by James McWilliams
Once upon a time, right here in America in the 1950s, it was possible to do as Lionel Trilling did and call liberalism not just America’s “dominant but [its] sole intellectual tradition.” Not only was saying so possible, it was laudable. This was, after all, the heyday of the leftist intellectual journals Commentary and Dissent (or, “Dysentery,” as Woody Allen elided them in the movie Annie Hall), not to mention the prime years of George Plimpton’s literary touchstone Paris Review. Indeed, the post-war decades framed an era when genuine public intellectuals–almost all of whom were leftists–wrote books with a breath of inquiry that confronted the thoughtful American with basic questions about the “American mind” and the “American character.” Disagreements naturally abounded over the nature of that mind and the content of that character. Nevertheless, as heavy-hitters like Dwight MacDonald, Richard Hofstadter, Sidney Hook, Clement Greenberg, Delmore Schwartz, John K. Galbraith, and David Reisman aired their well-reasoned grievances with American life in the mainstream print media, they never abandoned a sense of decency or larger purpose. Indeed, they never forgot the assumption that, no matter how heated their debates, they were working within the shared framework–as Trilling reminded them–of liberalism.
Of course, to be called a liberal today is tantamount to getting bitch-slapped. When it comes to matters political, to be liberal is to be un-electable. In a related vein, to be civil about your objections to liberalism is to be unknown. Hence, we all know far too much about Ann Coulter, “the blond leading the blind,” as Joe Conason pegs her in Big Lies, his latest condemnation of contemporary conservatism. Coulter epitomizes both the bombastic tone and self-promotional cant that characterizes conventional conservative discourse in our current political climate. In case you’re lucky enough not to know, Coulter is that leggy ditz who has made millions slinging around such vapid assertions such as “there is only one thing wrong with liberals: they’re no good,” or “Clinton is in love with his erect penis.” Her diplomatic solution to the 9/11 tragedy required that, with respect to the terrorists, “we should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.” This vocal advocate of George W. Bush’s so-called compassionate conservatism once explained, “The only regret I have with Timothy McVeigh is that he did not go to The New York Times building.” Coulter, in her un-ironically titled book Slander, excoriated Democrats for making the country’s political debates “insufferable” while earnestly comparing Hillary Clinton to a prostitute. A practitioner of what Al Franken calls “political pornography,” Coulter whips herself into a self-righteous frenzy over “traditional family values,” even though she’s on record saying, “Let’s say I go out every night, I meet a guy and have sex with him. Good for me. I’m not married.” (Which seems unfair to Bill who, after all, is presumably in love with his own penis.) It’s tempting to suggest that Ann Coulter is off her rocker, but in fact she’s right on it, along with a host of conservative soulmates like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly. Her antics confirm the weight behind Conason’s central claim that these operatives, in their systematic if utterly childish dismantling of liberalism, are thoroughly, rottenly, gleefully feckless. They make careers–and damn good ones–telling Big Lies.
As any seasoned debater (or parent of a toddler) can attest, you have to choose your battles. And therefore it’s tempting, even seemingly wise, to allow yammering twits like Coulter and her ilk to spout their drivel and dig their graves. Problem is, though, that their drivel–and I really wish I had a generous explanation why (although I’ll try one in a minute)–has been sticking in the all-important court of public opinion. And sticking hard. How else to explain the extensive conventional wisdom that Conason aims to systematically debunk? How else to explain how the conservatives’ “propaganda machine” parades pervasive myths as self-evident truths?
“Truths” like it’s the Republicans who sympathize with the common man while liberals ride in limousines and mock the work ethic. “Truths” like the one that says conservatives are patriotic supporters of the military while liberals are pathetic draft dodgers. “Truths” like conservatives nurture moral virtue and family values while liberals are indulgent sybarites reveling in immorality, vice, and whoredom. Or “truths” like Republicans are fiscally responsible tightwads while Democrats are “tax and spend liberals.” In light of these patently false but very popular impressions (plus many, many others), Conason concludes that to take the high road in the rhetorical battle for America’s political soul would be to wander into irrelevance. Time to come down from the ivory tower and sling some mud. He writes, “I would much prefer an atmosphere that encourages friendship rather than hatred among Americans, regardless of ideology and party.” And then admits, “Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s much chance of that happy outcome until liberals learn to hit back hard.” Batman would describe what ensues in the following terms: “SPLAT! BOOM! BIF! KAPOW!” Conason, a blogger at Salon and columnist for The New York Observer, pulls no punches. He doesn’t necessarily fight dirty, but he fights fire with firebombs, allowing his own brand of virulent rhetoric to do the fanning. Relying on heavily alliterated banter that’s the columnist’s stock-in-trade, his prose swaggers, calling Republicans things like “modern mini-McCarthys,” “the conservative hit squad,” and (my favorite) “sinister social termites gnawing away at the foundations of human civilization.” But there’s substance behind the accusations. Conason practically drowns his text in factual information that collectively undermines any pretense to legitimacy that the conservative conventional wisdom might entertain. In short, he completely demolishes those pernicious myths.
