Left, Right, Left

The fight over The American Conservative


"Do two rights make a wrong?" asks the left-leaning LA Weekly on its cover this week. "Not this time," it concludes, with an article about Pat Buchanan and Taki Theodoracopulos's new magazine, The American Conservative. The cover feature, by Brendan Bernhard, gives a new political magazine a lot more attention than such magazines would customarily get. But Pat and Taki's operation has earned them nearly as many newspaper and magazine articles as they have readers for their 12,000-circulation baby.

Staking a contrarian corner within its own apparent turf makes the magazine a more bracing (and certainly more enjoyable) read than most of its competitors in the political opinion racket. It's also one of the reasons The American Conservative has been copping all the ink—admiring and excoriating—from both ends of the political spectrum. Right-wing commentators from born-again militarist Ronald Radosh to Clay Waters at The American Enterprise's Web site have noted that many of the causes the titularly conservative magazine pushes might seem left-wing, or more appropriate for The Nation, the magazine the flimsy newsprint journal most resembles physically. The LA Weekly's cover lauds the magazine for "battl[ing] the pro-war neoconservatives."

While all the attention is doubtless gratifying to any new magazine's founders—particularly in the usually cash-hemorrhaging field of political opinion mags—it's also true that a magazine is in some intellectual and P.R. trouble when executive editor Scott McConnell is obligated to announce to the Washington Times even before the first issue appears that the magazine's positions "are not intended as anti-Semitic. This is about politics, and we won't be intimidated."

Indeed, in keeping with Buchanan's reputation for a jolly pugnacity that feeds off his opponents' attacks better than Crusher Creel, The American Conservative seems only to have been emboldened by the accusations of anti-Semitism made against Pat over the years. The front of the book contains an editorial pointing out that the Jewish contribution to the collapse of the venerable WASP establishment that kept the old America on an even keel is "a rich and important subject [that] still awaits its true historian." Executive editor McConnell writes that "Ariel Sharon is one of the best arguments for the Osama Bin Laden side" in the Middle East.

While it's gratifying to see a consistent anti-war voice in these times when the sound of war drums drowns out most talk of the benefits, both moral and practical, of giving peace a chance, the magazine's left/right fusion, beyond the war issue, seems like the worst of both worlds to this libertarian's eyes, amounting to a grumpy obsession with how both foreigners and the well-to-do are hurting the little guy, and why isn't the government doing more about it?

But the war issue is the most important one right now. This magazine probably isn't going to get far as a vehicle for building an effective anti-war coalition. Rather than trying to give each side something to love, the magazine seems perversely intent on making sure it gives everyone something to hate. While there may be people in the conservative movement (though hardly any of the people who write for such conservative intellectual movement flagships as National Review, The Weekly Standard, or Commentary) who would be delighted with the magazine's anti-immigrant focus, or even its non-interventionism, they are likely to be driven to distraction by the magazine's past two cover features: a supremely flattering interview treating Norman Mailer as a very important thinker (in which the interviewers name Henry Miller as a "best" American writer on par with Melville) and an implicitly vegan cover story detailing in gut-wrenching details the horrors of contemporary meatmaking practices (written, to be sure, by a former Bush speechwriter).

And what of a Nation reader, tempted by the much-bruited similarities between his or her fave mag and this one? After reading a cover feature about how white cities in Maine are suffering from an invasion of Somali welfare kings and queens, or an article lamenting that reporter Haynes Johnson no longer points out that blacks commit crimes "far out of proportion to their percentage of the population" the way he used to, curious left-wingers are apt to drop the American Conservative faster than they dropped their affection for Ralph Nader after Bush II.

While Buchanan was a dud as a presidential candidate, he does seem to attract readers—his last ode to a formerly grand America drowning in a sea of brown, The Death of the West was a bestseller. But that might have more to say about the sorry status of books as a mass medium than it does about the extent of his fan base. While it's not hard to believe there are a fair number of Americans who would nod their heads when Pat growls that foreign trade is taking away American jobs, that kind of audience probably isn't going to keep afloat a political opinion magazine. It will take continued cash-pumping from Taki's dad's shipping fortune for that.

That said, the magazine stakes out stances that have not yet been beaten to death in political magazines. This makes it, as a reading experience, at least more of a kick than its more venerable—OK, moribund—right-wing quasi-brethren. Its ability to shock with the not-usually-said may not do much for any plans to be taken seriously in the policy community—Taki tells the Weekly that "We're sending The American Conservative to every fucking policy wonk in Washington…I want a little bit more gravitas. I'm not going to be writing about how I got drunk and fell on the floor and chased some pussy"—but it does make the scrappy periodical more fun to follow.