In Defense of Peacocks

In Defense of Peacocks

Matt Lewis wrote a thought provoking post about, as he put it, “political journalism and conservatism.” It’s well written and definitely worth a look (can you tell there’s a “but” coming?), but ultimately I found myself disagreeing with the thrust of his comments. Because it is an interesting topic, I want to take a bit of time to offer a rebuttal in order to argue for an alternative point of view. First, let me try to summarize a bit of Matt’s argument. I’ll start where he does, using Ann Coulter as an example:

Here’s how it works: Coulter says something controversial, and we pay attention to her. She wins. We (the media outlets) win. But who loses? In many cases, conservatives collectively lose. She is, in a word, a peacock.

He expounds on this by quoting a book review written by skeptic Michael Shermer:

What is good for the individual peacock in attracting peahens by building a flamboyant tail is bad for the species in making everyone a greater target for predation; as well, building ever fancier tails is a waste of resources. If the peacocks could form a governing organization to establish and enforce rules to delimit tail design the species would be better off.

In context, what’s good for individual conservative raconteur isn’t always good for conservatives as a whole. That’s point one. Lewis’ other point, which he attributes to the rise of blogging and the 24/7 news cycle, is “micro-coverage,” i.e. coverage of every minor detail in a way that “trivializes the process.” Again he returns to Shermer’s book review to make the point:

Ever increasing height in the heels of women’s shoes is another example of a fashion arms race in which everyone would be better off in flats. Once a few start to inch up their heels, the fashion trend takes off, forcing those who would not otherwise do so to engage in an Achilles-tightening arms race.

That’s far from a complete summary, and I encourage you to read his whole piece, but I think it’s enough to make some points starting with the peacock analogy.

What Lewis doesn’t explain is that both of the quotes he’s borrowed from this book review by Michael Shermer are actually not Shermer’s argument but that of his subject. Author Robert Frank, whose book Shermer is reviewing, is making a socialist case for government control. Shermer summarizes it this way:

His arguments are carefully crafted and artfully presented to make the case that since we’re in the business of designing society from top down anyway we might as well go whole hog and do it right.

Yikes! Right away, red flags should have gone up. Shermer, who is a libertarian, argues the contrary point, starting from the fact that in the real world peacocks are doing fine:

In point of fact, both peacocks and bull elk are doing just fine as species, contrary to what Frank suggests in his claim that such features are inefficient and therefore not good in the long run.

Shermer then extends the argument well beyond the animal kingdom to a description of humanity as a whole. This is an important point, so don’t skim over it:

Not only are such features as the human equivalence of peacocks’ tails and bull elk antlers not a detriment to our species, sexual selection may very well account for most of characteristics that we so admire about our species: art, music, humor, literature, poetry, fashion, dance and, more generally, creativity and intelligence…

Thus, contrary to what Frank argues, a viable case can be made that the evolutionary arms races he so detests–men’s suits, women’s high heels, McMansion homes, and elaborate coming of age parties–are products of alarger system that drives our species to be so successful.

Simply put, we live in a world of peacocks, and, at the risk of offendingShermer, thank God for it. This is, at root, the entrepreneurial culturethat has made America what it is. Indeed, there are vast museums lining theNational Mall not far from where Lewis works full of the various and sundryfeathers these peacocks have left behind. That’s true of the Wright Brothersflyer in the Air and Space Musuem or, just across the Mall, of Monet’scathedrals. If we value these things for their beauty or their utility, thenwe must come down firmly on the side of peacocks. Peacocks are freedom. 

As noted above, Lewis singles out Ann Coulter in this regard, but here againI think he misses something important. Her comment about the “Jersey girls,” to which Lewis alludes as an example of pointless outrage, was actually notpointless at all. She was making a serious argument about how liberalschoose designated victims to present their ideas to the public. Liberals dothis, Coulter argued, as a way to insulate themselves from pushback–i.e., you can’t be against this policy without being mean to this poorspokesperson. Her insight is so obviously true that many on the right nowuse it routinely without acknowledging its source.  

I’m sympathetic to some of what Lewis wrote. It does feel like something isamiss when an entire day is spent on “etch-a-sketch.” And he makes clearseveral times that he’s not looking for government to get involved in anyway. That said, the problem with his argument is that it’s fundamentally thesame kind of argument which leads to things likenanny-state rules and regulations. And not coincidentally, even in his pieceit seems aimed at ends that are not particularly conservative. It seems tome that taking government more seriously is the left’s project, not ours. 

Frankly, I’m glad the old man–the one who Lewis envisions keeping order inthe media–is dead and buried. I don’t want to return to an era where asympathetic media could transform the man who pushed himself on a 19-year-oldduring a party at the White House (and later asked her to perform sex actson other staff) into the radiant JFK of Camelot. If only we’d had the DrudgeReport (and back then.