Conservative Counter Culture
Top Stories of the Year: #2
I’m almost done counting down the top stories of 2023. At #5 is the supply-side progressives and their reluctant dalliance with basic truths from free-market economics. At #4 is the contest between liberalism and authoritarianism from Ukraine to Israel and beyond. Top story #3 is the consolidation of Donald Trump’s dominance over the Republican Party.
This is closely related to top story #2, which is the full emergence of what I am calling a conservative counter culture.
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Before I launch into an explanation of the conservative counter culture, let me assure you that I have not taken my eye off the ball when it comes to left-wing “woke” culture, and neither should you.
Here’s an example from my own back yard. Charlottesville, Virginia, has made a lot of news for taking down sculptures of confederate generals. A few months ago, they completed this act of iconoclasm by releasing a video of Henry Shrady’s fine sculpture of Robert E. Lee being melted down.
Meanwhile, some other things are happening in Charlottesville that you would think might be of slightly more importance to our local government.
A Virginia high school will be shuttered for at least three days after dozens of teachers called out of work to protest escalating violence.
Nearly 30 Charlottesville High School teachers reportedly called out sick Friday. The calls, a coordinated effort to draw attention to the violence, came one day after police were called to the school to address two back-to-back fights….
Shamia Hopkins, a mother of a Charlottesville sophomore, finds the situation "disheartening and a little irritating." She told Crisis in the Classroom (CITC) her daughter wants to transfer schools to escape the ongoing violence. Hopkins also has a child in middle school who is afraid to one day attend Charlottesville….
In some schools, teachers and parents are pointing to softer approaches to discipline as reason for the violence. A Louisiana high school which trained its staff on restorative justice practices saw 14 students arrested after multiple fights last month.
Another report is a little more specific about the nature of the problem.
[Charlottesville High School counselor David] Wilkerson wrote that some students walk the halls during class time, and when an administrator engages them, they insult the administrator and continue on.
In his telling, the administrator walked away because the Virginia Department of Education has seen a correlation between punishing students and a poor graduation rate. Without consequences, student misbehavior increases and faculty morale plummets, he wrote. “Today, we had roving bands in search of the next fight, multiple fights from which to choose, and hundreds of kids filming and cheering,” his Thursday post reads….
The school has received unwanted attention over the past year for a number of large student brawls that were caught on video and disseminated by other students. Wilkerson’s Facebook post suggests the fighting has not stopped.
These stories show us the fake “progressive” left in microcosm: a lot of symbolic posturing about “social justice,” combined with the inability to deliver the basic services, like education and public safety, that would actually improve people’s lives.
But none of that is really new. What is new is that this year, we got a clearer picture of what conservatives are offering as their alternative to the left. It is their own counter culture—in the sense of being opposed to culture.
To get a flavor for this, consider a little story that popped up in the past few days: Tucker Carlson, until recently the most popular host on Fox News, declaring himself to be “open” to the theory that the Earth is flat.
In an interview with Blaze TV personality Alex Stein on Thursday, Carlson was asked about his thoughts on the flat Earth theory. The debunked theory claims that the world is a flat disc, instead of a spherical globe.
"What do you think of flat Earth theory, Tucker?" Stein asked. Carlson responded by stating he is "open to anything. How could I not be open to anything at this point? I mean, there's been so much deception that you can't trust your preconceptions."
There is an obviously unserious and trollish aspect to this, but it reflects an underlying approach in which conservatives are defining themselves by the negation of whatever the mainstream thinks.
None of the articles on Carlson are quoting the most interesting part, so I had to transcribe it from the video, where he is describing the underlying reason for his skepticism.
The story that we were told growing up in school, about the progression of history, about how it’s sort of an unending ascent toward enlightenment and technological progress, is linear, it moves in one direction, except for the Dark Ages—that’s a complete lie.
There you have the fundamental driver of the conservative counter culture: opposition to the modern world and particularly a desire to negate the cultural legacy of the Enlightenment.
This should be no surprise. I spent my last year at The Federalist trying to beat back conservative attacks on the Enlightenment. They resent the modern world in its entirety—not just the woke insanity, but all progress from the Middle Ages forward, because it has led to a loss of power and influence for religion.
That’s the context for how conservatives have been conducting the culture war over the last year.
The most obvious form this took in 2023 was the implementation of local book bans in public schools, which left bookshelves empty in Florida schools thanks to restriction that were vaguely worded but imposed draconian penalties—a system in which “all books are considered guilty until proven innocent.”
A lot of this is focused around sex and especially around any discussion of homosexuality—which makes this…like Tipper-Gore-meets-Anita-Bryant. But notice that one of the criteria for banning books is that they might make people feel guilt on account of their race. This is being used, not just to ban radical leftist ideas from Critical Race Theory, but to ban discussion of the history of slavery and segregation.
Hence the removal, thanks to a parental heckler’s veto, of a film about Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old black girl who was one of the first students to integrate Southern schools after Brown v. Board of Education struck down school segregation. (She was also the subject of Norman Rockwell’s most powerful painting.)
See my long, blockbuster article on Moms for Liberty for more on this kind of censorship.
