The Closing of the Conservative Mind: The Triumph of Mediocrity at NR

November 03, 2008

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The Closing of the Conservative Mind: The Triumph of Mediocrity at NR

In Christopher Buckley’s now-famous account of his “firing” at the hands of Rich Lowry at National Review, Buckley implicitly belittled not just the conservative movement in general but National Review in particular. After revealing the circumstances of his NR column’s cancellation, Buckley summed up his father’s career as follows:

My point, simply, is that William F. Buckley held to rigorous standards, and if those were met by members of the other side rather than by his own camp, he said as much. My father was also unpredictable, which tends to keep things fresh and lively and on-their-feet. He came out for legalization of drugs once he decided that the war on drugs was largely counterproductive. Hardly a conservative position. Finally, and hardly least, he was fun. God, he was fun. He liked to mix it up.

With the apostrophe, “God, he was fun,” Buckley turns away from his audience to express his private exasperation. Exasperation with whom? Buckley mentions only NR editor Rich Lowry by name, together with publisher Jack Fowler, whom Buckley singles out for praise. One can only presume that Buckley sees Lowry and the other NR editors as the antithesis of “fun”—that is, they are tedious partisans unworthy of their predecessors. That someone as close to NR as Buckley should express such a blunt judgment is striking, to say the least.

And yet the media report that Buckley remains an NR trustee. My honest guess is that when Buckley submitted his Daily Beast column, he had simply forgotten that he was still serving on NR‘s board. 

In 2004, WFB transferred his NR voting shares to an independent board of trustees (of which I was originally one of five). Within two years, the one quasi-insider on the board successfully contrived to stack it with Rich Lowry and other insiders, thereby neutering it. Rich Lowry is today as much the editor-owner of NR as WFB ever was. Depend upon it: Lowry will stay on as editor for the next 30 years or more, perhaps longer than WFB himself did. One could do worse than be editor-for-life of a prominent, financially stable magazine with a large and loyal following.  Lowry himself—though an able journalist and a decent writer—could do much worse. 

Despite Chris Buckley’s public rebuke, NR‘s position as America’s pre-eminent conservative magazine remains unassailable. Just because NR may embrace bad ideas, betray its founders’ legacy or decline in quality does not mean that it will ever lose readers or influence. Consumers of political opinion do not have a natural tendency to come to their senses; if anything, they tend to believe whatever their favorite sources tell them to believe. Uniquely among political magazines, NR does not need angel investors to stay afloat. Instead it gets by on contributions from dedicated readers—the Buckley patrimony. So long as NR gives readers the ideological stimulation they crave, they will return the favor in the form of money contributions, and so on in perpetuity.

Though opinions may vary, Buckley has good reason to complain of NR‘s mediocrity. About a decade ago, NR decided (largely unbeknownst, as far as I could tell, to WFB) to jettison its fortnightly magazine and transform itself into a website. To be sure, a journal called National Review still gets printed every other week. But nobody within or without the magazine actually cares about it. Take a poll of leading journalists and opinion-mongers and ask them how many articles of the past decade they remember reading in various outlets: NR, I am sure, would perform dismally.  It rarely if ever publishes anything of lasting significance and I would be surprised to meet anyone of any persuasion who disagreed.

As for the website, it is the exclusive bailiwick of Kathryn Lopez, a young woman whose work ethic and party faith make Stakhanov look lazy and disloyal. Every day she publishes an astonishing volume of material.  Is any of it any good?  Some of it, yes.  Still, the ratio of original reporting and insight to reiterations of the party line is depressingly small.  Meanwhile, NRO publishes every article on foreign policy under the heading “At War.” Thus, we get not just “At War: Iraq,” but also such head-scratchers as “At War: Syria,” “At War: Russia,” “At War: Somalia,” and so on—even if the United States is not in even the most remote sense “at war.” Some enterprising blogger should keep a list of all of the places where NRO says we are “at war.” It would be an amusing, if disturbing, record of the website’s mindset.

Kathryn Jean Lopez, National Review Online Editor
NR does not have a tradition of purging dissidents. All opinion-mongers risk being infected by strange or malignant ideas. Consequently, political magazines must now and then decide what to do with their errant contributors. Purges, in other words, are a fact of movement life and each must be judged on its merits. NR has had several purges in its history, some justified and some not. Let’s review:

Revilo Oliver An early contributor to NR, the palindromic polymath Oliver basically came to believe that Hitler was too kind to the Jews.  Oliver is an obvious test case: If all purging is bad, then NR should have continued to publish Revilo Oliver.  Since Oliver, as I would modestly suggest, should not have been published, it follows that not all NR‘s purges have been unwarranted.

