Culture Shock

What happened when one conservative Web site ventured outside the movement bubble.

By Charles Homans

Bookmark and Share
 
Getty Images

Last May, Conor Friedersdorf, a twenty-eight-year-old recent graduate of NYU’s Journalism School, decided he was going to save conservative journalism.

His manifesto, which appeared under the title "Electric Kool-Aid Conservatism" in the online edition of Doublethink, a magazine published by a small right-of-center foundation, began by allowing what most conservatives already believed: the mainstream media tilts to the left. "Contra the least-thoughtful conservative critics," however, "there isn’t any elite liberal conspiracy at work." The source of the bias was something far more subtle: "The right," Friedersdorf wrote, "has a problem with narrative."

This wasn’t entirely conservatives’ fault, he wrote—the story of, say, a destitute family’s eviction from its apartment made for better copy than the explanation of why rent control was a bad idea from a societal perspective. But conservative writers, he argued, had themselves to blame, too. They were bad at telling stories. Operating forever in the shadow of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., they had spent half a century honing their rhetorical chops on the romantic notion that an argument, framed eloquently and forcefully enough, could change the course of history. Worse, these arguments tended to be advanced in right-wing publications that made little effort to attract a general audience, devolving into an exercise of limited interest to anyone not already locked inside the echo chamber.

Friedersdorf had a different idea in mind. "I’m not sure another Buckley’s what we really need," he wrote. "Instead, I’d prefer another Tom Wolfe, or better yet a dozen. As his generation’s conservative commentators railed against The Great Society, insisting its urban anti-poverty programs encouraged radicalism, bred dependence on the welfare state, and ignored the root causes of unemployment, Mr. Wolfe did something different: reporting." Wolfe had gone to the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein’s cocktail party, watched Park Avenue’s finest flatter themselves by sharing hors d’oeurves with Black Panthers, and wrote about it in scathing detail, first in New York magazine—the cover featured three white socialites in glittery cocktail dresses with raised fists—and later in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. In doing so, Friedersdorf believed, Wolfe had made a far stronger case for conservatism than the collected works of L. Brent Bozell. And Wolfe hadn’t had any need to work within the confines of a conservative shadow institution; writing in New York and Esquire, he had reached and potentially persuaded an audience that didn’t subscribe to Buckley’s National Review. In sum, Friedersdorf wrote, "the right must conclude that we’re better off joining the journalistic project than trying to discredit it."

Shortly after he wrote it, Friedersdorf’s "Electric Kool-Aid Conservatism" came to the attention of David Kuo, President Bush’s former point man for faith-based initiatives, who had left the administration unhappily and went on to write Tempting Faith, the most personal of the dissenting White House memoirs of the Bush years. Kuo had come to believe that the Republican Party’s recent adventure with near-unchecked political power had left conservatives with a lot of soul-searching to do, and he wanted to provide them a place to do it. He and his former boss, veteran culture warrior William J. Bennett, were thinking of starting a social networking site for values voters. The project’s loss leader, they decided, would be a modestly ambitioned online magazine, a kind of right-of-center Slate, tentatively called LibertyWire, and they hired a former Mike Huckabee campaign staffer and blogger named Joe Carter to be its managing editor. LibertyWire’s founders were all committed evangelicals, and Carter, who had once run a small newspaper in East Texas, envisioned the site as a place where social conservatives could talk about culture—a safe zone between the purely political critiques of the conservative media and the secular liberal criticism that dominated the mainstream media, neither of which answered the questions he wanted answered about television and movies. "The Christian culture has the ‘shit counters’: the people who say, ‘This movie has thirteen bad words,’ or whatever," Carter told me. "We didn’t want to do that. We thought there was a real audience for criticism of books, TV, and movies by people who actually liked books, TV, and movies."

Kuo and Carter also wanted to attract a younger generation of conservative writers, and thought Friedersdorf would be a good start; "Electric Kool-Aid Conservatism" played to the soft spot both of them had for the New Journalism of the ’70s. Ditching the LibertyWire moniker—it sounded like a John Birch Society newsletter—they rechristened the site Culture11, after a list of eleven areas of culture they wanted it to encompass, and debuted quietly on August 20. The project fit the needs of the moment—Bush’s approval ratings were below freezing, the presidential campaign was Barack Obama’s to lose, and Republicans were unlikely to avoid a rout in both houses of Congress. It was an opportunity for a healthy retreat from politics for serious and thoughtful conservatives, a chance to sort out who they were and what they wanted to accomplish outside of the glare of party politics. Providing the online meeting place in which they could do it seemed like a great idea to Culture11’s founders, maybe even one that could succeed as a for-profit enterprise. One of those things turned out to be true.


