Right-wing media's big con: Why privileged, powerful conservatives pretend they’re underdog insurgents

David Frum and Ross Douthat's response to Garry Trudeau and Charlie Hebdo/PEN debate is disingenuous and dishonest

Published May 5, 2015 8:20PM (EDT)

Ross Douthat
Ross Douthat

Explaining last week in The New York Times why the Poets, Essayists, and Novelists American Center is honoring Charlie Hebdo at a gala ceremony, PEN officers wrote that “The question for us is not whether the cartoons deserve an award for literary merit but whether they disqualify Charlie Hebdo from a hard-earned award for courage.” In PEN’s view, the cartoonists’ valor lay “in their dauntless fortitude patrolling the outer precincts of free speech.”

But two weeks earlier, another cartoonist, Garry Trudeau, accepting a George Polk award for his own work as creator of the Doonesbury strip, said that Hebdo’s patrol had crossed the border beyond which “free-expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious” and is “its own kind of fanaticism.” “By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons,” Trudeau contended, “Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voilà—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that.”

Trudeau wasn’t excusing the murders of Hebdo staff. He certainly wasn’t “lecturing his murdered peers” that they’d had it coming, as the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat claimed in an ideologically obsessive, morally confused column that ended with Douthat himself lecturing the slain cartoonists about “progressivism’s present confidence (even in the face of murder) in its prescribed hierarchies of power and victimhood…”

But when Trudeau noted an undeniably causal connection between the cartoons and the consequences, he revivified a hard truth that Douthat ducked and that PEN overlooked: Courage without merit doesn’t always justify the cause or message it claims to be promoting, and the blood that is shed in its struggles  – even its own blood -- doesn’t automatically, retroactively sanctify its noble-sounding claims.

When Trudeau added that “Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean,” he really got under the skins of conservatives such as Douthat and the former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, who are becoming frantic in their efforts to blur the meanings of “privileged” and “non-privileged” in order to justify their increasingly embarrassing defense of inequalities and degradations that are poisoning the whole society and their own movement’s base. Sooner or later, they’ll have to face this. But as long as they can find feckless liberals to bash, they’ll put off facing it.

Frum launched the conservative attack on Trudeau (and, with a characteristically partisan spin, on The Nation and The New Yorker) in his Atlantic blog  by defending Jews. He wrote that “Garry Trudeau is not the first person to insinuate that France and Europe are guilty of over-concern for the sensibilities of Jews at the expense of the sensibilities of Muslims, …. But Trudeau is the first prominent person identified with the mainstream of American liberalism to advance the point, and that represents a milestone of sorts. But a milestone toward what?"

The only milestone here was Frum’s own breathtaking insinuation, which he left hanging in his question mark, that Trudeau is as guilty of anti-Semitism as “the rulers of Iran,” to whom Frum linked him because Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sponsored Holocaust-denial conferences including anti-Semitic cartoons. Contrary to Frum’s suggestion and, indeed, to his own perverse performance, Trudeau never insinuates. It’s not his way of communicating. What he actually does is try to nourish consensus about where to draw red lines of editorial “good judgment and common sense,” as he put it, against gratuitous, childish attacks on Muslims or anyone else, including Jews. Conservatives disparage this effort only at the cost of betraying their own commitments to republican ordered liberty and, indeed, only at their own peril.

Frum avoids facing this by telling us that Trudeau’s solicitude for the non-privileged is “held by many influential people” – by which Frum does not mean the many privileged conservatives like himself, who have ample voice in, and often control of, editorial pages, cable television networks, and radio call-in shows, but does mean the feckless liberals they have already defeated politically as well as polemically. The reason for this dodge is that if conservatives ever had to acknowledge the breadth of their victory, they’d have no one to blame for its worsening consequences but themselves.

So, on they go. Frum is keen to liberate Hebdo cartoonists, and freedom speech generally, from censorious liberal finger-wagging, and to do so by lowering Trudeau’s “red line” protecting all minorities. What Trudeau actually did say is that although some anti-Semitic equivalents of Hebdo-s anti-Muslim satires are illegal in France, that country’s “tradition of free expression is too full of contradictions to fully embrace.” He observed, incontrovertibly, that when Hebdo had fired one of its columnists for refusing to retract a rabidly anti-Semitic column, “some red line… was in place for one minority but not another,” and he urged that Europe’s Muslim immigrants be similarly protected by a line drawn not in law or in blood but only in the kind of self-restraint that’s essential to public discourse: “It’s not self-censorship, it’s emotional intelligence,” as he put it to "Meet the Press." “Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility,” he said in his Polk speech.

