by John Kirke 2/9/14
Mark Steyn has long been a regular contributor for National Review, and they should make a great fit: it’s the happy warrior, deploying his deadly wit to counter the seemingly irresistible threats to liberty and Western civilization, writing for the magazine that William F. Buckley founded with the stated mission of standing athwart history, yelling Stop.
To see the potential of their partnership, look no further than “Gagging Us Softly,” the three-thousand-word cover story that Steyn wrote for NR about the assault on free speech.
He argues quite forcefully that restrictions on speech undermine the bedrock principle of equality before the law, and in such a legal regime, “words have no agreed meaning,” since the legality of a comment depends entirely on who hears it and takes offense.
Granting that racism and all the other -isms and -phobias are bad, he concludes that “the government’s criminalizing all of them and setting up an enforcement regime in the interests of micro-regulating us into compliance is a thousand times worse.”
It’s a great piece, but it wasn’t exactly timely.
Mark Steyn’s cover story on free speech was published in the August 11, 2011, issue of National Review, a full three years after the Canadian Human Rights Commission dismissed the complaint against Maclean’s magazine and Mark Steyn. Fourteen months later, climate scientist Michael Mann filed suit against Steyn, National Review, and others for defamation.
Since then, we haven’t seen any more cover stories about the issue of free speech, and we certainly haven’t seen cover stories about this lawsuit in particular. Steyn has noticed the deafening silence, and after more than a year of following the lawyers’ advice of keeping a low profile while they pursued a quick dismissal, he is breaking ranks to raise a ruckus. He’s no longer writing at National Review Online, and he’s using his Happy Warrior column in the print edition to dissent from NR’s head-down approach.
As he told a reporter in an interview with Mother Jones(!), he’s “gently calling for a little bit more of a spirited free speech campaign on this.”
He’s doing more than that: in his Happy Warrior column for the January 27th issue, Mark Steyn argues that it’s essential to argue, that NR must use speech to defend free speech.
“…by far the biggest consequence of this ridiculous case is in these pages. If you are only a print subscriber (as opposed to an Internet reader), you will have no idea that NATIONAL REVIEW is in the midst of a big free-speech battle on one of the critical public-policy issues of our time. There have been no cover stories, no investigative journalism, no eviscerating editorials. NR runs specialized blogs on both legal matters and climate change, yet they too have been all but entirely silent. I assume, from this lonely outpost on NR’s wilder shores, that back at head office they take the view that it’s best not to say anything while this matter works its way through the courts. In other words, a law explicitly intended to prevent litigious bullies from forcing their victims to withdraw from ‘public participation’ has resulted in the defendants themselves voluntarily withdrawing from ‘public participation.’ That’s nuts…
“Up north, following a similar SLAPP suit from the Canadian Islamic Congress, my publisher Maclean’s, who are far less ideologically simpatico to me than NR, nevertheless understood the stakes — and helped get a disgusting law with a 100 percent conviction rate first stayed by a hitherto jelly-spined jurist and ultimately repealed by the Parliament of Canada. This too is a free-speech case. Free speech is about the right to thrash out ideas — on climate change, gay marriage, or anything else — in the public square, in bright sunlight. And you win a free-speech case by shining that sunlight on it, relentlessly. As we embark on our second year in the hell of the D.C. court system, that’s what I intend to do.”
From their disagreements on tactics, it’s almost as if National Review has lost its courage.
I suspect that NR is still bravely fighting its battles, but it’s exhibiting a very peculiar kind of courage.
For its April 7, 2003, issue, NR published an infamous cover story by David Frum that went far beyond observing the dovish streaks among libertarians and traditionalists to argue that paleoconservatives are actually wishing for our defeat and will take pleasure in its occurring.
“They began by hating the neoconservatives. They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.
“War is a great clarifier. It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen — and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.”
The editors didn’t pull any punches. On the cover and at the top of the page, the article was simply titled, “Unpatriotic Conservatives.”
It is difficult enough to imagine an NR cover story using such language about the Democratic Party, even though its current leader began his political career in the home of unrepentant domestic terrorists and chose to be pastored, as an adult, by a race-essentialist conspiracy monger who accused the United States government of creating AIDS as an act of attempted genocide. It’s quite impossible to picture National Review invoking hatred and treachery to describe those “compassionate conservatives” who support an activist federal government unbounded by our Constitution.
