The July 7 issue of National Review has as its cover story a call to typewriters from Adam Bellow, the executive editor at conservative publishing imprint Collins Books, who encourages his ideological comrades to embrace the novel. His piece is essentially an argument for pushing at a new bit of territory in the wide Western Front that is the culture wars, suggesting that making movies is hugely expensive and that conservative nonfiction has advanced as far as it can for the moment.
Bellow’s argument, and in particular his attempts to dissect how to balance ideas, plot and characterization, is an interesting one, and I plan to return to it in days to come. But I want to consider one of the convictions that undergirds the piece and that has particular salience today.
Bellow, like many conservatives, believes that the movement of which he is a part has made a strategic error in criticizing mainstream culture rather than participating vigorously in it. As the thinking goes, that choice has left conservatives out of practice and unarmed. While I have plenty to quibble with in this framework, I want to take a moment to acknowledge an area where conservatives have show particular talent and dedication: performance art.
By this I am thinking less of black box theaters and slam poetry and more of the latest provocation from Ann Coulter, who with impeccable timing and flair has declared that “Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.”
Coulter may well be a conservative, rather than as is sometimes suggested, a liberal plant out to discredit conservatives. David Brock, a former friend, noted in his memoir that “she founded the Cornell Review, a Dartmouth Review knockoff, as an undergraduate, and then chartered the Federalist Society chapter at the University of Michigan Law School.”
The practice of her conservatism, though, is highly particular. Coulter’s syndicated columns and books exist to validate ideas that some conservatives do hold, but that are also prone to drive liberals utterly insane. Her latest on soccer is misinformed about the basic practices of the game and full of hackneyed lines like “There’s a reason perpetually alarmed women are called ‘soccer moms,’ not ‘football moms,’ ” to an extent that the construction can only be deliberate.
Coulter is hardly alone. This spring, Fox News debuted “Outnumbered,” a daytime show which features a male guest in conversation (and ostensibly in disagreement) with a group of conservative female regulars. The program, as I have written before, functions simultaneously as a parody of feminism and as a staging point for discussion. “Outnumbered” caters to the anxiety that what women really want is to shout men out and push them out of positions of power. But it also features male guests who are willing to say somewhat crazy things, leaving space for the female panelists to express a range of moderate opinions.
And then there is the Washington Free Beacon, the two-year-old conservative Web site, which simultaneously publishes investigative reporting about Hillary Clinton and hosts a “Kate Upton” vertical.
Coulter, “Outnumbered” and the puckish sections of the Free Beacon all function in similar ways. The provocations they put out into the world are not untethered from real thinking and emotions. But they exist primarily to evoke shock and then to deny that those provocations were in earnest. It is an awfully clever sort of trap, one that lures critics into spending time and emotional energy refuting seemingly outrageous propositions before it’s revealed that the only people really engaging in the exchange were the critics themselves.
As a strategy for making your opponents feel simultaneously exhausted and frustrated, this is a well-designed one. And it is a form conservatives have managed to mainstream with great success. Coulter’s column is distributed by the Universal Press Syndicate. The Free Beacon got off the ground as a full-fledged non-profit with an affiliated think tank. And Fox News, of course, regularly trounces its more straightforward competitors.
Next time conservatives want to figure out how to conquer the culture, they ought to give themselves a little credit. They have managed to perfect a notoriously difficult and fringe art form and make it a smashing popular and financial success.