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.

 
About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

  • http://www.firstthings.com Joe Carter

    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.

    I honestly don’t think you completely agree with that, David. As the editor of Patrol there are a number of articles that you would say “not on my site!” or “this far but no further.” If you did not it would quickly turn into a cesspool where people would be claiming that Obama was not an American or that gay people should be stoned.

    If “under-30 conservatives” have no patience for standards then I would say that they probalbly need to revaluate what they mean when they call themselves “conservative.”

    Also, you noted that I was “famously involved in censoring a dissenting post about hook-up culture.” If by “censoring” you mean “moving the post to another area of our website” then I guess you have a point—and that censorship no longer has any recognizable meaning.

    It is also funny that the under-30 conservatives lost patience with me moving a post (a truly morally stupid post) written by a over-40 liberal-libertarian. The fact that there was so much faux-outrage over my moving the post rather than the stupid premise of the original article shows that we conservatives are losing our grasp of what really matters.

    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.

    I love Patrol magazine and have been a big fan since its inception so I’m surprised to hear that you “destest” it yourself. ; )

    Seriously, Patrol is conservative, Christian “safe zone” for young, hip, conservative Christians. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

    Friedersdorf wanted conservative writers to do real journalism and tell real stories, so why can’t they do it in real publications?

    Good question. You’ve worked for Slate.com. How many have they published? They’ve been around for 15 years and publish several articles a day. If they are open to conservatives publishing real journalism then we should be able to find thousands of examples of where they have published such authors. Think we would be able to do that?

    The truth is that there are very few outlets that would publish such material from conservatives. That’s just the way it is, and unfortunately we conservatives—particularly conservative readers of these publications—have let it happen for far too long.

  • http://www.patrolmag.com/sessions David

    Joe – thanks for the patient response.

    You’re technically right about editorial control – of course there are articles we all find inappropriate for our publications. But the internet reacts strongly and negatively to certain things being “removed from the discussion” after they’ve made it through. Its especially bad for conservatives trying to particpate in the conversation, because it plays right to the perceptions of us as the perpetually prudish dissenters. As you guys eventually decided, it was a good opportunity for people to debate and expose a stupid argument as such. I have a strict no-removal policy for that reason — regardless of the circumstances, unpublishing is always made into a bigger deal than it is. But I definitely give you that C11’s “censorship” backlash was faux outrage over something stupid, and apologize if I’ve only perpetuated that further.

    As far as “safe zones,” again, perhaps its more about perception. If you start counting, sure Patrol has more conservative articles than otherwise. But that hardly means we would turn down a persuasive argument for gay marriage or abortion; if it makes me think, I’d want readers to have the same opportunity. And in our case, Patrol doesn’t have a stated ideological image we’re trying to maintain, so we’re free to publish things we might strongly disagree with. We have a good number of left-of-center readers who would feel a lot less comfortable if Patrol projected itself as a conservative safe zone.

    And about Slate, I encourage conservatives to give it a shot. It is first and foremost a contrarian publication, which opens many doors for analysis with a conservative sensibility. Slate editors have their viewpoints and filters, but if it’s a persuasive, interesting argument, they’ll probably publish it. I think it’s important to get past the idea that “I’m a conservative, so I’ll have better luck with a conservative magazine.” If we’re really interested in writing well about things that matter to the whole culture, it will fit in any number of places.

  • http://www.firstthings.com Joe Carter

    but under-30 conservatives who really know the culture we’re talking about will – and did – quickly lose patience.

    Sorry, I couldn’t let this pass without comment… ; )

    The idea that that the under-30 crowd “really knows this culture” is cute in a “Ah, the wisdom of the young…” way but it is also completley wrong. You can’t play the Generation Gap card because there is no real gap between your generation and mine—Generation X.

    I believe I can honestly say that I’ve listened to more rap music, seen more R-rated movies, played more video games, and watched more MTV-level dreck television than any average under-30 Patrol reader (that’s not a boast, by the way, but more of a comment on my sad life). The reason is twofold: (1) I’m old (39) so I’ve had more time to consume pop culture and (2) the stuff you have now isn’t new—in fact, we invented a lot of it (i.e., hip hop, rap, online gaming).

