In a recent post, Ross Douthat wrote that “conservative domestic policy would be in better shape if conservative magazines and conservative columnists were more willing to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.” Jim Manzi took this as a direct challenge, penning a post at National Review’s group blog, The Corner, that persuasive demonstrates epistemic closure in Mark Levin’s bestseller Liberty and Tyranny.
This upset Kathryn Jean Lopez, who defended Mr. Levin, arguing in part that it is unfair to treat him as a “mere entertainer.” This is odd, since Mr. Manzi actually treats him as a book author whose arguments warrant a substantive reply. But anyway.
The subject I want to grapple with is Mr. Douthat’s characteristically thoughtful response to Ms. Lopez:
Let me suggest an alternative theory — namely, that the only way to defend a book like “Liberty and Tyranny” against Manzi’s critique is to argue that Levin should be judged primarily as an entertainer, rather than as a rigorous political thinker. There’s nothing wrong with politically-inflected entertainment, whether it’s right-wing or left-wing or something much more unclassifiable. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating these entertainers, admiring their success, and enjoying the way they skewer people and causes you dislike. But to insist that they’re also worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors in their own right, worthy of keynote speeches at CPAC and admiring reviews in highbrow journals, is to make a category error that does no favors to the larger causes that you and they support. It sets up contrasts that redound to the benefit of your opponents (Rush Limbaugh versus Barack Obama, or Glenn Beck versus Obama, are both binaries that favor liberalism), and invites a level of scrutiny that the entertainers’ work simply can’t support. Both politically and intellectually, American conservatism would be better off if Levin’s fans responded to Manzi’s post, not by objecting that he didn’t take “Liberty and Tyranny” seriously enough (he did take Levin’s arguments seriously, and that’s precisely why his criticisms were so scathing), but by saying “relax, it’s only entertainment.”
Mr. Douthat’s analysis is smart, as far as it goes, but it ignores the reasons why neither Ms. Lopez nor Mr. Levin can acknowledge (if they even believe it themselves) that Mr. Levin’s radio show or his book are “only entertainment.” Consider the promotional blurb put out by Simon and Schuster, Liberty and Tyranny’s publisher:
Mark R. Levin now delivers the book that characterizes both his devotion to his more than 5 million listeners and his love of our country and the legacy of our Founding Fathers: Liberty and Tyranny is Mark R. Levin’s clarion call to conservative America, a new manifesto for the conservative movement for the 21st century.
And later in the same blurb (note the unintentionally accurate first bit):
As provocative, well-reasoned, robust, and informed as his on-air commentary, Levin’s narrative will galvanize readers to begin a new era in conservative thinking and action. Liberty and Tyranny provides a philosophical, historical, and practical framework for revitalizing the conservative vision and ensuring the preservation of American society.
This language is in keeping with the way Mr. Levin himself talks about the book, and the way its fans receive it. Thus in order to claim Liberty and Tyranny as mere entertainment, he would have to admit that all the claims about it being a “new manifesto for the conservative movement” and “a practical framework for revitalizing the conservative vision” are cynical, fraudulent claims.
As it happens, I know many fans of talk radio personalities. Almost without exception, these people regard the consumption of politically themed radio shows, Fox News, and books by conservative authors not merely as entertainment, but as civic participation. Often times these people’s hearts are in the right place — they are burning with an earnest desire to improve America, to inform themselves about its political debates, and to support folks they regard as public intellectuals representing them in political discourse.
Visit the Facebook page or fan forum of any popular talk radio host and you’ll see overwhelming evidence that this characterization is accurate. It isn’t uncommon for Mark Levin’s fans to explicitly thank him for safeguarding liberty against tyranny, Bill O’Reilly wrote a book titled “Who’s Looking Out for You,” and Rush Limbaugh regularly asserts his importance as a bulwark against Democrats and their agenda.
I am not sure whether these people are aware that they are mere entertainers, or if they really believe that their talk radio shows or red meat books or whatever are “worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors in their own right” — and I am sure we’d all be better off if Mr. Douthat prevailed, and they were considered mere entertainers. But imagining that this is even a possibility ignores overwhelming evidence that their very existence as popular entertainers hinges on an ability to persuade listeners that they are “”worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors.”
That is why the constant failures of these men to live up to their billing is so offensive, destructive, and ruinous to conservatives — and it suggests that one line in Mr. Douthat’s post requires a qualification: “There’s nothing wrong with politically-inflected entertainment, whether it’s right-wing or left-wing or something much more unclassifiable,” Mr. Douthat wrote, and I’d add, so long as its producers don’t fraudulently claim it is more than that. There is something wrong with producing politically themed entertainment, and pretending that it has more intellectual rigor than is in fact the case, or that it is an earnestly offered statement of the truth, or that it actually grapples with its subjects.
Liberty and Tyranny perpetrates that fraud in its section on climate change, and I suspect that is why Jim Manzi was so offended by its misleading, willfully ignorant content — he knew that as an expert on the subject he could see the book for what it was, whereas most of its readers would trust the author and his framing of the book in a way that would leave them woefully misinformed.