The problem is that Frum already has an indication of what his new, gratuitously vulgar and demagogic strategy will yield. That the attack by two gunmen on a Muhammed cartoon-drawing contest in Dallas was an outrage doesn’t retroactively justify that stupid, gratuitous, Hebdo-like provocation masquerading as “free speech.” Again, the point isn’t that the contest should have been barred legally; it’s that, as Trudeau put it, “Society has to decide collectively what’s untouchable” – meaning via a consensus that isn’t imposed by law or in the name of “The General Will” but that emerges and evolves provisionally, through democratic, non-violent give and take, some of it provocative, but none of it gratuitously hate-mongering.

Such civic-republican sentiments were long championed by conservatives, from Edmund Burke to Robert Bork, as well as by liberals. Yet in voicing them now, Trudeau has run afoul of a new conservative strategy, one that, especially since the Citizens United ruling, but really ever since Rupert Murdoch’s media arrived in America in the late 1970s, has all-but abandoned civic decency for a free-speech absolutism reminiscent of the left-wing Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the 1960s.

As Theodore B. Olsen, George W. Bush’s former solicitor-general, put the new conservative proposition in 2009, “If dancing nude and burning the flag are protected by the First Amendment, why would it not protect robust speech about the people who are running for office?’’ Olsen was speaking then as the lead advocate for Citizens United, the nonprofit corporation that produced “Hillary: The Movie’’ to swift-boat then Senator Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign without identifying by name the citizens who would be exercising that kind of free speech by funding and authorizing the movie.

In other words: Why not let Charlie Hebdo or Occupy protestors rant all they want, as long as we can do it more loudly and expensively, without having to identify ourselves as individual citizens on a level playing field? The problem here is that freedom of speech means little if one side has megaphones while the other has laryngitis from straining to be heard; ironically and revealingly, the use of megaphones was denied to Occupy protestors in New York’s Zuccotti Park and other locations. Do Frum and other conservatives really mean to defend the relentless disparagement and disruption of our always fragile civic understandings by a capitalism that would have appalled Adam Smith and John Locke? Mightn’t they pause just a minute to consider that that’s exactly what they’re doing when they disparage nurturers of a better civic-republican consensus like Trudeau?

Alas, Frum’s column was far from the only unintentionally hilarious demonstration of privileged and powerful conservatives insisting that they’re underdog insurgents against privileged liberal elites. Douthat’s Times column excoriates “a moral theory popular among our intelligentsia, one that the Atlantic’s Frum, in a response to Trudeau, distilled as follows: In any given conflict, first ‘identify the bearer of privilege,’ then ‘hold the privilege-bearer responsible.’”

In 830 words, Douthat exhibits an advanced case of Ideological Displacement Syndrome, telling us that “the western left,” “the contemporary left,” “today’s progressives,” “contemporary progressive” thinking, “idealistic and progressive-minded figures,” and “progressivism’s present confidence,” and “today’s progressivism" are to blame for crises initiated and exceeded by elements in his own movement that he is relentlessly silent about. It makes you wonder if he’s delusional or just lying with a priestly cunning that’s analogous in its own way to Frum’s insinuations of anti-Semitism.

I won’t unpack these embarrassments here, other than to note that in his complaint that progressivism’s “prescribed hierarchies of power and victimhood…  deny history’s true complexity,” Douthat preaches that “Rather than a clear arc, [history] offers what T. S. Eliot called ‘many cunning passages’ — in which persecutors and persecuted can trade places, and even the well-meaning can lose their way entirely.” But history also offers D.H. Lawrence’s warning that influential people shouldn’t stimulate others’ “personal, superficial, temporary desires” but “tell us of our own deeper desires.” The powers that conservatives champion have been doing the former, with increasing velocity.

Writers like Frum and Douthat dodge this truth in order to distract themselves and the rest of us from having to face what their own movement is doing to its base and, indeed, to themselves. Lord knows, feckless liberal elites are easy enough to satirize, but their often-silly, counterproductive reactions are just that – reactive, not causal, to the devastation that is upon our civil society. Far closer to parody and ripe for satire was the “Disinvitation Dinner” that Yale’s richly funded William F. Buckley Program  organized to honor the highly privileged and influential conservative columnist George Will, who’d been invited to speak at Scripps College but then had been disinvited.

The pretext for the dinner was that Will had been martyred to privileged liberal censoriousness. A celebratory article about it in the Weekly Standard -- written by Daniel Gelernter, a recent Yale graduate and embittered son of the nearly-martyred conservative writer and Yale Prof. David Gelernter, who’d been maimed by an explosive package sent by the Unabomber – implied that the Buckley Program was honoring George Will off campus, in Manhattan because he’d somehow been disinvited or otherwise barred from Yale.

