February 05, 2009

The webzine Culture11 officially closed up shop last week, ending a four month run as the web’s alternative conservative destination. 

Late last summer, I first heard rumors that there was a new well-funded conservative webzine in the works, which at the time was billed as “€œLibertyWire”€”the conservative answer to Slate“€! The name soon morphed into “€œThe Culture,” settling eventually on the West Berlin Disco-esque moniker “€œCulture11 .”€ Steve Forbes and Bill Bennett were underwriting the project, and at the time, I suspected we”€™d soon be treated to yet another neocon echo chamber. And since the 2nd and 3rd generation neocons who rule the roost on FOX are bereft of all discernible signs of culture, I braced myself for some groan-inducing fare”€”but which might serve as fodder for The Sniper’s Tower. 

I was quite wrong in my prediction. When Culture11 debuted in September, it offered slightly right-of-center articles, a social-networking “€œcommunity,”€ and a buffet of subsite blogs that expanded at such a clip no one could keep up”€”the gamut ranged from the girls-only “€œLady Blog“€ to “€œPostmodern Conservative“€ to “€œHealth Care Crisis“€ to something called NOSH, a designated area for wacky YouTube videos. (And as of this writing, Bennet is still posting his “€œmorning reports”€!)

The top brass at Culture11 had a evangelical character, with David Kuo installed as the “€œCEO”€ and Joe Carter, author of the book How to Argue Like Jesus, aide to Mike Huckabee, and proprietor of the blog Evangelical Outpost, as managing editor. The rest of the staff was comprised not of the usual suspects, but the younger generation of DC-based intellectuals; there were even some amongst the staff who, low and behold, might be considered part of the “€œAlternative Right,”€ my loose term for the constellation of writers and organizations opposed to Washington’s bi-partisan foreign policy and who generally resist the “€œlesser of two evils”€ support for the evil-stupid Republican Party. C11 was trying to be something different, maybe even something similar to the revamped Takimag? And it’s worthwhile looking at exactly what went wrong.  

One place to start is with an anecdote I heard about “€œCEO”€ Kuo, which is so ridiculous it must be true. Kuo is, of course, the man who actually believed the Republicans really meant it when it came to all their “€œfaith-based”€ crap and wanted to end abortion and help the poor and not just turn the “€˜vangies into a reliable voting bloc. After this “€œseduction”€ was over, he wrote a whole book about how hurt he felt, leading him to become the liberal media’s favorite evangelical for a few weeks. Anyway, a friend pitched an article to Kuo on the culture of self-indulgence, mentioning that he”€™d discuss the high sales of a certain female sex toy with a funny name. Kuo rejected the pitch, writing the author back that he didn”€™t think C11 could use a piece on the Lord of the Rings saga … David Kuo, you seen, thought “€œDildo”€ was a Hobbit.  

The episode reveals a lot about Culture11‘s sense of “€œculture.”€ As was clear from a quick perusal of the site, high-brow criticism was completely absent, but then the site was never as fun as Gawker, PageSix, Vice and the other guilty-pleasure “€˜zines that lay bare the horror show of American culture in its full splendor. As Joe Carter described in his post-mortem, the idea instead was to dispense with all those gray-haired conservative journalists and bring in young people who write like Hunter S. Thompson. They were successful in the sense that many contributors were below the legal drinking age, some not yet eligible to vote. And their work was “€œThompson-esque”€ in that they were self-referential and talked about themselves all the time. But the subject matter under examination was never war, drink, and debauch but the PG-13 middlebrow culture of the Cineplex and Megamall. Articles included “€œMe & American Idol,”€ “€œMe and online social networking,”€ “€œMe & my first trip to the The Grooming Lounge hair salon chain .”€ The “€œculture”€ C11 explored was the suburban kitsch of the credit bubble of late-“€˜90s, early 2000s. I don”€™t know who exactly the audience was supposed to be: undergrads? Republican hipsters? The cool older guy at the Young Life retreat who knows all the chords to “€œWhere Have All the Flowers Gone”€? All that is certain is that whenever I visited, I felt really old.     

I also always suspected that Bennett and Forbes, who, apparently, had originally planned to fund the venture through 2010, were pretty baffled by what was going on. I”€™ve always liked and read the “€œpostmodern conservative“€ stylings of James Poulos, who’s interesting even when wrong, but I can”€™t imagine Bill Bennett really getting into this stuff. And add to this more layers of incongruity: the evangelical element, some staff members connected to movement publications like National Review and Human Events, a Crunchy Con, NOSH, and the thing emerges as one big incoherent clusterfuck. I”€™m sure Forbes and Bennett took big hits in the stock market crash (and the proliferation of online gambling has probably lightened the coffers of the Man of Virtue), but I also sense the pair pulled the plug on C11 for reasons other than financial.
Worst of all, in my mind at least, Culture11 succeeded in being incoherent without being particularly interesting or provocative. If the editors had all this money and they were willing to go off the leash, then the least they could do was give us something wild and crazy or capable of offending someone. Joe Carter mentioned that C11 was meant to resist politics and economics and focus on “€œculture”€ (i.e. self-refential articles on suburban crap). But as it turns out, the C11 staff talked quite a bit about politics and economics: features on how Sarah Palin wasn”€™t articulate or experienced enough to be the Republican nominee, some polite backandforths with Andrew Sullivan (who was given special thanks by an editor upon closing) on gay marriage, and a series of economic articles of a tepid free-market character that read like entries out of Conservapedia.

Put simply, the “€˜zine was massively safe. One searches the archives in vain for a serious discussion of mass immigration”€”a “cultural” issue if there ever was one”€”or something even mildly hard-hitting on the bankster takeover of Washington. If there was a “€œpaleo/libertarian”€ element, it was presented in the most harmless, domesticated, warm and cuddly guise”€”in the person of a “€œCrunchy“€ who wants us all to get in touch with the earth and posts zesty new recipes on his blog.

I heard it said that the editors wanted to change the original name, “€œLibertyWire,”€ because it sounded too much like a Ron Paul website. Well, a site like the Daily Paul, which has no funding and a staff of one, still thrives as place for the discussions of the concrete issues”€”monetary policy, stopping the bankster bailouts, ending the American empire”€”that matter to the grassroots conservatives who want something other than NRO and Townhall.com. C11, on the other hand, was a vehicle for 20-somethings to talk about themselves amongst themselves.          

In closing, a final note about web publishing. C11 went under at the same time that the neocon Pajamas Media will be shrinking its blog presence and ending its “€œblog advertising network”€ (I don”€™t what that was, but it sounds like it was supposed to make money) and focusing instead on video (get ready for some more Joe the Plumber reporting live from the Holy Land!) So it might seem that the conservative webzine market isn”€™t exactly taking advantage of the fall of print, and maybe even going the way of the dead-trees.     

But then, this need not be so. David Kuo gave a indication of what was wrong, very wrong, about the C11 business plan, when he revealed upon the death of the webzine, “€œ[N]ow 14 people who worked very hard for this company … are looking for new jobs because theirs disappeared.”€ Fourteen people! I”€™m all for giving us bohemian journalists employment, but clearly, a staff this size was excessive. (I run Takimag all by my lonesome.) In the end, Culture 11 wasn”€™t just focused on all the boring non-culture I associated with the late-90s, but had itself become a kind of dot-com company, replete with ill-informed funders, an ill-defined product, massive capital expenditures, and a guru-like CEO who’s in fact naïve and buffoonish. And C11 eventually went the way of Kozmo and eToys.com.    

We can do better.  


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