Bien pensants, maudit peasants

Last month in this space I mentioned what might seem to some — though seemingly to fewer all the time — the rather extraordinary contention by Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker that it was not possible for any rational being to hold a different opinion from his own on a question of intense public interest and controversy. This was of course the proposed mosque and “Islamic Community Center”that was to have been built two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, destroyed by Islamicist terrorists on September 11, 2001. As Mr Hertzberg was for it, so only fools or bigots (or, of course, both) could have been against it, in his view. At the time, the vexed question of mosque or no-mosque was only just beginning to agitate the media, but there were numerous echoes of this attempted de-legitimization of the opposition as it continued to rage like an aching tooth through the month of August and well into September. Eventually, it ran into and merged with another grievous malady of the body politic in the form of a proposal by an obscure Floridian clergyman to burn a copy of the Koran — or Qur’an as the multi-culturally sensitive have taken to transliterating it — on September 11th of this year.

The clergyman, one Terry Jones, soon had the bright idea of tying his own proposal to burn Islam’s holy book to that of the mosque at (or near) Ground Zero, offering to cancel his pious conflagration if the Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the mosque’s principal backer, would consent to erect it elsewhere. There followed confusing assertions both that the Imam had and had not agreed to this bargain, and that he would have been unable to raise the money for such an ambitious project in any case, but the upshot was that the Koran was not burned — at least not on September 11th, at least not by Terry Jones — although the Reverend gentleman had by then managed to emulate the Imam’s own feat of turning himself into a minor celebrity, with all the potential for pecuniary and status advantage that that condition implies, by playing to and flattering a popular media fantasy. For during the “Summer of Recovery,” proclaimed last spring by President Obama, there was a bull market in the media for any information that could be turned into evidence that the economic discontent of large numbers and perhaps a majority of the American people was in fact owing to racism or, failing that, what the media were pleased to call “Islamophobia.”

Though this was a condition hitherto unknown to the psychological sciences, it was naturally represented as a subspecies of the racism which, not coincidentally, was the currently favorite media explanation for the rapidly declining popularity of President Obama — never mind that he could hardly have been elected in the first place by a majority-racist nation — and his party in advance of the mid-term elections. By keeping their attention focused on what they chose to represent as the irrational fears of the American people, the media could avoid having to look at the much more rational anxiety that the non-recovery of the Summer of Recovery was owing, as the also allegedly racist Tea Party movement had been suggesting, to the overspending and over-regulation of the President’s first 20 months in office. Janet Daley in the London Sunday Telegraph was one of the few journalists self-aware and alert enough to her profession’s little quirks and foibles to spot the connection between Mr Jones’s bizarre media medicine show — one of a matched set if David Frum was right to suggest that the proposed mosque was itself only a publicity stunt — and the collaborative media narrative about America’s descent into barbarism and bigotry:

One publicity-crazed loony threatens to commit an irresponsibly offensive act, to the virtually universal disgust of his own countrymen and the populations of America’s allies, and that’s it: the annihilation of any chance of bridge-building or conciliation between Muslim countries and the Western nations. That this absurdity became the immediately accepted received wisdom suggests that the world (and not just the Muslim parts of it) must be very eager indeed to find a plausible excuse for casting America as a cartoon country whose heartland is dominated by bigoted know-nothings.

I take it that Ms Daley is using “the world” here ironically to refer to that numerically tiny but seemingly vast world of the bien pensant which the media purports to represent and whose existence, in whatever numbers, is responsible for these and similar goings-on that have nothing to do with news as it has been traditionally understood. Within that world, which must often seem to its inhabitants to be the world, it is possible to find many of Mr Hertzberg’s persuasion — if that honorable word can apply to the alien realm of moral certainty — who imagine that their own assertions about subjects often and paradoxically described as “controversial” or open to “debate” are infallible. As the self-constituted national clerisy, they find it natural to take the attitude of the German official who wrote of a peasants’ revolt in 1502, “Oh the sinfulness of the peasant mind! What a bane it has always been to the clergy!”

Our modern equivalent of the clerical class needs to retain the form and the illusion of debate while in fact cutting it off by such attempts to delegitimize the other side, which is what we see in one example after another of the breakdown in public discourse that has accompanied the mis-named debates over new legislation concerning health-care insurance, immigration, measures to stimulate the economy, jobs and taxes — and over the Tea Party movement that has arisen out of popular anxiety about these things. Since none of them has any obvious connection to race or religion, the mosque was to the media consensus a God-send (if they will pardon the expression). To some extent this breakdown and degradation of debate is a natural by-product of today’s highly competitive media environment. Questions of black and white, good and evil, racist, bigoted, sexist homophobes and patriotic Americans — which those with any other prejudice than that in favor of their own country are sometimes said not to be, even as patriotism itself is sometimes stigmatized by the same people — produce the kind of sensational moral drama that now dominates the nation’s air waves and op-ed pages and that rational argument finds it difficult to compete with.

