Fear and loathing at Fox News

Keith Ablow is in many ways an easy target. The psychiatrist and Fox News contributor published a column a little over a month ago demanding an “American jihad” that would “spread around the world our love of individual freedom and insist on its reflection in every government.” It’s not the first time Ablow, who gained notoriety for suggesting that the president mismanaged the debt ceiling crisis because of daddy issues, has sounded vaguely unhinged. Nor is he the only regular Fox correspondent to voice absurd views on foreign policy.

Conservative critics of Fox tend to argue that it gives the right a bad name. There’s something to that, as anyone who has ever had to talk about Ablow, Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly with a liberal friend knows all too well. I think, however, that these figures and their cheerleaders represent a much deeper problem with Fox: its brand of conservatism is not in the least conservative.

Picture of Dr. Keith Ablow
Dr. Keith Ablow

Start with Ablow, whose op-ed calls for the US government to “fund an international mercenary force for good” and suggested that ex-Senators and members of Congress obtain dual citizenship in other nations and run for office, forming something like a series of American fifth columns—in our fellow liberal democracies. (Ablow named France, Italy, Sweden, and Germany among the countries to be targeted by this campaign.) He brings his point home with a rousing, sacrilegious appeal to the imagery of civil religion and a final reminder that American institutions are the Truth.

An American jihad would make every tax dollar a tithing and the squandering of those dollars a sin. An American jihad would make every hour spent working in an American company — or founding one — an offering. An American jihad would make every teacher of American history not only a public servant, but a servant of the Truth.

We the People of the United States are good and we are right. And we need the spirit of an American jihad to properly invite, intensify and focus our intentions to preserve, protect and defend our Constitution here at home, and to seek to spread its principles abroad.

It’s not entirely clear where these ideas originate, but they certainly don’t come from St. Thomas Aquinas, who developed the natural-law theory Ablow seems to be trying to cite when he refers to “the truth about the essential nature of man.” Aquinas wrote that “the very revision of laws . . . involves some detriment to the commonweal,” concluding that even revisions that bring constitutions into closer conformity with the natural law (or, as Ablow would have it, the “self-evident, irreducible, elemental, and inevitable” truth) should be avoided if a country’s existing institutions still function adequately.

Aquinas may be too Catholic to be a proponent of this sort of city-on-a-hill interventionism. However, Ablow, who cites individual freedom as the focal point of America’s national ideology, would also benefit from reading Edmund Burke’s discussion of liberty in Reflections on the Revolution in France. Given his insistence that American democracy is unqualifiedly better than any other governing system in all contexts, he would also be interested in Burke’s famous dictum that “the temper of the people amongst whom he presides ought to be the first study of a statesman.”

Official U.S. government photograph of Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton

So Ablow would benefit from the great books. He could also stand to read the newspapers. The erstwhile psychiatrist, who has spoken out against both abortion and gay marriage, would doubtless be surprised to learn that the U.S. is already actively promoting these American values overseas. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton spoke out, repeatedly, for expanded access to abortion in foreign countries, and defending LGBT rights remains a U.S. foreign policy priority. After Nigeria passed its notorious anti-gay measure in January, commentators proposed that USAID cut support for Nigerian malaria and HIV/AIDS programs, following Ablow’s recommendation that the U.S. use aid for leverage on key issues. But nothing came of these proposals, suggesting that the Obama administration is not as committed to LGBT rights as the Fox News contributor.

These are fairly self-evident criticisms for any thinking person on the right, and it’s unlikely that Keith Ablow has ever been mistaken for a Burkean. What’s troubling about his op-ed and its fallout is the conservatives’ failure to formulate a coherent response, or any response at all, to his veiled progressivism. Salon.com, the Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and Crooks and Liars, along with the liberal columnists Rex Huppke and Jonathan Chait, all hastened to condemn Ablow’s column, but apparently conservative intellectuals didn’t think him worth their time.

As regrettable as l’affaire Ablow may be for conservatives, our true concern should be the way we fail to look critically at Fox News (and sister outlets like Breitbart, The Blaze, and the rest of the Drudge Report axis) in general. We should ask ourselves why it was thoughtful libertarian columnist Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic, rather than a conservative commentator, who explained to America how Fox’s fawning coverage of celebrity debauchery fails cultural conservatives. We should ask ourselves why Fox’s coverage so often appeals to fear and loathing, and perhaps why the network website’s top headline as I write these words reads: “Proof that Obama’s stimulus plan was spent on a load of . . . HORSE @#%&?” Is this really the way conservatives talk about policy? For want of compelling counterevidence, a generation of Americans will likely grow up believing that it is.

Featured image by Wikimedia Commons contributor Cburnett.

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