(This post was cross-posted from my development blog at Ordinary Times)
If there is a consistent political stance or, if you will, “view of the site” detectable at Ordinary Times, it is not, I believe, an especially “conservative” one, as at least one commenter has argued. Nor is it, as has also been suggested a simply “liberal” or “leftist” politics. I would contend that the site’s implicit, or perhaps immanent, political stance amounts instead to a committed if somewhat diffuse, not wholly intentional or consciously sought, left “liberaltarianism.” I also would argue, however, that the political philosophy that OT means to express, or that its editors, writers, and commenters want to express, and think they express, and that they say they want the site to embody, would be something different yet again.
The term “liberaltarian” was apparently coined by Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute, writing in 2006. Lindsey’s essay is worth re-reading, not least for its success at capturing a peculiar inflection point in American politics, but the Urban Dictionary’s presumably much more recently written “top definition” of the term may be easier for us to apply and adjust:
Liberaltarian[ism]: A political philosophy that combines Liberalism and Libertarianism. Liberaltarians are usually left on fiscal issues, such as healthcare and tax policy, and libertarian on issues such as drug and prostitution legalisation. They often do not believe in some social liberal ideas such as affirmative action, smoking bans and hate crimes. They are usually anti war, as both liberalism and libertarianism are, and pro-same sex marriage. Liberaltarians exist in the USA as well as other countries.
The reason that I attach “left” to the term in relation to OT is that I believe the commitment of some leading contributors – both in the posts and in comments – to certain left and indeed illiberally left positions, and modes of argument, generally overcomes residual libertarian opposition, and in a way that may both explain and be explained by the departure from the site or radical reduction in activity of many of its self-identified libertarian writers and commenters. To use the Urban Dictionary’s example, I believe OT writers and commenters are in fact unlikely to offer a focused attack on “affirmative action” and “hate crimes” legislation on political-theoretical grounds (I’m not sure that they ever have done so), even if they maintain strong libertarian biases on other topics – such as domestic surveillance. ((Whether “same sex marriage” is properly a libertarian proposal is a complex question, but the alternative to marriage equality legislation most frequently embraced at the site is “government out of the marriage business entirely,” not “Defense of Marriage.”))
In the open thread under Editor-in-Chief Tod Kelly’s “note” concerning the state of OT, contributor and frequent commenter Chris offered the opposite view (already linked at the outset, linked here again), arguing that OT tilts conservative, and rather overwhelmingly: “[The site’s] front-pagers,” wrote Chris, “range primarily from the conservative (e.g., MacLeod, Dodds, Truman, Dwyer, Bath, Sanders) to the moderately socially liberal but otherwise fairly conservative centrists (e.g., Kelly, Likko), with one regularly posting run-of-the-mill liberal (Degraw), and more right leaning libertarians to round out the range (e.g., Jaybird).” Contrary to the implication of Chris’s statement, however, there is no reasonable justification for describing Ordinary Times as a “conservative” site or as “primarily… conservative to fairly conservative,” at least by any generally in use or mainstream definition of the word “conservative.” Anyone saying so would have us believe that “conservative” or “right wing” includes those who adopt, advocate, and celebrate socially progressive positions, in some part apparently in an effort to ingratiate themselves with left-liberals and to move the right further to the left, while doing nothing to advance or even explain identifiably conservative ideas, projects, political candidates, or cultural figures, whether out of personal reluctance or whether out of fear of reactions from their actual audience or its most vocal and excitable members. If the overall effect or product – the real OT before you, available for viewing to anyone able and willing to scan and surf and think – can still be called “conservative” under some very broad or abstract political-philosophical concept or theory, it will not be what most people in internet-political life think of as “conservative,” and it will also raise fundamental questions about what, by this mode of definition, “progressive” or “left” or whatever we wish to call the alternative or alternatives is supposed to signify.
In other words, as I intend to show, to refer to the site as conservative without careful and explicit qualification, is misleading, if not disingenuous, and, regardless of how else OT should be categorized ideologically, or whether it can or should be ideologically characterized at all, to associate it generically or even inadvertently with the current or real existing conservative movement in America, or with the real existing American political right, is a disservice to the site as a whole and to the people who contribute to and visit it.
Whether the site will simply reduce to “liberal” or “functionally left-liberal” may in fact be a more salient question than whether it can reasonably be called “conservative.” A self-identified conservative effectively pushed off this site (if not for his political views as such) recently reminded me of “O’Sullivan’s Law,” which holds that “any organization or enterprise that is not expressly right wing will become left wing over time.” As the more heavily libertarian early history of the site fades further into the past, O’Sullivan may well be proven correct, at least for American conservative definitions of “left wing,” even if the skew does not ever fully satisfy the latter-day Maoists among us.