But the pretense that there is still intelligent and rational discourse involved must be what produces the extraordinary levels of odium theologicum that have become ever more obvious since the anti-Bush hysteria of the middle of the last decade and which continues, sometimes with different, sometimes the same objects today. As Fox News delighted in reporting not long ago from the “tweets” of the thespian twit, John Cusack: “I AM FOR A SATANIC DEATH CULT CENTER AT FOX NEWS HQ AND OUTSIDE THE OFFICES ORDICK ARMEYAND NEWT GINGRICH-and all the GOP WELFARE FREAKS.” [sic et sic]. I’m guessing that this is a joke and not a serious proposal, as I’m not sure what a Satanic Death Cult Center even is, though it sounds pretty nasty. But, if so, it is a form of humor accessible only to those afflicted by a version of what the columnist Charles Krauthammer, a psychiatrist, once identified as “Bush derangement syndrome.” At the time, this seemed to be related to the war in Iraq, but it has since come to afflict the haters of others in the public eye who have had little or nothing to do with that conflict like Dick Armey or Newt Gingrich. Or Sarah Palin, who is probably now the most hated American public figure by those with the penchant for hatred. As Ben Smith of Politico observed in connection with a scurrilous “profile” of the former governor and vice presidential candidate that appeared in Vanity Fair last month, “my takeaway from the magazine piece is more that you can really write anything about Palin.” Of course, Andrew Sullivan already proved that two years ago with his own latter-day version of the “warming-pan” Protestant conspiracy theory about the birth of the future James III in 1688.

If you had to say what excites such outpourings of loathing, you might notice that Mr Gingrich, Mrs Palin and such other popular hate-figures as Glenn Beck have in common with former President Bush a publicly proclaimed Christian faith which they believe to be relevant in some way to public policy. What they also have in common is that they are more hated for what they symbolize than for what they say or do. Mr Beck and Mrs Palin have become the public face of the “tea party” movement, which means that even when they proclaim a “non-political” rally dedicated to “Restoring Honor,” they are vilified for it. A week or so after the Beck rally in Washington at the end of August, a New York Times review of a television program called “Sons of Anarchy,” about racially-motivated strife among imaginary motorcycle gangs in California, began as follows:

“We are separatists, not supremacists,” the sedately spoken businessman says. “We are God-fearing patriots. And in a time when black radicals are in power in this country, we are desperately trying to remind our citizens of their founding beliefs.” Those words belong not to a fringe politico at a Glenn Beck rally but to a fictitious professional racist. . .

Discuss the use of the words “not”, “fringe” and “politico” in that sentence. Or that of the word “dangerous” in this one, from the sub-head of an article by Jesse Singal in the on-line New Republic: “Good riddance to Dr. Laura, our generation’s most dangerous radio host.” Dr Laura, for those who don’t know, is Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who gives personal advice-to-the-lovelorn (as it used to be called) on the radio — at least she does until the end of this year when she will be giving up her widely-syndicated show as a result of the furore caused by her attempt to make a point by using what we must now only touch with linguistic forceps as “the n-word.” The point she was trying to make was probably ill-judged but, according to Mr Singal, it’s not the n-word that makes Dr. Laura dangerous but the fact that she gives bad advice according to the therapeutic norms to which he himself subscribes. The obvious fact that people telephone her for advice because they, like her, are mostly skeptical about those norms is not even mentioned by him. And although he never does quite get around to explaining what is “dangerous” about her, he does mention the “risk” he sees being posed by her popularity:

There’s a real risk that Dr. Laura could become a footnote, mostly forgotten and mentioned only in reference to her bizarre, career-ending diatribe. This would be a shame, because although she may not foment asinine theories about Obama’s citizenship or encourage Tea Partiers to protest the government programs they themselves benefit from, she nonetheless deserves a space in the pantheon of radio antiheroes. Yes, for her sheer focused damage to individuals and for potentially life-ruining advice delivered to millions, we should erect a big statue of Dr. Laura, her aging Barbie Doll rictus grin glaring down at visitors and always judging, judging, judging.

Ah, yes. Judging. No judging going on here then, obviously, in Mr Singal’s characterization of this life-ruining, grinning-yet-glaring Barbie Doll of a judger as an “antihero” — the misuse of the term to mean “villain” is now ubiquitous, probably making precision in its use yet another linguistic lost cause — to rank even above the Becks, Limbaughs and Hannitys to whom he also gives the back of his hand earlier in his piece. But as we are learning from the treatment of those other liberal hate figures, there’s no hater hotter than the anti-“hate” campaigner.

