December 6, 2012
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It is not insulting Fox News host Greg Gutfeld to say he doesn't know much about the subjects he jokes and chats about for a living. He draws pleasure from saying so himself, over and over again, in a thousand repetitive ways.
Like the network he works for, Gutfeld's shtick is premised on the loud embrace of a pugilistic, media-bubbled conservatism. Gutfeld considered the late Andrew Breitbart a close friend and inspiration, and indeed represents what might be called the Breitbartian wing of the Fox News spectrum: he revels in media war for its own sake, prefers pop culture to political history, and spends his time buried in a trough of Twitter feeds and feuds. His new book, The Joy of Hate, reads like an extended riff on the author's admission to being just an oversexed, Internet-and-TV addicted former lad-mag editor, who not all that long ago was teaching "old people how to do sit-ups on cruise ships," and whose idea of journalistic legwork is using the search box at FoxNews.com.
Gutfeld's winding road to right-wing punditry began as a student at UC-Berkeley during the 1980s. There he developed hatred for the left rooted in splenetic tendencies and cultural resentments more than any engagement with campus protest. Thirty years later, Gutfeld still doesn't know anything about the era he says forged his political identity. In The Joy of Hate, he shrugs off the debate over Reagan's Central America policies by calling it a bunch of "stupid crap" about which he says he'd "be lying if I told you I had a clue." This is just one of many similar asides, and after a while you start to wonder if it's part of an act when he jokes about not knowing the major combatants of World War II. Such self-denigrating honesty might not fortify Gutfeld's qualifications as an ascendant pundit, but it should at least have given his book a sole endearing quality. But it doesn't. The host of Fox News' The Five and Red Eye (and sometimes sub for Bill O'Reilly) isn't really being self-deprecating. He's bragging.
Which makes Gutfeld's book worthy of note when paired with the question: What does it say about the future of conservatism that Fox News keeps expanding the role of a man-child with so little interest in or knowledge about politics?
When pundits like Gutfeld don't have much to say, but want to sell some books, they pilgrimage to the corpse of "political correctness," which the right entombed after the success of Rush Limbaugh's The Way Things Ought To Be launched the conservative publishing boom 20 years ago. The twist distinguishing Gutfeld's paint-by-the-numbers entry from so many other titles in the Crown Forum back catalogue is homoerotic or gay-themed humor, a staple of Gutfeld's on-air personae since he joined Fox in 2007 as the host of Red Eye, following a career in publishing spanning The American Spectator, Men's Health, Prevention, Stuff, and the British edition of Maxim. Last year, he became a co-host of The Five, the fact-challenged panel show that replaced Glenn Beck's vacated 5 p.m. slot.
Like so many have before, Gutfeld argues in his book that America is "under attack" by a liberal "tolerati" that has acquired tyrannical powers to police the boundaries of acceptable speech. He quickly stretches the point into farcical tolerance determinism. The tolerati (led by Media Matters, which he terms "the ventriloquist" while "the liberal media is the dummy") dictates a "fetishized tolerance [that] is at the root of every single major political conflict we're experiencing now -- from terrorism to climate change, from birth control to the left's weird indifference to large-scale, destructive evil." His proposed solution is as simple as it is self-serving: more jerks like Greg Gutfeld. "We need to be jerks, smart intolerant jerks," writes the Fox News star. "We need the idiocy of open-mindedness with happy judgmentalism."
Gutfeld's book is a crash course in Jerk Studies, a collection of conversational riffs and rants on America's "poop stars" and "vagina demagogues." Together they explain why, if you hold The Joy of Hate to your ear like a conch, you will hear not the ocean, but the sound of a particular brand of wiseass white entitlement accelerating its long slide down the wrong side of history.
