Thursday, July 06, 2017


Bret Stephens is distressed by the state of conservatism, and he knows when everything went south:
[William F.] Buckley died in 2008. The conservatism he nourished was fundamentally literary: To play a significant part in it you had to know how to write, and in order to write well you had to read widely, and in order to do that you had to, well, enjoy reading. In hindsight, 2008, the year of Sarah Palin, was also the year when literary conservatism went into eclipse.

Suddenly, you didn’t need to devote a month to researching and writing a 7,000-word critique of Obama administration’s policy on, say, Syria to be taken seriously as a conservative foreign-policy expert. You just needed to mouth off about it for five minutes on “The O’Reilly Factor.” For books there were always ghostwriters; publicity on Fox ensured they would always top The Times’s best-seller lists.

Influence ceased to be measured by respectability — op-eds published in The Wall Street Journal; keynotes delivered to the American Enterprise Institute — and came to be measured by ratings. The quality of an idea could be tested not by its ability to withstand scrutiny from experts, but by the willingness of people to swallow it.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a post-literate conservative world should have been so quick to embrace a semi-literate presidential candidate. Nor, in hindsight, is it strange that, having retired the role Buckley once played in maintaining conservative ideological hygiene, the ideas he expunged should have made such a quick and pestilential comeback.
"Suddenly"? All this "suddenly" happened starting in 2008? Proud ignorance made a "quick and pestilential comeback" on the right?

Nope -- the right has wallowed in ignorance and misinformation for at least a generation. In 1994, a mountebank and pseudo-scholar named Newt Gingrich led Republicans to a takeover of the House and Senate, and Rush Limbaugh, then best known for introducing America to the word "feminazi," was made an honorary member of the incoming House freshman class. (Limbaugh and William F. Buckley would become friends.)

By the late 1990s, conservatives' preferred reading wasn't 7,000-word Commentary articles -- it was books such as Gary Aldrich's Unlimited Access.
Regnery published Unlimited Access: An FBI Agent Inside The Clinton White House (1996) by Gary Aldrich, which Max Blumenthal, writing in The American Prospect, said "painted images of Hillary Clinton hanging crack pipes on the White House Christmas tree and claimed to expose lesbian affairs in the White House basement."
The book hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and was followed later in the decade by such erudite Times bestsellers as Emmett Tyrrell's Boy Clinton (1996), Ann Coulter's High Crimes and Misdemeanors (1998), and Barbara Olson's Hillary Clinton hit job Hell to Pay (1999).

Fox News became America's highest-rated news channel early in 2002 and held that title for fifteen consecutive years.

And if Stephens believes that Palin's proud ignorance was a terrible and damaging thing for conservatism, why was he writing this about her in 2008?
If nothing else, the media meltdown over Sarah Palin's candidacy for the vice presidency has exposed the not-unsuspected truth that, when it comes to historical ignorance and political amnesia, our cultural panjandrums are in a class by themselves.

ABC's Charlie Gibson is only the latest to offer himself upon the altar of self-parody with his pop-quizzing of the Alaska governor during their interview last week.

Gibson: "Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?"

Palin: "In what respect, Charlie?"

Which was a sensible answer, given that no higher authority than Jacob Weisberg of Slate has counted six versions of the thing (including "absence of any functioning doctrine at all"). Further pressed on the subject, Gov. Palin explained that "what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism," which better sums up the gist of Bush policy than Mr. Gibson's cramped definition of the doctrine as "anticipatory self-defense."

And so the candidate, without so much as the benefit of a junior year abroad, managed (maybe luckily, though luck is often a function of wit) to get the better of the anchorman, Princeton '65.
In that column, Stephens went on to compare Palin favorably to Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Harry Truman:
Then there is Harry Truman, to whom Mrs. Palin compared herself at the Republican convention. "He had only to open his mouth and his origins were plain," wrote David McCullough in his biography of the 33rd president, in lines that might also have been written about Mrs. Palin. "It wasn't just that he came from a particular part of the country, geographically, but from a specific part of the American experience, an authentic pioneer background, and a specific place in the American imagination."
Conservatism has wallowed in ignorance for a long time, not merely since 2008 -- but I'll acknowledge that the rise of Palin that year was a watershed moment. And when it happened, Stephens was a good soldier of the right, cheering her on.

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