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Reading With the Enemy

Looking for a challenge and a little affirmation, our writer tests his die-hard liberal beliefs and goes on an all-conservative-media diet for one month. Life on the Right side of the dial doesn’t turn out the way he expected.

The first day was easy. I reset the bookmarks in my web browser and programmed new stations on my car radio. I shelved a couple of books I was reading and cleared the magazines off my bedside table. The refrigerator lost a lot of its magnets, their slogans suddenly inappropriate. I drove to the middle school where I teach, walked into class, and happily explained my plan to the students.

The first day consisted only of the physical manifestations of ‘the project,’ as I began referring to it shortly after its inception. It was exciting, like packing sandals for a vacation. There was a lightness, as one might feel after a spring cleaning, or (and this is just hearsay) a colonic. My old world was gone, and the new one was…different. On the first day, I felt like Indiana Jones.

 

* * *


The project was inspired by Morgan Spurlock, the director and producer of Supersize Me, a documentary about obesity in America and our supersize-it culture. Spurlock decided to test fast-food companies’ claims that their food isn’t unhealthy by relegating himself to a diet of McDonald’s meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks for 30 days. He would not deviate. He would not quit until the Big Macs were done.

In an interview with FLM Magazine, Spurlock remembers a conversation with a colleague about his idea: ‘I immediately called my longtime friend and director of photography, Scott Ambrozy, and told him the monumental, life-affirming idea that had just come to me via my gastronomical epiphany. You see, for months I had been toying with the concept of doing my first feature, I just hadn’t honed in on what that would be. When he finished laughing, he said, ‘That’s a really great bad idea.’’

The side effects of Spurlock’s experiment were neither easy to bear nor exciting. According to an article in the New York Post, the documentarian’s 25-pound weight gain was not his biggest concern. Spurlock had been ‘vomiting out the window of his car’ and ‘his liver became toxic, his cholesterol shot up from a low 165 to 230, his libido flagged and he suffered headaches and depression.’ His doctors described his deterioration as ‘shocking.’

Reading about Supersize Me, I became fascinated with the idea of immersing myself in a project like Spurlock’s. My motivations were not self-destructive. Rather, they cropped up from different neurotic parts of my psyche. My obsessive-compulsive side clamored for a new obsession. My insecurities about being a dilettante saw the potential for digging deep and becoming an expert. It was simple curiosity, though, that ruled the other motivations, wondering whether Spurlock was a nutjob or a reasonably sane person could actually do this?

It was the ‘this’ that posed the initial problem. I had to decide whether I should risk my physiology, like Spurlock had done, or if I should play to my strengths, putting my brain on the line for social science.

ME: What if I only listened to the Eagles for a month?

ME: Horrible, but not enough.

ME: What if I only read Russian novels? Or chick lit?

ME: Yes, but reading only happens at bedtime—too easy.

ME: What if I only rode local buses everywhere?

ME: OK, now you’re just reaching.

My ideas were too superficial, too banal. Spurlock’s near-renal failure haunted my brainstorming process. A month of Don Henley is painful but no match for thirty days of Filet-O-Fish.

Then my girlfriend had an idea. An idea that required a real struggle, a complete lifestyle change, with the potential to ruin personal relationships, trash my psyche, turn my whole world not just upside down, but inside out and backward. In other words, a really great bad idea.

HER: What if you spent one month reading, listening to, and watching only right-wing media. No New York Times, no NPR, no network news, no CNN, no lefty blogs, no liberal novels. Nothing left-wing or centrist, and nothing ‘objective.’ Nothing that makes up the world you currently inhabit.

ME: Babe, you’re an evil genius, and I love you.

I knew the idea was right because my hands and lower back began to sweat: a complete conversion to ultra-conservative culture and messaging. As a self-proclaimed ‘flaming liberal’ who’s also a news junkie, I could think of nothing more torturous than getting my report on world events from the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and the hard-working foot soldiers at NewsMax.com. But rather than creating a political tract in the end, I envisioned turning the project into a modern-day captivity narrative without the tomahawks: a demonstration of the psychic effects of constant exposure to the false victimhood, hypocrisy, and anger of the Right.

On the flip side, I considered the possibility that I might explode some of my deeply ingrained notions about the ‘enemy,’ and even toyed with the risk of being convinced to change my positions on certain issues. There were subjects I knew I could defend to the death: public education funding, affirmative action, civil rights and liberties, reproductive choice, pre-emptive war, and environmental policy. But I worried specifically about the positions I knew the least about, or had spent the least amount of time considering: capital punishment, immigration policy, globalization, reinstating the draft, small business, agriculture, and health-care and prescription-drug policy. I fretted that in trying to focus on a wide range of issues, instead of doting on the comfort zone of my well-established ideals, I would actually be learning from the Right.