On June 28, 2010, National Review’s editors took a rare foray into a Republican primary battle for a U.S. Senate seat, endorsing “McCain, Once More,” over the conservative challenger J.D. Hayworth. It was a brave move, insofar as they must have remembered that many conservatives strongly opposed McCain in the 2008 presidential primaries and only supported him when the alternative was the radical Barack Obama; at the time I joked that Obama really was a “miracle worker” to get me to support McCain. The moderate “maverick” rewarded our reluctant support with a reluctant general-election campaign, giving the impression that he just wanted to lose with honor.
The editorial staff also showed some courage in publishing Andrew McCarthy’s blistering dissent. In arguing that NR should generally stay out of congressional primary races and should certainly have not endorsed the progressive McCain over Hayworth, he exposed the editors’ case for McCain as “depressingly weak and bereft of balance.”
What NR’s editors didn’t show was the courage of endorsing a qualified conservative challenger against a progressive Republican incumbent. It is that sort of courage that changes the political climate for the better: NR’s own hagiographers frequently remind us that you can draw a line from Buckley’s magazine to Goldwater’s failed presidential bid in 1964 to the Reagan landslide election in 1980.
NR’s endorsing McCain over Hayworth was a warm-up to what would come the following year, when the editors tried to clear the path for Mitt Romney over all likely Republican challengers.
On December 14, 2011, NRO published an editorial that would be reproduced in the December 31st print edition. The editors argued for “Winnowing the Field” by discarding Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann as unworthy of serious consideration, leaving only Romney, the dark horse Rick Santorum, and Obama’s former ambassador Jon Huntsman.
They disposed of Perry and Bachmann in only a few short sentences, and the editorial focused almost entirely on the former House Speaker: while the Republican nomination was still very much contested, NRO publicized their editorial with the largest font ever seen on their front page, announcing quite directly that National Review was simply “Against Gingrich.”
In the subsequent print edition, they paired their editorial with Mark Steyn’s cover story on “The Gingrich Gestalt” and a Roman Genn caricature of Gingrich as Warner Bros.’ Marvin the Martian.
National Review didn’t emphasize Steyn’s view that the choice between Gingrich and Romney is one that is “not worth making,” since both favor “unbounded micro-managerial faux-technocracy.” In a December 18, 2011, Corner post titled “Tweedlemitt and Tweedlenewt,” Steyn echoed Paul Rahe’s suspicion that a President Romney would likely drift into “extending the power and scope of the administrative entitlements state.”
And, once again, Andrew McCarthy took to NRO to dissent from the editors. In his December 17, 2011, piece, he outlined “Gingrich’s Virtues,” which he believes were shortchanged, and he argued that the editors could have just as easily warned against Romney and Hunstman’s numerous heresies against conservative orthodoxy. He wrote that all the candidates still deserved serious consideration at the end of 2011, and he urged National Review not to lose the conviction that has allowed it to endure for more than fifty years, that “the power of conservative ideas can trump personality and dramatically alter voters’ notions about who is electable.”
NR’s editors displayed a certain kind of courage to break so radically and unpersuasively from Steyn, McCarthy, and so much of its conservative readership. NRO even went so far as to attempt an end-of-the-year fundraising drive after the notorious editorial: on December 19th – less than a week after the “Against Gingrich” offensive – Kathryn Lopez praised the reader as the “Man of the Year” and passed him the hat. The comments have long since been scrubbed, but the reaction was so negative that the fundraiser was quietly ended without another word.
National Review continued to show a brave willingness to embarrass itself for the sake of Mitt Romney when, just before Easter of 2012, it published a cover story by Kevin Williamson purporting to reveal the truth about Mormonism, that “American Gospel.” The story actually provided no details about the religion’s history or the doctrines that separate it from the Christian orthodoxy that it denounces as apostasy. Instead, the piece was pure propaganda, not only for Mormonism but against its Christian opponents.
