the world, something that we might clear up by showing Coulter the facts. Indeed, in her strenuous efforts to shift the blame for our botched culture from market forces to the “conspiratorial” liberal drive to “win,” Coulter shows us how far from the world of facts the backlash has wandered.

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Liberalism for her isn’t a product of social forces; it is a social force, subject to a determinism all its own, as rigid and mechanical as anything dreamed up by the Marxists of the thirties. Liberals tell the news and publish the books and make the movies the way they do not because it sells ads or it pleases the boss or it’s cheaper that way; they do it because they are liberals, because it helps other liberals, it elects liberals to public office, it promises to convert the world to liberalism.

For a surprisingly large part of the American population, there’s nothing strange about this assertion. That’s just the way the world is. A few years ago, while the impeachment trial of president Clinton was under way, I paid a visit to a relative of mine who is a steady consumer of best-selling conservative books of the Liddy/Coulter/Hannity variety. We watched the proceedings on TV together, and at some point I made a comment mocking the clothes worn by the House impeachment managers (they were all wearing blue suits and red ties). Not only did my relative resent the joke, he had an explanation for it: I had been instructed to think that by the Democratic Party. I was following orders.

This is the logical terminus of backlash anti-intellectualism. When you have rejected all the accepted social science methods for understanding the way things work; when you can’t talk straight about social class, when you can’t acknowledge that free market forces mightn’t always be for the best, when you can’t admit the validity of certain basic historical truths (such as, with Coulter, the Democratic Party’s historical identification with labor and the Republicans’ with business), these blunt tools are all you’re left with: Journalists and sociologists and historians and musicians and photographers do what they do because they are liberals. And liberals lie. They can’t help it, maybe, since they’re “programmed” that way (Coulter compares liberals to robots and to animals, with mechanically predictable responses to stimuli), but nonetheless everything they do is a simple expression of partisan loyalty, an attempt to “program” others, to spread the liberal disease, and thus to “win.”

Which of course they never do.

The right can’t simply declare victory and get out. It must have a haughty and despicable adversary so that its battle on behalf of the humble and victimized can continue.

When the populist right was young and frisky in the late 1960s, it developed its critique of “liberal media bias” as one amidst many fronts in the culture war. There was always something factually tenuous about the complaint, since the most objective expression of the media’s politics—a given newspaper’s endorsements during campaigns—has persistently revealed a Republican tilt to the industry, not a Democratic one. Since then the bias critique has become ever less connected to reality. After all, the American news media continues to rely on Wall Street stock analysts as impartial economic authorities on every imaginable subject; and by far the greatest, costliest, silliest media distortion of the last decade was the myth of a “New Economy,” that vision of a capitalist golden age that sent so many off to plank down their life savings on Amazon, Enron, and JDS Uniphase. For all these reasons, responsible Republicans of the old school never dared to put too much weight on the “liberal bias” charge: it was safe only as long as it was reserved for filigree around the edges of an occasional campaign speech. To take it more seriously would be to sail off into a world of paranoia and conspiracy theory.

Today conservatism has arrived in that dark place. Even as American journalism lurches palpably to the right, even as the financial-press fantasies of the previous decade collapse around our ears, still the best-selling right-wing media critics go from shrill to shriller, from charges of “bias” to charges of outright “left-wing indoctrination.” The bias critique is less true than ever, and yet conservatives rely on it more and more. It has migrated from the periphery to the very center of the backlash worldview. It is the assertion on which all else rests.

Conservatives have been forced to this position, ironically, by their own success. Clinton is out of the picture, as are labor unions and other troublesome grassroots movements. They can hardly blame things on Communists anymore. The Democrats gave up the battle on most critical issues during the 1990s, and then proceeded to get wiped out at the polls. Business is back in the saddle, taxes are falling, regulations are crumbling, and the very wealthy are enjoying the best years for being very wealthy since the 1920s. But the right can’t simply declare victory and get out. It must have a haughty and despicable adversary so that its battle on behalf of the humble and victimized can continue. And the media—that infinitely malleable malefactor, upon which any evil design can be projected—is the only plausible oppressor left.

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Not only plausible: the existence of profound, all-corrupting liberal bias is an absolute ontological necessity if conservatism is to make any sense. The Great Backlash began with the coming together of two very different political factions: traditional business Republicans, with their faith in the free market, and working class “middle Americans,” the Reagan Democrats who signed on to preserve family values. For the latter group the experience has been a bummer all around. All they have to show for their thirty-odd years of Republican loyalty are lower wages, more dangerous jobs, dirtier air, a new overlord class that comports itself like King Farouk—and, of course, a shit culture whose moral free-fall continues without significant interference from the grandstanding Christers they send triumphantly back to Washington every couple of years. By all rights these people should be at the traditional Republicans’ throats. After all, how can you lament the shabby state of American public life while blithely giving business a free hand to do as it likes? How can you reconcile the two clashing halves of the conservative mind?

By believing in “bias,” that’s how. Alone among the many, many businesses of the world, the backlash thinkers insist, the culture industry does not respond to market forces. It does the ugly things that it does because it is honeycombed with robotic, alien liberals, trying to drip their corrosive liberalism into our ears. Bias exists because it must exist in order for the rest of contemporary conservatism to be true. As in Saint Anselm’s proof of the existence of God, which flummoxed generations of our ancestors, it simply cannot be any other way. Bias has to be, there it is.

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