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The Conservative Write

August 06, 2008

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As the story goes, Pauline Kael “couldn’t believe Nixon won in ’72,” as everyone she knew voted for McGovern. The quotation is probably spurious, but that makes it no less suitable as an epigraph for cultural life on the Isle of Bagel. And this holds for the New York-centered publishing establishment, which, as Harry Stein explains in his informative article for The City Journal, is not simply hostile to right-wing views and thinkers but genuinely oblivious to their existence. It’s a remarkable situation—in hyper-capitalist Manhattan, taste and prestige actually trump the profit motive. Rush Limbaugh’s magnum opus, The Way Things Ought To Be was on the New York Times bestseller list for six month in ’93, and yet since then the big houses have been eager never again to reap such ill-gotten gains.  

Of course, in the struggle against liberal bias, movement conservatives have been optimistic of late. First off, they have a press all to their own in the Regnery/Eagle Publishing conglomerate. Regnery has always been a stalwart, publishing some serious stuff over the years, including God and Man at Yale, The Conservative Mind, Konrad Adenauer’s Memoirs, as well as poetry by Ezra Pound. In the ’90s, Regnery took off commercially with its series of anti-Clinton tracts and sustained this with lots of Ann Coulter and the popular Politically Incorrect Guides.

After a while the big houses could no longer resist getting in on the action, and in the last five to ten year, many have established “conservative” imprints: Penguin’s Sentinel, Random House’s Crown Forum, Simon and Schuster’s Threshold being most prominent. Stein rightly points out that the imprints are, in some ways, conservative ghettos—they’re easily marginalized and could easily dumped once they start losing money. And if Threshold continues to publish volumes like Mary Cheney’s lesbian memoir, it’ll be history in no time.  

The twist paleos often put on the story of the rise of conservative publishing is that it’s been good for some—but not for us. We’ve heard for years how “conservative” FOX News is, and yet it’s just as hostile, if not more so, towards the antiwar Right and traditionalists than the liberal MSM. “Conservative” publishing, according to the pessimists, will be no different, as the houses, like the thinktanks, will be staffed with neocons. In this line, the recent announcement by David Kuo and Bill Bennett that they’re launching a new webzine, a “conservative Slate,” sounds a lot like the creation of yet one more neocon-liberal echo chamber. The Founders’ mission of “engaging ideas rather than dismissing them” will probably entail their commissioning an article or two from Christopher Hitchens.     

Still, I’m not convinced that the situation is quite as dire as many paleos think. An antiwar Rightist might, alas, never get invited on “Fox and Friends”; however, publishing is actually one place where paleos and libertarians have broken through.

• Regnery’s P.I.G. series (reader friendly texts with big font and graphics) could have been the ultimate in hack lit (or something worse…) Instead, Tom Woods and Kevin Gutzman were commissioned to write two, and they produced texts that not only ran against the liberal grain but also pissed off the neocons (which means they were doing something right).

• Robert Spencer’s P.I.G. on Islam hardly presents the Middle East as ripe for democratization, nor does it offer much justification for the war in Iraq.

• Mark Krikorian pulled a punch or two in his latest book (The tagline is “It’s us—not them”); still Sentinel had the guts to publish a book that argues against mass legal immigration, and not just the law-breaking variety.

• With an election year on, Regnery was bound to put out something with the title The Case Against Barack Obama. But instead of relying on a GOP cheerleader, it hired David Fredoso, a serious advocate of limited government and a Ron Paul supporter.

ISI Books focuses on scholarly fare and mostly stays above the political fray; however, it recently republished Justin’s history of the Old Right, about as far away as you can get from a neocon tract. The list could go on.

It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a certain “paleo strategy” of not wearing one’s “hard Right,” “ultra traditionalist,” “defender of Christendom” badge too prominently. I’ve recently had an email exchange with a Takimag contributor who observed that a writer who’s antiwar, anti-immigration, and pro-Darwin—an “evo-con”—might be able to make his way in mainstream publishing, as these positions have appeal to some important groups in power (although the anti-immigration position can trip you up.)

I definitely think there’s some to this. However, it’s wroth pointing out that the evo-con label basically fits for Steve Sailer, and although he’s read by everyone, he’s still only published by alternative, paleo outlets (VDARE, TAC, Takimag). The creator of the hilarious blog Stuff White People Like is apparently a Sailer-aholic and he’s gotten a big book deal with Random House. But SWPL is an ironic joke that’s unlikely to introduce anyone to Sailer’s body of work over the past 15 years, not to mention paleoconservatism.

The fact is even publishing in the putative mainstream conservative press has a kind of self-alienating effect. Regnery might have once published Pound, Eliot, and Adenauer, but its recent success has been with the partisan potboiler, Ann Coulter’s High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton standing as a kind foundational text. (I’ve sometimes tried to imagine that ultimate parody title for this genre. The best I’ve come up with is Betrayal: Hillary Clinton’s Secret Plan to Appoint Osama bin Laden to the Supreme Court.)

Such books serve their purpose (and I’m a closet Coulter fan) however, they also present conservatives as people who bash away at liberals and aren’t capable of much else. It’s hard to imagine a non-Ditto Head critically evaluating, or even reading, a title like Slander: Liberal Lies About the Right. The genre is an analogue to the typical movement conservative response to popular culture—form a “watchdog group” that reports on things like Hollywood immorality and just how much George Clooney hates America. We need less of this and more people like Thor Halvorssen, who are actually producing movies from a conservative perspective, and in publishing, conservatives who can interpret popular culture—maybe even mine out a rightwing nugget or two.

Also due for some rethinking is the conservative intellectual canon, so dependent as it is on Kirk’s Conservative Mind as well as the “fusionism” (“liberty vs. virtue”) debates of the Cold War. To criticize the “save the world” messianism and leftward drift of much of the putatively “conservative” Religious Right, a non-movement thinker like Mencken is much more useful than Kirk or Meyer. As I mentioned in another context, William F. Buckley began his career planning a book called Revolt Against the Masses, a work based on Nietzsche and Ortega y Gasset. The fact that these two giants would be rejected and ignored, respectively, by the conservative movement reveals a lot about the kind of intellectual narrowing that’s taken place over the past 50 years.

Harry Stein argues that conservatives should rely on small independent houses, and not the big liberal ones, to publish their books—never a bad idea. But then an intellectual reshuffling—a changing of what we’re actually writing about—seems equally necessary.

The intellectual bankruptcy of neoconservatism as well as the current stagnation of the movement conservatism should give paleos, traditionalists, and anyone else on the alternative Right some cause for optimism… Or at least, this is what everyone I know in Manhattan is saying.       

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