    The reason I said that C11 “had no idea how to talk about [gansta] rap music” is because there is almost nothing new that can be said about it. Most of it is crap. It was crap when I was listening to Easy E and Ice-T in the 80s and its even gotten to be stinkier crap now. Nothing has changed but the names on the albums and the amount of bling that is worn (yeah, and we invented the word “bling” too).

    The reason we had so many young people writing with an “oh this troubled world” weariness about junk like rap music is because that is really all that can be said about it from a conservative perspective. It’s not a generational thing, it’s a conservative thing. ; )

  • http://www.firstthings.com Joe Carter

    As far as “safe zones,” again, perhaps its more about perception.

    True. What I meant by the term—and meant it as a compliment—was that Patrol is a place where conservative Christian writers (and readers) can feel “safe” about expressing their conservative Christian opinions without having to apologize or qualify them.

    This is not to say that all publications should conform to such a standard, but it is one that is desperately needed for young conservatives. They need places where they can write and hone their thinking without having to feel that they are the oddballs in the room. Without such venues we’ll have the same problem we do in academia where less-than-courageous Christians bite-their tongues for fear that they will never get hired/tenure.

    If you start counting, sure Patrol has more conservative articles than otherwise. But that hardly means we would turn down a persuasive argument for gay marriage or abortion; if it makes me think, I’d want readers to have the same opportunity.

    This is certainly a noble purpose, though I don’t think it is the most noble. The ancient Greeks understood the difference between wisdom and sophistry in a way that we modern Americans often do not. To them the idea that airing both sides of an issue was sufficient for the truth of the matter to be decided would have been absurd. Rhetoric can be used for harm as well as for good. It is not a neutral tool. To simply throw out both sides of an idea and let the people choose which is the wiser can be irresponsible and dangerous.

    For example, what if someone were to write a persusive argument—to use an extreme and inflammatory example—condoning incest. Let’s also assume that the argument, as you said, “makes me think.” Would it be the right thing to do to publish such an article?

    I would say no for two reasons, one based on motive and the other based on outcome. If you were to publish the article only because you knew that no one was actually going to be persuaded, then you were not really encouraging an intellectually honest discussion. Your motive would be, at worse, to stir up needless controversy or, at best, to inoculate the public by presenting a bad idea (but this would require publishing a rebuttal alongside the original).

    If you published the article knowing that some people were going to be persuaded by the argument (and thus act on that knowledge) then you would be complicit in the evil outcome. If you published a convincing argument for incest and someone was convinced enough to commit incest with their kin, then you would morally culpable. The same holds true for issues such as abortion or gay marriage. If Patrol were to publish a convincing argument—a persuasive bit of sophistry—for why abortion should be allowed, the Patrol would be responsible—at least in some small way—for encouraging this evil.

    And about Slate, I encourage conservatives to give it a shot. It is first and foremost a contrarian publication, which opens many doors for analysis with a conservative sensibility.

    That’s a fair point. By implying that Slate often excludes conservatives it could be viewed as if I were saying that they were “liberal.” While it is much more liberal than it used to be (even under Kinsey) it is, for better or worse, more reflexively contrarian than anything else.

    But I still think my main point holds. You won’t find, relatively speaking, many distinctly “conservative” voices at Slate even when the conservative position is more contrarian than conventional wisdom.

    By the way, I also want to point out for anyone reading this that I am a big fan of you, Alisa, and Patrol. I don’t want to give the impression by my tone that whatever slight disagreements we might have change that at all.

    [I do have to say, though, that I agree with Alisa’s mom that using “WTF” in her Twitter feed is a form of cussing. ; ) ]

  • http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_YSj9VerPFmY/SYnpJYz2MzI/AAAAAAAABig/SSUj17437DY/s400/JoeCarter.jpg Some Jerk

    Interesting discussion (except—seriously?—the Ancient Greeks?). Keep slugging Joe!

  • http://www.firstthings.com Joe Carter

    except—seriously?—the Ancient Greeks?

    David’s a Patrick Henry grad so I had to pull out a reference that would appeal to his librul lerning. ; )

  • http://tangzine.wordpress.com Matt Ralph

    As someone who strives for middle ground on most things, I was regularly challenged, enlightened and amused by the content on Culture 11.