Take fighting. Think Republicans are more patriotic and willing to defend the homeland? Consider the military careers of the most vocal of these “chicken hawks.” Cheney, in his own words, had “other priorities” during Vietnam. Pat Buchanan suffered from “a bad knee.” John Ashcroft had the local draft board deem his job as a teacher at a tiny Springfield, Missouri college as “essential” and got a pass. Tom DeLay said he desperately wanted to join the service and fight for his beloved country but there were just no spots for him because they were filled by blacks trying to escape the ghetto. Saxby Chambliss, the Georgia Senator who gave Vietnam the old stiff arm with a “football injury,” defeated Max Cleland, who lost two legs and an arm in Vietnam, by questioning his loyalty to America. And our Commander-in-Chief? Air National Guard, of course. But during his six-year commitment he was absent from active duty for an entire year (despite two requests to report), and he spent most of his final two years serving his country at Harvard Business School, evidently learning how to waste other people’s money. He was suspended from active duty in August 1972 for failing to show up for his physical exam. (Incidentally, this exam was the first scheduled since the military’s imposition of mandatory drug testing… Hmmmm.) And he was officially released from active duty eight months before his six-year commitment was due. Never, he insists, did he receive “special favoritism.” “The next time Bush strapped himself into a fighter cockpit,” Conason reminds us, “would be thirty years later, when he was flown to the deck of the USS Lincoln” to celebrate the so-called victory in Iraq. Hail to the Chief.
Then take sex. Republicans sanctimoniously complain about the “breakdown in public manners and morals,” attribute this decline to liberals, and then, as Conason shows through scores of juicy examples, go on to do very naughty things in their own private lives. “An encyclopedia of raunchy fables,” he explains, “could be based on the hidden lives of American conservatives.” A high-profiled example is Newt Gingrich, who divorced his first wife while she was in the hospital recovering from ovarian cancer, and then dropped his second wife with an abrupt telephone call because he had fallen for a staffer half his age. The rank-and-file Republicans have a special penchant for sexual intrigue. Ken Calvert, a California Republican, admonished the nation that “we can’t forgive what occurred between the President and Lewinsky” despite being caught with a prostitute and arrested in 1994. Jon Grunseth, the Minnesota Republican candidate for governor, watched his political career take a dive after he literally took a dive, naked, into a pool with his teenage daughter’s friends. Mike Bowers, a Georgia Republican, ran a “pro-family” campaign for governor until his 10-year affair with a secretary was exposed. Conservative fundraiser Richard Delgaudio, who brought us Paula Jones, recently confessed his taste for child pornography with a guilty plea. “The incidents mentioned in this chapter don’t begin to exhaust this tragicomic genre,” Conason assures us. “And then there are the gays…” (Really this book is worth reading for pages 125-127 alone).
The ultimate problem with this damning heap of well-earned calumny is that Conason, as he says, is hitting back. Which, of course, means that liberals got hit first. And as any psychologist will tell you, that’s precisely the trouble. There’s a term for it (a psychologist friend of mine was supposed to check on it and he never got back to me in time–thanks a lot, Jon) and it involves the power of first impressions. Studies have shown that when a person is told a lie under the auspices of it being true, it’s very hard to disabuse him of that notion by virtue of the fact that it was what he heard first. The Republicans have best capitalized on this innate affinity for and power of the first strike, beginning with Gingrich’s “Language, a Key Mechanism of Control,” a guide distributed to conservative candidates in the mid-1990s. Today, Karl Rove is in charge of the Republicans’ language control, a project of Orwellian intricacy that has earned him the kudos of Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic, who assures us that “a rhetorical smoke screen is sometimes necessary.” The encouraging news about those psychological experiments is that, barring basic stupidity, we can correct for false first impressions. Conason, whose book throws a barrage of punches alongside Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them and Jim Hightower’s Thieves in High Places, offers little hope that the nasty tenor of American political discourse will recover a sense of civility. But this collective voice, in all its shrillness, is calling liberals back to the battle. One only hopes the candidates will follow.
James McWilliams always writes fair and balanced book reviews.