Rather than pursue such speculation further, however, this post will instead focus in detail on the first contention, on the question of the site’s actual political stance, for the sake of clearing the way for a later exploration of the second, on the stance or the approach to political stances that the whole community wants to or should take. Neither may mean much to the outside world, of course, nor even interest most site regulars, from Editor-in-Chief to silent lurker, but to whatever extent anything we do here matters or potentially matters at all, even merely to ourselves as individuals, nothing matters more. To proceed under a distorted or absent self-understanding threatens to turn the entire project into at best a “mindless diversion,” an unintelligible presentation of unmatched fragments building toward nothing but hurt feelings, wasted time, and, rather commonly, self-undermining self-congratulation over the escape by a few “honored alumni” to “bigger and better things” – to things, in other words, and by telling contrast, that we do believe may matter.
Convergingly, to argue by false characterization of the other’s views and therefore of the other, rather than by addressing views actually expressed, is a disreputable tactic, one frequently deployed by those pretending to assess the ideological state of this site or the views of those who post or comment at it: This mode of pseudo-argumentation produces heat and noise rather than debate and discussion, with a tendency toward making things “personal.” In a discussion about a common project, the result will be the familiar ridiculous spectacle of ever more vicious and yet ever more trivial insistence on the need for a more collegial and significant discussion.
“Front-pager,” the term Chris used when he listed OT’s supposedly conservative main authors, goes back to the site’s bygone League of Ordinary Gentlemen era. At that time, a front-pager was someone who enjoyed unfettered and effectively unfiltered ability to post directly to the site’s (or “multi-site”‘s) main landing page, and who could also write posts exclusively for his or her semi-independent, smaller-audience sub-blog. ((A sub-blog or multi-site structure does more naturally support a variety of strongly held, ideologically contrary views, and for that reason the editors are considering a return to something like the old one developed for the League.)) Chris probably meant “post authors” or possibly authors of featured posts – groups that happen to include Chris himself, though this fact is one that Chris, who self-identifies as on the left if not on the far left, oddly failed to mention. Yet whatever definition Chris had in mind, we can still use his list and descriptions as a starting point, and we will discover that the selection is flawed in two ways: It fails to account for views actually expressed – or wholly absent – in writing at OT by those individuals, and it ignores other OT writers who deserve the title of “front-pager” at least as much as they do, and who by any reasonable standard count as “left” or “left-liberal” in outlook.
Take for example the individual Chris first named, “MacLeod.”
This MacLeod person is someone I’ve never met and about whom in fact I know little – except that, as was recently pointed out to me, he or she is said to have been “hounded” off the site, and has been the subject of at least one coarse epithet applied to him or her in the comment threads. ((I’m not sure why we’re even talking about this “asshole.”)) I can, however, like anyone else, look up the MacLeod archive, and, after a reasonably close examination of his or her 21 going on 22 archived posts, discover that he or she has never posted a post expressing a political view on anything at all. MacLeod once provided a thread for reactions to a Republican debate which he or she admitted mostly not having watched, treating the event as infotainment mainly for others. All of his or her other posts have focused on site operations/development or have consisted of brief, politically uninvested “Off the Cuff” posts. ((One consisting of links to articles on the meaning of China’s stock market crash, presenting contrasting views; one briefly noting the existence of a TV adaptation of From Dusk Til Dawn; one linking to a speculative article in The Economist imagining a President Hillary Rodham Clinton’s first 100 days; and one consisting of a quote about Ulysses S Grant from a book Gentleperson MacLeod happened to be reading about Soviet military theory.)) The one arguable exception on the matter of political-ideological expression is MacLeod’s post on the popular “mystery person” site avatar, which he suggested ought to be replaced by an avatar of some possible color.
Seems altogether suspiciously leftish to me, actually, but I can draw no firm is-he-or-she-now-or-has-he-or-she-ever-been-a-member conclusions from that information.