    I was, however, a little confused by some of the user-generated diary links that littered my RSS feed, particularly one that regularly promoted an erotic filmmaker’s work.

    I was sad to see it go.

  • http://www.patrolmag.com/sessions David

    Joe – thanks for making me think hard about this. I guess that’s what blogging is all about. Thanks also for the compliments on our work. My tone and/or disagreements are also not intended as disrespect, so I hope no one will read them that way.

    I’ll forego the entangling discussion of editorial process and focus on the more crucial stuff. All through your posts, there are threads of culture war: conservatives desperately need places they can write “safely” out of reach of the mocking enemy, listening to the other side can be “dangerous,” arguments you disagree with are “sophistry” that can lead to “evil,” and it’s “a conservative thing” to dismiss certain types of art they deem beneath them. And while I know you enjoy pop culture, you speak of your past involvement in it almost regretfully, as if you’ve since “seen the light”—grown up and put away childish things. As if you put in your time, and now, with barely half your life over, you can present a conservative analysis of culture that’s suddenly the experiential and intellectual counterpart to years of left-wing narrative.

    I’m not convinced it’s so easy. The creation, consumption and deconstruction of culture is a universe into which those of us raised on the right have only begun to step, and to say we’re in over our heads would be an understatement. There are few conservative musicians, actors, novelists, painters and performers because to devote one’s life to art is to give up the “normal life,” the conservative nirvana. There are few believable conservative culture critics because they have for so long stood at an awkward, unfamiliar, even snobby distance from the places where the culture-moving art is conceived, born, and reared. They only meet it somewhere around its mid-life crisis. Then, realizing the culture wars are ending and they’re about to lose, conservatives are joining the fray by offering “commentary” and “analysis.” No wonder it feels so hollow, so painfully self-conscious.

    Unfortunately, the right wing’s recent culture-analysis obsession will nudge back from the edge many of its young questioners who might have taken the plunge. And that brings us, I think, to our very real generation gap, and the crucial difference between the idea of Culture11 and the idea of Patrol. As described in the Homans piece, the former cast itself as a new actor in an emerging era of the right: the chapter in which pop culture matters. But that engagement was never too far removed from a conceit that interactivity with pop culture could lead, immediately and directly, to pop culture articulating and serving conservative ends. This vision of immediate parity and relevance seems to demonstrate that this project was intellectually ill-equipped and self-defeating, as it was striving to be both a forum for pop culture criticism and at the same time trying to stay within the ropes of a broader ideological and partisan movement (one which has had little use for pop culture until the very recent present).

    The latter is—has always been—a very personal product of writers who grew up on the right, but are determined to master what it means to truly be cultured, willing to follow the experience wherever it leads. What you see now is a reflection of where we are today, not an institutional mission. The only mission is to love ideas, love people, love art, and write about what happens when we throw ourselves in with everyone else, forgetting about the cultural sides. I can’t think of anything further from a “safe zone” than that. We always strive to be good people in what we do and what we write, but to hell with safety.

  • John

    Having read the back and forth between David and Joe, I’ve got to agree somewhat with what the latter has to say. Patrol is a largely conservative site. I would definitely peg most of the writers and thinkers behind this page as progressive, but even so, with articles such as the recent post about the importance of denominational loyalty (for example), it’s clear that Patrol, while forward-thinking in many degrees, tends to lean to the right.

    I don’t find this offensive, mind you, even as an “evil commie liberal,” I simply wanted to attest to Joe’s claims that there is a pattern in the worldview of Patrol’s writers.

    Having said that, I agree with David when he said that, should the opportunity present itself, he would not be opposed to publishing articles with a left-wing perspective were they well-written and argued. Let me also congratulate David on his, I feel, insightful summary of the awkward dance between the conservative publishing industry and pop culture.

    Lastly, I’d like to throw in the fact that, as a converted liberal raised in a highly conservative environment (one might say ‘suffocating’ in nature), I still believe there’s rewarding content for both the left and the right amongst Patrol’s many pages.

