Matt Walsh, Armond White, and the Problem of Crank Conservatives

Matt Walsh, Armond White, and the Problem of Crank Conservatives September 23, 2014

If you are a right-leaning Christian, or are Facebook friends with people who are (I realize this probably rules out the editorial board at The New York Times), you’ve probably seen links to a blog run by Matt Walsh. Walsh’s site, by his own account, has exploded within the last year, averaging several thousand hits per post and hundreds of comments and “Likes” on Facebook. His opinions seem fairly consistent with a middle-class, generically Republican worldview. He is a devout Roman Catholic, a fact that has surprised some since he sounds so much like a grassroots evangelical culture warrior.

Walsh’s blog offers a running commentary on…well, I’m not sure exactly. Most of his posts are about contemporary cultural conversations and current events, but it’s not quite clear to me where Walsh defines his beat. In the last few months alone, Walsh has written highly trafficked posts on Robin Williams and suicide, Michael Brown and Ferguson, spanking, Jennifer Lawrence, and why it’s not his problem if you’re offended. That’s a pretty wide spread.

Walsh knows how to blog. His aggressive, often zero-sum analysis is the ideal kind of writing for the medium. Walsh’s blog posts read like the transcript from a conservative talk radio show, demonstrating lack of both careful nuance and literary depth (Walsh doesn’t have a college degree) and instead furnishing quick emissions of right-leaning frustration at left-leaning society.

His latest entry makes for a good paradigm. Walsh, leading with the recent stories surrounding NFL running back Adrian Peterson’s charge of child abuse, argues that spanking is not inherently abusive. He offers some legitimate logical difficulties that those who say otherwise have to overcome in order to consistently maintain their position. But towards the end of his post, Walsh trips over himself:

 I can’t resist pointing this out. It’s too blatant to ignore:

Anti-spanking is predominately a liberal position. So is pro-abortion.

Let’s look at this dichotomy for a moment. Often, a liberal will claim that parents should not spank — or even that they should be legally prohibited — because it equates to violence against a child. Meanwhile, they also believe that, in the name of women’s rights, a parent may pay to have their child dismembered, decapitated, or poisoned.

Think about that. Let it sink in. Meditate on it. Really reflect upon it.

We are living in a country inhabited by millions of people who think it immoral to swat a child’s butt for misbehaving, but moral to murder a child for existing.

Anti-spanking. Pro-abortion. This is lunacy. There is no other word to describe it.

This kind of paragraph is very typical of Walsh. He plays a zero-sum game, begging the questions about definitions and presents those who disagree with him as morally clueless, or worse. Yet this reasoning is painfully easy to attack. Those on the pro-choice camp need not respond to Walsh’s argument, they need only point out that he’s assumed they define abortion as murder the way he does. Since they don’t, his point fails a very basic logical test. Having been called hypocritical murderers, any pro-choice or anti-spanking readers of this post walk away justifiably feeling slandered.

Walsh is what I call a crank conservative. His religious, political and social worldview is not far removed from where I am, yet I get the feeling we would disagree strongly about how we arrive at and communicate our beliefs. Part of this may be because Walsh’s ideological targets are too big and ephemeral (he frequently complains about “hearing progressives say” or “reading liberals on Facebook,” which may not be the best medium for understanding a worldview). There’s a directionless angst about Walsh’s conservatism that doesn’t do justice to the intellectual traditions in which he wants to participate. Unfortunately, I fear there are many who might take Walsh as the exemplary traditionalist, simply because of his platform and popularity.

Earlier this year National Review, arguably the most respected and famous right-wing magazine in the nation, began running the movie reviews of a critic named Armond White. On one level this makes sense: White is a well-known film critic with a Master’s degree in his field. He is also right-of-center in his socio-politic (as far as I can tell). Slam dunk for National Review, right? Hold up. White is indeed well-known, but that’s because White’s reviews are frequently the most contrarian and dismissive reviews in the media. He has heaped praise on the “Transformers” series and Adam Sandler comedies, while criticizing “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Dark Knight.” His reviews on Rotten Tomatoes garnered hundreds of angry user comments until the site removed White as a featured critic in 2011. In January he was accused of publicly heckling “12 Years A Slave” director Steve McQueen and was dismissed from The New York Film Critics Circle. In response, he told The New York Times the Circle was an “incestuous clubhouse of friends.”

Recently, White published a list of 20 films that he blamed for a “broken film culture.” The list reads so much like another critic’s “Best of Decade” list that it could be parody. He labels “Wall-E” as “nihilism for children,” “Lincoln” as “liberal cynicism,” and “Precious” as an attempt to “revive racial condescension.” Throughout his reviews White seems intent on identifying the hidden progressive message or agenda of a film, often not even addressing a film’s technical merits.

White is a credible voice when it comes to movies. He has the academic and professional achievement to back up his work. The problem is that, like Walsh, White’s ostensible conservatism comes delivered in a zero-sum, crank package. Rather than engaging a movie’s ideas, White tends to either extol or dismiss them. This administration of a worldview test to a film runs afoul of Robert Warshow’s famous dictum that the critic’s first responsibility is to admit that he is a man who goes to the movies. Like Walsh, White’s writing feels like a directionless rage against an ephemeral, progressive machine. The only people who will emerge from reading an Armond White review feeling their mind truly invigorated are those who arrive already agreeing with him (though judging from some of the comments at National Review’s site, that doesn’t seem to be working out too well either).

The problem of crank conservativism is threefold. First, it simply isn’t true. Even if folks like Matt Walsh and Armond White are operating on assumptions about reality that accord with the Christian view of the universe, they are led astray by their either/or, dismissive engagements. Secondly, crank conservatism misrepresents the vigorous intellectual traditions that have articulated these ideas throughout the generations.

Thirdly, crank conservatism, particularly the literary kind I’ve talked about in this post, doesn’t capture the imagination. Simply handing the culture a questionnaire and grading it doesn’t inspire the continuation of a fiercely rational, supremely humane way of life. Crank conservatism plays into the head vs heart dichotomy that many people believe is an accurate summary of the difference between traditional and progressive worldviews. Yet human beings, made in the image of God, cannot have their nature so easily bifurcated. When I read Matt Walsh, I don’t see a beautiful, robust representation of what it means to believe in God, institutions, the family and self-sacrifice. When I read Armond White, I can’t find a stirring call to art that more holistically represents the human experience.

Traditionalist thinking has been in the crank conservative rut for too long. Too much of our discourse, our art, and even our policy resemble talk radio. The fact that Matt Walsh can sell tickets to a speaking tour and Armond White can be hired by the premiere conservative magazine in the US is evidence by itself that the situation is serious. The thinking, the feeling, the teaching and the doing must elevate.

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