O n its surface, the softly launched beta (test) version of Culture11 hewed closely to the original vision, down to its Slateish design. Poking around the site was a bit like wandering into the Christian rock section of a record store: the bands were recognizably bands, with electric guitars and vaguely countercultural clothing, but there was something … different about them, the musicians just a little too healthy looking to be real rock stars. But there were also more interesting things happening. For a site that took as its starting point a retreat from the political arena, Culture11 actually had a lot to say about the election, and it was generally more eclectic and off-message than what other political publications had on offer as November approached. This had a lot to do with the fact that Culture11’s editorial brain trust was made up of people who had little concern for—or at least needed a breather from—the self-immolating Hindenburg of movement conservatism. Kuo had proclaimed his own disenchantment in Tempting Faith. Friedersdorf was concerned with improving journalism, not creating a permanent Republican majority. Political editor James Poulos, a PhD candidate in government at Georgetown who describes his dissertation subject as "the alluring puzzle of the Napoleonic soul," was far too idiosyncratic in his own politics. Arts editor Peter Suderman was a libertarian who in the last frenzied days of the election spent a whole column arguing that voting was stupid. Having no claim to any particular ideological niche, Culture11 tried to corral them all in the same room and get them talking to each other. "People talk about the conservative circular firing squad—I think we see ourselves as a demilitarized zone," Friedersdorf told me. "There is nothing like an agreement on our staff that would allow us to claim a slice of anything." The result, perhaps inevitably, lacked a real sense of identity, but it also offered the closest thing political journalism had to a controlled experiment. Drawing mostly from the gated intellectual community of East Coast–based young political writers, Culture11’s contributors were often people who also wrote for more ideologically coherent political magazines, environments that encouraged groupthink. What they wrote for Culture11, which encouraged the opposite, was often much smarter.

Culture11’s in-house writers also had a gift for whacking their own partisans, with varying degrees of constructive criticism and snark. "Filmmaker Jean Luc Godard famously declared that, to do his job, all he needed was ‘a girl and a gun,’ " Suderman wrote on the occasion of Sarah Palin’s selection as John McCain’s running mate, alongside a photo of the Alaska governor posing with a stuffed grizzly bear. "On his hunt for a Vice President, John McCain apparently came to the same conclusion." A month after the election, when even respectable right-leaning publications were expending ink and pixels on the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, Culture11 offered up a mischievous list of the "Top 11 Fringe Right Arguments Against Barack Obama Becoming President" (Number two: "He’s not really black." Number one: "He’s black."). Poulos, the political editor, wrote about Democratic and Republican dynasties with equal acidity: the Clintons were "wily, and probably deathless, political opponents, with an arsenal of depleted-uranium loyalists"; Bush was "a man who thinks in grand words made up of few letters." When Palin, at the apex of her popularity, held a campaign rally in Virginia, he stopped by and was perturbed by what he saw. "In place of a detailed contrast between the GOP’s shortcomings and failures and the real change that’s promised," he wrote, "the McCain campaign seems content with zingers and chants. Those things are fine and natural ornaments for the election-year tree—but they do require a tree."

This sort of work did not win Culture11 an excess of friends among more tactically oriented conservatives. "One of my proudest moments," Kuo told me, "was when someone at RedState"—the conservative blog that attempted to mount an online purge of the movement’s reformists in the last weeks of the campaign—"said, ‘We aren’t even going to post a link to Culture11.’ " After the election, of course, assessing the shortcomings of the Republican Party had become a popular pastime. In late November, I ran into Poulos and Friedersdorf at a post-election panel discussion cohosted by the National Review Institute and Hillsdale College—a small school in Michigan whose student body was ranked the most conservative in the country by the Princeton Review—at the Hyatt in downtown Washington called "The Future of Conservatism." They were sitting at a table in the back of the room, intermittently taking notes on pads of hotel stationary, as the panelists—Atlantic senior editor Ross Douthat, National Review editors Ramesh Ponnuru and Jonah Goldberg, a token libertarian from the Cato Institute, and a professor from Hillsdale—took turns diagnosing the movement’s ills.