  • http://firstthings.com Joe Carter

    ***All through your posts, there are threads of culture war: conservatives desperately need places they can write “safely” out of reach of the mocking enemy, listening to the other side can be “dangerous,” arguments you disagree with are “sophistry” that can lead to “evil,” and it’s “a conservative thing” to dismiss certain types of art they deem beneath them. ***

    That’s a fair assessment based on what I wrote, though I should clarify it a bit:

    1. I think its safe to say that it takes about ten years before a writer/journalist/critic truly becomes proficient at their craft. Similar to young academics, a young writer will spend years working at a variety of publications before they “find their voice” and “hit their stride” (to mix a couple of trite metaphors). Most of the larger/national publications tend to be staffed with people who have, for lack of a better term, a “liberal” worldview. They believe in toleration when it comes to gay marriage and abortion, but look on traditional or religious views with skepticism. If, for example, a young reporter wanted to do a story on the detrimental effects of cohabitation their editor would likely look at them like they were daft.
    The result of being in such an environment is that the young writer will leave the field for the “safer” grounds of outright political journalism, leave the field of journalism altogether, or slowly change their own views so that they “fit in” with their peers and subordinates. There are plenty of young people who enter journalism with traditional/conservative values in tact; there are few that make it a decade in the same condition.

    This is why I think it is good to have some non-political (though not necessarily non-ideological) “safe space” for young writers to hone their craft. They need editors who won’t shoot down story pitches because “decent people don’t hold such views.” They need a place where they can explore aspects of culture—such as the megachurch movement—from an insider perspective, rather than as an anthropological observer of “strange phenomenon.”
    Of course I could be completely wrong and am open to correction. Can you think of any young journalists who are (a) traditionalist conservatives (not libertarians), (b) write for a national mainstream publication, © have at least a half-dozen stories that challenge the dominant liberal media view of culture?

    2. I don’t think that “listening to the other side can be ‘dangerous’.” I think that promoting dangerous views is dangerous. There is a difference in “listening” to such views and giving them a patina of respectability by publishing them in a specific outlet. I honestly can’t think of an argument by the “other side” that has not been expressed—often dozens of times—in national publications. The same, however, can’t be said for the arguments on “my side.”

    3. Again, you say, “arguments you disagree with are “sophistry” that can lead to “evil” and again I have to clarify that it is not “arguments I disagree with” but “arguments that endorse evil.” That is a key distinction. As an editor I’ve often published arguments that I disagree with. But I refuse to promote ideas that outright apologize for evil. I find no warrant—as a journalist or as a Christian—for doing so.

    4. You say: “and it’s “a conservative thing” to dismiss certain types of art they deem beneath them. “ Let’s clarify that I was talking about “gansta rap.” In order to classify that as “art” we would have to dumb the term down until it becomes meaningless. What I mean by it’s a “conservative thing” is that to be a conservative means to eschew relativism, whether moral, aesthetic, or epistemological. But I do believe that certain types of “art” (though gansta rap is not art) is beneath the dignity of human beings and that we should not have any qualms about saying so.

    ***And while I know you enjoy pop culture, you speak of your past involvement in it almost regretfully, as if you’ve since “seen the light”—grown up and put away childish things. ***

    Do I regret spending so much time with popular culture? Yes. Have I seen the light and put away childish things? Alas, I have not. I am as much of a pop culture junkie as ever. The difference is that now I try not to confuse cultural junk food for haute cuisine. Just as I still gorge on donuts and candy bars, I still load up on reality TV and pop music. But I don’t try to justify my addiction to sugary foods by pretending they are more nutritious than they really are.

    Likewise, I don’t feel the need to pretend that most pop culture arises to the status of something we should take all that seriously.

    • The creation, consumption and deconstruction of culture is a universe into which those of us raised on the right have only begun to step, and to say we’re in over our heads would be an understatement.***

    I think it would be an overstatement to say that this is something new. For the past fifty years conservatives have been dealing with these issues. Generation Y is not the first to grapple with them, nor will they be the last—or, for that matter, to think they are exceptional in their struggle. ; )

    There are few conservative musicians, actors, novelists, painters and performers because to devote one’s life to art is to give up the “normal life,” the conservative nirvana.

    I have to completely disagree with you here. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of conservative conservative musicians, actors, novelists, painters and performers who were not able to work because of the views they hold. I don’t want to overstate the “martyrdom of the conservative artist” but it is not a myth either.