There are worthwhile arguments to be had about contemporary gender ideology and about how to respond to the history and legacy of race in America—about how to address these issues in public institutions like schools and where to draw the line between necessary instruction and ideological indoctrination. In a nation with 50 million children in thousands of school districts, there will be no shortage of controversial examples to be debated.
But a thoughtful debate is not what Moms for Liberty has offered as its defining contribution. Instead, it has become the driving force behind a sweeping wave of book bans and politicized restrictions on teaching.
It was enough to make me offer “One Cheer for Wokeness,” on the grounds that “we need a faculty of societal self-criticism—but not an out-of-control one.” In that article, I tried my best to define wokeness in simple terms. But one of the things that struck me this year is how many conservative critics of wokeness cannot do the same.
The warning sign for this is a cringe-inducing flub by conservative writer Bethany Mandel, who was on television to promote her book and was asked point-blank how she defines “woke” and…had no answer. At all. Here’s the wider context, which makes it clear she has never had a particularly good answer. It’s one of those clips that you know you are going to be seeing again and again for years, because it provides pretty compelling evidence that opponents of wokism simply have no clue what they’re talking about.
For some people, that’s true—and it makes life just a little bit harder for those of us who do know what we're talking about.
This has become a running theme recently. Conservatives and Republicans keep declaring that “wokeness” is the enemy and consequently that whoever they want to cast as their enemy must be “woke”—and, above all else, that wokeness is such a profound threat that it serves as an all-purpose justification for whatever the conservatives want to do. But when asked to define what they mean by “woke,” they produce vague and insipid answers.
Opposition to wokeness is just being used opportunistically. It’s a standing Tu Quoque argument used to deflect all criticism of the right by pointing to the sins of the other side.
One particularly garish incident reveals the deeper goal of today’s conservatives. I quoted Charlie Sykes responding to a report that “A Tallahassee charter school principal has been forced to resign after parents complained about a sixth grade art history lesson, claiming Michelangelo's statue of David, arguably the most famous sculpture in the world, was 'pornographic.’” He pointed to the special irony that “this episode of pecksniffery and philistinism is brought to you by the inaptly named Tallahassee Classical School.’”
Charlie links to an amazing interview with the chair of the school’s board, which gives you a real flavor for the kind of ignorant and small-minded person who has been empowered by today’s conservative movement….
[N]ote the board chair’s description of “classical education”: “Here we teach the Hillsdale Curriculum, focusing on civic and moral values.” Those last two words are what wipe out everything else.
Classical education is a serious and substantive school of education with a whole theory and history…. But what this case makes clear is that under the influence of religious conservative institutions like Hillsdale College, the “classical” part of classical education, with all its grand theories about “the trivium,” is being downgraded in favor of rote indoctrination in conservative religious values.
It reminds of what we saw in the recent Dobbs decision on abortion. As I noted, that decision took the whole conservative theory of “originalism” and switched it out for a theory of traditionalism…. Similarly, “classical” education is here being stripped down to the mere drumming in of traditional moral sensibilities. This is happening across the conservative intellectual movement. Substantive theories that may have been flawed but had serious thinking behind them are being hollowed out by a shallow, imitative traditionalism.
But this is a weird traditionalism-without-conviction that is strangely in the Postmodernist vein—belief as a self-conscious put-on.
I explored that a little in response to a court case against Fox News Channel which revealed internal documents showing that its top stars didn’t really believe the conspiracy theories they were feeding to their viewers.
These filings reveal Fox as an empire of lies…. The rule at Fox was, in effect, one message in private for themselves, another in public for the rubes. This is certainly fair warning to any of you who still watch Fox to turn it off. Its hosts view you as suckers and will not tell you the truth.
But this is not just hypocrisy, because these revelations did nothing to shake the faith of the viewers. I quoted Nick Catoggio, who identified this as a “a subjectivist ‘choose your own adventure’ epistemology.” That brought me to this conclusion:
The tragic journey of the American right over the past decade is that they have become everything they once claimed to oppose. They railed against “cancel culture” and then ban books. We used to mock the left’s worship of victimhood and grievance, yet this is now the dominant attitude on the right, with Donald Trump as the world’s biggest victim. For years we mocked the Postmodern left with its attitude that truth is relative and narratives are all that exists, not facts. And now the right has built and lives in a media system that is devoted entirely to figuring out their preferred narrative and reflecting it back to them, with complete indifference to the facts.
Today’s right justifies itself by its opposition to the worst insanity on the left, but it has not built an alternative, just a mirror image.
Something similar has happened with the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web,” which embraced anti-vax conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Rather than shoring up the standards of rigorous thought, they have increasingly succumbed to a series of crackpot conspiracy theories. And rather than resisting a party line, they have become surprisingly uniform in chasing after the latest fashions of the loony right.
At about same time, I also examined the so-called “Twitter Files” that were supposed to show evidence of bias under Twitter’s old management. I found the reporting “underwhelming” in the sense that the bias it revealed was much less than I expected. But it was all quickly rendered irrelevant, because “nobody has done more to undermine the Twitter Files story than Elon Musk himself. “
Smack dab in the middle of releasing these files, Musk had a meltdown and began deleting the accounts of journalists who were reporting on a story he wanted to suppress….
