Tuesday, January 09, 2007

National Review's False Modesty

I have kind of a love-hate relationship with National Review.

In the plus column, they're much more reliably pro-market than a lot of "classical liberal" magazines out there (I'm thinking in particular about Reason and The Economist) and give cogent economic arguments for their positions in layman's terms. They're also very useful as a Washington watchdog. Unlike a lot of more "radical" commentators, who mostly peddle their ideas in exaggerated terms and ignore the actual mechanics of Capitol Hill, National Review keeps tabs on what the competition is saying and takes the time to point out the flaws, contradictions, and hypocrisy in their statements. They're especially good for dissecting stories in The New Republic and The New York Times. Also, they have standards. You gotta love a rag that fired (I'm sorry, "fired") Ann Coulter for being offensive!

In the minus column there's only really one thing, but it's a doozie: they're religious. People who know me will say that's the end of the story - but it's not. I'm not really as anti-religion as I come across. True, I myself am not religious, and I do think that religion is inherently irrational and therefore damaging to humanity - and I do say all this quite publicly. But at the end of the day, there's a reason why we don't require people to prove negatives. It's philosophically well-established that I can't say with any certainty that there is no God and no mystical dimension to the universe; there well might be. And for people who think they have found that, I'm in the camp who leaves them to their business. What I really object to is any attempt to bring religion into the public sphere, where it clearly doesn't belong. Here I'm not talking only about laws. I'm talking just as much about addressing the general public about religion as though it were established fact when it isn't. It's the same in private conversations with my friends. I can stay friends with a religious person provided shared assumptions of religiosity are left out of our conversations. But I think I would find it pointless and unworkable to be friends with someone who constantly talked about Jesus casually. National Review crosses all of these lines for me.

Ayn Rand once called it the "worst and most dangerous magazine in America" for this reason. Or, more specifically, because "it ties capitalism to religion." I don't think it's all that bad. And Rand was probably being disingenuous anyway. National Review famously slammed Atlas Shrugged when it was published in 1957. You can read the review here. I will simply say that it was extremely unfair - and that there is reason to think that the reviewer didn't read her book carefully. But Rand, in any case, has good grounds for a personal grudge. (Whether Atlas Shrugged is a good work of literature or not is a highly complicated point for me, and I'll probably blog about it in detail eventually. For now suffice it to say that I can definitely see the case against it - even so, Mr. Chambers' review is unfair.) And that's probably what's behind her calling it the "most dangerous magazine in America."

But I still agree with the substance behind the overstatement. National Review's religion fetish is nowhere more a mark against it than in its cultural criticism sections. Here, every complaint that NR raises against its opponents on the left is played out in full, only from their point of view, which is apparently why they don't notice. But if ever there were a publication that allowed political rectitude to get in the way of an honest reaction, this is it. Of all the reviews I have read in their pages, I don't think I've ever once felt that the reviewer engaged the work directly and told us what he or she really thought. First comes concern for what the public should think, and conclusions are styled accordingly. Very East Germany.

A kind of case in point comes up today. Here's a rambly, long-winded review of Courtney Cox's new TV series Dirt, in which she plays an icy, Machiavellian tabloid editor. I haven't seen it and never plan to (despite being one of the apparently few men who would "imagine [her] in the masturbation arena" - click the link to see what I'm talking about. Cox was easily the hottest of the three on Friends for me - with Aniston in a very distant second and what's-her-name not even on the charts.). I can tell by the ads that it is what most of the reviews say it is - a timid show that pretends to be edgy without taking on any real issues or really even portraying its subject matter accurately (it's specifically accused of not dealing with the impact of the internet on the tabloid world, giving the impression that it's dated even as it airs). And National Review's take on it is no different.

But it bugs me to hear this opinion from National Review, and that's because I know they would like the show even less if it really were edgy. I mean, this is the magazine that practically had to give its readers permission to laugh at the bit in Nacho Libre where he says "People think I don't know a buttload of crap about the Gospels, but I do." Or thought it was insightful to say that Seinfeld was a critique of nihilism (as if anyone missed that). I can't imagine that the reviewers here would be pleased with a television show that really dug into the dirt on the tabloid industry. But more than that the way they bring up the big "masturbation controversy" (see above) gets on my nerves. Here's the quote:

In short, Lucy Spiller's battery-powered orgasms led a critic at the San Francisco Chronicle to publish an unfortunate and possibly (it's debatable) unchivalrous comment about the fair Courteney. Jimmy Kimmel is also involved. As this is National Review Online, not Drrt, or, for that matter, the San Francisco Chronicle, I am not prepared to go into the distressing details, but, if, on the other hand, you are one of our more broad-minded readers, or just plain nosey, the offending review can be found here, Jimmy Kimmel's dramatic encounter with the poor, possibly slighted Ms. Cox can be seen on YouTube (of course), and, in a desperate attempt to draw a conclusion to the whole shocking affair, the Chronicle's caddish critic has now published an 'erotic retraction' on his blog. Make of it all what you will.

Yes, those "here"s are links in the original. So they're above the subject, but not above linking it? Please! Is this self-parody? I sincerely hope so because otherwise it's simply ridiculous! If you're really too coy to bring something up...then don't. Having brought it up, why not elaborate? How many kids do they honestly think are in their audience? What kind of adults do they think are reading? Do they honestly imagine that there's someone out there who needs to be warned away from Dirt because of the masturbation scenes, and that this person also deserves the courtesy of being given the option of not dealing with the subject in their review after it has already been brought up? It's this kind of silliness that gives prudes a bad name. I mean, what could possibly be offensive about masturbation? Is there, in fact, even a single capable person on the planet older than 13 who doesn't regularly masturbate? Why is it scandalous to put this on television? And even if it is, what kind of a standard does one really set by refusing to mention it in public?

This kind of stuff is just bullying. Take away the schoolyard, neglect to mention lunchmoney, fine - the principle is the same. It's a cheap, self-gratifying assertion of superiority based on a superficial standard. This is the kind of religion I don't like.

It reminds me of an (pointless) argument I got into with a Christian "colleague" in Japan. This guy - let's call him Brian ('cause that's his name) - wouldn't cuss at all. When I asked him about this he explained that Christians have to keep to a "higher standard." I then glanced around his never-been-cleaned apartment and asked him why saying "shit" counts as a low standard? Well, standard response, you can find other words to say. Alright - but other words for what? The same feeling, no? I mean, saying someone is a "flippin' idiot" is different from calling them a "fuckin' idiot" how, exactly? It's got more to do with the tone than the word itself, I think. For a good example, see the new Battlestar, where "frak" is used in place of "fuck" to please the FCC. Point being, the only reason "fuck" is a remotely shocking word is because we've seen people cringe when they hear it. It's because they agree to make it dirty that it is. It depends on people like Brian for its existence. Which is nothing if not an amusing irony, I guess. Another similar "good one" was a feminist I knew who used to go on about "disempowering words." She followed up this speech by saying that "There is a certain c-word that has way too much power in our society."

A "certain c-word." Classic! The feminist who's sitting here preaching about disempowering words can't bring herself to say cunt! Who, I ask you, is the victim?

Oh well, it's nothing if not amusing. But the bottom line is that religion is everything that the Religious Right likes to say Marxism is. It's a 24-7 censor living in your head telling you what to think and how to react. It's unnatural, dishonest, unhelpful, and it makes having sincere opinions and reactions near impossible. Certainly not qualities you look for in any kind of commentary.


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