    What you see now is a reflection of where we are today, not an institutional mission. The only mission is to love ideas, love people, love art, and write about what happens when we throw ourselves in with everyone else, forgetting about the cultural sides. I can’t think of anything further from a “safe zone” than that. We always strive to be good people in what we do and what we write, but to hell with safety.

    While I admire you’re defense, I think you are in the minority of people who view Patrol in this way. Patrol isn’t, like those annoying Christian radio station claims, “Safe-for-the-whole-family” safe. But it isn’t exactly edgy either, even in the emergent church “we’re not afraid to use the word ‘shit’” edgy. It’s more like WORLD magazine for hip, young readers. (And again, I think that’s a good thing.)

    Also, for better or worse, Patrol has a tendency—just as C11 did—to come across as a conservative site that is trying to “fit in” with the cool kids. For example the reflexive “CCM sucks” would have more bite if it you guys acknowledged that most pop music sucks—including some of the stuff that you guys praise (i.e., praising Fall Out Boy while dissing Third Day? Seriously?).

    I think Patrol is an important cultural magazine and can be for Gen-Y Christians what the late Re:Generation Quarterly was for us Gen-Xers. But to be that requires: (1) acknowledging that there are “cultural sides”, (2) acknowledging that the right isn’t always right and the left isn’t always wrong (though the right is often right), (3) that you will never be able to “out-cool” the people and pubs that set their standards a the sub-Maxim level, and that (4) for better or worse, most pop cultural stuff is dreck and that the job of the critic is to sift through the junk and praise what is worthy.

  • John Wofford

    Joe,

    I’ve got to say you’ve lost me a bit with your most recent post. While it’s true that Patrol has a reputation for its criticism of Christian music (an entirely just criticism, I might add), the staff have largely been fair and balanced in their rating of music “across the board,” both secular and otherwise. For instance, Fall Out Boy’s recent album garnered a 6.9, as did praise and worship band Delirious’s final studio project. Anberlin’s Cities got an 8.5, if I recall, which is just short of TV on the Radio’s score of 8.9 for their latest record.

    My point being that Patrol’s weekly music critics seem to have a largely unified vision of music regardless of the worldview of the artist, offering praise to less popular forms of art while still pointing out pop music’s brighter spots, and maintaining the wherewithal to give Christian music a friendly slap on the wrist when it deserves such treatment.

    Your quote: “…most pop cultural stuff is dreck and that the job of the critic is to sift through the junk and praise what is worthy…”

    I don’t entirely agree with this. Rock and popular music criticism arose from the need of certain collective groups to defend musical styles that elitists and artistic purists largely ignored or held in deep disdain. So, I would suggest an alternative definition of the job of the mainstream critic a la Patrol and other publications, namely to analyze with all fervor the artistic merit of the composition(s) in question, bringing to the surface what might hitherto be unseen, not simply to dismiss largely quantities of something simply because it doesn’t appear to carry much clout with the sophisticated musical community. A great example of critics who do this today would be Robert Christgau, for one, a critic who was instrumental in the growing appreciation by white music journalists for ethnic genres such as hip-hop and even dance, and Bob Guccione, Jr. for another.

    Furthermore, I feel like you’re too quickly categorizing the artistic and aesthetic merit of certain genres of music, such as “gangsta rap,” by failing to recognize the sociopolitical climate that birthed it, just as I would be remiss in too quickly dismissing Christian music of all kinds simply because it’s primarily bought and sold in a certain environment—that of the Christian bookstore, a safe haven of all things protective and conservative. Simply because I disagree with the worldview of the artists in question is not a valid enough reason to objectively state that the quality of an album is somehow of lesser value.

    In Joe’s defense, I do agree that Patrol isn’t as edgy to some degrees as other, similar sites on the web. However, this isn’t particularly a cut-down, as I’ve stated before, many liberals (including myself) are quite fond of Patrol’s output.

    There is a wildly left-leaning trend currently dominating the publishing industry. However, I personally attribute this to the many years of conservative domination in decades past. It can be argued that I’m wrong, and that’s fine if you disagree (you wouldn’t be the first, sure as heck not the last), but I think that the growing sense of liberal ideas comes largely out of a feeling of oppression that existed for some time before being bucked.

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