For many young conservatives, political YouTube offers a respite from left-wing dominance of popular culture, universities, the mainstream media and other social networks. But while YouTube’s brash new right-wing stars can be beguiling to watch, they do little to advance conservatism as an intellectual movement – and sometimes actively set it back
Young, brash, right-wing political YouTubers may unwittingly deliver the final coup de grâce to conservatism as an intellectual movement, even as they rack up millions of followers and achieve all the outward metrics of success.
But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? For some foolish reason I work primarily on the already anachronistic medium of the humble blog, tapping out my verbose screeds into WordPress which then get read and shared by that tiny slice of humanity who can wade through eight paragraphs on the meaning of citizenship in the Age of Brexit without wanting to run into oncoming traffic. Given recent advances in technology and journalism, bloggers like me are effectively still marvelling at the Edison light bulb while everybody else is busy projecting holograms or firing lasers at each other.
Ironically, despite being somewhat frustrated by my own lack of online reach, I find myself increasingly impatient when forced through necessity to read other people’s carefully and well-written words, be it those of a fellow blogger, journalist or author. Reading requires concentration and an engaged brain, and who has time for that?
Every evening after the day job is done and I have commuted home to begin work on my perennially unrewarding side hustle (this blog), I am faced with a choice: do I expend what little mental energy I have left reading and thinking deeply about a complex idea, researching and refining my thoughts until I have something compelling and unique to share with my readers, or do I take the path of least resistance – flicking over to YouTube and watching a parade of talking heads ranting about this or that development in the culture wars, finding something suitably outrageous to get worked up about and then hitting “publish” on an identikit, stream-of-consciousness rant in response?
And here’s my guilty secret: I choose the path of least resistance easily over half the time. Thinking is hard. So is challenging long-held assumptions and personal beliefs. But nodding along while a talking head on YouTube affirms one’s existing opinions is easy, and addictively cathartic. Yet anybody can do this; it is the millennial or Generation Z equivalent of watching Fox and Friends. At this point I can crank out one of my old-style “I agree with Brendan O’Neill” or “look what crazy campus SJWs did” response pieces with my eyes closed. Just crank my handle, insert the topic and required word count and 45 minutes later you’ll have a fully formed blog post. Sure it won’t be original or really add anything to the national political debate, but still, it’ll be there, taking up room in cyberspace.
Look at some of the biggest political YouTube or cable TV stars (they tend to be American or at least to focus primarily on American politics). Ben Shapiro is probably the best of the conservative personalities, certainly far more serious than conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones or culture warriors like Paul Joseph Watson or the execrable Milo Yiannopoulos. The less said about Tomi Lahren, Lauren Southern or Mike Cernovich the better. Various people have suggested Stefan Molyneux as a supposedly more serious alternative and the philosopher/podcaster does have his moments. But even this seems to be stretching the definition of “serious” somewhat.
Then you have political comedians like Steven Crowder who at least is funny, one of conservatism’s only solid answers to the leftist monopolisation of comedy – and Lord knows that we need a respite from the unbearable sanctimony of John Oliver, Samantha Bee, bad Jon Stewart replacement Trevor Noah and the pitiful Mash Report in Britain (Bill Maher is one of the few consistently funny and insightful left-wing political comedians). Sargon of Akkad is quite funny when he gets riled up about leftist excess. And while they generally lag behind conservatives on YouTube, on the Left you have shows like The Young Turks (a growing horde of screechy social justice warriors and Bernie Sanders devotees) and a smattering of others.
(Dave Rubin deserves an honourable mention as somebody who tackles controversial topics and interviews partisan commentators from both sides of the ideological debate in The Rubin Report).
Conservatives seem to dominate political YouTube, probably for the same reason that an older generation of right-wingers once took refuge in American talk radio – because their views were increasingly misrepresented, slandered, marginalised or ignored by the mainstream media. And today, far away from the reach – and the interest – of those Washington and Westminster journalists marinated in the same groupthink as the politicians they supposedly hold to account, conservative YouTube flourishes:
YouTube has thus provided a useful pressure release valve for the expression of a range of conservative thought, though even on this platform conservatives are now under threat, with demonetisation attacks threatening the livelihoods of content creators whose views fall outside the prevailing pseudo-liberal orthodoxy. But generally speaking, while Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr can be seethingly hostile to right-wing ideas, YouTube has allowed a large number of frustrated conservative and libertarian-leaning people to view and engage with a small number of brash, unapologetic conservative personalities.