"Conservatism, we’re told," intoned the Hillsdale professor, the kind of stiffly formal young man whose cheeks are simply waiting to become jowls, "is an ‘ism’ that soon may be a ‘was-m.’ " A mixture of polite laughs and groans wafted through the room. The audience sat around tables scattered with dishes of hard candies, the kind that grandmothers keep in their kitchen drawers, and leafed idly through copies of the December 1 issue of National Review, the cover of which was a picture of a sunrise overlaid with the word RENEWAL.

Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, spoke last. "One of the things conservatives need to do for the future of conservatism," he advised, "is deal with the issue of youth, and deal with the issue of the culture a lot better." Conservatives had a problem with young people, he said, and it had to do in part with the modern college experience, which had come to embody the liberalism and libertinism that his magazine had famously stood athwart for fifty years. "I think that the end of history for liberalism today is that we’re all going to become like one vast college campus at the end of time—where the only crime is to hurt somebody else’s feelings," he continued. Among college students, "the worst thing you can do is harsh someone else’s buzz. And the second they step off the moving car of their college experience, and actually have to walk—it’s like one of those moving walkways in airports, when you get off all of a sudden, ‘Whoa, it’s hard to walk!’ " The audience laughed appreciatively. "Once they get off, and realize they need jobs and need to actually pay rent and all that, they get a lot more conservative very quickly."

When Goldberg got to the line about the moving sidewalk, Friedersdorf and Poulos looked at each other. Poulos made the finger-twirling "crazy" gesture. When New York Times columnist David Brooks, the panel’s moderator, opened up the floor for questions, Poulos walked briskly up to the microphone.

"Hi gentlemen," he began. "Um … in the interest of fun I’m going to taunt the panel first, and then try to justify running the gauntlet by phrasing it as a serious question." Poulos was wearing a charcoal suit and a brightly colored tie, which stood out in the ballroom’s sea of navy blue and khaki but was subdued by his standards, which tend to run toward things like monochromatic three-piece suits and velvet jackets. (He also has sideburns that are shaped like New Hampshire and almost as big; the combination of muttonchops and fine tailoring suggests a character in a Victorian political cartoon, or one of the white guys in Superfly.) Poulos’s writing was prone to densely cerebral sentences that unfurled over the course of a whole paragraph, and he addressed the panel in a similar tone. "One concern that I and others might have," he began, "is that conservatives are particularly good at doing a kind of cultural criticism that results in inaccurate or radically incomplete observations about things going on in this crazy culture of ours. So, just sort of moving quickly down the line, right? Like, Jonah gives us a portrait of a college campus where everything is taken care of and no one buzzes anyone else’s vibe—but of course, you know, the dark side of college life is that everyone is buzzing everyone else’s vibe in private—terrible breakups, attempted suicides, school counseling, and threesomes gone wrong." Threesomes gone wrong. The Hillsdale professor looked like someone he had never met had just walked up and thrown a glass of water in his face. Several of the other panelists were friends or acquaintances of Poulos’s, and they looked mildly amused as he moved on to the great conservative shibboleth: "The valiant working class, culturally robust and upright Americans? Well, yeah, but a lot of these people also enjoy Cheetos and watching Family Guy.

"In the interest of being more than provocative," he said, getting to his serious question, "are we ever going to be able to address the question of cultural necessitarianism without being confident that we’re getting our cultural criticism right?"

Stripped of its woolly academese, what Poulos was asking was, can conservatism properly push back against a popular culture that it doesn’t really understand? How does a movement that yearns for the values of the past confront a culture that prizes novelty? This was a problem that had bedeviled modern American conservatism since Buckley first inveighed against the Beatles in his syndicated column. It was something that Poulos, who had dabbled in screenwriting and indie rock (his band was called the End of History) in Los Angeles before moving to Washington, had kicked around in his own writing. "The right has a lot to learn from people who are completely outside of it," he explained later. If they did that, they "might actually win some latecomers, people who have lived unhappy or unsatisfying lives. And if they show up at the door of the right and say, ‘Gosh, my super-transgressive life is sort of unrewarding, maybe I’ve exhausted this mine of self-indulgence and personal freedom and saying ‘fuck the man,’ and the right is completely disinterested in engaging those people, I think they’re missing out."

