Today, we’re launching a new TP Ideas feature — you can guess the name from this post’s title. Every Friday, I’m going to pick three articles written by avowed conservatives that demonstrate a particularly interesting element of the broader conservative worldview and do so in a clever, engaging way. The goal isn’t to pick conservatives who flatter progressives by tearing down their own side, but rather to find the most interesting exemplars of a distinctively right-of-center worldview.
It’s very easy for progressives, especially who ones who read sites like ours, to fall into a trap of assuming that the most anti-intellectual conservatives speak for the movement in one voice. That’s both false and harmful: false, because there’s a lot of interesting conservative thought out there challenging progressive shibboleths; harmful, because progressives who reduce conservatism to Steve Stockman-ism live in an intellectually impoverished world.
So, throat clearing aside, let’s review the best in conservative writing this week.
1) “The End Of Sex” — Kevin Williamson, National Review
A lot of progressives seem to believe conservatives are terrified of sex, but National Review gave the lie to the stereotype by sending “roving reporter” Kevin Williamson to the Oscars of porn in Las Vegas. Williamson’s dispatch is beautifully written, an excellent representative of conservative narrative journalism. Though “The End of Sex” occasionally pokes fun at its subjects, the point is less to garner cheap laughs at porn afficionados’ expense than to explore the porn industry as a microcosm of broader disturbing trends in human sexuality.
Williamson’s concern is that the pitiless market logic on display during the Adult Video News Awards is having a corrosive effect on human sexuality in the modern era more broadly. His interviews with porn stars and brothel proprietors illustrate the dark side of the sexual revolution — as sex becomes liberated, it also becomes commodified, to the detriment of men and women alike:
The awards show itself is almost an afterthought on the agenda of this multi-day pornopalooza, which is one part serious insider trade show for the nation’s increasingly specialized pornographers and sex-toy peddlers — Doctor Clockwork’s Home for Electrical and Medical Oddities draws a curious crowd, as do the live product demonstrations including one of a “sexercise” device that is basically one of those Sit N Bounce balls we all had as kids, but with one or two additions — and one part fan-fest for the world’s most dedicated consumers of smut, men who travel great distances and shell out hundreds of dollars in order to pack sweatily into crowded rooms and wait in line for autographs from their favorite performers, representing such powerhouses of porn as Evil Angel, Morally Corrupt, Brazzers, and dozens of others, while manufacturers of sundry sexual devices and what one entrepreneur refers to bluntly as “d**k pills” hawk their latest wares and potions at cheery display booths. It is raw consumerism, and there’s a kind of eerie symmetry at work: sex toys laid out in glass cases like jewelry at Tiffany’s, women displayed like flank steaks at Safeway. Bateman’s principle predicts that among primates like us, males will have a more lopsided distribution of sexual outcomes than will females: Basically all of the healthy females who survive to adulthood will have the opportunity to mate, but some of the males will be crowded out of the marketplace by a relatively small number of highly successful competitors — they just don’t have the biological capital to compete in the Hobbesian sexual war of all against all. The guys buying VIP passes here at the Porn Oscars, sitting slack-jawed at Sapphires Gentlemen’s Club as the performers swan through the crowd performing what is no doubt contractually required fan stroking, and then perhaps making a furtive or not-so-furtive trip down the highway to one of Nevada’s legal brothels: These frustrated, cow-eyed men are Bateman’s losers, and they are legion. The unkind industry term for them: trenchcoats.
Williamson’s dispatch is not a jeremiad. “To condemn what the porn expo is offering is to miss the point: It is an inevitability,” he concludes. Rather, in the best conservative spirit, Williamson offers evidence of progressive change’s unintended consequences and invites its champions to reckon with what they have wrought.
2) “Why Is Janet Yellen So Concerned And Disturbed About Income Inequality?” — Jim Pethokoukis, AEI Ideas
Switching gears from reporting to wonkery, the American Enterprise Institute’s economics blogger took a data-driven swing at our new Fed Chair Friday morning. Like President Obama and almost all progressives, Janet Yellen believes inequality is “one of the most disturbing trends facing the nation at the present time.” Pethokoukis thinks that’s rubbish, and assembles a list of studies that aim to demonstrate why.
His post is a short, easy-to-read listicle, but each bullet point neatly summarizes a more sophisticated economic argument against conclusions that most progressives take for granted. Take the first point:
1.) If you buy the thesis that a big jump in high-end inequality has been mostly driven by technology and globalization, then the alternative is more equality, perhaps, but less innovation here and more extreme poverty abroad. Now that’s a disturbing scenario.
The link takes you to another Pethokoukis post breaking down a study by Stanford and UChicago economists arguing that inequality is buoyed by the same forces that have massively improved the lives of the world’s poorest in the last 50 years. This sort of argument is useful not only because it forces progressives to confront potential conflicts inside their worldviews (reducing inequality and poverty may be goals at odds with each other), but also because it points out that progressives don’t have a lock on wonky academic research. What “science” says about public policy is more complicated than we sometimes like to admit, and challenges like Pethokoukis’ force us to reckon with that reality.
3) “Everything Is Politics to the Right, Even Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Death” — James Poulos, The Daily Beast
Poulous, a former political theory grad student who also fronts a glam rock band, is one of my favorite conservative writers. His “anthropological” libertarianism draws as much from Derrida and Foucault as it does from conservative stalwarts like Tocqueville, and illustrates a way forward for the 21st century conservative intelligentsia that doesn’t get mired in staid paeans to Ronald Reagan.
Poulos’ piece is nominally a criticism of Ben Shapiro’s idiotic claim that Hollywood’s “broken leftist culture” was responsible for the famed actor’s overdose, but it’s really an attempt to defend a distinctively conservative approach to mass culture. His problem with Shapiro’s piece was that it was a mirror-image of a “leftist” approach to culture wherein all cultural phenomena are extensions of political ones: if something is wrong with entertainment or literary culture, it must be a fault of some malign political influence in the cultural realm.
Rather, in Poulos’ mind, conservatives should approach society using insights mined from millenia of philosophical and religious thought. Reducing the broader world to the clash of left and right, Poulos argues forcefully, cheapens a much richer landscape illuminated by more traditional modes of thinking:
Political questions cannot be answered well without reference to spiritual ones. For over two thousand years, this was the commanding precept of Western civilization—whether we spoke of the soul like Socrates or Jesus, or of the spirit like Hegel, or of the psyche like Freud.
And for several decades, this was the dominant view in mainstream, “movement” conservatism, too…Yet somehow, today, some of the most prominent voices in the conservative media are abandoning the most venerable and important tradition to which they have ever subscribed. Where conservative journalism once stood athwart the impulse to analyze everything first as politics, invoking the primacy of philosophy and religion, today we see analysts on the right confidently assaulting “liberal culture” on reflexively ideological grounds—casting aside their most, and perhaps only, legitimate way of viewing the world.
The results are not just ugly or incorrect; they lead conservatives astray from the kind of ennobling wisdom that once kept them, and humanity, afloat.
The resulting argument — which also includes an extended discussion of The Lego Movie‘s ideology — is a very smart way of showing that the conservative veneration of tradition need not be a nostalgia for oppressive social orders lost, but a source of insight into our shared social present.
An earlier version of this article originally referred to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death as a “suicide.” The word choice implies that his fatal overdose was an intentional attempt to end his life, but there is no evidence to support the idea that the overdose was anything but accidental. Consequently, the word has been changed to “overdose.” We regret the error.