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Brothers Judd interview of Brian C. Anderson, author of South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias

Howdy, Mr. Anderson.  Congratulations on a fine and funny book and thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.

Q: The concept of South Park Conservatives/Republicans has kicked around a bit, I wonder if you could tell us how you define them and why you think they're an important political phenomenon?

BA: The term “South Park Republican” was originally coined by the writer Andrew Sullivan, and written about by Tech Central Station contributor Stephen Stanton and then myself, in the widely discussed late 2003 City Journal article my book grew out of: “We’re Not Losing the Culture Wars Anymore.” As I loosely use the term, it refers to someone who isn’t necessarily an across the board conservative, especially when it comes to matters of censorship and popular culture, but who recoils from today’s liberalism, with its political correctness, its illiberalism, its elitism, and its feckless response to the War on Terror.

In the book, I find growing evidence of this anti-liberal attitude among college kids—the final chapter is based on more than 50 interviews with students and professors—and in a new kind of comedy that takes aim at the Left, and not just at bourgeois conventions, as topical comedy has often done over the last several decades, most famously with Norman Lear’s 70s’ sitcoms All in the Family and Maude. The wickedest, funniest example of this politically incorrect humor, of course, is South Park itself, now in its ninth season. But I also consider Dennis Miller, stand-up comedians like Nick Di Paolo and Julia Gorin, and Web-based humorists like Scott Ott and the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto. One of the most pleasurable aspects of writing South Park Conservatives was working through the comedic material. I hope readers have similar fun reading about it.   

The anti-liberalism reflected in the attitudes of some students and in this satire is just one aspect of a much-more widespread shift right in our political culture that is being driven, at least in part, by the new media of political talk radio, cable news—above all Fox—and now the Internet, which is the overarching theme of my book.

Q: When you wrote the original essay out of which the book grew, We’re Not Losing the Culture Wars Anymore, some critics on the Left and Right suggested that you were saying the Right had triumphed in the Culture Wars. Do you think that's the case?

BA: I make it quite clear in the original article, and again in this book, that the new media are allowing conservative and libertarian arguments and perspectives at last to make it into the public debate, with enormous implications for our politics and culture, but that the Left still controls the university faculties, the network broadcasts, NPR, law schools—it’s far from vanquished, in other words. But it’s worth keeping a few things in mind. The average age of a network news viewer is now 60. The New York Times is no longer viewed as the bearer of absolute truth—only 21 percent of the respondents in a recent Pew Research survey gave it high marks for trustworthiness, below most other news outlets (though none of the others did very well either).

And on the new media terrain, where more and more Americans, especially younger ones, get their information, the Right fights with equal or greater power: conservatives and libertarians completely dominate political talk radio; Air America is sinking without a trace, drawing fewer listeners at its flagship station in New York, WLIB, than did the all-Caribbean format the liberal talk replaced, and it’s doing even worse elsewhere. Fox News completely dominates cable, winning a bigger audience share than all its cable news competitors combined. And the right-of-center blogosphere is at least as influential, probably more so, than its left counterpart. The trend lines look good in the media, in other words—if only because there’s a profitable audience for programming that isn’t reflexively liberal.

The universities are a very different matter, as I note in my book’s concluding chapter. There, we’re seeing only the beginning of change—students moving to the right in their views; campus conservative groups (including a gun club at Harvard!) and papers flourishing; right-of-center speakers drawing big, interested student crowds. With tenured radicals controlling hiring, though, intellectual change--the deradicalization and ultimately depoliticization of the classroom—is a long way off.

Q: If the Right is doing better what are some or the reasons? And if there's a market for more conservative media why aren't any of the mainstream outlets taking advantage--why doesn't a CBS News replace Dan Rather with Brit Hume?

BA: There are numerous factors driving the success of the right-of-center new media, chief among them the prevalence of liberal attitudes in mainstream media! But other factors are at work, too. For talk radio, to take one case, the successful conservative hosts tend to be funny and superb entertainers, as well as informed. Liberal hosts haven’t been able to replicate this mix of smart commentary and humor. Jon Stewart shows how it might be done with the success of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, but he’s a gifted comic, and more attitudinally Left than a pundit or commentator of any kind. I’m not sure how he’d fare over the course of a three-hour radio broadcast.

On the deepest level, the success of non-liberal new media sources reflects the Left’s intellectual and political exhaustion. The blight of political correctness on the Left inflicted deep harm on liberalism. The stupid policing of language and the depressing victimology: what healthy person could tolerate such nonsense? As I argue in my concluding chapter, too, younger Americans came of age in a post-Reagan era that saw the collapse—the defeat—of Communism and full-turbo economic expansion, powerful vindications of conservative values and policies. They’ve seen, too, the destructive effects of liberal cultural values, tearing up their own families or the families of friends. My City Journal colleague Kay Hymowitz has written movingly of how younger Americans believe strongly in marriage and fidelity—even if they don’t always live up to their ideals in their own behavior.  

