A Review of Brian C. Anderson’s South Park Conservatives: The Revolt of the Liberal Media Bias.
by Bruce S. Thornton
In the sixties, many of us were pulled to the left because we thought it was the ideology of liberty. Duped by a false caricature of the conformist fifties as a neo-Puritan, repressed enemy of the individual, we were attracted by the spontaneous, exuberant celebration of individual freedom we thought characterized that decade. Those of us with intellectual pretensions further asserted that the sixties sensibility was squarely in the American tradition of autonomous individualism. Surely, as the movie Easy Rider suggested, the hippy was the new mountain man, the new Huck Finn, the new frontiersman — and so, more quintessentially American than that conformist, buttoned-down “company man” worried that he’d get fired for folding, spindling, or mutilating something.
Well, we were wrong for many reasons. We ignored the confusion of license and liberty, ignored the destructive consequences of liberating the appetites from social restraints, and most of all, ignored the simple fact that the hippy “if it feels good, do it” creed had been appropriated by a totalitarian ideology that has been history’s greatest enemy of freedom and the individual. By the early seventies it was clear that the New Left’s hijacking of the hippy movement had resulted in a new conformity, one more sinister and destructive than what we thought was so oppressive in the fifties.
As time passed an odd transformation occurred: the Puritans were now all on the left. Dour, humorless, self-righteous, eager to use the coercive power of the state to impose ideological orthodoxy, so-called “liberals” and “progressives” had become enemies of freedom. These days the humorless, repressed enforcers of rigid standards of behavior are the politically correct professors and media pundits, the dour feminists (“That’s not funny!”), the race-tribunes, and the identity-politics hacks that monitor the media and popular culture for any deviations from the party line of liberal dogma, multiculturalism, and victim-politics.
The champions of freedom, in contrast, today are more likely to be found on the right, where one can find diversity of thought, freewheeling discussion, impatience with orthodoxy, a commitment to individual freedom, and anarchic humor. And, as Brian Anderson documents in his fast-paced, entertaining analysis of how conservatism has flourished in recent years, the result has been the weakening of the liberal dominance over the media and popular culture.
Anderson starts with a quick survey of “the old media regime,” as he calls it, and its propensity for selecting and shaping news to suit its liberal biases. In the Reagan years, for example, the media depictions of what they called a “homeless” person “looked like your hard-working family-man neighbor, suddenly, catastrophically down on his luck because of a bad economy and a lack of ‘affordable housing,’ not the drug-addled, gibberish-spouting, fist-waving deinstitutionalized lunatic he was likely to be in the real world.” So too with abortion: supporters are rarely called “liberal,” but opponents are regularly tagged as “conservative.” Pro-life protests get scant coverage, even though a 2003 survey found 51% of women either don’t support abortion at all or do so only in cases of incest and rape.
More recently, the coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with its emphasis on civilian and U.S. casualties and setbacks, has reflected the media’s liberal prejudices. At the same time the U.S. army was achieving one of the swiftest victories in military history, “the elite press proclaimed imminent U.S. defeat, trumpeted every purported injustice or error committed by our troops, and, Cold War-style, even sympathized with the enemy.” Coverage of antiwar protests, most of which have been coordinated by leftist if not outright-Communist organizations, was as “indulgent and celebratory” as coverage of the war was grim and critical. Worse, the coverage implied a greater support for the protests than actually existed: “In thirty-eight different stories on antiwar street demonstrations, CNN noted only once that most Americans did not support the protestors’ views.” And of course, popular culture has been as biased liberally as the media, demonizing businessmen, Christians, and conservatives even as it celebrates and approves sexual deviancy and heathenism.
The liberal-leftist monopoly over media and popular culture has fostered as well what Anderson calls “illiberal liberalism,” “an ugly habit of left-liberal political argument to dismiss conservative ideas as if they don’t deserve a hearing, and to redefine mainstream conservative views as extremism and bigotry.” Many liberals and leftists are enabled in this addiction by a media that seldom calls them on their use of question-begging epithets like “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” and “insensitive” in order to avoid serious debate and defense of their ideas. Thus reasoned debate, the lifeblood of participatory government, is excluded from much of the public square, and politics degenerates into a quasi-religious obeisance to ideas and values no matter how worn out or pernicious.