Or not, at least, unless such a hater should be found among that large and seemingly dominant segment of the British intelligentsia who hate Tony Blair. I don’t mind admitting that I have never been among the former Labour prime minister’s biggest fans myself, just as I have never believed that the invasion of Iraq in March, 2003 by a coalition of British and American forces (in alliance with others) was among the best or wisest strategic responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. But honorable men may differ on such questions, as they used to say, and those who now feel free to express the most loathsome sort of loathing for the man routinely and unjustly called “Bliar” are often those whose own ideological predispositions are much closer to his than mine are.

The most recent outpouring of their hatred came in response to the publication at the beginning of September of his memoir, A Journey, both in Britain and in the U.S. where even the most anti-war and anti-Bush elements have not yet learned to hate him with a tithe of the odium directed at Mrs Palin or Mr Beck, though he shares with them a publicly-professed religious faith which is widely supposed to have influenced his decision to go to war in 2003. Shortly before the book’s publication, Mr Blair announced that he was to donate the whole of his advance, amounting to some £4 million, to the Royal British Legion for assistance to the war-wounded. Far from seeing such a generous gesture as any mitigation or palliation of their hatred, the Blair-haters who dominate the British media seemed to regard this as a further provocation, a weaselly attempt to buy off his detractors rather than to aid those injured in the cause of Queen and Country. A cartoon in the Independent showed a naked and flabby Blair in a bathtub on tank tracks, nervously covering his modesty with a banknote. A letter to the editor of the Telegraph from a Mr David Craig of Bournemouth seemed to speak for many:

SIR – The master of spin has done it again. He’s pulled off a brilliant PR coup by claiming he’ll give money from his book to the British Legion. If Mr Blair really cared about the soldiers whose lives were ruined in his Iraq war, he could have given the money quietly. This is just a cynical move by Mr Blair to get himself in the headlines and sell some more books.

This was followed by more in the same vein, only ruder. The book itself elicited similarly vehement denunciations, even for its professions of humility and regret. Here, for instance, is Robert Fisk in The Independent: “How can you not feel sorry about people who have died?” Lord Blair remarked of the victims [of the Iraq war]. What we wanted to hear was “I feel sorry for the people who have been killed.” Even that might have come a tad nearer an admission of guilt.

But the actual statement is just a rhetorical elaboration of the wished-for one, and Mr Blair has not — quite rightly, in my view — admitted any guilt. On the contrary, he still sincerely believes that, in spite of the mistakes made in the course of the invasion and its aftermath, he did the right thing about Iraq, and it is really this denial of Mr Fisk’s own Hertzberg-like moral certainty that he is objecting to. “‘Thinking’ is not good enough,” he thunders in reply to Mr Blair’s surely uncontroversial if banal contention that “You have to have the courage to do what you think is right.” But of course thinking is all he’s got — all any of us has got — which must tell us something about the kind of person for whom thinking is not good enough.

To redeem the British media’s descent into hatred a few lonely voices, among them David Aaronovitch of The Times and John Rentoul of The Independent, author of a biography of Tony Blair, not only defended the former prime minister but took a few pokes with a stick at the angry beast by attempting to answer the question, as the headline of one of Mr Rentoul’s posts put it, “Where does Blair rage come from?”

I have been puzzling over this for some time and, amid all the bile and insults my inquiry provokes, the response of one Blair hater was useful: “You well know that many people believe he deceived Parliament and this country into an unnecessary war. Given that is what people believe, then the anger is easy to understand isn’t it?” Up to a point, but this only takes the question back one stage: back to why so many people believe such an unreasonable and unlikely thing. And it usually turns out that they don’t. Very few people actually believe that Blair had a meeting — on a sofa in Downing Street, naturally — and said to his closest advisers: “I’ve got this brilliant plan for joining the American invasion of Iraq: we’ll say it’s all about weapons of mass destruction and when it turns out that there aren’t any, everyone will hate me for ever. How does that sound?” Great plan, they all said, and made the necessary preparations.

Something similar could of course be written about the absurdity of the popular media’s characterization of President George W. Bush, but he has unaccountably been missing as a target of the American media’s recent hate fest. This is not to say that he won’t make a comeback as the target of Blair-like odium, but it does suggest that a lot of the hatred that the media currently finds itself licensed to indulge has more to do with fear of the sinfulness of the peasant mind and its likely democratic consequences than it does with its ostensible objects.

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