THE REACTIONARY UTOPIAN
January 12, 2018
Journalism v. Conservatism
by Joe Sobran
fitzgerald griffin foundation
The National Review Years, November 5, 1990 – Words seem to form partnerships. At one time, you discriminated between. Now you discriminate against. “Discrimination” now betokens not a fine mind, but a character flaw: one that makes you Politically Incorrect, by the way.
Liberalism has succeeded in imposing its verbal prescriptions on the whole population: everyone must now mind even his or her pronouns, or face obloquy.
Liberalism has succeeded in imposing its verbal prescriptions on the whole population: everyone must now mind even his or her pronouns, or face obloquy. Politesse has shifted from “Negro” to “black” to “African-American,” each new whim of whoever decides these things as imperious as the last. A sectarian ideology has triumphed when it has turned itself into an etiquette that all must observe.
We all sense that the language has been marshaled into Political Correctness. Is there any central ordering principle?
I think so. It was expressed succinctly in the chant of the Stanford protestors: “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s gotta go.” We’re being nudged into a series of little repudiations of the Western patrimony. The changing rules embody this. Profanity and obscenity are okay; but new taboos forbid “racism,” “sexism,” and other Politically Incorrect attitudes. (Religion is purely optional, but bigotry must be “eliminated.”)
“Discrimination” now betokens not a fine mind, but a character flaw: one that makes you Politically Incorrect
In The Whig Interpretation of History, Herbert Butterfield lamented the tendency of historians to see the controversies of the past in the anachronistic categories of “progressive” and “reactionary”: Whig history interpreted the clash of, say, Reformers and Church not in terms the raging opponents would have understood, but as a battle between the forces of the future (Luther) and the forces of the past (Pope Leo X).
This way of flattening complicated disputes into easily grasped melodrama has trickled down into journalism. Many “news” stories have as their subtext the battle between Progressive good guys and Reactionary villains. Despite the official journalistic ethic of neutrality, unmistakable moral commitment creeps into news reports of conflict between pope and theologian, government and protestor, business and labor, white and black, male and female. We sense we’re getting cues as to which side we should be rooting for.
The Progressive forces are always driven by the best motives: they are compassionate, courageous, conscientious, enlightened, future-oriented, peace-loving. These terms all have a left-wing odor about them now (though the media rarely use the term “left- wing”). The Reactionaries, meanwhile, are driven by atavisms: hate, fear, superstition, greed, ignorance, selfishness, sheer resistance to “change.”
“Hate” has become associated exclusively with “right-wing” causes in journalistic discourse.
“Hate,” for example, has become associated exclusively with “right-wing” causes in journalistic discourse. (See Newsweek, passim.) No Progressive ever hates anyone, though he (or she) may feel righteous anger or rage. Journalese does use the term “right-wing” freely, but without defining it: it is a catchall for anything belonging to the dark past. Theocracy, capitalism, slavery, militarism: these are right wing. The fascist, the monarchist, the libertarian, the constitutionalist: all, somehow, right wing, though their only common denominator is that they all oppose socialism.
What conservatives call “bias” in the media is really more like a Weltanschauung, half-conscious, but shaping and shading every- thing. Journalists may try hard to be accurate and to suppress overt partisanship; they usually don’t realize they are taking sides in the very categories they start with. They don’t understand that there are alternative categories.
Behind the Times
In the mind of the thoroughly assimilated journalist, the conservative is not someone who has a specific philosophy to be discussed, listened to, debated. He’s simply someone who’s behind the times, clinging to the disreputable and embarrassing past that all educated people should have outgrown. The conservative is not so much wrong as defunct, doomed to extinction. Why debate a dinosaur?
The conservative is not so much wrong as defunct, doomed to extinction. Why debate a dinosaur?
The ultimate Progressive categories are not heaven and hell, or good and evil, or order and chaos, but Future and Past. Even the cusswords of the Progressive are chronological: archaic, outdated, Neanderthal, medieval, antediluvian, fossilized, obsolete, mossbound, prehistoric, antiquated, troglodytic, thirteenth- (or eighteenth-) century, etc. To the liberal these are ultimate condemnations, unanswerable. The Past, him bad!
So for the dramaturgy of journalism, the problem in every controversy is a simple matter of typecasting: Which side represents the Past, and which the Future? And this sort of stereotyping, with its built-in predictions as to who’s bound to prevail, has led journalists into a series of embarrassing errors. Reagan was Reactionary; therefore he was not a viable candidate. The pro-life movement was Reactionary; therefore it wasn’t news (unlike, say, the civil-rights movement). The Shah of Iran and Somoza were Reactionary; therefore they were bound to be supplanted by Progressive forces. (And what do you do with phenomena like 2 Live Crew, which represents free speech — Progressive — but is horribly sexist — Reactionary?)
History itself has begun to demolish the Progressive mythology. Socialism is in moral, political, and economic ruins. The noble savages of the Third World have shown us what comes after “liberation.” And it’s all so tiresome. We have seen the Future, and it has acquired its own discreditable past. Progressive hope is just about used up. But journalism hasn’t yet learned any other language.
Copyright © 2018 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This article by Joe Sobran was published originally in National Review magazine on November 5, 1990. This is one of 34 articles in the Sobran anthology, Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years published by FGF Books in 2012. The book is currently out-of-stock, but the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation hopes to reprint soon.
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Or call toll-free at 1-877-726-0058 to donate by phone. For more information, write to Fran Griffin at fgf@fgfBooks.com Joe Sobran (1946-2010) was an author, political commentator, and syndicated columnist for over 35 years. Sign-Up to receive weekly columns by Sobran and other writers.