My fear felt justified. I have lived in a liberal world all my life. How would my world react if the Right’s arguments appealed to me? So help me, what if I thought they were right? At the very least, a month of trying to remain open to their views might give me a reason to believe my regular media diet was, in fact, presenting the issues from a liberal viewpoint.

My girlfriend did make some ground rules clear: If I started spouting Coulterisms (‘My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.’) or even mentioned the word ‘submissive,’ she’d be gone before I could say ‘supply side.’ I pictured a potential battle.

ME: Wow, I never thought I’d say this, but that Kathryn Jean Lopez has some really interesting insights into how the 2000 election was the Democrats’ fault.

DOOR: Slam!

 

* * *


The second day was irritating. The third day was infuriating. The fourth day I wondered what I would do if it got any worse. I missed my routines the most: NPR’s Bob Edwards and Carl Kasell on my morning drive to work. New York Times op-eds at lunch. Catching up with super-blogger Atrios in the afternoon. Reading a novel before bed. I felt out of sorts and claustrophobic, as if I had no idea what was happening in the world. I wondered if being hooked on my daily liberal fix was as healthy as I had thought.

On one of those first days, FoxNews.com ran a headline: ‘Bush Warmly Welcomes Kerry to Race.’ Directly beneath, the subhead read: ‘Bush: Kerry has switched positions on almost every issue.’ It made me wonder how the New York Times had covered Kerry’s later primary victories. I scoffed that, at the very least, Times headlines and subheads wouldn’t have argued with each other. I mean come on. But then I caught myself. Wait a minute. Do arguing headlines mean that FoxNews might really be as ‘fair and balanced’ as they claim? Had I been brainwashed my entire life?

The second-guessing started to get to me. Rupert Murdoch was shaking my ideological foundations. I began to realize I was living the official Five Stages of Loss: Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Despair, and Acceptance. I hurtled through the first two stages quickly, feeling cheerful and optimistic in my Denial and also through Bargaining, which was done not with God but with myself, budgeting for more éclairs than usual just to balance the horror of withdrawal. Anger sprang from self-doubt about my worldview, and then it hung around for a while.

The anger would have been easier to manage if another stage, ignored in the psychology books, had not reared its head: Exhaustion. As I pulled further away from my routines, I began to erect defenses to preserve my view of the world. I found myself negotiating each word I read or heard. Every sentence was suspect, so my brain went on overdrive, matching the talking heads’ assumptions and agendas with all I thought to be true—usually the opposite. After listening to Mike Rosen’s radio show, my head ached from the effort of comebacks, rhetorical dissections, dismissing logical fallacies both obvious and subtle. At the end of a typical day, I felt as if I had boxed 12 rounds with Lennox Lewis. Or, more accurately, with a dozen white, privileged, whining Lennox Lewises.

Many of the themes I encountered on the Right sounded, well, great, at first glance, like the messages in political campaign advertising. I almost swooned at the grand exultations of individualism and love of God and country, protecting America and the spread of democracy, small government, and personal responsibility. These are the traits that made America great! But when I dug down into the details, I found that many of the lofty themes didn’t mix very well, leading to some bad-tasting intellectual pretzels. To wit:

  • The Heritage Foundation unequivocally supports President Bush’s tax cuts (lofty theme: helping the economy), while also supporting an expansion of the U.S.A. Patriot Act (lofty theme: making America safe), without making the connection that reducing the size of the federal treasury will make the hiring of additional Justice Department workers more difficult.
  • Ann Coulter complains in one column that ‘according to liberals, it’s Christianity that causes murder’ (lofty theme: defending her faith), while in another, she exhorts the U.S. government to ‘invade [Islamic] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity’ (lofty theme: spreading democracy).
  • Right-wing pundits across the board decry affirmative action in hiring and admissions on the basis that only merit should count when deciding who should be hired or admitted (lofty theme: individual achievement), but the same pundits accuse Senate Democrats of racism when they filibuster against the appointment of a black or Hispanic conservative judge (lofty theme: eventually, small government).

Too frequently I discovered those lofty themes are not meant for all Americans, but trotted out in a jingoistic attempt to suit conservatives’ own agenda, which is often racist, nationalistic, xenophobic, and greedy. The more I read, the more disillusioned I became with the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality of the Right. My resistance to conversion on any issue was bolstered by the sense that the Right doesn’t have a vision for America, it just drags one out as a means to achieve selfish ends. The oratory sounds like cock-a-doodle, but the truth tastes like doo.