At this point one of CK MacLeod’s many leftwing commenter fans, if any have read this far, may already be preparing to call him, or me, out for disingenuousness of my own, but the fact remains that this CK of whom they sometimes speak is not someone I recognize. Not just in terms of his posting output, but in terms of his much more extensive commenting history, the views often assigned to him and the views he states do not in my examination coincide. ((A certain type of commenter presumes that a view on an issue – evolution, marriage equality, American foreign policy, and so on – cannot be examined sympathetically by someone who does not hold it, or hold it simply, and is not mainly concerned with advancing the interests of those who do. This view is the view of an ideologue who projects assumptions about his or her own political and intellectual life onto everyone else, or who treats them as the sole universals in a universe otherwise devoid of them. The latter belief or position, that ideology is ineluctable, not just as a difficulty or tendency of thought, but as universal determinant of political discussion and eventually any discussion whatsoever, is associated with, or properly understood defines, “historicism,” and is sometimes also identified as typically “post-modern.” An alternative tradition treats thoroughly understanding the “other side” or the other person’s view, from the other person’s perspective, stated as strongly and completely as it can be, as the first objective of any authentic discussion, and a pre-condition for any truly meaningful one.)) Those interested further in the fascinating subject of my political-ideological affinities, if any, can either check my above-linked archives or my below-linked personal blog, but, as far as OT goes, CK MacLeod the “front-pager”‘s political profile is NULL or very close.
As for the other supposedly “conservative” or “fairly conservative” or “right-leaning” writers Chris mentions, CK MacLeod wonders whether a single post by any of them can be found that a typical reader of RedState-HotAir-Townhall-Human Events-NRO-Commentary-Powerline-Breitbart-Free-Beacon-Weekly Standard-Ace of Spades-GatewayPundit-Instapundit-Liberty Unyielding etc., or a typical Fox News viewer, would find politically sympathetic. In my observation, to the actually and perhaps surprisingly small extent that any of the authors Chris names, or any other OT front-pager, does express political views on any contentious topics of the day, in posts as well as in comments, they have for the most part taken left liberaltarian or simply anti-conservative stances, especially regarding race or racism and marriage equality and other “social issues,” but on many other topics as well:
- More on OT Editor-in-Chief Tod Kelly below, but we can observe some I believe quite typical output: He seems to be a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates (see also “Free At Last…” and various comments at OT and elsewhere.), he called the former Mt. McKinley “A Mountain of White Privilege, and he has declared opponents of marriage equality objective bigots. ((“You can’t reasonably be against [gay rights and same-sex marriage] without thinking that gays are somehow lesser and deserving of fewer rights and privileges than the rest of us. You can tell yourself you can, but you can’t.”))
- In a major post, one of a number expressing the same general view, OT Managing Editor Burt Likko invited us to celebrate Obergefell as the glory of the coming of the Atheist anti-Lord, approximately. ((Emphasis in the original: “You might fall in love with and want to marry someone of the same sex as yourself at some point. You can, now, and to do so is so obviously a good thing as future generations shall wonder that this was ever so contentious an issue at all. Or perhaps you will never marry someone of the same sex — even so, you should still celebrate that we achieved a bit of our national ideals. America showed herself at her very best this Friday. I’m told that this weekend sees Pride festivals all over the country. We all should be proud.”)) In other posts on “hot” political topics, he has written against the death penalty, in favor of abortion rights, and against Obama policy toward the Islamic State in effect from the left, on anti-war or anti-interventionist principle.
- I had no idea how OT Contributing Editor Vikram Bath would vote on anything or anyone if he voted, but I have been informed via email that he in fact does not vote and is not registered to vote. Nor do I recall him ever entering into a political debate in the threads – although one time he did (confoundingly to me) back longtime contributor Sam Wilkinson’s illiberal left views on political discussion. ((Or, rather, on the pointlessness of political discussion pursued as authentic discussion, since Wilkinson was, typically, seeking to justify a general practice of ad hominem attack on political enemies.)) He also has described himself as a “huge fan” of Coates, incidentally (though is not an uncritical huge fan, as the linked post will show). As a perusal of his author archive will immediately reveal, on the rare occasions that Bath does address political issues, it will be as often to back a common left-liberal position as to oppose it. He did once argue against the Democratic line on the Senate “torture report” of 2014 – but it was “Opposite Day.”
- OT Contributing Editor Will Truman does describe himself as of “the right,” but his output, especially recently, is dominated by apolitically culture-oriented link aggregation posts and by personal stories of his life as a father-homemaker. He frequently discusses political news, but rarely from any readily apparent or strongly stated ideological slant.
- Longtime OT and League contributor Dennis Sanders rarely posts at all anymore, but when he does it is frequently to call on Republicans and/or social conservatives and/or Southern conservatives to repent for their racist and homophobic sins, seek political forgiveness, and sin no more – see, typically, “Dear Straight Republicans,” “Stars, Bars and Me,” and “Tiny Violins” ((“In my case, my desire for civility is not because [social conservatives] deserve it, but because I don’t want to act like they have to people like myself.”))