Before concluding with an explicit eye toward Mitt Romney’s electoral prospects, the article repeatedly smeared Christian opponents of Mormonism as uninformed, unhinged hypocrites who might not be genuine Christians in the first place.
The piece was shameful, and it prompted this evangelical Christian to cancel his subscription of more than a decade. NR’s promotion of this piece stood in stark contrast to their near-simultaneous firing of John Derbyshire for an article on race that he wrote elsewhere.
Even though Buckley himself once wrote that hatred of religion is incompatible with conservatism, NR had long tolerated Derb’s outright antagonism toward the belief in, in his words, an “invisible Sky Father.”
(A sometimes witty writer, Derbyshire really is a crank when it comes to religion. Having read Mere Christianity, he once pondered the appeal that the Anglican C.S. Lewis has across denominations, in a feature story The American Spectator published after his firing from NR: “It is in fact an interesting question, though one I shall leave for readers to ponder in their own time, why Lewis’s powers are great enough to excite such admiration while yet not great enough to persuade the admirers into his own sect of choice.” It isn’t an interesting question at all, since Lewis explicitly wrote for ecumenical Christianity; John Derbyshire quite literally doesn’t understand the first word in Mere Christianity, or at least the first word in its title.)
NR’s other writers had occasionally argued with Derb over the philosophical materialism that prompted him to emphasize genetic determinism over culture and parental nurture, but it was only when that determinism led to an overt race-essentialism that NR sent him packing.
Between Williamson’s cover story and Derbyshire’s quick dismissal, National Review sent an interesting message: mock faith, and the magazine will just disagree gently; smear believers en route to helping the GOP’s establishment candidate, and they’ll put you on the cover; but if you thoroughly outrage the sentries of political correctness, even writing somewhere else, National Review won’t be able to fire you quickly enough.
Here is the curious courage of National Review: it is a willingness to denounce dovish paleoconservatives as unpatriotic; to endorse the progressive McCain as he faces a primary challenge from a credible conservative; to savage the author of the Contract with America to clear the path for the author of the state-level precursor to ObamaCare; and to smear the defenders of Christian orthodoxy in order to improve the same managerial progressive’s chances in a general election.
Mark Steyn has expressed a great deal of gratitude for NR, both in a recent post at SteynOnline and in a recent Ricochet podcast with Power Line’s John Hinderaker and Fraters Libertas’ Brian Ward, starting around the 40-minute mark. But he also doesn’t hide frustration with its current posture.
“National Review is a landmark of conservatism, I owe Bill Buckley a lot, he was an early champion of mine when I appeared in Canadian and British and Irish and Australian papers but wasn’t really known in America. He was an early champion of mine, and I owe him a lot for that, but I don’t think there’s any denying that I’ve had a few differences with that magazine recently, and I hope they understand that I take their slogan seriously, ‘standing athwart history, yelling Stop.’
“I don’t want to run behind history, saying, ‘I don’t mind heading in that direction just as long as you go a bit slower, in second or third gear.’ That’s not enough for me, and on red-meat issues like Michael Mann’s hockey stick, I do want to stand athwart, yelling Stop, and I’m not denying that it hasn’t caused a few problems between us, but I’m still writing and I’m still going to write, and I’m glad it relieves me of having to provide live coverage, on the Corner, of the State of the Union or whatever. There are some strategic fallings out that are quite useful.”
I am likewise personally grateful for National Review, for the very early G-Files that helped me past event-driven discussions to the broader philosophical arguments underlying conservatism, and for introducing me to the writings of Steyn, McCarthy, and Victor Davis Hanson.
But I too am frustrated that, on the “red-meat issues,” National Review cannot be trusted to stand on principle.
I suspect it’s worse than Steyn describes. It’s not just that they won’t stand athwart progressivism: when it matters most, they’ll stand athwart conservatism and the principled individuals trying to rally to its defense.
The problem isn’t an unwillingness to pull the trigger: the problem is where they’re aiming their most potent rhetorical weapons.
John R.W. Kirke is a pseudonym of a Christian husband, father, and engineer who has written elsewhere under other names, including “Lawrence” in the comments at National Review Online. He remains deeply moved by the unpublished memoirs of Professor D. Kirke (1888-1949). • (6429 views)