Poulos was more pontificator than reporter, but this line of thinking dovetailed with Friedersdorf’s belief in sending conservative writers out to experience the world. If Poulos wasn’t quite the Wolfean observer that his coeditor was looking for, his occasional pieces about his time in Los Angeles arguably came closer to Friedersdorf’s ideal than anything else Culture11 published—they were biting but empathetic, and tapped the unexamined is-this-all-there-is melancholy that underlies the irony-heavy hipster milieu. "Ambiguity was cultivated and non-commitment a social compact," he wrote in one piece about the L.A. scene. "A blurring of the basic facts took shape as a habitual coping mechanism."

Beyond these forays, though, the cultural coverage that had been Culture11’s original raison d’être proved to be a bit tricky. The let’s-see-what-sticks approach with which the site was launched had produced contradictory ambitions—Carter’s socially conservative safe zone, Friedersdorf’s electric Kool-Aid conservatism—which, while not entirely incompatible, did make it a curious beast; there was a transparent absurdity to a journalistic enterprise with George Bush Sr.’s drug czar at the head of its board of directors attempting to take stylistic cues from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The goal of providing conservative journalists a place to write for their fellow conservatives about cultural subjects gave the lesser features and reviews by young writers the sheltered-workshop aura of a college newspaper, and occasionally dipped into the kind of "these kids today" cultural commentary that right-of-center magazines have never been short of, with Iain Murray—one of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s in-house authorities on climate change denial—harrumphing that "it seems impossible to find a show that airs after 8 p.m. on any of the major networks that is not obsessed with sex." Friedersdorf turned out to have been right when he observed that the ranks of out-and-out conservative journalists who did this kind of thing well were pretty thin—when he trolled for story pitches on Web sites that hungry freelancers frequented, such as Media Bistro, he was surprised to find that most of what he got came from writers who fell further left on the political spectrum (he published them anyway). And as some of the site’s contributors grew increasingly adventurous, one of the principals got skittish. In December, when a pseudonymous contributor to Ladyblog, Culture11’s "conservative feminist" forum, posted an entry titled "In Defense of the ‘Hook-up Culture,’ " Carter yanked it off the blog. ("I didn’t like the content," he later said. "We wanted dissent within the conservative perspective, but to me that fell out of line.") The move prompted an in-house uproar and an apologetic response from Kuo, reinstating the post but also averring that "Culture11 is a conservative site. We see the world through a culturally conservative lens. As such the post isn’t something that anyone here particularly agreed with. We don’t believe the hookup lifestyle is good for anyone." ("I think our disagreements were healthy disagreements," he told me later.)

In a sense, Culture11 was running up against the natural limits of its niche. "We had expanded so much that I didn’t even know who was writing for us anymore," Carter said. "We were getting a lot of flack from conservatives—‘What’s conservative about your site?’ " While Carter was enthusiastic about Culture11’s coverage of television—the last medium still largely regulated by federally imposed decency standards—he had come to the conclusion that, faced with the explicitness of contemporary music, there was a limit to what the site had to say. "How do you talk about something like gangsta rap from a conservative perspective?" he said. "Are you going to critique it, or just disagree with it?" Friedersdorf tried gamely to square that circle in a piece exploring his conflicted feelings about dancing to Lil Jon at a wedding, but it was an essay that could have been written only so many times.


B y the time of the Ladyblog flap, Culture11 had been around for four months but had yet to officially launch; it was still in the test tube stage. No one had spent a dime on marketing or publicity, and the articles published there seemed to mostly reach a relatively closed circle of similarly reform-minded conservative journalists. Earlier in the year, Kuo had lined up a first round of funding for his project from investors including former presidential hopeful Steve Forbes, a West Coast venture capitalist firm, and a pair of conservative real estate moguls (he and Bennett had put up some of their own money, too). He had planned to have more funding in hand by the late fall, and officially debut Culture11 with some fanfare shortly after the election, but by mid-October the collapse of the financial markets had rendered that an unlikely prospect. With the future unclear, he shifted money from the nascent social networking wing of the project—since its similarly quiet debut, it had acquired about 5,000 members—into editorial to keep the editors’ paychecks coming. In early January, he was still hoping for a debut in February, but by the end of the month that hope had dimmed. After a last-ditch attempt to raise some funds from his board of directors fell apart, Kuo called his staff—Washington had been hit with a snowstorm and the editors had stayed home from the office that day—to announce that Culture11 was out of money, and that the board had voted to lay them off and close down the following week. "At the end of the day, sometimes you run up against something bigger than what you can overcome," he told me.

