Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I Love the American Spectator Newsletter

At some point in my life I should stop killing time by registering names like "Brot Pulsifer" on the comments boards of conservative publications and posting things that rile up the natives. I'm fully aware that people do this on liberal online publications all the time, too, but it feels like a dirty practice. There are only so many times you can ask people if they've seen evidence of the "violent and lustful black underclass" outside the dimensions of a phrenology textbook before it gets old.

Something I do not regret, however, is the unavoidable consequence of these registrations: joining the mailing list of the publication in question. Even though I should expect it, it's always a wonderful surprise. Automatically being enrolled on a mailing list is what acquainted me intimately with Thomas Sowell. That's been nothing but a positive experience — even if he's accompanied by Walter Williams and Larry Elder, who, according to some of the conservative publications I've read, technically constitute some kind of gang.

The newsletter that has become kind of a sleeper comedic hit in my email inbox belongs to the American Spectator. Those of you unfamiliar with the publication should really take the time just to read its Wikipedia entry, which is itself pretty funny. It neatly covers a few decades of financial failure, paranoid conspiracy theory and victimization at the hands of changing social expressions. The summation almost seems just. Sure, the Spectator received funds from Richard Mellon Scaife to arm it as part of the deranged "Arkansas Project,"* his coordinated multimedia attempt to swab Bill and Hillary Clinton's hands with blood. Sure, it contributed to the web of fantastically ugly lies like, "The Clintons murdered Vince Foster," that were then amplified and re-transmitted by our friend Cliff Kincaid. But on the other hand, the Spectator had to change its name from The Alternative after whackos who thought that gays should be treated like human beings co-opted the term as a positive distinction for GLBT Americans.

* — One contributor to the "Arkansas Project" was Joseph Farah, who went on to found World Net Daily, the home of the worst white rappers in existence, Wolverines, proudly endorsing their song "O.T.P. (One Term President)," which got schooled here and dissed here.

This is really the hallmark of the Spectator: it tries so hard to be evil, and often succeeds, but then it also often just comes off as so unintentionally funny. Take the layout. Its design has a very dated pastiche attempt at an august look coupled with an inattention to detail, as if the publication outweighs the articles in it so much that their content or a clean and modern presentation are not really that important. Someone went to all the effort of having letters with capitals and then forgot to take off the default underline for the bold links, then put them between sloppy afterthoughts for dividers, rendering the menu of offerings clunky and inconsequential. What matters is that they appear under that (font-challenged) masthead, itself a kind of monument to a lack of clarity.

The words immediately appear to be the least of anyone's worries. But maybe there's a kind of method to this after all. The words themselves can be completely bonkers and have no impact on the brand whatsoever. The brand is a monolith; you read the Spectator because it is, and things are in the Spectator because they were chosen. That's the fullest critical extent you need to reach to appreciate their placement. This theory resembles the one that ostensibly drives the Wall St. Journal editorial page. Using an old look and ink-dot profile picture illustrations makes their desire to obliterate the middle east in thermonuclear hellfire seem sensible if unpleasant, sort of quaintly ugly—like bulldozing a bed and breakfast. However, since the Journal's look doesn't translate too well to online media, the online Spectator crams that august style into what looks like a stuffy Salon template with fewer bells and whistles and muddy-looking text. Like Salon for people who enjoy reading but hate words.

That's too bad, because the words in every email newsletter are a blast. The linked news articles are a constant source of amazement. Take one from a few days ago: "Ann Coulter Defends Michael Steele Against Bill Kristol." That headline is perfect. Who wouldn't want to read that immediately? That's the kind of eye-catching headline that works across all platforms. You could write it for a Sierra Club audience as "Buzzard Defends Raccoon from Hyena," and they'd be all over it.

Better still, make sure the account at which you get Spectator updates goes through to your smartphone. I recently got an email from Ben Stein. You probably know him — the "Bueller? Bueller?" guy. The former Nixon speechwriter. The host of an eponymous Comedy Central show. The creator of a documentary that concludes evolution is bunk because "Hitler." Admittedly, he takes a few more steps to get to that point. He hems and haws about scientific materialism before running the intellectually bankrupt train to its last stop at Holocaust Station, but his point is the same. Something he doesn't like is bad — Hitler bad.

Stein has also famously said, "Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people." It's a dazzlingly dumb statement. A conditional form of the love of God leads you to one thing, and a cynical misreading or hysterical straw-man version of science leads you to its worst and absolute alternative. You can play this game with anything. Once-a-year recreational use of a cigarette leads to an epicurean pleasure, but Nutri-Sweet causes cancer. Effective homeopathic care cures people, but hospitals house death. It's a dumb statement because he writes for a publication that heavily criticizes Islamic fundamentalism and its love of God and the extremes to which that devotion has taken "our enemies." It's dumb because, even if he doesn't want to deal with "the other," he should at least know his European history and the horrifying per-capita death toll of something like the murderously sectarian Thirty-Years War. (Yes, not all of the war was sectarian, but parsing that element doesn't excuse his unforgivable omission of the whole.)

That being said, the reason why I mention Ben Stein and his missives for the American Spectator is that, when they show up on my phone, they all have the same format:
FROM: Ben Stein
ABOUT: [Title of Editorial]
TEXT: This message has no content.
How wonderfully fitting. They're all like this, and they're all true.

