Inspired by a nice, long piece by Charles Homans in the Washington Monthly about the birth and death of the conservative web magazine Culture11, we're again talking about what conservatives do and don't get about culture and how to write about it. First some summary of Homans' essay.
He starts with Conor Friedersdorf's idea to "save conservative journalism," which he eventually articulated in a great piece on Culture11 called "Electric Kool-Aid Conservatism." Friedersdorf, a fairly well-respected young journalist, suggested the right "has a problem with narrative," and that rather than activists, it needs writers who can show through stories why conservatism makes sense. He paired up with Joe Carter, who ran the Christian blog Evangelical Outpost and worked on Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign, and David Kuo, a repentant former Bush staffer, to start Culture11. The site's goal was to become a kind of sounding board for young conservatives thinking about popular culture in ways that went beyond the narrow scope of Republican politics.
Two quotes from Homans to explain how that turned out:
On its surface, the softly launched beta (test) version of Culture11 hewed closely to the original vision, down to its Slateish design. Poking around the site was a bit like wandering into the Christian rock section of a record store: the bands were recognizably bands, with electric guitars and vaguely countercultural clothing, but there was something … different about them, the musicians just a little too healthy looking to be real rock stars.
The cultural coverage that had been Culture11’s original raison d’être proved to be a bit tricky. The let’s-see-what-sticks approach with which the site was launched had produced contradictory ambitions—Carter’s socially conservative safe zone, Friedersdorf’s electric Kool-Aid conservatism—which, while not entirely incompatible, did make it a curious beast; there was a transparent absurdity to a journalistic enterprise with George Bush Sr.’s drug czar at the head of its board of directors attempting to take stylistic cues from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The goal of providing conservative journalists a place to write for their fellow conservatives about cultural subjects gave the lesser features and reviews by young writers the sheltered-workshop aura of a college newspaper, and occasionally dipped into the kind of "these kids today" cultural commentary that right-of-center magazines have never been short of.
Culture11 was big and diverse enough that it occasionally produced some interesting reading. But that "something … different" Homans mentions was equally apparent – people my age writing with an "oh this troubled world" weariness, illustrating all over again the new conservative culture critics don't quite understand what they're getting into. Editor Joe Carter admits that Culture11 had no idea how to talk about rap music, and he was famously involved in censoring a dissenting post about hook-up culture. ("My decision has less to do with [the post] than my preference, as both a conservative and an editor, for discouraging moral stupidity.") I generally respect his appreciation for popular culture, but that kind of "not on my site!" or "this far but no further" attitude is the kind of thing one expects of staid old conservatives, and, I'm sorry, but under-30 conservatives who really know the culture we're talking about will – and did – quickly lose patience. Either it's a place where we really wrestle over ideas or it's not.
Which brings me to the thread I started a while back about "conservative safe zones," which are quickly proving to be as counterproductive as the Christian "safe zones" I've always detested. Friedersdorf wanted conservative writers to do real journalism and tell real stories, so why can't they do it in real publications? I'll let Homans take it away:
I think Friedersdorf was right in the first place. Tom Wolfe didn’t need a conservative magazine to do what he did—in fact, he succeeded largely because he wasn’t writing for one. Young journalists, of course, work with the opportunities that are available to them, but I would have preferred to see Culture11’s best talent writing for the actual Slate (which does, after all, publish plenty of conservative writers) rather than a self-consciously right-of-center version of it. With their online sanctuary gone, I was looking forward to seeing their bylines elsewhere, challenging and being challenged by editors and institutions of other stripes.
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