Arango mourns that the tenor of debate at National Review Online, the magazine’s Internet sister, “devolved into open nastiness” over the question of Sarah Palin’s fitness for the vice presidency, “laying bare debates among conservatives that in a pre-Internet age may have been kept behind closed doors.” Arango claims that the coarsening effect of the Internet has damaged NR’s “reputation as the cradle for conservative intellectuals and home for erudite and well-mannered debate prized by its founder, William F. Buckley Jr.” [Full disclosure: my uncle.]
Such tender concern for the fate of the conservative movement and its leading periodical is almost amusing, given that the Times spent decades savaging the magazine’s founder. Anyone who has followed National Review over the years – which seemingly excludes this Times reporter – would know that rousing debates are an NR tradition. Anyone who follows the fellowship and fencing at NR’s blog The Corner knows there is vigorous argument and disagreement about many different subjects.
In bold letters, the Times emphasizes its topic sentence: “The magazine’s civil tone of debate is missing on the Web.” But then the Times broadens the issue of civility at NR far beyond the actual NR website: “National Review, as the most pedigreed voice of conservatives, has often been tainted – unfairly and by association, some argue – by the tone of blogs, reader comments and e-mail messages.”
This is where the many Times readers who’ve avoided NR like Manhattan elitists avoid a K-Mart are kept blissfully uninformed. Unlike many websites, National Review Online offers its readers no space to leave their comments. Their bloggers may occasionally post e-mails they’ve received, but they do so often to dispute negative comments they find amusingly uncivil and unconvincing. How is it fair for the Times to scorn the disappearing “civil tone” of NR by the tone of negative private e-mails that most people will never see, because of NR’s policy against posting them? Would it be fair to decry the civility of the Times by the thousands of nasty unpublished e-mails that have been sent to them?
Arango and the Times are trying to construct a different narrative, that dissent is being smothered, and that the “threat” to NR’s “erudition” is causing the writers who opposed Palin to walk away. Dissent from conservative orthodoxy and “erudition” are implied to be one and the same.
Arango starts with Mr. Buckley’s son, the erudite Christopher Buckley, who, it has been reported incorrectly, offered his resignation from NR after he publicly endorsed Barack Obama. But the star of Arango’s piece was David Frum, who clearly and very publicly disagreed with the Sarah Palin nomination (and surprise! CBS News found him very interesting and invited him to come on “The Early Show” and declare the Palin pick a “huge mistake.”) He told the Times “a little more distance” from NR “can help everybody do a better job of keeping their temper.” Arango offered readers no example of Frum’s erudition against Palin, and no example of Frum critics losing their temper in print.
Another victim of the alleged decline of civility at NR was columnist Kathleen Parker, who we’re told received 11,000 nasty e-mails, “one of which lamented that her mother did not abort her.” Were NR readers upset with Parker, who spent the autumn months building a career in commentary on MSNBC by beating Palin like a pinata at a grade-school birthday party? You betchum.
What Arango did not document was the “erudition” in Parker’s salvos against Palin. She first earned brickbats with sentences like “If BS were currency, Palin could bail out Wall Street herself.” Then when people criticized her, she penned a column comparing her conservative critics to Soviet thugs: “Anyone who dares express an opinion that runs counter to the party line will be silenced. That doesn’t sound American to me, but Stalin would approve.” Parker also wrote a column suggesting McCain picked Palin because he was dazzled and/or aroused by her beauty, and compared the ticket to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
National Review is in no danger of disgracing its founder, and could certainly respond to this Times attack by noting it hasn’t grown so uncivil that it’s devolved into publishing sleazy adultery exposes without proof, as the Times has inflicted on Republicans from Nancy Reagan to John McCain. Physician, heal thyself.