Every article began to sound the same, and not simply because they were cribbed from the talking points sent out daily by the Republican National Committee. Operating within such strict parameters pares down the number of ideas upon which one can conceivably remark. The other stream of the Right’s never-ceasing political campaign—the one that binds various groups supporting various issues into a force to be reckoned with—is its disdain for the Left. (Leftists disdain the Right, too, but their tendency to argue amongst themselves about how to best turn their anger into action has prevented the Left from becoming any sort of unified force.) It’s a far more powerful cocktail than any issue-related conviction. The Left, a corrupt occupying army that has sown the seeds of political correctness, ‘homosexualist’ agendas, soft foreign policy, baby killing, the welfare state, and reverse racism across this land, is to be fought to the death with no surrender. Ann Coulter not only believes that Bill Clinton was a ‘known felon and probably a rapist,’ but she posits that all liberals are treasonous and slanderous, and titled her most recent books Treason and Slander to prove it. Columnist Diana West finds pro-choice marchers ‘obscene’ and ‘banal.’ Oliver North accuses Democrats of not just supporting, but socializing with ‘dictators’ and ‘tyrants.’ Suzanne Fields calls Hollywood stars and university professors ‘arms suppliers in the culture war.’ The denizens of FreeRepublic.com, the Right’s heavily populated and highly virulent message board of choice, routinely refer to shooting Muslims, and call lesbians and gay men ‘dykes,’ ‘fags,’ ‘Sodomites,’ ‘deviants,’ and ‘highly immoral.’ Rush Limbaugh’s website bears a headline that declares ‘Kerry Campaign Like Chappaquiddick,’ and I listened to Rush regularly call feminists ‘feminazis’ and environmentalists ‘wackos.’ The list of slurs and epithets is long and varied, and can seemingly go on forever.

Who is the Left, according to the far Right? When it comes to the media, it seems to be a simple answer: anyone the Right disagrees with. A survey of my notes from the project offers clues.

  • Bias author Bernard Goldberg accuses his former employer, CBS, of being part of the ‘liberal media.’
  • Bill O’Reilly calls the Los Angeles Times editorial board ‘liberal media,’ and anyone who heard his interview with Terry Gross knows he feels the same about NPR.
  • According to Ann Coulter, CNN and NBC were shills for the Clinton administration, and the New York Times should have been leveled with a truck full of fertilizer explosives.
  • NewsMax.com feels that Peter Jennings and the Washington Post are guilty of ‘lauch[ing] a full-scale spin war against President Bush.’
  • According to the home page of the Media Research Center, all of the network news operations are liberal, and conservatives never win Pulitzers. (Past Pulitzer Prize winners include Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot, Newsweek columnist George Will, New York Times columnist William Safire, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, among other leading conservatives.)
  • Finally, former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan names the following outlets and journalists as part of the ‘fortress of liberalism’ that is ‘Big Media’: ‘All three major networks, PBS, NPR and virtually all major U.S. papers—Boston Globe, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, Atlanta Constitution, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Los Angeles Times… Matt Lowry [sic], Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, and Charlie Gibson… Tim Russert… George Stephanopolous [sic]…and Bob Schieffer… Judy Woodruff, Wolf Blitzer, and Aaron Brown…’

Sometime in the middle of the month I decided to look up the definitions of liberal and conservative in the dictionary, just for kicks.

Liberal
a. Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.
b. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded.

Conservative
a. Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change.
b. Traditional or restrained in style.
c. Moderate; cautious.

For the rest of the month, these definitions framed every sentence I read in the National Review, FrontPage Magazine, and all the like-minded sources that had become my only sources. The Right decries the ‘liberal media establishment’ in every other op-ed column, broadcast, etc. They believe their views are correct, as do we all. But here, the point is that the Right establishes narrow strictures not just for the ideas they are willing to hold, but also for the ideas they’re willing to hear, and then proclaims the space within those parameters ‘the mainstream.’ Every institution, then, that offers a voice outside their restrictive worldview must be ‘liberal.’ The amazing thing is, they’re absolutely right—most of our public and private entities try to be broad-minded, open to new ideas for progress, and free from bigotry, at least when they aren’t controlled by the Right or trying to appease them.

Once I settled on the basis of all their conceits, the project became both easier and more mundane. Every article began to sound the same, and not simply because they were cribbed from the talking points sent out daily by the Republican National Committee. Operating within such strict parameters pares down the number of ideas upon which one can conceivably remark. In the last week of the project, I tried to make a shorthand list of the most prevalent memes I had come across in one month with the Right:

  • ‘The blasphemous art which may or may not include a penis/vagina is bad.’
  • ‘John Kerry, being a lover of terrorists, will offer Osama bin Laden a post in his cabinet.’
  • ‘Liberals are silly, except when they are killing fetuses. Then they are evil for a minute, before quickly going back to silly.’
  • ‘All government programs should stay out of my living room and my wallet, but should investigate the hell out of the homo, raghead, single, welfare feminazi down the street.’
  • ‘Once Iraq is a steaming bloody crater of Democracy, it will serve as a model for future steaming bloody craters of Democracy all across the Middle East.’

