What’s Doing in Dittoland





Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois.

A holiday drive last week doubled as a journey back to the days of weird monastic debates. On AM radio Rush and his ditto-callers were engaged in an issue requiring all their mental prowess. The angel capacity of a pinhead had been replaced with this equally ethereal question: Does Bill Clinton have an evil political" center" (as in"moral center") or is he merely the superficial opportunist he appears to be? Either way, of course, he was doomed to damnation, and the fact that he no longer holds public office concerned neither Rush nor dittodom.

When I first tuned in, Rush was in the midst of a severely agitated lecture on Clinton's ideological commitment to"100 percent, full-fledged liberalism"-whatever that means-which placed our host firmly in the first school of thought. Clinton was pure, premeditated, leftist evil. A caller soon challenged. Clinton, he said, was no ideologue. It is clear to all who are holy and just that"every single speech" Clinton had ever given-no room for exceptions here--had been constituted only by"what you want to hear." The former president had no" center," no ideology, no convictions. Rush first stuck to his guns. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Rush pronounced the caller correct. Bill is an opportunistic, politically center-less blackguard who speechifies only on that which Americans want to hear. He's always been that way. Yep, concluded Rush before a commercial break, Clinton is a devout ideologue.

This wholesale self-contraposition committed not once, but twice, and framed within the span of no less than two minutes, gave no one pause. The show proceeded on the premise of perfect harmony.

I hadn't heard Limbaugh's show for a couple years, so its snippets of logic and American history were real treats. Having condemned citizen Clinton as both an intolerant ideologue and political chameleon, Rush went on to say the scoundrel had"promoted segregation" while president; he defined affirmative action as a"liberal" effort solely intended to show whites how it felt to be on the receiving end of things; and for good measure, he somehow managed to work in the number of lives lost during the Civil War, missing the mark by 120,000. All this, within an astounding one hour of air time. It was only through great misfortune that I let slip the other two.

Still, any time spent with Rush and his callers provides a valuable refresher course in populist conservatism-a brawling conservatism that fascinates. Its lessons run far deeper than its apparent superficialities. Thought is the instrument of a street-fight: insularly bred, antagonistically tribal, and always narcissistic. Within the traditional formula Reason = Truth = Reality, populist reasoning, which of course establishes truth, lacks the potential subversiveness of opposition. Rather, it constantly self-justifies. Subversive reason is consciously suppressed so that populist conservatism may achieve a one-dimensional reality. In short, it becomes fat, dumb, and happy, reflecting the axiomatic reality of Herbert Marcuse's famous One-Dimensional Man. Filtered through the prism of populist conservatism, all complexities-be they social, economic or political--emerge in the singular and simple light of capitalism's holiness, the West's nobility, and individualism's mythic sacrosanctity-not to mention Clinton's enduring evil. Shallowness is regarded as a virtue.

Which naturally brings to mind the Limbaughesque author of The Book of Virtues and other classics, William Bennett. Here's a fellow who, while tirelessly exhorting us in 2000 to seek higher moral ground, actually said on national television that W.'s anti-Catholic, racist, homophobic primary campaign in South Carolina was"brilliant." I confess to never having had the stomach to read his Book of Virtues, but I once fortified myself with sufficient chemicals to slosh through The De-Valuing of America. If the former is as shallow as the latter I've missed nothing but another romp through hypocrisy. And in competition with smugness, hypocrisy is Bennett's most cherished personal virtue.

Just as he asserts irreconcilable versions of morality on the airwaves, in De-Valuing he is laughably hypocritical and outraged, especially when it comes to battling what Bennett regards as devious intellectuals--meaning, in his book, pretty much anyone employed by an institute of higher learning. They are all suspect. The choicest hypocrisy arrives as early as page 36, where Bennett writes he is more conservative today"not because of an allegiance to an abstract political theory, but because of what I have seen with my own eyes." Sure the statement is naive, but what makes it so hypocritical to boot is that nine pages earlier he had blistered the"liberal elite" for holding positions not founded on the pillars of"intellect" and"disinterested thinking." Go figure.

Bennett somberly writes that his"disinterested" observations are based on"substantial amounts of anecdotal material" (12). He further maintains his man-on-the-street, invariably conservative conclusions are superior to those of research-laden intellectuals, because they only look for shards of evidence that sustain their political prejudice. Yes, he wrote that. The man has two graduate degrees, but in service to a happy, one-dimensional conservatism, he fails to note for lay readers what he surely knows: that"anecdotal" evidence is the worst kind of tripe that reinforces racism, sexism, misguided nationalism, and every other personal distortion. His book left the universe of One-Dimensional conservative populists quite self-satisfied that any deeper analysis of American culture only"de-values" America. Better to settle for the readily understandable.

11For talking-head conservatives in all media these days, reality is a frightful prospect and the readily understandable is their salvation, or so they believe. The human condition is enormously complex, of course, but Bennett, Limbaugh, & Brethren have promoted shallowness in understanding that condition only to gain electorally. That's politics, and as far as it goes, so far so good. But a vibrant political and social movement, to remain vibrant, requires an oppositional voice from within. In the long-term absence of internal opposition, the movement stagnates. One-Dimensionality reigns. Having perceived discord as a threat to its comfortable base rather than an instrument of evolution, populist conservatism has achieved a milestone: the beginning of the end.

11That it has been reduced to debating non-issues such as the origin of a past president's" center" goes beyond mere amusement for outside observers. It is, instead, a symptom of impending flat-lining.


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