- New contributor Roland Dodds describes himself as a “conservative socialist,” and just by saying so has instantly removed and excluded himself from the ranks of “American political conservatives” of the RedState, etc., type. (My further guess would be that he voted for Obama twice, but it’s only a guess.) His post and comments reveal a thoughtful man whose views are, as he says, “in flux,” and which draw from both right and left.
- Jaybird, by far and away the most active commenter in the history of OT and the League (over 18,000 comments), posts nearly exclusively on cultural topics in regular Weekend!, Saturday!, and Sunday! columns focusing on “Mindless Diversions” – games, TV shows, movies, books – always ending with an invitation to commenters to share their own favorite distractions of the moment. He also puts out a regular Fantasy Football column, and has paused occasionally over the last year to comment on theology, picky eating, and copyright law. Unless the question “So.. what are you playing?” is to be construed as a right-leaning question, I see little justification for assigning Jaybird, at least as a “front-pager,” any political bias at all.
- Finally, as for longtime OT and League of Ordinary Gentlemen contributor Mike Dwyer, who somewhat got this public self-reflection project started, he probably comes closest of the group (not saying much) to being a “conventional conservative,” if only because he wrote a short post in June, after the Charleston mass shooting, that asked about mental health issues rather than gun control, and that received a response that he experienced as so one-sidedly negative it led him, he says, to quit the site for four months (something of a mental health break of his own). He returned only, as of this writing, to post a closed-comments open letter begging for ideological space. I would be remiss not to note that he has been subjected to accusations of racism in the comment threads ((…including in the comment by Chris with which I began this post, also in a recent statement by commenter Brit.)) by individuals secure in the knowledge that he will neither defend himself nor be forcefully defended. The latter expectation is, to say the least, hardly typical of a “conservative” site.
Based on my experience, my strong belief is that, if these writers presented their work to the internet right, most would be identified as adversaries and perhaps accused of “concern trolling,” not published and asked for more.
OT has, however, featured several posts that might be welcomed by leftwing ideologues – posts that not only, as above, take a leftish line on events and issues, but that excoriate those who do not do so. The most striking examples of openly leftwing posts of this type in recent months have been by Sam Wilkinson ((“[T]hose opposed to gay marriage are bigots motivated by their hatred of gays. Principled [!] opposition to gay marriage is always revealed to be nothing more than an expression of the individual’s discomfort with gay people…”)) and by Jonathan McLeod ((“You can disavow misogyny and chauvinism, declare yourself a defender of equal rights and still fall into the traps that our inherently sexist society sets out. It takes vigilance to see and try to avoid these traps, and it is dreadfully important to call them out when others fall in.”)), directly adopting familiar left-liberal and far left positions especially on (hetero-)sexism and racism. We have also had guest posts of the same type. ((“I have yet to hear an argument in opposition to same-sex marriage rights that is not, on some level, and insult to gays and lesbians.”)) ((“Black America is rioting, justly so [!], and will continue to do so until we have righted the wrongs.”))
Apart from OT Editor Likko’s already-noted, unusual anti-interventionist intervention, foreign policy-related posts have become scarce over the last year or two at OT, but the effect is that the common liberaltarian or left and libertarian fusionist or simply neo-isolationist critique of American security policy at home and abroad, as enunciated much more extensively by League writers in the pre-OT period, remains the never-contradicted site position. Anyone seeking evidence on OT liberaltarian foreign policy bias can perform a Google site-search – “site:ordinary-gentlemen.com” in combination with any major terms of foreign and security policy debate – drones, torture, NSA, Snowden, Syria, Iraq, and so on. The view of the site will I think be obvious, if not quite as a matter of perfect consensus.
Among new writers, in addition to Dodds, we have Richard Hershberger, who mainly writes on “culture” broadly defined, but from his comments does appear to be left-liberal-leaning or all the way leaned. I will refrain from commenting in detail on zic, how she was invited onto OT staff and how she, apparently, dropped out it by her own choice, but she is or was demonstratively, indeed insistently, left-progressive in her views. Jon Rowe, a business professor by trade, is clearly not aligned with Chris or with Wilkinson and J. McLeod, but he is far from a conventional RedState-NRO-Breitbart-Fox News conservative (for further, see below). Saul deGraw is an openly left-liberal “New Dealer” (his former commenting moniker) and urban cosmopolitan. Dan Scotto analyzes Republican politics in detail, but the only time that he has (tentatively) discussed his own conservative or conservative-leaning views on a controversial subject, he was subjected to intense criticism and effectively forced to apologize and retract. (Oddly, that MacLeod person was one of the people asking him to re-consider his argument.)