Twitter’s old content moderation standards were biased and opaque. Their new standard is, in one respect, refreshingly transparent: It is that there is no standard. Twitter’s content moderation is now based entirely on Elon Musk’s whims.
This is a trend that only got worse.
After making a big exposé out of communications between the US government and previous Twitter management, Musk’s Twitter has been assiduously cooperating with foreign authoritarian regimes. This includes shutting down Twitter accounts of critics of the Modi regime in India and blocking the sharing in India of critical news reports, including a BBC documentary on Modi.
After doing the bidding of the Modi regime, Musk then had the effrontery to have National Public Radio labeled “state-affiliated media.”… After a backlash against this decision, Musk dropped the labels for NPR—but also eliminated them for actual state-controlled propaganda outlets like RT and China’s Xinhua.
That leads me to the other big element of the new conservative counter culture: the way the movement turns out to be honeycombed with outright racists.
I started out trying to understand how it is that conservatives keep tolerating and echoing racism.
The fissure the racists have exploited is the word “conservatism” itself. It is a movement defined in terms of conserving the past. That can mean preserving a set of American traditions and ideals that are open-ended and adaptable and able to appeal to people of all races and origins—but the more precise name for that is probably “classical liberalism”—or it can mean wanting to turn back the clock in the most superficial ways. And there is nothing more stupidly superficial and literally skin deep than race.
This was followed by the exposure of Richard Hanania, a rapidly rising conservative star, as a former leading member of the explicitly racist “alt-right,” followed by a string of similar incidents that became a steady drumbeat.
This is the sort of thing we used to sneer at when we saw it on the left. Serves those pinkos right, we would say to ourselves. When you play around with collectivist ideas and campaign to expand the power of the state, you can’t be surprised when the same old totalitarians show up and take over.
Fair enough. But now this is exactly what is happening on the right: a totalitarian fringe exploiting the ideological sympathies and weaknesses of the mainstream. And it is probably too late to stop it from destroying the country’s main center-right party and causing who knows how much damage on the way down.
But there is good reason to believe it will all come crashing down around their ears.
Consider the results of this November’s odd-year elections, in which Republicans lost races across the country, particularly in Virginia, in a backlash against conservative culture war politics.
Two years ago, I hailed the Virginia election result as a harbinger of the anti-woke vote. This year’s Virginia vote reflects a swing toward the anti-anti-woke vote. Voters may not like wokeness very much—but it turns out they also don’t like the alternative Republicans have been offering.
I noted David French’s view that conservatives have adopted a “top-down” view of cultural influence, which I applied to “the folly of Elon Musk’s presumption that he could buy Twitter, use it to promote his favorite right-wing trolls, and expect it to have the same value and influence as it did before.” Instead, many of the people who made Twitter the national “town square” have now decamped to Threads.
But conservatives are still determined to try the top-down culture war, and I recently found a report that indicates what conservatives are trying to do to replace the books they want to ban. Popular Information details a campaign by a conservative children’s book company, Brave Books, to vilify the major educational book publisher Scholastic, in an attempt to get school districts to dump Scholastic’s book fair in favor of one controlled by Brave Books.
And what does Brave Books offer as an alternative? By all accounts, tedious right-wing political propaganda. Brave Books was inspired in answer to left-wing books like Antiracist Baby and copies their mania for indoctrination.
Joanna Weiss offers a thorough and insightful review of Brave Books’s offerings.
Brave Books tackles conservatism issue by issue, and practically news cycle by news cycle, aided by a set of celebrity co-authors who lend their bona fides and visibility. In addition to Loesch, Dinesh D’Souza and his wife, Debbie, co-wrote a book about the dangers of socialism, featuring a fox who tries to price-fix pies. U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw co-wrote an allegory about cancel culture, centered on a swan who punishes animals who offend her. Lesser far-right stars have co-authored books meant to challenge abortion, transgender identity and critical race theory.
And last spring, in its biggest splash so far, the company published former Donald Trump defense aide Kash Patel’s The Plot Against the King, a storybook about the Steele dossier….
Someone who spent the bulk of 2021 internalizing cable news might understand what these books are all about. But it’s hard to imagine that person would be a child.
Note that part of the goal of Brave Books is not just to promote conservative ideas, but to promote the regime apparatchiks whom it chooses as authors. And also note that in the shared setting of the books, the main villain in all of the stories is literally named “Culture.” That kind of says it all doesn’t it?
But the inadequacy of these offerings as actual children’s literature raises the most insightful question posed by Weiss: “Can you win the culture wars without actually caring about culture?”
Longtime readers will probably recall what I think about this, which I reiterated this year.
The best result of the culture war is that culture wins. It is also the only possible result—in the long term. Those who actually have something to say will leave behind compelling expressions of their worldview which are worthy of contemplation, even admiration, even when we disagree with them.
Those who only lecture us—the preferred mode right now—will be forgotten.
Conservatives have stopped fighting the hectoring lecturers and instead have joined their ranks.
By contrast, the top story for this year is something that is much more positive. Stay tuned for the last installment of this roundup of the top stories of the year.