Saturday, December 22, 2007

This post dates to early 2005.

It is the great fallacy of the book reviewer to criticize a book for what it is not.

So I'll get to that in a minute.

I'm a bit late posting this review, as real life overwhelmed me the last few weeks, but one essential point that struck me about Brian Anderson's South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias has not left me since I finished it: I can't for the life of me figure out if I like this book or not. I enjoyed reading it, but ultimately came away not sure whether it was like a huge meal at a cruddy Chinese restaurant: Tasty at the time, but so quickly digested that it was ultimately not filling.

Part of that's because at 191 pages (including index) it's about a quarter as long as I'd prefer in a book of any type; partly it's because the orange and purple color scheme is disorienting; partly it's because no title should have an asterisk.

South Park Conservatives is a light, witty, quick, and enjoyable read. Many of the readers of this site will be intimately familiar with the background story of the demise of the Left-liberal paradigm it tells: RatherGate, Bias, The Ten Billion Tons of Missing Explosives, whatever it was that Howell Raines was doing while he was supposed to be making sure his reporters actually covered their stories, and so on. To the non-blogosphere denizen (you know, the majority of America), this is a quick, concise, useful read that also dips into the rise of talk radio, FoxNews, conservative publishing in the mainstream houses, the (surprising) rise of conservatism in academia, and, yes, the ever self-effacing blogosphere. It's written in a conversational style that's significantly easier to read than, well, anything I've ever written. It's extensively footnoted. It's short, clearly written, and should take no more than three hours to get through (it took me a little over one, but one of the few gifts I was given was a quick reading eye). I'd heartily recommend it as a gift to someone who has better things to do all day than follow politics and the death of the liberal paradigm -- which, again, is to say most Americans.

Now for the complaints.

There is no punch to this book. I think this reflects the book's greatest weakness: It is fundamentally caught between being a somewhat academic overview and summary of the rise of alternative conservative media and being a good old-fashioned polemic. The former mandates no punch, no excitement in its delivery. The latter positively demands it. The reason, I think, that I couldn't figure out whether I liked the book or not is because reading it was like being brought to the top of a roller coaster, then... finding out you're on a plateau. The ride down is enjoyable, but it would be better if they skipped the level part in the middle.

Arguably, and here's where we get into the criticizing-the-book-for-what-it's-not part, I suspect that my problem with this book is that I'm too familiar with the subject matter, and I'd rather the book skip to being a full-fledged polemic or a more thorough recounting of the rise of mass media conservatism (What happened behind the scenes? How the the GOP leadership react? How many were influenced by Goldwater but not Reagan, and the other way around?). South Park Conservatives is deliberately a tweener, a lighter read aimed much more at introduction than investigation or argument.

Unfortunately, that does not segue at all into my last quibble. I like South Park. I loved Baseketball. I think Parker and Stone are hilarious. I'm hardly a culture scold -- you can't love Major League as I do, or cry at cavalry charges like I do, and get overly exercised about vulgarity and violence all that regularly.


I think Michelle Malkin is spot on about the book when she says:

Anderson argues that Comedy Central's cartoon series, South Park, embodies the "fiercely anti-liberal comedic spirit" of the "new media" from Kaus to Coulter. The cartoon, he writes, reflects a "post-liberal counterculture" that is "particularly appealing to the young, however much it might offend older conservatives." ...

My discomfort with South Park's increasingly mainstream vulgarity is not a matter of nitpicking. We're not just talking about a stray curse word here or there. As liberal New York Times columnist Frank Rich points out, South Park "holds the record for the largest number of bleeped-out repetitions (162) of a single four-letter expletive in a single television half-hour." That's probably about the same number of profanities uttered at John Kerry's infamous New York City celebrity fundraiser last summer, which Republicans rightly condemned for its excessive obscenities.

Rich is wrong about most things, but he's painfully on target in noting the incongruous pandering now taking place by some in the cool-kids clique on the Right. Conservatives criticize Hollywood relentlessly, but as Rich notes, "the embarrassing reality is that they want to be hip, too."

In fact, I'd go a tad farther. The title, South Park Conservatives stems -- as Anderson notes -- from Andrew Sullivan's coined "South Park Republicans." Obviously, there is not a perfect overlap here, and while it might be perfectly accurate (if wildly exaggerated numerically) to refer to a subset of the GOP's voting bloc as "South Park Republicans," I would submit it's difficult at best, and insulting at worst, to combine "South Park" and "conservative." And it's a particularly bad idea to take any term Andrew Sullivan has ever devised ("An Eagle has landed. Now let him soar.") and apply it to conservatives without a wry grin.

South Park is, decidedly, anti-P.C., and Anderson even notes a few decidedly praiseworthy parts of seasons past (my favorite was the NAMBLA meeting episode, though the divorce one was pretty good, too). But while, to royally screw up a pretty fantastic formulation, there may indeed be pearls in what you toss before the swine, I also have to agree with Malkin that "'politically incorrect' is not always a synonym for 'conservative.'"

If we can say that there are any unifying principles in conservatism, one must be a decent respect for tradition and the wisdom hard-earned by generations of men and women living with the same existential problems (and then some) that we experience now. South Park has more or less none of this. One easy example is language: It has been the experience of generations that certain words and phrases must be off-limits in polite conversation; that arguments, no matter how snide and nasty, must be kept out of the gutter, for fear that the whole discourse (and the acceptance of the rationale of discourse over violence) might disintegrate. Were I to enumerate South Park's failings in this regard, I'd run this site's bandwidth charges through the ceiling and violate the posting rules to the point of banning myself in shame. For this reason, if no other, it is at best a well-intentioned mistake of the first order, and at worst an obnoxious insult to tie conservatives and conservatism to South Park.

And of course Malkin is also right that only we under-40 curmudgeons are going to be so terribly offended by this, because so many conservatives want to be cool. We were on the outside looking in for so long; isn't there something nice about being inside, where it's warm, and there's cocoa, and my goodness, the ladies are gorgeous in here? (Relatedly, I suspect this is also why the very idea of "South Park Republicans" hasn't been laughed out of polite discourse by now: The idea that there's a brand new cohort with a brand new perspective on life who are gonna rock this joint is a peculiar symptom of our live-in-the-moment politics, and is assuredly neither conservative nor terribly plausible, but no one wants to say so, because then we wouldn't be cool.)

Bottom line: South Park Conservatives is a nice airplane book for the veterans of politics and the blogosphere of the last couple of decades; a great beach book or present for our friends, relatives, fiance(e)s, mistresses, coworkers, and captive employees who need a cleanly written primer on those years; and a frustrating, exciting, maddening, enticing hint of what lies behind the story of the naissance of conservatism in the mass media.

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