How The Right Got Cool

Channel surfing on a dark night of the soul, I came upon Conan O'Brien bantering with P.J. O'Rourke. "There were those of us who inhaled in the '60s," P.J. quipped, "who scored with cocktail waitresses and got over it." Here was the partisan wit that has made him the Oscar Wilde of The Wall Street Journal. But Conan (who knows that the audience at that hour is made up mostly of prisoners and other sleepless Democrats) was unnerved. "You're saying Ben & Jerry's turned the '60s into a flavor?" he offered, and P.J. obediently muttered, "Yeah." That gave Conan an opening to the center: "And it's a good flavor." FLIP! There was Tom Snyder interviewing Dennis Prager, the rabbi of Fairfax Avenue, who embodies liberalism as a willingness to shake hands with the shvartzers if they are well-groomed. "I have always been concerned about unjust suffering," Prager intoned, hastening to add, "I have nothing against suffering itself--I love to see the Nazis get it in the movies." That got Snyder cackling: a little vengeance at that hour is worth about 100,000 homes. There's something fundamental about this contrast between a robust conservative, sparing the jugular only when he must, and a wan liberal, straining to prove himself capable of aggression. It's the celebrity face of political reality. Not that I'm surprised by the spectrum of media opinion: it has always run from rabid right to genteel left, even in more liberal times. What's new is the vitality factor. If I have to choose between Prager and O'Rourke--that is, between the pretense of decency and the thrill of schadenfreude--I know how I'll flip, especially at 1 a.m. How did the right become hip? The answer is the heat of hegemony, which energizes all who represent it. Even when the substance of what they're saying is repugnant, it has style. Which is why the allure of the right has spread from talk radio to the outer reaches of late-night chat. I was thinking about that ripple effect when I picked up the New York Press, a weekly I usually thumb through in coffee shops while waiting for a bagel to toast. It takes about that long to absorb its in-depth coverage of the Downtown scene. Given this mandate, you'd think the tone would range from progressive to subversive. But its essays either scream "the personal is not political" or seethe with a randy resentment. It's like listening to Rush Limbaugh while waiting on line at Dean & DeLuca. This aggravated superiority is especially acute in the annual "Best of Manhattan" issue. Along with tips on everything from power pop to pad thai, the vast copy hole gives the staff a chance to file anonymous tirades on the more bizarre aspects of Manhattan life. This yuppie id-speak is the second-best reason to read the Press. (Best reason: it's free.) Manhattan, to these guys, ends at Central Park (except on the East Side, where it advances to Yorkville). Above that, the only nabe worth investing in is Inwood ("Often confused with crime-ridden Washington Heights...the place abounds with retired cops and Rottweilers"). As for New York's swarthy multitudes, they're at their best when hitting on white women. ("You can't help her; you're too fucked up; you don't want to touch the guy; you're too fascinated.") Gay men are best when they're like Andrew Sullivan ("the quintessential Quiet Man"). And women are better seen--in short skirts and big hair--than heard. Of several hundred entries in this issue, maybe half a dozen seem directed at women. Mostly, this is dude stuff, and the thing these boys care most about is acting out. Sex on a rooftop water tank is prized, as is the frisson that comes of spotting another, even swanker gent "with piss drips on his pale green khaki suit." Then there's that favorite pastime of the young overclass, mocking the lower orders: "A foot-long slash of a lipless fishmouth,...poorly set off by a wispy hint of a biker fu manchu, suggest he's the scion of several generations of mud-skippers at the shallowest end of the Jersey gas-flats gene pool." Obsessive policing is a yuppie rite. After all, this identity depends on certifying the superiority of one's own mass-produced goods. In a boom economy, there's a jauntiness to this assertion that could almost pass for bonhomie. But in downsized times, the struggle to maintain status takes on a frantic, bitter edge. Fear of the bottomless pit, and envy of those who hold the heights, foster a style of epigrammatic cruelty. This resentment with a wink is the rhetoric of class anxiety. It's what makes P.J. O'Rourke seem smart. The Press is hardly in his league, but its editor, Russ Smith, has ambitions. Every week, he writes a column in the persona of a Downtown rouge called Mugger. I still remember the week he returned from a trip to South Africa, during the golden age of apartheid, complaining about the poor quality of local wines. In the "Best of Manhattan" issue, the whole paper seems to speak in his voice, honing in on the media for its "paleolithic liberal pittle." Variations of this statement are sprinkled throughout the issue: Albert Hunt's column in the Journal is "a weekly dose of Woodstock liberalism," the Voice is "dominated by a left-wing cabal," Richard Brookhiser's essays are "a welcome breather from the (Observer's) mostly liberal tone," the Times is a font of "reflexive p.c. sentiment." What do hip readers of a Downtown weekly have in common with this agenda? Or this copy: "We watched the returns (of the last election) alternating snifters of Grand Marnier with bottles of Evian, and it was the most exciting television we've witnessed since the Red Sox took the '86 playoffs." I'd venture that the Press's demographic, like Conan's, is mostly composed of liberals. Why do they--and I, a queer old hippy who would never chug Evian and Grand Marnier--find these fulminations irresistible? The answer lies in the relationship of political dominance to chic. Power is sexy, and so is the style it inspires. Which is why the right is fascinating to anyone with a stake in belonging to their time. As for the left, its eclipse has blighted its eroticism. This is the problem George, in its benighted way, tries to solve by investing liberalism with the imprimatur of an iconic hunk. I don't fancy the product, but I take rueful solace in the fact that, while P.J. is consigned to late night, John-John is pure prime time.

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