It's fitting that Gutfeld's book hit stores the week after a presidential election understood to signal an historic realignment of electoral power away from the GOP's white male base. The timing should give pause to Gutfeld's boosters with a role in crafting conservative movement strategy. The Red Eye host's book is unlikely to broaden the right's appeal with young women or minorities. The former don't have much use for Gutfeld's habit of using scare quotes around the phrase "women's health issue," or his belief that "if you can't afford [birth control pills], then clearly you are too lazy and stupid to have sex." Blacks and Latinos, meanwhile, are unlikely to nod along to Gutfeld's assessment that "the only people hurt by racism these days are the racists."
But conservative political comedy is a fallow field, and some on the right insist Gutfeld can succeed where so many others have failed. In a recent Daily Caller article, former Bush administration official David Cohen described Gutfeld as "a uniquely gifted ambassador for the conservative cause" with a "style that can resonate not only with younger folks, but with others who have not traditionally welcomed the conservative message." Gutfeld, Cohen argues, is a crossover hit waiting to happen, a secret weapon capable of closing the humor gap with the left and shifting the cultural balance of power rightward.
Gutfeld "is as hip to pop culture as they come [and] uses his hipness and humor as weapons to fight back on our behalf," writes Cohen. "In eschewing 'coolness' as it's defined by the guardians of our popular culture, Gutfeld makes it cool to be conservative. ... [His] greatest upside lies in his potential to cross over. A lot of Republican leaders have been moping around after the election, trying to figure out how to communicate our values to young voters and others who went for Obama. They could learn something by watching Red Eye. Evidently, the brass at Fox News shares my assessment."
And evidently the brass at Fox News doesn't understand the new America. "You can tell your kids day and night to be good people," writes Gutfeld in the Joy of Hate, "but you're up against some serious competition: Lady Gaga [and] hip hop." Is this the voice of a free-market Jon Stewart -- or David Cohen's great-grandmother? Even on major social issues, the self-proclaimed libertarian Gutfeld sounds like yesterday's man. While trying to joke his way out of a coherent position on gay marriage, he ends up sounding like Rick Santorum. "If I'm running a business," he writes, "I don't want to pay for your dog's health insurance, even if he is your spouse. So that's where my tolerance ends."
It's also pretty close to the place Gutfeld's youth appeal falters. If conservatives want to better connect to young people, here's some advice: cultivate personalities who don't fill their books by writing that students protesting tuition hikes should feel lucky to be pepper-sprayed; or that consensus climate science is a "pile of crap"; or that the basic problem with American democracy is that "we have too many friggin' voices trying to make themselves heard."
The right is delusional if it thinks it can replicate the success of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert with Gutfeldian rightwing "irreverence." One of the reasons people are drawn to the Comedy Central shows aside from the jokes is they don't trust other news sources, and Fox News especially. Whatever tweaks Gutfeld may make to his formula in the future, he seems constitutionally (and institutionally) incapable of the basic fact checking, let alone the kind of serious research that goes into the best bits on the Daily Show. Gutfeld's book continues into print his televised talent as a happy vehicle for blatant disinformation -- on basic environmental issues, on major labor disputes, on the economic benefits of oil infrastructure. Leaving aside the content of his politics and the question of whether he's actually funny, this explains why Gutfeld will forever struggle with the demo, and will remain just another target for more popular comedic pundits.
At least Gutfeld's publisher understands this. Crown put together a book tour that takes Gutfeld mostly through the deep red states of Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. The only California stop is at the Reagan library. The biggest signing in Florida will take place at the Villages, an ultraconservative retirement community north of Orlando where the elderly members get around on golf carts.
Gutfeld does have fans in blue parts of the country, here and there, a number of whom contributed back jacket blurbs to the Joy of Hate. The District-dwelling Jonah Goldberg, who shares a publisher with Gutfeld, hails the book as "brilliant." Manhattan resident Ann Coulter calls it the work of a "genius." The L.A.-based Fox contributor Dennis Miller compares the book favorably to the works of Voltaire.