But as conservatives disengage from regular media outlets, ceding more ground to the forces of the Left, we do ourselves a disservice. A bit of escapism into the ideological bubble isn’t always a bad thing, but it does become problematic when one spends too much time plugged into a partisan medium which can be both shrill and superficial.
As American conservatives flocked to talk radio and stopped consuming mainstream or supposedly objective news, their worldview became progressively more alarmist and conspiratorial. That’s why so many American conservatives still believe that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, while opportunistic companies make a fortune selling gold coins, water filters and survival gear for people who have been slowly convinced that the apocalypse is just round the corner. With no centrists or left-wingers to call BS on their more outrageous claims, conservative media increasingly resembles an arms race to provide the most provocative and alarmist commentary in the hunt for viewers and listeners.
We on the Right correctly rail against universities for becoming little more than temples of social justice and identity politics orthodoxy, where dissenting opinion is relentlessly eradicated through re-education programs, trigger warnings and safe spaces. But we are no better when we retreat to YouTube instead of engaging with the world in all of its fallen, identity politics-soaked left-wingery. Our own outlook is in danger of becoming equally insular when we uncritically clap along as part of Ben Shapiro’s Amen chorus, preferring the catharsis of having our opinions confirmed to the rigour and challenge of debate.
It’s not that political YouTube videos are bad per se, it’s that they tend to be more partisan, superficial and sensationalist than print media and even television (though the gap with TV is lesser). A book can offer footnotes. An essay or feature article, knowing that it has its reader’s attention, can devote some space for context and nuance. A YouTube video, by contrast, has about five seconds to grab your focus before you click away, and must work hard to maintain your attention right through to the end. This inevitably leads to a certain reliance on zingers and soundbites which is actually not dissimilar to the grasping, disjointed way in which many media-trained politicians now speak.
The problem is that for political YouTubers (and other commentators whose careers depend on clips of their media performances being shared widely on that platform) success is measured in clicks, views and the number of times people share their videos accompanied by captions like “Bob McConservative just DESTROYED this stupid liberal on abortion” or “Dumb SJW accuses Righty McRightwing of being a fascist, instantly regrets it”.
For the viewer there may be a short-term emotional payoff in watching “Social Justice Warriors Get Owned In Epic Rant By Steven Crowder” or “Douglas Murray Schools A Muslim Commentator On Free Speech“, but the intellectual rewards of grappling with those same issues and ideas at a deeper level, usually in essay or book form, are more elusive and consequently less sought-after. It is human instinct to prefer the instant gratification of a cable TV or YouTube screaming match to the deferred pleasure of quiet, patient study, and YouTube was designed to deal up this addictive instant gratification, one video clip after another.
But this dynamic can be bad for the right-wing YouTubers as well as their fans. Those right-wing personalities who work increasingly or exclusively on YouTube as opposed to other more traditional (particularly written) media sometimes tend to lose their intellectual edge and become unable to sustain a debate at a more detailed, complex level of knowledge. In a recent column, Andrew Sullivan notes how Ben Shapiro came a bit unstuck during the Q&A section of his recent much-hyped speech at Berkeley University:
He was effectively pwned on at least two questions, climate change and abortion. One student asked whether a revenue-neutral carbon tax wouldn’t be both conservative in that it doesn’t require much of a bureaucracy, and prudent, given the possibility that climate change could be disastrous — and why not prepare for the worst? Shapiro said he’d never considered such an idea and needed to look at it further. Weak; lame. The idea has been banging around forever. And Shapiro can’t say whether he’s for it or not?
Then he was trounced by a liberal student on the question of why women who have abortions shouldn’t be prosecuted. If Shapiro believes, as he does, they have killed a human being, how could they not be? He dodged at first simply saying he’d prosecute abortionists. When pressed, he argued that many women have abortions without knowing that they are terminating a human life (they’ve been indoctrinated into believing a fetus is the equivalent of a polyp), and so you couldn’t prosecute them for murder or manslaughter because they don’t have the specific intent — the mens rea — to kill. But what, the student responded, about those women who absolutely do know what they are doing and still go through with it? Why not second-degree murder, or accessory to manslaughter, or some other charge. In any other circumstance, someone who plays an essential part in a killing would absolutely have to be charged, right? Shapiro retreated to an incoherent position that even though such women have committed a serious crime, in his view, no one wants to prosecute women for such a thing. But that wasn’t the question. The question was whether he should logically support prosecution. And of course he should.