I also heard a few things that actually made sense (gulp!), though they were few and far between:

  • ‘The thing is, no decent human being should be helping NAMBLA…’ Bill O’Reilly, The No Spin Zone
  • ‘What’s missing? Lots, if [Not In Our Name] had any intention of making a serious case against the war on terror or the war in Iraq.’ Laura Ingraham, Shut Up & Sing
  • ‘I thought conservatives were supposed to be responsible for conserving the country’s fiscal health and honest about the costs of entitlements.’ Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Dish

As I grew more comfortable with the routine of the project and the predictability of the messages, I stopped ranting. That’s when my liberal friends and loved ones began to worry about me in earnest. A typical conversation during this time went like this:

LOVED ONE: ‘Can you believe Jonah Goldberg can just sit there and claim things are going well in Fallujah?’

ME: ‘Yes.’

LOVED ONE: ‘Well, it’s insane, right!?’

ME: ‘I guess.’

LOVED ONE: ‘Doesn’t it make you mad?’

ME: ‘It makes me bored.’

This complacency lasted until one 60-degree day in Boulder, warm for early spring, with clear skies and a nice breeze. My girlfriend and I took a borrowed puppy for a walk out on the prairie. All of the Flatirons and the white peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park were spread out before us. When we came back into town, we stopped for coffee and bagels. A party atmosphere was in full effect, with cyclists, dogs, and the hungover milling around and remarking on such a gorgeous day…and two days after a blizzard…and how many miles did you run this morning…and what’s your pup’s name…oh, what a cutie.

And right then I realized the next natural step in a day this perfect was not to be: I would not be reading the New York Times Magazine. A shadow passed over the mountains. I had reached Despair. I went home and wished the project were over. The next few days my reading became a monotonous blur.

The following week I went on vacation to the mountains. A complete absence of any media at my secure, undisclosed location offered a reprieve from thinking about the project, but when I returned, I felt guilty about the lack of exposure. I decided to extend the project by a week. That’s when one of the eighth-graders in my class asked, ‘Are you going to die?’

The final week of the project proved easy. The boredom returned, and I hardly read, watched, or listened to much of anything. I taught middle school, went for a few nice runs, paid some bills, loved my girl. I became 90% of America, and cared little about national and international news. I had food, shelter, water, oxygen, a comfy bed, and a few beers in the fridge. Life in a bubble was nice compared to life with the wolves. I turned off people like the Journal’s Gigot, and people like the Journal’s Gigot didn’t bully me any more.

The project ended with a whimper, not a bang. When the final bell rang, I watched Peter Jennings, unbent the dog-ear I had made in Middlesex, and high-fived my girlfriend. I had no kidney problems to speak of, and even my brain seemed to have survived. I just went back to what I did before. After a few days of decompression, I opened the Times.

 

* * *


I sincerely hoped the project would offer an ideological crisis point somewhere along the line. Maybe a switcheroo on a major issue or two, maybe even a total conversion. I didn’t begin the month thinking that way. But once I started, there were days when I pushed myself to agree with as much as I could. One rainy day in the middle of March, I actually said ‘Damn straight!’ to every single point made by the Right, just to see what it was like. I almost had to wash my mouth out with soap. I wanted to assure myself that I’m not simply the same kind of mouthpiece that I accuse Rush and Co. of being—or that my mind is still capable of change. But I didn’t find enough optimism to hang my hat on, and the Right’s vitriol, aimed at both their ideological foes and the historically oppressed, served either to depress or anger me. They just don’t put out any welcome mats for the broad-minded.

I am happy that right-wing media exists. The project bolstered and deepened many of the convictions I hold dear, but more importantly, it sharpened a pragmatic edge on that idealism. I know the Right better now, and my immersion will serve me well. Their strategies are seamless, powerful, and worth imitating. Like a well-oiled machine, the Right coordinates messages hourly across all its holdings: media, government, non-profits, and foundations. When the 60 minutes are up, America hears the same words, phrases, themes echoed from websites, newspapers, radio hosts, think tanks, senators, the president, and all the people in between. To the politically undecided or ignorant, this orchestrated effort can drown out the more haphazard messages from the Left side of the divide. Can I use the project to help the Left organize and syndicate its own cohesive stream of political messaging? Time will tell.

I have reached the Acceptance level on the Stages of Loss chart. But I don’t feel any sort of loss. I satisfied an itch I had, some curiosity about whether I could do it. I dived in. I did it. And as Morgan Spurlock told CNN a few months after eating McDonald’s for 30 days, ‘I feel a lot better now.’