Sunday, June 27, 2004

One of the few readable righties in the world, PJ O'Rourke, wonders why trying to persuade people is out of style:

I tried watching The O'Reilly Factor. I tried watching Hannity shout about Colmes. I tried listening to conservative talk radio. But my frustration at concurrence would build, mounting from exasperation with like-mindedness to a fury of accord, and I'd hit the OFF button.

PJ O'Rourke finds that the overall tone of conservative talk radio is "less trial of Socrates than Johnnie Cochran summation to the O.J. jury."

It's something I've often wondered about myself. In Australia, the best window on the American right wing echo chamber is Fox News Channel. You have to wonder: what is the point of Fox News? It takes only a very short amount of watching to figure out that all it does is shill for the Republican party and the conservative movement. And it's so odiously biased in that direction that it turns out even PJ O'Rourke can't stomach it, let alone any liberal that might be watching. Fox News is pretty much preaching to the converted. So what's the point?

I have a theory. PJ O'Rourke might think that the person Rush Limbaugh is shouting at is "basically me", but he's rather off base. O'Rourke's orthodox libertarianism makes him a fairly heterodox conservative, on the right on economic issues but way, way out there on social ones. Mr. O'Rourke might think that he is

...a little to the right of Rush Limbaugh. I'm so conservative that I approve of San Francisco City Hall marriages, adoption by same-sex couples, and New Hampshire's recently ordained Episcopal bishop.

But of course he's being cute. In anything resembling the real map of politics today, that puts him on the left with the other social progressives. Likewise, when he worries that illegal aliens might not get across the border, and saddling us with all the lawn-mowing jobs, he's making a joke that offends the profound sentiments of all the angry white men who become dittoheads and O'Reilly repeaters.

And that's Mr O'Rourke's problem. The reason he can't relate to Fox News is not because it's not trying to persuade anyone. It is; but it's not designed to persuade liberals. It's actually designed to make conservatives more extreme conservatives, while ensuring that they remain loyal Republican voters. When I watch Fox News, I don't feel squeamish because I'm being convinced. I feel squeamish because I know there's some mark out there who does self-identify as conservative is watching, and slowly having his brain roasted by a steady diet of moronic, one-sided, shrill, obnoxious propoganda parroted by an endless legion of identical ken and barbie doll presenters, all while being assured, in almost Orwellian fashion, that Fox News is the news channel that's "Fair and Balanced." It's bad for me and it's bad for him.

The reason why O'Rourke finds all this so annoying is that, as a liberal-turned-libertarian, he has a degree of independence of mind that can't survive well in the climate of the right-wing echo chamber. If nothing else, Fox News is a remarkable tool for having everyone parrot the same talking points. The Pravda like effect this has on the discourse is of course inimicable to the humour or provocative prose of a Mr O'Rourke. Funny and "on-message" don't mix.

Ever fair and balanced himself, O'Rourke notes the opposing trend: books like Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men" and Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying Liars who tell them." Actually, all he cites of the latter is the chapter headings. So, in order to make my own blog entry fair and balanced, I must disclose that, despite my praising O'Rourke today, I have in the past referred to O'Rourke as "irritatingly smug" and "facile", and reviewing Mr Franken's rather enjoyable book based on chapter headings is about as smug and facile as he gets. However, that's really the point. I imagine Franken's book would also seem "smug and facile" to a fair-minded conservative, and yet he'd have to admit it's also uproariously funny in parts. That's why Franken and O'Rourke are readable. And why Ann Coulter spewing vituperative rhetoric in every direction is not. The most defining characteristic of Ann Coulter is an utterly monomaniacal, completely humorless sense of despisement and fury. This isn't fun. However I will acknowledge that it might be sexy to particular kind of extreme masochist -- and it's surely no coincidence that Ann Coulter is depicted, on her latest book, in dominatrix-style black leather skirt and top.

No wonder O'Rourke can't stomach her, or the movement she's a part of. But I should note that Mr O'Rourke himself has, in his books, sometimes approached the obnoxiously one-sided rhetoric his current column decries. I hope this means he's realised the error of his ways. So here's the deal: Mr O'Rourke can take his own lesson and write a book embracing the "civility" conservatives so frequently pretend to be concerned about vanishing from politics, and I promise to buy it. Maybe even allow myself to be persuaded by it. That sounds like a fair deal to me.