Now, I’m not saying for a moment that I could or would have handled these questions any better. But you wouldn’t even know that the great Ben Shapiro had been (at best) fought to a draw on these issues judging by the triumphalist YouTube excerpts and subsequent online write-ups declaring that Shapiro had effortlessly dispatched with every stupid leftist opponent in the debate hall:
Shapiro undoubtedly has a bright and incredibly quick mind, but one cannot help but think that his abilities would be put to better use – and be at less risk of eventual atrophy – were he making some smart policy for the Republicans (Lord knows they need it) or writing for a publication which allows more depth, rather than preaching to the choir at his creation The Daily Wire. Even if you allow that Shapiro’s eloquence helps conservatism by bringing more people into the movement, which it probably does, these people are bound to be disappointed when the Republican Party and its diminished intellectual blood bank fail to generate policies which solve real problems in favour of striking cosmetic poses against former president Barack Obama.
There are others in jeopardy, too. Christopher Hitchens once said in an interview that Tucker Carlson (of all people) was a writer that he greatly admired, and that Carlson should not quit the field of writing in order to pursue his then-nascent television career. Now the Fox News host can be found taking easy pot-shots at social justice warriors in his prime-time nightly TV slot, and turning a calculated blind eye to the scandals and calamities emanating from the Trump White House.
Then there are the big beasts of yesteryear trying to reinvent themselves as viral video sensations. Ten years ago, Dinesh D’Souza could be found holding his own against Christopher Hitchens in a series of debates about religion, atheism and the existence of God. Today he makes hysterical conspiracy movies and rants on Twitter about how the Democratic Party is the true heir to Nazi Germany. D’Souza now chases the “Dinesh D’Souza DESTROYS ignorant liberal on gun rights” affirmation and resultant web clicks as his key performance metric, and his output has suffered as a result.
Carlson and D’Souza get away with their shtick because their primary audience of Fox News viewers and secondary audience of conservative YouTube subscribers give them a free pass for making intellectual shortcuts and uncritically lap up everything they say. Were they blogging or writing a regular newspaper column, however, they would find it somewhat harder to stand by some of their least defensible positions, and be forced to refine or discard the most controversial ones. But as video personas they are protected from serious rebuttals – by the time an opponent has researched, written and published a response to one of their videos, the YouTube star has already moved on to three other topics. No retractions (let alone apologies) are necessary or forthcoming when they are proven to have made errors or told falsehoods.
But this is precisely why D’Souza, Carlson & Co no longer operate primarily in print or written media – it has become thankless work, toiling away in a more rigorous medium and subject to higher standards and much closer scrutiny, when the fame, acknowledgement and most of the cash increasingly goes to those people producing (often far more superficial and reactive) video commentary.
Yet were it not for the beat reporters and public intellectuals who work primarily in print, many of the YouTube stars would be starved of half their inspiration and content. Like the megastar football strikers who are dependent on their midfielders to consistently feed them with goal-scoring opportunities, many of the fiesty conservative YouTubers would soon fall silent or become even more repetitious were it not for the journalists and thinkers providing them with a fresh source of rhetorical zingers.
None of this is to say that highbrow print media is necessarily better. In fact, often quite the contrary – the veneer of respectability abused by a charlatan working in the prestige print media can be infinitely more harmful than the ranting of the most popular YouTuber. Just witness how a concerted effort by the print media has normalised the term “undocumented immigrant” over “illegal immigrant”, deliberately downplaying the lawbreaking aspect.
But at least the mere act of writing for the New York Times or some other outlet, as degraded as many of them have become, forces one to go through the motions of laying out a coherent argument, which can then be publicly critiqued and picked apart by others. A five-minute YouTube video implying that Hillary Clinton has Parkinson’s disease, on the other hand, is harder to call out and refute even when it is unsupported by fact – and the people who watch the incendiary video are increasingly unlikely to also see the print rebuttal, and vice versa. The disaggregation of the media market, beneficial in many other ways, unfortunately means that we increasingly talk past one another and operate from entirely different sets of “facts”.
Social media is fast. This makes it great for hot takes and lively debates, but much less suited to the more ruminative consideration of ideology and policy. But is the allure of becoming a YouTube sensation (often as a launchpad to a career in cable news punditry) distracting people with the talent to make a more lasting intellectual contribution to the conservative movement? I would argue that yes, it is.
