August 04, 2007
For several years I”ve been arguing over the same point with my son and my colleague Wes McDonald. Both think that I”m too hard on Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. They describe them as clever entertainers of the Right, whom I too would appreciate if I weren”t so damned “anti-Republican.” Because I”m soured on the GOP, I can”t perceive the wit and daring of these attack dogs, tearing relentlessly into W’s bashers among the Dems. This charge is at least partly correct. Because Coulter and Limbaugh are predictable partisans, who avoid scolding their own party when it sounds exactly like the other one, e.g., by shunning any overt criticism of racial and gender quotas, I have come to view them as tiresome hacks. If such types went after both national patronage machines in a nonpartisan manner, I would find them tolerable if not particularly tasteful. But given their partisan ties, I find it difficult to take them seriously, except as noisemakers. Could one imagine how Coulter and Limbaugh would have carried on if a Democratic president had denounced the opponents of the recent immigration bill as racists and bigots? Although both offered mild criticism of W for being joined at the hip on the immigration issue with the left wing of the Democratic Party, their invective would have been undoubtedly far less restrained if a President Hillary Clinton had sounded and acted like Bush.
But what struck me last week during a visit to a very conservative scholarly friend, who is a contemporary of mine, was to hear the same praise being lavished on the two Republican attack dogs that I had previously encountered closer to home. Although admittedly these figures shilled for the Republican Party, and never, to our knowledge, found anything amiss about neoconservative power-brokers, they were nonetheless, according to my friend, “brilliant once they went on the attack.” They gave the Democrats and the Left everything they richly deserved, even if their lack of evenhandedness when it came to the GOP was sometimes annoying. Apparently my problem was that I couldn”t accept a “glass half full.” Because these critics of the Left pull their punches when it comes to Republicans, I could not recognize the value of what they did well.
This stricture may be true but it may also be the case that not all glasses that are half-full look alike. George Kennan, whom my friend is doing a book about, often shocked me with his willingness to make massive concessions to the Soviet Union. Whether Kennan spoke with a sense of assurance that the Communist empire would soon come apart (and so our concessions wouldn”t hurt us) or whether he believed that American anti-Communism had become such an obsession that we were overlooking reasonable diplomatic options, Kennan took positions in foreign affairs that I strongly disagreed with. But I never questioned his integrity and intelligence. He taught his listener to think even if one dissented from his conclusions. And he was also unmistakably a man of the Right, unlike his neoconservative critics who attacked him for his insufficient adherence to “global democratic values.” (Allan Bloom’s slanderous invectives against Kennan as a man without values in The Closing of the American Mind are truly tasteless.)
From my reading of Kennan and certain philosophers I came to the conclusion that that one could take glasses of wisdom that are only half-full and be satisfied with the gift. This is exactly the opposite of my experience with Coulter, Rush, Al Franken, Michael Moore, Jim Carville and the rest of the current media vulgarians. They are shills who occasionally manage to be clever or even convey a useful fact. But they do so for the lowest of human motives, after having sold their souls to well-heeled party machines, which they defend against brand X.
Note that I am especially sensitive to this behavior when practiced by Republicans because I once earnestly believed in their moonshine. For years I thought the GOP had been ahead of the curve by alerting us to Soviet treachery during World War Two, and by calling attention to Communist spies whom the Democrats were coddling. Actually Republicans merely exploited for partisan gain the anti-Soviet issue years after the War was over. During that struggle they sounded as irresponsible as FDR in talking about “our Soviet allies.” They offered no real criticism of the unconditional surrender policy of the Democratic administration, and from what I could tell the most effective critics of FDR’s wartime positions and later of Truman’s China policy were people who worked with the Democratic administration, particularly General Albert Wedemeyr and the former ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew. This is not a whitewash of the Democrats (Heaven knows!) but merely a comment on the worthlessness of the Republican opposition. Although Taft remains one of my few Republican heroes, most Republicans ran the other way when he attacked the ex post facto justice meted out to the loosing side at Nuremberg. The 1948 Republican presidential nominee, Governor Thomas Dewey, fell over himself praising this mockery of a trial, held cheek by jowl with Stalin’s henchmen.
In the 1950 Republican campaign against a Democratic “decade of treason,” a mudslinging campaign that Ann Coulter continues to look back at with nostalgia, one already finds the kind of trickery that the Republicans would come to specialize in. If there was a decade of treason, then Republicans were as much implicated in that misfortune as the Democrats. Later Richard Nixon, while running for president, engaged in the usual duping of the Republican faithful. His campaign speeches were designed to play to fears of racial violence, particularly in the South, but once elected Nixon turned around and introduced racial quotas. Twenty years after, when such inconsistency should have been evident to even a dead man, the Republican Party was eager to remove Confederate symbols from public buildings in the South and opposed referenda intended to stop affirmative action. But for all their klotzy attempts to reach leftward, the GOP operators still present their product as what it is not, a meaningful alternative to the “leftist” Democrats. Despite the fact that the leftist media has encouraged this deceit by calling Republicans rightwing extremists, one would think that Republican voters by now would notice the difference between sleazy rhetoric and what the GOP actually does. Needless to say, the Coulters and Limbaughs will continue to do their best to keep reality from breaking in. They would move mountains to preserve the illusion that the Republicans are the real “rightwing opposition.” To what I have not yet figured out.