The Intellectual Situation
The Weekly Standard
Reading the Weekly Standard is like stepping into a parallel universe. Not an alien one; one nicely mirrored, left to right. You get the methods of the left without the nervous tang of powerlessness. Despite their control of the presidency, Congress, and much of the judiciary, the magazine continues to present conservatives as an embattled and victimized minority. It would require both a sociologist, doing factor analysis on William Kristol’s yearly income and the moviegoing habits of the editorial board, and a psychoanalyst, individually treating its contributors, to explain fully the causes of the Standard’s determined sense of aggrieved entitlement. But it is simple enough to recall that the Standard’s founders and later stars, Kristol, Andrew Ferguson, and the sinister David Brooks, come from the traditionally Democratic, liberal constituencies of Jews and Catholics. Maybe you don’t leave behind the underdog style at the White House back door or with a key to the Cato Institute washroom. This still doesn’t explain the perversity of the Standard: it’s not old-fashioned liberalism that gets turned to the dark side, on the model of older neo-conservatism, but some more radical left-wing anti-liberalism the younger ones learned in school in the 1980s.
Take the Standard’s conservative-themed cultural studies. Reviewing Disney’s DVD rerelease of early Mickey Mouse shorts, Garry Apgar gushes over Band Concert in language usually found in fashion articles or museum catalogs. “Mickey’s face and gloved hands, which retain their crisp black-and-white purity, contrast superbly with his crimson suit festooned with lush green trim, gold braid and buttons.” Writing about cartoons in a high style is meant to convince us that Disney belongs to an indigenous American “great tradition.” What it belongs to is “cult-studs.” Apgar’s piece takes the techniques of Marxism-influenced cultural analysis—now available at a discount in most universities—but changes the expected pessimistic conclusions about alienation, loss of individuality, and the perpetuation of noxious ideology into a patriotic rhapsody. Disney’s Mouse “continues to captivate the masses”—the masses?—“and provoke the creative mind—in part because [he] personifies the drive, optimism, and relentless quest for happiness that are core traits of America.”
If the Standard wants to do for Mickey Mouse what Marxism did for tractors, who are we to deny them their fun? But when they try out Foucault, their articles get nasty. Adopting what partisans of political correctness used to call strategic nominalism, that is, a battle for the names of things rather than truth, Maggie Gallagher takes her stand against gay marriage. “If the courts transform marriage into a unisex institution,” she writes, “the New York Times and People Magazine will be the ones speaking the public, normative language of the land, and it is we who will be privatized and marginalized.” Gallagher repeats a starting point of Foucauldian literary and cultural critics: institutions create meaning, not individuals. Language is the site of a power struggle. “[C]apturing the word is the key to deconstructing the institution . . . If the word marriage includes same-sex couples, we proponents of the marriage culture will be silenced in the public square.” It’s Gallagher who thinks in terms of “capturing” and “silencing.” She has preemptively adopted the language of the oppressed. Funnily enough, proponents of gay marriage have made their case in the very American terms of equal rights, equal freedoms, and equal responsibilities.
Like plenty of the fare at the Standard, these writers demonstrate a facility with the language, methods, and moves of disciplines thought to have been the exclusive preserve of the academic left. This may reflect the developing consciousness of a right-wing poststructuralism and postmodernism. Or it may just be the shaping hand of intelligent editors who have learned from the enemies they affect to despise. Whether from complacency or ignorance, too many of us with left-wing prejudices believed that “advanced methods” were enough to change the world. The Standard proves that learning to think strategically about symbolic forms doesn’t necessitate any particular substantive politics.
Although, inevitably, most of the Standard’s editors and writers hail from the same Ivy League milieu as the rest of the Washington intelligentsia, they love to decry the secret elitism of their opponents. Of Molly Ivins, the Texas-based reporter and author of a popular anti-Bush book, one of the Standard’s senior editors writes, “No one does populism as ruthlessly as Ivins, a graduate of Smith College and a former reporter for the New York Times, who holds a graduate degree from Columbia.” Yet this rhetoric should be familiar to those readers of left journals (also edited by Ivy Leaguers) who almost never mention George W. Bush without telling us of his Andover, Yale, and Maine WASP background. An older, politer, and more conservative conservative would abhor such arguments from authenticity and class consciousness—and would take seriously the lessons of Machiavelli about the public play acting of republican politics. But the pomo neocon has no problem suggesting that there is a social danger when those from elite backgrounds pretend to speak like commoners and claim to share the common interest.
What Standard writers prefer to do is allow those from elite backgrounds to pretend to speak like the philistine middle-class. From its birth in 1995, the magazine’s shtick was the replacement of politics with cultural politics as its real weapon. The brave ordinary man doesn’t need to share an income with them (and he doesn’t), a neighborhood, school, or a social class. He just has to share “ordinary guy” cultural affiliations—a politics of Mickey Mouse, “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” and, yes, admiration for a Yale-educated prep school debutante president who would look superb “with his crimson suit festooned with lush green trim, gold braid and buttons.”
To a bar, then. To drown our sorrows in drink in the daytime. We’re parched, we’re fed up with disappointments. The bartender sees we don’t want to talk, turns the game on. Any game. Any game so long as it’s all right, so something’s right . . . but wait.