Entry from May 18, 2009

Notwithstanding a terse little notice on today’s New York Times’s website that, in yesterday’s column, she “failed to attribute a paragraph about the timeline for prisoner abuse to Josh Marshall’s blog at Talking Points Memo,” I would not be too quick to call Maureen Dowd a plagiarist — even if it turns out to be true that she thought (as reported in the Associated Press) she was plagiarizing from a friend, who quoted Mr Marshall’s words to her, rather than from Mr Marshall himself. Which of us can say that we have never silently appropriated the bon mot or turn of phrase of a friend or conversational companion as our own, particularly when we had good reason to suppose there was no paper trail by which we might be caught out? My best guess is that today’s journalistic culture will regard this as being, at worst, a venial sin, and Miss Dowd’s privilege of indulging in the most stringent and severe kinds of moralism at the expense of politicians and others is likely to remain unrevoked by her journalistic peers..

Yet there is a curious detail about that moralism that I noticed in my book, Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture and that occurred again in the offending column — and in connection with the same individual, too. Once again, that is, she used the word “dastardly” to describe Dick Cheney. I put it to you now, as I did to the readers of my book: if you really thought that someone was a very bad man, as Miss Dowd professes to think Mr Cheney is, would you describe him as “dastardly”? To the generation of which both Miss Dowd and I are a part, “dastardly” conjures up “Dastardly and Muttley” the Hanna-Barbera cartoon set in World War I with the eponymous pair as comically inept villains unable to catch Yankee Doodle Pigeon. Or perhaps we might remember the word being used of Snidely Whiplash in “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties,” that ornament of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show of a decade earlier. In any case, “dastardly” inevitably conjures up, at least for anyone younger than about 80, some pantomime figure in a melodrama, an ironic and ultimately a comic villain. You’ve got to wonder if Miss Dowd is taking Mr Cheney’s evil deeds entirely seriously.

As the author of another book called Honor, A History, I am particularly interested in the fact that “dastardly” is such an old-fashioned and semi-comical word because it belongs to the old Anglo-American honor culture, the one we collectively tossed onto the ash-heap of history in the aftermath of the war Dastardly and Muttley were supposed to have been fighting on the wrong side. This was not merely coincidental. The connection between the mind-set that took so much of the Western world into that war and Victorian and Edwardian ideas of sporting gentlemen who still used words like “dastardly” unironically is well-established. The word seems, in its origins, to have mean something like “uncouth” and was applied to, among others, those who didn’t know the proper, sporting way to fight. A “dastard” was someone who might hit you when your back was turned, or do something otherwise not just evil but underhanded and ungentlemanly. I think it was the word George W. Bush, with his patrician and WASP upbringing, must have had at the back of his mind when he described the 9/11 terrorists as “cowards.”

You or I might not think that hijacking an airplane and flying it into the side of a building was a cowardly act, however deplorable it might have been in other ways. But it makes perfect sense to those straight-arrow Dudley Do-Rights who are happy to give the Fuzzy-Wuzzies credit when they stand up and fight like men, but not otherwise. It’s precisely this class-bound sense of honor that presumably makes them so ridiculous to the likes of Maureen Dowd, though in the case of yesterday’s column she was applying the adjective to the former vice-president on the grounds that, at least in her view, it was he who had put poor Nancy Pelosi on the hot-seat about her CIA briefing back in 2002. Republicans, she wrote, “relished casting Pelosi as contemptible for not fighting harder to stop their contemptible depredations against the Constitution. That’s Cheneyesque chutzpah.”

No, that’s her own wilful distortion. Republicans didn’t think they’d made any “depredations against the Constitution.” That was the point of those lawyer’s memos. And what they found contemptible was Mrs Pelosi’s pretending she hadn’t known and approved of what she now, like Miss Dowd, regards as unconstitutional acts when she quite obviously had. The final bit of Dowd-esque chutzpah is to attribute Mrs Pelosi’s disgraceful performance to Dick Cheney, who has remained admirably straightforward, honest and consistent about his beliefs and not in the least sneaky or, as a very old-fashioned person might have said, “dastardly.” By comparison, passing someone else’s words off as one’s own might well qualify one as dastardly in such a person’s view — which, I repeat, would be a very, very old-fashioned one. I guess it’s just as well for her as well as for Mr Cheney that the word is no longer taken seriously by anyone.


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