If anyone finds following and verifying the above too time-consuming, he or she can instead simply take a close look at the site’s front page as at the moment of this writing: Out of the nearly 40 “front page” OT posts on October 13, 2015, AM PDT – whether “featured,” “regular,” or “Off the Cuff” – the only one taking anything resembling a partisan view on a conventional political topic is one by Jon Rowe that strongly criticizes a leading social conservative for statements opposing marriage equality. The closest anyone else comes to emphasizing any conventionally “political” positions are in the following two posts: “Letter to the Community” by Mike Dwyer, already referenced, and “Stop Making Excuses for the Internet” by EIC Kelly – the latter arguing in effect for the same thing Dwyer requested: intellectual and emotional space for a multiplicity of views – although, unusually for Kelly, he uses as his Exhibit A a piece of illiberal leftism on gun control rather than some example of “epistemic closure” on the Fox News right.
Has there ever been a post at Ordinary Times (never mind the League, for now) that has defended Republican national security, economic, or social policy as such? With the possible exception of Scotto’s post mentioned above, has Ordinary Times ever published a post that treated social or movement conservative views on “choice,” marriage equality, immigration, defense spending, affirmative action, taxes, the War on Terror, climate change, and so on, sympathetically at all – much less truly supportively? Has any “front-pager” at OT ever written positively on neo-conservatives, social conservatives, Ronald Reagan, George W Bush, the Tea Party, or representative conservative social-cultural figures? Has OT hosted any significant and sustained criticism of major left-liberal political-cultural institutions, figures, projects, or tendencies? I do not think so, but maybe someone else can show us more than a typical exception or two along these lines.
The site even changed its very name from “League of Ordinary Gentlemen” to “Ordinary Times,” largely in order to deflect and, or so it was hoped, to help address “diversity” concerns: a rather more typically left-liberal than right-conservative priority and concession. ((The domain name, however, still stands, but I believe its days are numbered or may soon be.)) The general pattern also repeats itself, awkwardly and not always very successfully, whenever a visitor or would-be contributor from a diversity-valuable constituency identifies zerself by whatever means. There may have been no site in all of virtual creation where someone with the right ethno-political credentials has been more likely to receive a warm welcome and free rein than at poor, misunderstood OT.
The effects of OT’s anti-conservative or conservative-hostile, though not uniformly pro-left, bias may be most obvious in comment thread discussions – content as well as conduct. I will leave detailed analysis of OT discussion possibly to some other time ((The notion, however, that the site might be on the verge of closing comments I find bizarre – considering the amount of work, with the support of the editors, that has been devoted to developing the comment threads in the interests of enhancing and extending discussion.)), but perhaps someone who cares to differ on the larger theme can point to the last time, if ever, that some group of self-identified conservatives singled out, ganged up on, and sought to silence, drive away, or ban a stubbornly progressive commenter – a course of events that has become almost common in the OT threads when the political labels are reversed, but that seems for the usual reason, human nature, hardly to register at all, much less as unseemly and cowardly conduct, with the perpetrators. My belief is that the only way in which the threads could be thought to compensate for OT’s obvious and consistently elaborated anti-conservative tendencies would be if those commenters who advance alternatives to left-liberal perspectives typically get the better of emergent debates, even when outnumbered three or four or more to one. I will not be sitting in suspense waiting for a left-liberal commenter to make that argument.
Beyond reviewing the threads, I invite any “OG” ((For the uninitiated: Ordinary Gentleperson.)) who cares to do so to look at the site archives in more detail than I have done above, as a worthy exercise in self-auditing, but specifically for the purpose of empirically testing the components of my thesis – especially the observation that this site may or may not qualify as liberaltarian, as liberal or left-liberal, or as impossible to define, but that it is is far from “conservative” by any conventional, contemporary American-political definition of the term. If further investigation does happen to show the site to be more open to some version of contemporary “movement conservatism” or any other type of conservatism than an ideologically leftwing site would normally be, then that conclusion would imply only that OT is not a simply left progressive site either. ((An offer of further discussion should not be taken as a promise to engage with interlocutors given to foully personal invective and name-calling, and unalterable, falsely or misleadingly and uncharitably subjective assertions.))
In the meantime, 1 for 40 strikes me as a low political batting average: The question may be less whether OT is, or can or should be, a politically conservative site, or a liberaltarian site, or a left or liberal site, but whether it is, or can or should be, a political site at all. If my answer, that the site as currently constituted is a left liberaltarian and mainly cultural site – produced mainly but not exclusively by and mainly but not exclusively for “ordinary gentlemen” – is correct or close enough, then the next question for us would be, obviously, whether we like it that way, and, if not, whether there is anything to be done about it.