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Media and Mythology

(Reprinted from SOBRAN’S, November–December 1998, p. 1)

Ever since the Lewinsky scandal broke I’ve been become a regular Rush Limbaugh listener. I like Rush, especially when he scores points off Clinton, but his animadversions against liberals strike me as unfocused. Sometimes he deals more in accusations than analysis, especially in his vague complaints about “media bias.”

I don’t disagree; the news media are constantly vexing. But I think I’d find the major networks annoying even if Rush himself — or just about any other notable conservative journalist — were in charge of them.

I think the reason Limbaugh can’t really draw a bead on the source of his annoyance is that he accepts much of the liberal mythology without knowing it. The “bias” of the media doesn’t consist in mere partisan slanting of details, as he seems to think; it lies in a whole way of looking at the world, which he largely shares.

The “news” we get from the major media is a series of installments in a larger story, the received version of “history.” Events are chosen and interpreted in the light of a myth of Progress, a myth most conservatives never think to challenge. At its crudest, it consists in assuming that in all major crises of the past, the right side prevailed: the American Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal, World War II, the civil rights movement, and so on. “History” means commemorating such events. And the veneration of these old victories determines how current events will be seen. If we regard those victories as an unmixed happy legacy, today’s liberal causes will naturally seem to be extensions of them.

This is why Limbaugh-style conservatives celebrate, and try to appropriate, liberal heroes like Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. For such conservatives it’s unbearable to think that at many critical points, the victories may have been tragic, deeply ambiguous, or otherwise dubious. It’s even possible that sometimes the bad guys win; not only in their immediate conflicts, but in the deeper sense of distorting everything that comes after them.

To take just one example, I gnash my teeth when conservatives argue that “affirmative action” violates “the spirit of Dr. King” — “color-blind justice,” and all that. Nonsense. If King were alive today, he’d certain support state-imposed racial preferences. He was a Marxist, always moving leftward. Liberals are right to claim him as their own; conservatives who appeal to his “spirit” only make fools of themselves.

Harry Truman was a crude man, a bitterly partisan New Deal Democrat. But some conservatives admire him for his readiness to use atomic weapons and for his later anti-Communism. They must be desperate for heroes.

We can see that evil men prevailed in the French and Russian Revolutions, leaving a legacy of false veneration and false ideals; we should entertain the possibility that something similar has happened from time to time in the Land of the Free. We may be celebrating with holidays and monuments things we should regret and mourn.

In the maze of history, today’s conservatives are nearly as lost as the liberals. That’s why their critique of liberalism is fundamentally weak: more than they realize, they are liberals too.

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