The broadcast newscasts, where 90 percent or more of the producers and journalists are on the Left, just haven’t been able to adapt. Business sense hasn’t trumped ideology, as it has begun to in the publishing industry. The big publishers like Penguin and Doubleday and now Simon & Schuster that have embraced conservative books did something smart: they created semi-independent right-of-center imprints, with their own editorial teams, made up of conservatives, instead of the lefties typical of the New York publishing world. That way, you wouldn’t have liberal editors nixing good proposals from right-of-center authors on ideological grounds or messing up the books, if they did happen to get commissioned, as used to be the case. This has made for a steady stream of best sellers.    

CBS hire Brit Hume? But he’s an ideologically tainted right-winger, not an objective newsman! That’s how a lot of journalists see things, as Bernie Goldberg’s great book Bias showed, with lots of inside dirt. But over time, it may not matter that CBS News fails to adapt. If fewer and fewer people are watching, there may not be a CBS News in the near future.

Q: One of the things that connects various media that you cite in the revolt against liberal bias is the use of humor to skewer political correctness and the Left's dogmas, is there something about comedy in particular that makes it a better weapon for the Right than the Left?

BA: Humor is a powerful weapon for the Right these days in part because the cultural establishment in this country has been liberal for so long—and it almost never pokes fun at itself. For decades of network programming, it’s always been the priest or the businessman or the general or the adherent of traditional values who turns out to be the bad guy, the repressed maniac, the hypocrite, the butt of humor. The liberal do-gooder, the social worker, the progressive teacher, the wise, straight-talkin’ minority—they’ve all been celebrated, held up as paragons of meaningful life.

Reality isn’t like that. Liberals in entertainment and the news media have created a kind of ideological construct, a narcissistic bubble just begging to be burst. The liberal do-gooder might be driven by rage and resentment, might be a kind of micro-fascist; the minority might be a racist thug; maybe the social worker abets self- and community destroying behavior. Perhaps not all businessmen are evil! Maybe some of them legitimately practice business as a moral calling, as Michael Novak argues. Maybe the general is both moral and a hero. Maybe the priest is holy.

That’s why South Park is so satirically powerful—it pops that liberal bubble and let’s some truth in: tolerance can be carried to the point of oppressiveness; rights can be extended in ways that are morally indefensible; anti-business protesters can be mindlessly misguided; hippies are selfish narcissists. My book offers plenty of examples. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park’s creators, go after conservatives too—I don’t mean to suggest they’re across-the-board right-wingers. But going after the Right is nothing new. What is new, especially in television humor, is skewering the Left so savagely.

As I mentioned earlier, a key reason the Left hasn’t done well in talk radio is its lack of humor. Jonah Goldberg, a pretty funny guy, makes the point that liberals have this “Coalition of the Oppressed” as their constituency, and if a liberal humorist targeted blacks or gays or animal rights activists, he’d be bombarded with complaints from his “base” saying: “How dare you laugh! That’s not sensitive!”

Conservatives have—or should have-a keen understanding of man’s propensity for evil, of the complexity of human motivations in a fallen world. They thus should have a proper dose of cynicism in their worldview, which makes it easier to laugh at human foibles, their own included.

Q: Brian Lamb of Booknotes (C-SPAN) always asks a question that I find interesting. How do you go about the physical task of writing?

BA: I love learning how writers proceed, too. Here’s what works for me. I write most my first draft on the computer, but only after extensive note taking and preparation. I find writing before I have a clear structure and outline in mind frustrating. Sometimes, I’ll even write out a series of topic sentences beforehand, just so I’m sure of where I’m heading. I think non-fiction writing should have a relentless topic-sentence “drive”—it’s something that distinguishes City Journal articles and I’d like to think my book, too.

Anyway, after I’ve gone as far as I can on the computer, I’ll print up what I’ve done and revise by pen; then it’s back to the computer and the whole process repeats itself until I’ve got something that I’m reasonably satisfied with. I have no set hours for writing. With two young children and a demanding editorial job—we’re a heavily edited magazine—I write when I can!

Research for the book was exciting. I read a lot, of course—blogs, magazine articles, and books—and watched an unhealthy amount of television. I listened to talk radio. I interviewed lots of fascinating, insightful people, some by phone, some in person, some by e-mail, and learned enormously from them: Andrew Sullivan, Robert George, Glenn Reynolds, Harvey Mansfield, Sean Hannity, Mike Barone, Peter Collier, Colin Quinn, Dick Morris, many smart college students—it’s a long list. South Park Conservatives features a lot of voices. People were wonderful about their time, and very helpful.

Q: Finally, are there other projects you're working on, another book you'd like to do?

BA: I’ve got ideas for City Journal articles and several books—one on sports I’ve been kicking around. We’ll see.

Brothers Judd:  Thank you very much for your time and your consideration.  Good luck with the book: South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias

(4/15/2005)