Anderson argues that this liberal dominance and the hypocritical denial of it, though both have long been undergoing erosion, were exposed in the last presidential election. That the mainstream media had opted for Kerry was obvious in CBS’s eagerness to attack President Bush’s National Guard service based on a patently forged document. At the same time, nearly all the big media shamefully ignored the Swift Boat Vets’ allegations of irregularities in Kerry’s war record. Add outrages like the ABC memo counseling reporters to be tougher on Bush than on Kerry, and it’s no wonder that nearly half of Americans in several polls believe the press tilts left. As Anderson points out, “The old-media regime long made it hard for the Right to get a fair hearing for its ideas and beliefs.” The bulk of his book tells the tale of how this stranglehold was broken and the conservative resurgence that followed.
Anderson tells the story of how Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio began the reclaiming of the public square for conservative ideas by outflanking the liberal media monopoly. The creation of cable’s FOX news channel kept the momentum going: by June of 2003, “FOX was winning a whopping 51 percent of the prime-time cable-news audience — more than CNN, CNN Headline News, and MSNBC combined. During the second ratings quarter of 2004, FOX owned nine of the top ten highest-rated cable shows,” including powerhouses like the O’Reilly Factor. And FOX is strong with the demographic Holy Grail, the 25-54-year-old viewers. If nothing else, the hysteria FOX induces in liberal pundits and media dons makes it the best thing to happen to television news in years.
Anderson also recognizes and discusses the important role conservative presses like Regnery, ISI Books, Encounter Books, and Spence Publishing have played in providing a wider forum for conservative ideas. And of course the “blogosphere” has created a democratic forum for ideas and critiques that taps into the expertise and brains — and sometimes the lunacy — of millions of average people no longer beholden to the ideology and prejudices of a few media corporations: as Anderson puts it, the blogosphere is “samizdatmultiplied by orders of magnitude.” Blogs may be on occasion be “unfounded gossip, misinformed venting, or just plain trivial,” as Anderson admits, but the power to discern and correct is now put into the hands of citizens, who no longer have to rely on the selective decisions and judgments of a tiny elite of self-selected media “watchdogs” and “experts.”
For me the best part of the book is the chapter on “South Park Anti-Liberals.” The raunchy, foul-mouthed, frequently vulgar show on cable television’s Comedy Central provides some of the most devastating puncturing of liberal pretensions and smug self-satisfaction. Liberal sacred cows such as the environment, sex ed, and the normalization of homosexuality are slaughtered right and left — as are many conservative ideals as well. Along with other cable shows such as Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn and comedians like Nick Di Paolo, South Park uses obscenity and vulgarity much in the way Aristophanes did in ancient Athens: in the service of satiric humor. Such humor is a powerful weapon for sweeping away the lies and evasions those in power use to protect their ideologies from scrutiny, and for opening up space for a more wide-ranging and inclusive discussion of political issues.
The popularity of such shows among the young has contributed to what Anderson calls in his last chapter “campus conservatives rising.” From being non-existent or nearly invisible on college campuses a decade ago, conservative students have increased their numbers and become much bolder at challenging their professors and college administrators on hot-button issues such as affirmative action and abortion. College Republican groups, for example, have tripled in just six years, with 120,000 members (compared to 100,00 College Democrats). And surveys of student attitudes find a corresponding increase in conservative and libertarian views among college students, a change reflected as well in the increasing numbers of conservative college newspapers. Anderson also rightly credits organizations such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which since 1953 has fostered and supported conservative ideas in higher education. Thanks to ISI and other groups such as the Students for Academic Freedom and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, “the Left’s hold on academe is beginning to loosen,” as Anderson writes. The consequence will be the creation of the intellectual diversity that universities are supposed to promote, but have sacrificed in the last few decades to a rigid ideological conformity harmful both to democratic politics and to the development of a critical mind.
Anderson ends with some salutary caution about thinking that the culture war is over and the left has lost. Yet all the trends are in the right direction. Mainstream media can no longer get away with partial or biased reporting, now that cable news alternatives and Internet blogs are around to monitor them. And the fact that these days liberal dogma is the elite authority in schools means that the rebellious and populist inclinations of young people will be focused precisely on the those smug and sanctimonious authorities. The net result will be to compel the liberal-left “to reexamine, argue, and refine its positions, so many of which have proved disastrously wrong, and stop living off the past. It’s hard to imagine that this development won’t result in a broader, richer, deeper national debate.” And in a greater scope for the liberating power of truth.