It is apparently in the spirit of Voltaire that Gutfeld reviews the professional arc of a shock jock named Doug "The Greaseman" Tracht, whose broadcasting career nosedived in 1999 when he followed a Lauryn Hill song by saying, "And they wonder why we drag them behind trucks," a reference to the previous year's gruesome and racially inspired murder of James Byrd. Gutfeld assures readers he's not defending the Greaseman or his joke. He's merely highlighting the case to prove the media's unfair double standard: Jokes by liberals about the Pope are given a pass, while jokes by conservatives about modern lynchings get you fired. At least that seems to be Gutfeld's argument, until he starts talking about Tracht's firing as proof that "awful blatant racism" isn't really a problem anymore. After all, the guy lost his job, right? The canning of a DJ is, in Gutfeld's boy-in-the-media-bubble view, a more significant fact in assessing the persistence of racism than the murder of James Byrd (or, more recently, James Anderson). It is a conclusion that follows naturally from Breitbart's Warholian-Maoist dictum that "politics is downstream from pop culture."
The key to Greg Gutfeld is found not far from here, in his adolescent obsession with a hierarchy of "cool" and his not-so-secret yearning for approval by whatever Olympian culture committee he imagines designates such things. He claims that he and his conservative friends are so rebellious and so cool they're beyond needing acceptance, but the transparency of this pose becomes clear in the chapters devoted to the subject, which are also the book's most personal. "The longer I live," he huffs, "the more I'm convinced the world is just one big high school, with the cool kids always targeting the uncool." There is no more sullen or bitter kid at Tolerati High than Greg Gutfeld, who writes: "The entertainment industry hates the uncool (read: the right) so much that if a maniacal leader arose from the left to announce he would send the uncool to 'how to be cool' camps, no one in a band would raise an objection."
In an attempt to show the injustice and backwardness of the liberal-dominated cool hierarchy, Gutfeld namedrops right-wing musicians like Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground and Billy Zoom of X. These guys are really cool -- they understand "it's more daring to be traditional than subvert tradition." In any case, Gutfeld runs out of right-wing musician names fast, and soon resorts to talking about the time he had beers with Johnny Rotten and was happily surprised to learn that while Rotten loves Obama, he hates hippies, just like Gutfeld does. Punks don't like hippies -- who knew?
The biggest reveal in Gutfeld's ruminations on cool is a fawning section on his friend and Vice magazine co-founder, Gavin McInnes. Gutfeld is very impressed by McInnes' hipster credentials in music, fashion, and publishing. But what really impresses Gutfeld is the way McInnes refuses to bow before the tolerati. Around the time people began seeing McInnes as part of a long tradition of punk/hipster racism, he sold his stake in Vice and was basically never heard from again. These days he blogs at Taki's Magazine alongside tolerati casualties Pat Buchanan and John Derbyshire. (Ever wondered where those two ended up?) Taki's contributor's list also includes McIness' friend Jim Goad, who surprisingly does not appear in The Joy of Hate. In a popular post at Taki's, Goad recently listed ten reasons not to assassinate Barack Obama, among them number five: "Legions of unkempt, ill-mannered, malodorous, blue-gummed, and yellow-eyed 'urban' 'people' would likely burn cities to the ground from coast to coast."
Everything in The Joy of Hate suggests that Gutfeld would love to free his inner jerk like this. But don't expect him to sit down at Taki's cool-conservative-kid table anytime soon. The Taki's roster is a warning to those who want to keep their well-paid perches in major media. However much Gutfeld may chafe against the invisible strictures he says are placed around his commentary (and America's soul) he is an unlikely candidate for media martyrdom before his next contract negotiation. Behind all of Gutfeld's jokes about his intellectual laziness and not caring what anyone thinks is a professional savvy that understands there's no money in fully baring your inner jerk on national television, even at Red Eye's time slot of 3 a.m. "Is making money bad?" he asks toward the end of the book while setting match to an unrecognizable straw man version of the Occupy protests. No, he concludes, it is not bad, and also a money system is better than a barter system. Gutfeld then gets back to his biting analysis of the debate between a corporation and its critics. "One makes money. The other makes noise," he writes. "So yeah, they are the same -- except one really sucks."
Gutfeld is almost certainly right that he will never be a cool icon of popular culture. But it isn't because he's conservative. It's because he's a jerk.