But Will has never been disinvited by Yale; he spoke there and stayed overnight there in 2013, at the invitation of the Buckley Society itself. Yet the very headline on Gelernter’s article implied the opposite: “College Kicks off ‘Disinvitation Dinner’ by Hosting Speaker Shunned by University.” What college? What university? Does that matter to ideologues and propagandists with money to burn? The Yale Buckley Program dinner was a black-tie affair in the Hotel Pierre, although Gelernter tactfully left out those details about this black-tie insurgency against privilege. Gelernter’s article and Will’s own astonishingly churlish, wildly exaggerated remarks are well-worth adapting for a satire of such insurgencies.

Not only does Frum, who knows better, insist that “many influential people” [privileged liberals] hold Trudeau’s views; he also tells us that “many” people whom Trudeau regards as non-privileged are committing hate crimes against French Jews and others that are convulsing France. Many? Two can play at that game. "Many" groups can be said to be this or that. Is that fair, or even wise?

I happen to know something about where Trudeau’s much wiser sensibility is coming from. Although I’ve never actually met him, he and I were undergraduates in Yale’s residential Davenport College (as were George W. Bush, and the financier Steven Schwarzman) in the late 1960s, when Trudeau began his Doonesbury strip in the Yale Daily News and when Yale President Kingman Brewster, Jr. was saying things like the following to us (as well as to Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, and Howard Dean, all undergraduates during his presidency):

“To a remarkable extent this place has detected and rejected those who wear the colors of high purpose falsely,” Brewster told my own entering class in 1965, possibly with the Berkeley Free Speech Movement on his mind. “This is done not by administrative edict or official regulation [but] through an ethic of mutual trust and responsibility among students and faculty that lies deep in our origins and traditions.”

Before you cast that as a snob’s boast about an in-crowd, remember that the civil rights movement was advancing on similar premises at the time. At Yale’s 1964 Commencement Brewster had presented an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King Jr., then fresh out of jail. “The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept,” Brewster would write later. “In commonplace terms, it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of the stranger.”

That, too, can’t be guaranteed by administrative edict or official regulation. Brewster understood that a liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold voluntarily a generosity of spirit like this that neither the state nor markets can supply. Therefore, he knew, liberal citizen leaders have to be nurtured and trained all the more subtly and intensively – not only in elite colleges but in church basements, immigrant settlement houses, and civic and sporting associations of all kinds.

Doonesbury conveyed that truth to many of us students not by preaching or declaiming or insinuating but, as in all great cartooning, by nourishing a critical, generous sensibility with unspoken irony and humor, in images conveying social understandings that can’t be legislated or propounded. Whether he depicted Brewster bemusedly as “President King” or Yale quarterback Brian Dowling (“B.D.”) as stoic even when at a loss on the field, Trudeau revivified ever day the balance of unspoken affirmations and let-downs that the real Brewster sketched by writing, “There is no greater challenge than to have someone relying on you; no greater satisfaction than to vindicate his expectation.”

Far from assuming the best, not the worst, of the stranger, Hebdo has been an equal-opportunity offender. It has showed no more care than Trudeau’s conservative critics have done for the humble, silent majority of strangers, many of them fleeing not Mohammed (whom they cherish), but tyranny, orchestrated hatred, and kleptocracy perpetrated in his name.

Privileged conservatives who’ve made such a great show of defending silent majorities whose members seek only to work hard and play by the rules shouldn’t betray them now by defending Hebdo against civic-republican critics like Trudeau by emulating those who would dance nude or burn the American flag or smear Muhammed-- all in order to justify the retaliatory “speech” of anonymous, moneyed privilege that is breaking their own followers’ rules and hardening their hearts against people whose offenses are at worst complicit in, but not causal to, the devastation that has made America an un-developing country culturally and economically.

Douthat ended his column on Trudeau by excoriating “today’s progressivism as a force that has consistently liberated adults at the expense of children’s basic rights.” But the greatest devastation of families is occurring in red states, where conservatives control politics and schools and progressives have scant influence. This devastation being driven by powerful, privileged entities that are dispossessing and degrading millions of Americans’ options and – please note, Ross Douthat – their dignity: When Calvin Klein “kiddie porn” ads depicted pre-pubescent youths in come-hither poses on the sides of public buses in New York City some years ago, no conservative writer noted that it was private investors in free markets who had put them there and that these market-come-ons were removed only thanks to protests from citizens bearing the non-market, civic understandings of the kind that Doonesbury nurtures and that black-tie insurgencies at the Pierre disparage.

By Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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Charlie Hebdo David Frum Editor's Picks Garry Trudeau George Will Ross Douthat