Many YouTubers are probably good for nothing more than ranting into their webcams every night, but some – again, I think of Ben Shapiro – could and probably should be doing something better with their time. Shapiro has the #1 rated conservative podcast in America (and hence the world). And that’s great. But somebody with his IQ and intellectual pedigree should be more than an Inquisitor for Socialist Wrongthink – they should be helping to formulate the conservative policies which might one day make the Republican Party worth voting for again.
I get the appeal of being a YouTube sensation though, just as I understand from personal experience the allure of watching these people perform rather than, say, cracking open a difficult book at the end of the day and engaging one’s brain. After all, it is tremendously cathartic to watch people you disagree with – whose fundamental worldview is deeply at odds with your own, and whom you find personally irritating – being rhetorically smacked down night after night, generally with the same unchanging set of workhorse conservative arguments.
But we should be wary. If leftists are allowed to complete their occupation of universities, popular culture and the prestige media while we skulk around on YouTube, their worldview will prevail. YouTube can remain our “safe space”, if we must have such a thing, but we must constantly be operating outside our comfort zone if we want to translate our ideas into policies and our policies into outcomes. Representing the YouTube constituency is not enough – we need an active presence in the places where decisions are actually made.
Right now this is sorely lacking. That a Republican congressional majority in America and a (theoretical) Conservative parliamentary majority in Britain have resulted in almost zero good conservative policies being implemented in either country only proves that ranting about the dangers of leftism (Sanders or Clinton in America, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain) is not the same as coming up with a compelling conservative vision with logical policy offshoots.
So how to effect this conservative renewal? The best thing I’ve done all year is to temporarily unplug from the internet, restrict my use of social media and return to tried and tested ways of learning and thinking – by reading books.
On vacation in Greece last week I actually had time to relax, unwind and read a number of books deeply and critically, rather than scanning them urgently, superficially and with the overriding need to produce a hot take, extract an argument or otherwise take a public position on their content. Instead, I lingered over each book and marked them up with comments and questions to be explored at a later date, and while there will be no immediate payoff for having done so, the gradual increase in the baseline of my knowledge should (hopefully) manifest in the overall quality and empathy of my writing. Recognising my tendency to choose saying what I think over thinking about what I think, it was important for me to flip that around for awhile and spend some time recharging the intellectual batteries.
But that’s just me, as a humble blogger. Those with actual power and influence will need to do more, and yesterday I blogged about one such attempt at conservative renewal in Britain. But while I am willing to be proven wrong, I do not believe that this renewal will come from the depths of YouTube.
Donald Trump is walking proof of what happens when someone is swept to the White House not on the back of a coherent conservative policy platform or a particularly inspiring vision, but by angry rants on YouTube and lurid six-way screaming matches on cable news. Yes, this fractious power base can deliver a majority (in the electoral college, at least) but once in power and tasked with being for something rather than against a list of real and imagined foes, nothing gets done.
For how long will Donald Trump boast about having put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, as though he himself trawled through endless lists of potential jurists, scouring their opinions and dissents in a personal quest to find the quintessential constitutional originalist needed by America? At this rate, Trump will be dining out on that solitary achievement until the end of his term of office – because no further accomplishments are on the horizon right now, that’s for sure. “Build the wall” worked great on YouTube and Fox News, where a policy consisting of three words (seven if you include “and make Mexico pay”) could not be easily picked apart and proved both pointless and unfeasible. But in Washington D.C., where things have to be paid for, policies justified and egos stroked, having the enthusiastic support of Milo Yiannopoulos doesn’t really count for much.
So by all means indulge in a little YouTube time when the mood strikes. It would be hypocritical of me to say otherwise since it can be darn good fun, and I have no intention of quitting altogether. But many of us, myself included, could probably do with dialling it back a notch – or at least seeking out the better quality lectures and debates freely available on that platform. The second-hand opinions of political vloggers are generally (though by no means always) worth less than the first-hand opinions of serious authors, and even a good book cannot compete with doing one’s own primary research.
But since this is the real world and none of us can become experts in everything, those of us with a public audience and the desire to help rather than hinder the conservative movement should at least ensure that we draw our knowledge from a healthier, more balanced information ecosystem.
So there you go: Sam Hooper TOTALLY DESTROYS political YouTubers, and it only took me 3,669 words.
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