Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fit to Eat With the Hogs, Redux

For some reason (probably wishful thinking) I was convinced when I woke up this morning that it was Wednesday. I managed to maintain that pleasant delusion until I walked into work and realized that the student workers were the ones scheduled for Tuesday, not Wednesday.

Roy Edroso had a brief post yesterday about Norman "Still Breathing" Podhoretz, who's been defending Sarah Palin at the Wall Street Journal. Podhoretz compares Palin to Ronald Reagan:
It's hard to imagine now, but 31 years ago, when I first announced that I was supporting Reagan in his bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, I was routinely asked by friends on the right how I could possibly associate myself with this "airhead," this B movie star, who was not only stupid but incompetent. ... Ultimately, of course, we all wound up regarding him as a great man, but in 1979 none of us would have dreamed that this would be how we would feel only a few years later.
Of course, to those who aren't "we all", this is no comfort. Of course Podhoretz isn't the first to make this analogy, but "we all" to the left of him don't consider it a hopeful augury. He presses on boldly:
Take, for example, foreign policy. True, she seems to know very little about international affairs, but expertise in this area is no guarantee of wise leadership. ... What she does know—and in this respect, she does resemble Reagan—is that the United States has been a force for good in the world, which is more than Barack Obama, whose IQ is no doubt higher than hers, has yet to learn.
Doesn't the Journal have copy editors? But the derailed syntax of that last sentence is less interesting than its choice of a way to misrepresent (and in Podhoretz' moral universe, to defame) Obama. Podhoretz doesn't support his claim that Obama "has yet to learn" that "the United States has been a force for good in the world," so I don't know why he says such a ridiculous thing. What Podhoretz claims Obama has yet to learn is a staple of liberal and "progressive" (to say nothing of center-right) discourse: the US has perhaps been "deeply imperfect" at times, but it has been a force for good all the same. Even Katha Pollitt, in rejecting the jingoism that erupted after 9/11, declared "I've never been one to blame the United States for every bad thing that happens in the Third World", and Noam Chomsky routinely reminds his audiences that Americans enjoy an unusual degree of freedom compared to most countries. I've quoted before this passage by William Rusher, former publisher of the National Review and still a hardcore conservative.

Wright told his parishioners (who could be seen in the background applauding his remarks) that the U.S. government had engineered the AIDS epidemic to kill black people, and worked up to a peroration in which he resoundingly rejected the slogan "God bless America." No, he thundered: The right view was "God Damn America!" His parishioners roared their approval.

Needless to say, when questioned by reporters, Obama wasted no time distancing himself from those sentiments. He not only disagreed with them, he asserted, but if they had ever been uttered in his hearing at a service of his church, he would have felt obliged to leave the church. The United States has its defects, but its virtues far outweigh those defects.

So, why did Podhoretz say such a crazy thing? Partly, of course, because saying crazy things is part of the right-wing shtick, but also because impugning the patriotism of their opponents is the tactic they reach for first in (to use the term laughingly) debate. No doubt they enjoy watching their opponents splutter and proclaim that they are so patriotic, indeed more patriotic than the wingnuts, who really do hate America. Shoot at the dudes' feet, make them dance, it's a laugh riot.

And I just remembered C. P. Snow's remarks on dealing with this kind of attack:
However, the problem of behaviour in these circumstances is very easily solved. Let us imagine that I am called, in print, a kleptomaniac necrophilist (I have selected with some care two allegations which have not, so far as I know, been made). I have exactly two courses of action. The first, and the one which in general I should choose to follow, is to do precisely nothing. The second is, if the nuisance becomes intolerable, to sue. There is one course of action which no one can expect of a sane man: that is, solemnly to argue the points, to produce certificates from Saks and Harrods to say he has never, to the best of their belief, stolen a single article, to obtain testimonials signed by sixteen Fellows of the Royal Society, the Head of the Civil Service, a Lord Justice of Appeal and the Secretary of the M.C.C., testifying that they have known him for half a lifetime, and that even after a convivial evening they have not once seen him lurking in the vicinity of a tomb.

Such a reply is not on. It puts one in the same psychological compartment as one’s traducer. That is a condition from which one has a right to be excused.
And then I remembered that one of Roy Edroso's commenters had supplied a link to a review of Podhoretz' memoir Breaking Ranks by the ultra-libertarian Murray Rothbard. Now, in the passage I quoted, Snow was referring obliquely to attacks on his lecture The Two Cultures by F. R. Leavis, which he said "were loaded with personal abuse to an abnormal extent ... to the limit of defamation." Rothbard quoted Podhoretz' recollection of having studied with Leavis at Cambridge for three years, and of Snow as "a fairly close friend," though he claimed "I had emerged after seven years of intensive reading, largely under the guidance of those very two men, with an idea about the literary tradition very close to Snow’s." Maybe so, but he emerged with an idea about debate very close to Leavis's. It's a small world, no?