The LA Weekly's astute John Powers, a self-described economic lefty, expresses his envy of right-wing journalism in his column this week. Powers celebrates the Weekly Standard, which "woos you by saying, 'We're having big fun over here on the right,' " over The Nation, which he mocks as "a profoundly dreary magazine" that is as "gray and unappetizing as homework."
"Reading the average Nation editorial is like trying to gobble a box of dry muesli," Powers writes. Its "headlines are warnings, not enticements," and a "scolding puritanism" drives the magazine. Meanwhile, "high spirits course through the Standard," led by "a core of enjoyable writers, notably David Brooks, Christopher Caldwell (whose article on Islam in France is one of the best things I've read this year) and David Tell, probably the country's most compelling editorialist."
That the Weekly Standard should ascend to relative greatness and leave The Nation in its dust is, for Powers, an inversion of the natural order. He writes:
Back in the '60s, the left was the home of humor, iconoclasm, pleasure. But over the last two decades, the joy has gone out of the left—it now feels hedged in by shibboleths and defeatism—while the right has been having a gas, be it Lee Atwater grooving to the blues, Rush Limbaugh chortling about Feminazis or grimly gleeful Ann Coulter serving up bile as if it were chocolate mousse, even dubbing Katie Couric "the affable Eva Braun of morning television."
The image of Powers tapping covetously on the window of the right-wing funhouse is a thing of wonderment. But he isn't the only envy case out there. TheNation's Christopher Hitchens, whom Powers applauds in his piece as one of the few "memorable" Nation writers (along with Alexander Cockburn and John Leonard), consummated his right-wing envy in the '90s by switching sides on a few key issues. The left-talking, right-hitting Hitchens infuriates the left rank-and-file by excoriating Bill Clinton as "corrupt," opposing abortion, and supporting war against "Islamic fascism."
Elsewhere on the envy front we find Slate's own Michael Kinsley, who having once played a lefty on Crossfire, recently confessed his devotion to the right-tilt of Brit Hume's Special Report on Fox News. (Ordinarily, Kinsley satisfies his right-wing envy by hiring and publishing conservatives instead of watching them on television.) Mickey " kausfiles" Kaus is another local suspect, although I believe Kaus had as much fun when he was a straight-ahead lefty as he does as a neo-righty today.
Nation columnist (and MSNBC.com blogger) Eric Alterman rarely loiters far from left orthodoxy, but I sense more than a smidgen of right-wing envy in the butcher bludgeon of his work. Did Alterman, who has been known to compose measured and thoughtful copy, observe the success of cannon mouth Rush Limbaugh and say, "Yes, I can make that sort of demagogic noise from the left"? And, without a doubt, the busybodies behind Media Whores Online expose their right-wing envy by aping the methods and practices of their intellectual ancestors—Lee Atwater, Sen. Joe McCarthy, and Accuracy in Media's Reed Irvine.
Obviously, the right's superior financial backing accounts for much of the envy: The Weekly Standard, owned by Rupert Murdoch,prints on glossy paper and runs fancy illustrations. The Nation, owned by a liberal gaggle including Paul Newman, ships on budget. But it's not just money that makes right writing so much fun. While the right seeks converts, trying both to persuade and entertain, the left spends its journalistic energy policing the movement. Imagine The Nation running a weekly column about nothing, called "Casual," as the Standard does. Also, conservative journalists are more likely to allow readers to enjoy a magazine article without strong-arming them into signing the ideology oath that seems to come packed with most lefty journalism. For instance, when the Standard's David Brooks profiled "Patio Man," the acquisitive consumer who haunts Home Depot looking for things to buy, he both laughed at its subject and exalted him without fear of contradiction.
Of course, lefty journalism needn't turn right to improve itself. But Powers hints that the source of The Nation'sillness is the Stalinist impulse to prescribe proper attitudes toward culture, art, and journalism. A Nation writerwho, say, wants to use humor or wit to make his point mustn't abuse gays, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, Ralph Nader, foreigners, women, the infirm, working stiffs, Indians, Mohammed (but Jesus is fair game), whales, or any cultural stereotype. This leaves him just one angle from which to compose his point: Stupid White Men. Such is the state of left journalism that Michael Moore has made a career out of painting and repainting this mono-mural.
How the anything-goes drug-and-sex party that the cultural left threw in the '60s segued into an Amish wake featuring stern readings from the joyless work of Barbara Ehrenreich, the scoldings of Todd Gitlin, and the catechisms of Richard Goldstein is anybody's guess. Would Emma Goldman dance with these folks? Or would she make a beeline for the house on the right, which looks like a brothel in comparison to the one on the left? I await the Powers sequel.
(Do you suffer right-wing envy? Or, are you a righty who wishes he had been born a lefty? Send comments, tips, and personal confessions to PressBox@hotmail.)