What's the Matter With Fox News?

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I've been reading the debates touched off by Julian Sanchez's post on "a systematic trend toward "epistemic closure" in the modern conservative movement." I'm nervous about wading in because almost anything I say is bound to offend someone I like. I'm especially sensitive--perhaps oversensitive--to the way that anything I proceed to say about conservative people outside the Northeast runs the risk of sounding a lot like that fifties moderate whose work one occasionally comes across: "Of course, I just love negroes--they're all so musical and I don't know how I'd get my house cleaned without our Bessie. But why can't they be a little more patient about this civil rights mess?"

I actually think there are a bunch of questions packed into this discussion which haven't been necessarily very clearly delineated: there are overlapping conversations about the conservative base, the conservative wonketariat, and the conservative poltiical leadership. The one I'm most interested in is the conservative intellectual environment, so that's mostly what I'll talk about, though they are all connected.

Weirdly, the word I keep coming back to when I read a lot of these discussions is "privilege." It's a word I get a huge amount of flak for using, from my conservative readers; and I've no doubt that I am going to inspire any number of bitter and angry rants from the other side for daring to apply it to a movement which is (overwhelmingly) majority white. But I nonetheless think that this might be a useful concept to describe a lot of what I'm reading.

Conservatives are, not to overlabor the obvious, marginalized in the cultural elite, even though they are powerful in the political elite. (At least some of the time, anyway). Obviously there's been an enormous amount of ink shed about why this is, but my experience of talking to people who might have liked to go to grad school or work in Hollywood, but went and did something else instead, is that it is simply hogwash when liberals earnestly assure me that the disparity exists mostly because conservatives are different, and maybe dumber. People didn't try because they sensed that it would be both socially isolating, and professionally dangerous, to be a conservative in institutions as overwhelmingly liberal as academia and media.

It's actually fascinating to watch the inversion of liberal and conservative positions on this one.  Liberals essentially seem to be saying that hey, they don't all get together in the tenure committee and agree to deny any conservatives tenure. I believe them! But I'm not sure why they think this means that the disparity is therefore not a problem. As I wrote years ago, somewhere, I doubt many bank hiring committees in the fifties got together and voted not to hire any negro bank managers. Yet, somehow, they didn't hire any negro bank managers.

Why not?  Because things like social networks, subtle bias, and tacit norms about what constituted the boundaries of acceptable traits in bank managers did all the work for them. And I doubt they got many black applicants, because after all, why on earth would you bother? Better to try to start a small business, or get a job as a Pullman porter, where you had a realistic shot at making a decent income. A poll of black high school students would probably have indicated a very small number expressing ambitions to fill jobs that realistically simply were not available to non-white, non-male candidates. But this is not evidence that there is something different about blacks that makes them not want to be successful corporate executives.

It is equally maddening that conservatives understand this about potential conservative graduate students, but not about potential black CEOs--and yes, I think this remains a problem today. I'm not sure that affirmative action is the answer, but that's a different post.

So while I completely agree that there is no one-to-one equivalence between right and left, as Ta-Nehisi writes, I'm considerably less sure about what that implies. First of all, I think Ta-Nehisi overstates his case to some extent:

In this specific case, the trouble is that the right's quackery is not merely peddled by it's fringe, but by some of its most prominent members. During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush didn't dispatch a couple of junior functionaries to Bob Jones University, where interracial dating was literally banned at the time, he dispatched himself. In 2002, it was not a small time junior congressmen who asserted that things would have been better under segregation, it was the highest ranking Republican in the Senate. 

In 2005, it was not merely a fringe group of party activists who called for interference in the Terri Schiavo case, it was the Republican president of United States. It was---yet again--the highest ranking Republican in the Senate dispensing a neurological diagnosis on a woman in Florida, from his office in Washington.

In 2007, when Trent Lott announced his resignation from the Senate, it was not merely state party officials claiming the good senator had been railroaded, it was his Republican fellow Senators. During the 2008 race, it was Mike Huckabee, runner-up for the presidential nomination of his party, who claimed to not believe in evolution.

Ta-Nehisi neglects to mention that it was also the Republicans who kicked Trent Lott's butt out of the leadership for saying those things--as they should have. And while I am in absolutely no way defending Bush's campaigning at Bob Jones university, I think it has to be noted that Barack Obama didn't send some minor campaign functionary to attend the church of a minister who was saying some pretty whacked out things; he sent himself. Every Sunday.

I don't think that this made him unfit to be president, and I stand by what I wrote at the time. But I don't think you can tar Bush with the one while giving Obama a walk on the other ... at least, not when the topic is "Our favorite fringes." And the same goes double for conservatives who gave Bush a walk, then attacked Obama. I'm willing to cut Jeremiah Wright a little more slack because white bans on interracial dating seem to me to be obviously more dangerous than the racial anger of a man who grew up on the wrong side of segregation.  But he is very definitely a member of the fringe, and I certainly hope Obama wasn't endorsing all his ideas by attending his services.

It's obviously no surprise that the lunatic BS of our own side doesn't strike us nearly as forcefully as the absolutely appallingly unforgiveable wingnuttery of the opposition. But I think this goes beyond that--and in a way that is important to understanding Jeremiah Wright, and the angrier right wing talk radio hosts. I am sure both would be appalled by the comparison, but the point here is not to draw moral equivalence between them; it's to point out how power dynamics work.

I expect I'll get a derisive response from liberals at the thought of explaining what I see in the current Republican Party thusly, given that the party tends to be strongly identified with the racial majority of the country. But privilege is not binary; it's contextual. Again, to state the obvious, you can be privileged on one dimension, and a victim of privilege on another. Being a member of the white upper middle class does not protect me from male privilege.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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