Ayn Rand NR never actually purged Rand, as she never contributed to NR in the first place.  Whitaker Chambers wrote a hostile review of Atlas Shrugged that the authoress—I should say that I admire Rand very much—deserved.  By that time, Rand had recruited a cult following whose members she herself purged or humiliated at the slightest hint of lesé majesté.  Neither National Review nor any other magazine could have ever reached a modus vivendi with a megalomaniac such as Rand had become by the time she wrote Atlas.

The John Birch Society  Richard Spencer correctly observes that rank and file Birchers were nothing more than frustrated anti-communists looking for a voice.  That does not mean that by the early 1960s the John Birch Society didn’t need discrediting.  Robert Welch had made himself an embarrassment to the anti-communist cause and the mainstream movement wisely thwarted his hopes for further influence.

Murray Rothbard Rothbard was a prolific economist, political theorist, historian, polemist and pamphleteer.  Still, NR‘s unifying passion was anti-communism, whereas Rothbard, already a prickly personality, was fierce anti-anti-communist.  Rothbard was oil to NR‘s water.  Their mutual hostilities are regrettable but could not have been avoided.

Joe Sobran The rancor over Sobran’s dismissal still festers. The question is complicated by Sobran’s decision to vindicate his critics by becoming openly anti-semitic.  (I know, I know: the term “anti-semite” can and often is abused.  Still, there’s got to be a line somewhere. To the exterminationist, everyone who uses the term “anti-semitic” is a sellout.)  As for the circumstances leading to the Sobran purge, one can only read the parties’ accounts. All agree that over a period of several years, Sobran inveighed in a very provocative fashion against Israel and Israeli influence.  As Sobran’s attacks at the very least seemed calculated to raise questions as to his motives, Buckley repeatedly tried to get him cut it out. Finally Buckley decided to distance NR from Sobran and then terminate his NR career. 

In his apology, “How I was fired by Bill Buckley,” Sobran notes that Buckley never actually came out called him an anti-Semite. But Buckley’s elliptical account is fully consistent with a friend trying to do everything he can to save another friend. Buckley intended to leave Sobran at least with the argument that the man who fired him never actually called him an anti-semite. The Sobran affair may have since contributed to an exaggerated reluctance among movement conservatives to criticize America’s special relationship with Israel—a reluctance that WFB himself regretted and took some ineffective steps to counter. That doesn’t mean that Buckley’s actions at the time were unjustified. 

John O’Sullivan O’Sullivan continues to write for NR and was never actually purged.  Nonetheless, here the critics have a point.  With the ascent of Rich Lowry, NR went from challenging and interesting to boring and derivative.  Still, nobody knows the real circumstances of O’Sullivan’s abdication.  Possibly WFB didn’t want to be bothered with controversies anymore.  Possibly he had tired of O’Sullivan’s erratic management.  In any case, NR‘s decline was caused as much by Lowry’s rise as by O’Sullivan’s fall.

I don’t know why, exactly, O’Sullivan went on to become “editor at large” but I do know that the elevation of Rich Lowry to editor-owner for life was in no way intended by WFB.  Without knowing whether the “purge” of O’Sullivan was ideologically driven or not, independent observers must withhold judgment. 

Steve Sailer, Andrew Bacevich  Intellectually, these two men are (or were) perhaps two leading lights of the conservative movement.  They wrote for NR until it went war-wacky in 2003.  Now they’re personae non gratae.  The obvious reason: Each has written devastatingly on the foreign policy advocated by NR.  If NR‘s editors had any courage, they would sponsor a symposium on Bacevich’s work.  That will never happen, of course, as NR has lamely chosen to avoid criticism rather than confront it. 

NR‘s institutional strength destroys any hope for an “alternative Right.”  NR may be mediocre but, as argued, it will be the leading conservative magazine in America for the foreseeable future. “Conservatism,” as far as the media are concerned, is whatever NR says it is. Just as Trotsky could never overcome Stalin’s ability to define communism for communists, so rump coalitions of right-wingers will never overcome NR‘s ability to define conservatism for conservatives. Alternative right-wing coalitions appeal only to dyspeptic ideological systematizers. 

Chris Buckley may never have really cared much about politics to begin with, but he is nonetheless correct to question whether there is anything more to be gained from a conservative movement.

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