What I Learned From Reading (well, skimming) 12 years of National Review

I’ve been increasingly interested/worried about the right wing in American for awhile now. I have also been greatly interested in environmental politics for a similar amount of time. It makes sense then to combine these two interests, and thanks to a nudge from a couple of colleagues, I have done just that. I am currently embarking on a study, with two colleagues of mine, of conservative environmentalism. This study primarily consists of a text analysis of the conservative magazine National Review. Hopefully this project will come to fruition in a little read article in an obscure academic journal three years from now. In the meantime, because of my sins, I had to read through – or actually skim – the past twelve years (2009-2020) of National Review to identify all articles that dealt with environmental issues. When I came across an article about the environment I would flag it and copy it for later text analysis, and if an article was obviously not about the environment in anyway then I would read the first sentence or so just to make sure and then move on. Now being done with this process I have some overall thoughts on the National Review as the self-appointed guardian of conservative politics and thought. So let’s break this down . . .

The Good

Jay Nordlinger. Of all the writers in the 12 years of National Review I read who I thought was consistently worth reading was Jay Nordlinger. My non scientific assessment of his writing is that it mostly consisted of profiles of dissidents in authoritarian countries and reviews of classical music concerts. Both important and interesting subjects. He would occasionally author a silly “cancel culture is outta control’ article but one almost got the sense he did that just to make sure his compatriots didn’t question his conservative bona fides

Richard Brookhiser‘s Country Life column. This is a monthly(?) column where the author discusses life in his country home (or whatever else he wants to talk about). This is a mostly apolitical column and I always enjoy reading about the travails of a fellow gardener and composter which Brookhiser wrote about often so that was nice.

The Bad

Almost everything. Look, I am a leftist so I am not the audience for a conservative magazine written for other conservatives. If there was any danger of me becoming a convert after skimming through all of these issues well then that danger was seriously misplaced. After skimming through a couple years worth of the magazine I was able to predict with a high degree of accuracy their “take.” Any regulation whatsoever? Bad. Tax cuts? Always good. Abortion? Never allowed in any circumstances. If the National Review is the best the conservative movement in the U.S. has to offer then the “party of ideas” has run aground.

Kevin D. Williamson. This fucking guy. I will say one thing for him, he is prolific. I would not be surprised if his byline appeared in every single issue in 12 years. He is either writing a profile, reporting from somewhere, or at the very least doing a book review in damn near even issue (sometimes all three!). This prolificness does not translate into insight, empathy, or good writing however. I am struggling to think of a writer with a more sneering condescending attitude, not too mention his overwrought prose. Just an all around asshole.

Not Funny. There are a couple of attempted humor columns the National Review publishes and they fail miserably. Political humor is a tricky subject and its not as if left wing humor is always a hit but conservative humor seems to always crash and burn. One of the columns is by Rob Long and consists of imagined text message exchanges between whoever was prominent in the news that week. It is about as funny as it sounds. The one rule of political humor that must be followed for it to be funny is that the joke should always take precedence over the point trying to be made. That and I just don’t find humor that punches down very funny so that basically eliminates all conservative humor for me

nut picking“. The beginning part of National Review is a section called “The Week” which consists of paragraph length salvos on the current events of the week or month. Because this is a conservative magazine they have to talk about all the crazy things happening on college campuses. As you can imagine there are a lot of commentaries on Oberlin sophomores objecting to a baloney sandwich with mayo being described as a Bahn mi sandwich. As a professor, at a tiny liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere I find these sorts of things so frustrating. In general the discussion in the popular press about what happens on college campuses has no bearing on reality and that goes doubly for the conservative press. Although I didn’t track this specifically, my impression was that these types of nut-picking articles increased over time to match the overall conservative obsession with the phantom that is “cancel culture.” If it wasn’t so damaging it would be funny.

The Ugly

Bigotry. There was a lot of ugly bigoted stuff in the issues of National Review I looked at. Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and racism being the most prominent forms. The magazine regularly published Islamophobes like Andrew McCarthy and Mark Steyn. Not to mention the editors in The Week section of the magazine would pump up fake controversies like the “Ground Zero Mosque” under the guise of “just asking questions” bullshit. Speaking of The Week section of the magazine, I noticed at least two times they purposely mis-gendered Chelsea Manning which is just petty and gross. In terms of racism the entire magazine, with a couple rare exceptions, is decidedly anti-immigrant. The editorial line was anti-immigrant and often couched its opposition in claims that immigrants would not “assimilate” into the U.S. which is just the nativist way of saying “we don’t like brown people.” More so, National Review regularly published the grotesquely anti-immigrant Mark Krikorian, head of the hate group Center for Immigration Studies and published, at least a few times, the phrenologist Jason Richwine.

Torture apologists. In general, I disagreed with the National Review line on almost every policy issue because I am a leftist. However, one area I couldn’t just look past as just ideological differences is the magazines outright pro-torture stance. The years of the magazine I was reviewing were 2009 to 2020 so after the Abu Ghraib torture program was ongoing, but there were articles and commentaries about the aftermath including the Senate torture report where torture apologist freaks like Marc Theissen got to opine on the glories of torture. Just ugly stuff

Conclusion

Obviously this is not meant as any type of systematic analysis of National Review but just my impressions and observations from skimming through 12 years worth of issues. Perhaps it is just my lefty bias but I was not often surprised by what I read either good or bad (but mostly bad). I have been following politics for the entirety of my adult life so I am familiar with conservative arguments and talking points. I guess I am a bit surprised and how pedestrian a lot of it was. I somewhat thought I would be persuaded a bit more by what I read as opposed to just reading the same old conservative bullshit I have been exposed to for my entire adult life. I kind of expected more from the flagship magazine of the conservative movement. Regardless, one thing this expertise has shown me (aside from one day turning the actual purpose of the exercise into a journal article) is that I am not a conservative in any way shape or form.

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