It was a grimly funny coincidence that around the time Culture11’s financial well was running dry, another Web site sharing its subject matter debuted to much greater fanfare in the right-wing media than Kuo’s project ever received: Big Hollywood, an entertainment and politics blog created by Andrew Breitbart, a conservative Los Angeles–based Internet entrepreneur who helped launch both the Drudge Report and Huffington Post. Beneath an angry vermillion-colored banner, the blog offers recurring features like the "Celebutard of the Week"—tracking the latest vapidly liberal political utterances from the likes of Cher—and clips of the best conservative moments in film interspersed with rote breaking news from the entertainment industry. It’s supposed to eventually host cultural musings from such notable film critics as House Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor; commenting on a scene in the new thriller The International in which the characters shoot it out in the Guggenheim Museum, one Big Hollywood contributor coos approvingly, "I love seeing modern (phony) art destroyed."

But for all the bluster of all-caps headlines like "GLOBAL WARMING PROPAGANDA SINKS ‘UNDER THE SEA 3D,’ " it’s a far less courageous site than the comparably nonconfrontational Culture11; beneath the patina of combativeness, it’s really just a support group for 24 fans. What Big Hollywood does isn’t criticism, or reporting—it’s ideological accounting. And its failure to get its arms around the culture in which it is swimming is symptomatic of the broader failures of the conservative movement. For decades, the Nixonian notion of the silent majority created a strong temptation for conservatives to simply wall off the parts of society that they didn’t like or understand, secure in the belief that there were more people on their side of the wall. Ballot for ballot, this may have been true in the 1970s and ’80s, and even into the ’90s. But if you build a border fence, it’s difficult to see what’s happening on the other side of it. Which is why in 2008 the Republican Party awoke to a world in which it was losing every politically important demographic battle and had essentially ceded the field on issues like education, where it hadn’t contributed a new policy idea since the school voucher, and energy, where the best plan it could come up with was a renewed push for offshore drilling. Big Hollywood’s mania for ideological categorization stems from the same mind-set—shared even by some of the smarter reform conservatives—that produced the Bush administration’s disastrous loyalty-over-performance hiring practices: the instinct to see everything, from the Sundance Film Festival to NASA’s atmospheric research programs, as just another battleground. What Culture11’s editors got right was the observation that, regardless of what you think of the world as it is, you can’t figure out how to wrestle with it until you understand what’s actually happening in it.

One evening a few weeks after his Web site went bust, Kuo called me with news: earlier in the day he had met with a group of prospective new investors, and there appeared to be a good chance of resurrecting Culture11. As of this writing, it’s still unsettled, and I wish him well—but I’m also a little ambivalent about it. Because I think Friedersdorf was right in the first place. Tom Wolfe didn’t need a conservative magazine to do what he did—in fact, he succeeded largely because he wasn’t writing for one. Young journalists, of course, work with the opportunities that are available to them, but I would have preferred to see Culture11’s best talent writing for the actual Slate (which does, after all, publish plenty of conservative writers) rather than a self-consciously right-of-center version of it. With their online sanctuary gone, I was looking forward to seeing their bylines elsewhere, challenging and being challenged by editors and institutions of other stripes.

On the other hand, if new investors revive Culture11 and give it a proper launch, it will be an opportunity to find out if Kuo was right: whether there is a niche for an enterprise like Culture11, or whether right-leaning readers will opt in greater numbers for comforting cocoons like Big Hollywood. In the end, the market will decide—and what could be more conservative than that?


Bookmark and Share
   

Subscribe & Save! Gift Subscriptions Make a Tax Exempt Donation

- - Advertisers - -


Liberal Blog Advertising Network

buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly

   

Charles Homans is an editor of the Washington Monthly.  
 
Washington Monthly subscribe | donate | mission statement | masthead | contact us | send letters to the editor

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 1969-2011 Washington Monthly
Editorial offices: 1200 18th Street NW, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20036