But the best thing about American Spectator email newsletters is that most of them are penned by founder and (again) editor R. Emmett Tyrell. The man's name is delicious. I'm not sure what Family Feud host Richard Dawson's character's name was in the movie The Running Man, but if you told me it was "R. Emmett Tyrell" I would absolutely believe you. I'd have the same response if you told me the bad guy in Robocop or Total Recall was named "R. Emmett Tyrell." My mind races to completely fabricated 1980s movie exchanges:
BODY-ARMORED STOOGE: Stop trying to escape. It's useless. You, especially, would make an excellent prize.
REPORTER TERRY SAVAGE: (struggling against her bonds) Don't touch me! You make me sick.,
AGENT TY PEPPAR: (cooly eying his steel manacles) I'll get out of this. And then I'll kill you.
BODY-ARMORED STOOGE: Hahahaha! I would like to see that! You're not getting out of here. I've seen too many people try and fail.
REPORTER TERRY SAVAGE: You mean the bodies we found? By the bio-matter recyclers?
BODY-ARMORED STOOGE: You mean the bodies we wanted you to find?
AGENT TY PEPPAR: Who's we? Who would want to see people's kidneys and livers sold at an artificially deflated rate by glutting the kidney market to allow wealthy alcoholics to live forever?
REPORTER TERRY SAVAGE: Yes! Who would manipulate market forces to their advantage this way?
BODY-ARMORED STOOGE: Perhaps it's time you met my boss... everyone's boss... (toggles lever opening a chamber on the side of the room) R. Emmett Tyrell.
AGENT TY PEPPAR: They said you were dead.
R. EMMETT TYRELL: That's what I needed you to think. Lying low, plotting my next move. Of course, the sale of my empire back to my "foundation" for $1 was planned from the start. And now, my dear, you look uncomfortable.

(He walks to REPORTER TERRY SAVAGE's restriction pod and sets her free.)

REPORTER TERRY SAVAGE: Led you right into a trap? Of course. Where else did you think all those scoops were coming from? You don't think Globodyne and a scientist like Craig Venter make this many mistakes just by accident, do you? (to TYRELL) What should we do with him, darling, after we remove his liver and kidneys?
R. EMMETT TYRELL: (to STOOGE) Shoot him in the anus.
BODY-ARMORED STOOGE: Make it look like ACORN got to him, sir?
R. EMMETT TYRELL: It's the only way we can get the rest of them to believe.
But that's me. There's probably no reason why R. Emmett Tyrell makes me think of dystopian movies about corporatized takeover of government leading to the vicious physical exploitation of poor people; maybe you had to be a moviegoer in the eighties.

What I do know are two things:
1. Every time he attaches another photo of himself, it's a new nugget of joy.
2. He asks for money a lot.
The American Spectator has always relied on donations, "working" because it was a valued hobbyist 'zine for wealthy people. By the standards of value it espouses, it has always been worthless, and every plea from R. Emmett Tyrell for more money demonstrates a total and naked acknowledgement of its failure. I wrote something similar about the National Review and the Weekly Standard:
Both these outlets embrace an ideology of competition, of value as set by the marketplace. But they have never been able to survive the marketplace. Their existence has always relied on the self-interested largesse of oligopoly. That the darwinism of the marketplace they advocate would logically preclude their own existence is an irony secondary only to the Standard and Review's continued dependence on subsidies from the exact sorts of business interests most threatened by the readers of meaningful journalism, a market that has already evaluated their works and found them wanting.

This is what really successful people do to make real money in the marketplace. Logically, whatever [writers for these publications] do is what successful and worthy people do to make money in the real world. When your job is lurking in the servants' quarters and pecking into the night to affirm the lives of those born on third base, it's obvious that you work in service to world-class ballers.
There is nothing wrong with magazines that function as non-profits or rely on donations to float. There is no shame in having a message that isn't successful in terms of mass appeal and needs friends and well-wishers to keep going. Despite its stature and historic import, Harper's probably pays more bills with a few big-time checks than subscription fees. The difference is that Harper's doesn't try to enlist its readers in a mission to establish the primacy of monetizing everything and shedding the unprofitable. Harper's does not say that that which is not fungible is not worth consideration.

The American Spectator has this mission at least unofficially, and thus its mission condemns its own content as flawed and heterodox. It should shine by its own lights, yet you can't go more than a few months without R. Emmett Tyrell looking for a handout. There he is, this month, looking like Norm Macdonald playing The Skipper in a Broadway revival of Gilligan's Island — only he's selling his magazine and time at "CPAC at Sea." It's the Conservative Political Action Conference — better known as "motivational speeches and raffled-off convention crap for Republicans, paleoconservatives and libertarians who want a tote bag" — only in a different venue and with lots of extra fees he might be able to collect on. Maybe he honestly thinks it can't be a sinecure if it's not on land.

This is why everyone should join The American Spectator newsletter. The design is almost deliberately incompetent, as if it maximizes the balance between token effort and an audience's uncritical embrace. It proffers the worst of American conservatism's ideology with the worst of its unconcern with getting even the small things right, like fonts, links, banners, etc. No government could fuck up anti-aliasing with a level of efficient unconcern like this: that's free-market contempt. Then, when the sight of it isn't funny anymore, any random headline will do. Click the article and experience worse. And then, when all else fails, the guardian of the worth of the free market, some goof who looks like he belongs lost in Actors' Equity, comes out to tell you how he needs you to help him to just get over this rough patch.

No, really, man, a few bucks will set him straight. See, he didn't mismanage something nobody really wanted. Some dude (Obama) totally jacked him (America) and put him on a bus to New York (Sodom). Now he's stranded in the Port Authority (USSR) and really needs to get back to his old lady (family values), so every little bit helps. That dude totally stole his bootstraps (for the Nazis), so he's just yanking at dead air (Fairness Doctrine).

Every little bit helps.