Leon Wieseltier thinks you're scum.
You're scum because you're reading this blog, in which angry and occasionally intemperate opinions are expressed about the president of the United States and other right-wingers. You're scum, and I'm scum, and the writers and readers of most of the Web sites listed at right are scum.
Wieseltier makes this clear in the course of what is ostensibly a review for the New York Times of Checkpoint, a political novella by Nicholson Baker. Wieseltier, the high-minded literary editor of The New Republic, describes Checkpoint in his high-minded review as "This scummy little book" -- those are his first four high-minded words -- but his disgust is aimed at you and me. He loathes us.
Baker's novella concerns the proposed assassination of President Bush. But that's not why Wieseltier finds it "scummy." He finds it "scummy" because it criticizes the president in a way that is not calmly rational, closely reasoned, and copiously footnoted. Baker's characters are simply appalled. They're furious and exasperated.
Baker is scum for creating characters who think this way. And you and I are scum for being furious and exasperated as well:
For the virulence that calls itself critical thinking, the merry diabolization of other opinions and the other people who hold them, the confusion of rightness with righteousness, the preference for aspersion to argument, the view that the strongest statement is the truest statement -- these deformations of political discourse now thrive in the houses of liberalism too. The radicalism of the right has hectored into being a radicalism of the left. The Bush-loving mob is being met with a Bush-hating mob. Liberals are forgetting why liberals are not radicals.
We on the left have started resorting to anger, of course, for a very good reason: because conservatives have been using public displays of anger for many, many years to move outrageous, irresponsible ideas to the mainstream -- supply-side economics, impeachment for adultery, war in Iraq as a reaction to al-Qaeda terrorism -- and rational counterarguments have been to no avail.
Wieseltier doesn't care. He proposes a simple solution to shrewdly deployed right-wing displays of outrage:
these weeds should be allowed to die in the field.
Oh, sure -- that'll work.
I'm pleased that this review appears a few days after the highly successful rollout of a gutter campaign by some Vietnam Swift boat veterans to portray John Kerry as a liar and a war criminal. The accusing veterans' book, not yet published, reached #1 at Amazon a few days ago. Yeah, just ignore people like this; they'll go away. Hey, Leon -- tell it to Max Cleland, who lost a reelection bid in 2002 because getting three limbs blown off by a grenade in Vietnam didn't prevent him from being equated with Saddam and bin Laden in a gutter campaign.
And the right-wingers never seem to run out of ammunition. Think that Swift boat book is an isolated event, Leon? Here's an ad for yet another anti-Kerry book, Reckless Disregard: How Liberal Democrats Undercut Our Military, Endanger Our Soldiers, and Jeopardize Our Security by Colonel Robert "Buzz" Patterson, which shares a publisher with the Swift boat book. The ad copy reads,
Why Islamic terrorists are praying for a Democratic victory
And why a Kerry presidency would put our nation in mortal peril
Allow this sort of thing to die in the field? Patterson's last book was on the Times bestseller list for four months.
Wieseltier shrugs it all off. He sneers at those of us
who believe it is the politics of the sewer to which the Republicans owe their success.
Wieseltier says that belief
significantly overestimates the influence of the media and its pundit vaudeville on American politics. Rush Limbaugh did not elect a president....
No, Leon? You know that for sure? Let's run some numbers.
Whatever actually happened in Florida voting booths in 2000, the election there went into the record books as a 527-vote win by George W. Bush. Now, Rush Limbaugh has been on the radio across the country for a decade and a half. His remarkable success in the ratings led to a rash of imitators, to the point where virtually everyone in America with a radio can hear Rush or a Rush-like broadcaster 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Rush's success almost certainly helped pave the way for Fox News. And Fox News and radio conservatives routinely spread the messages found in right-wing books -- many of whose were surely inspired by the multi-million-copy success of the two books Rush wrote more than a decade ago.
Is Wieseltier really prepared to argue that this level of dissemination of right-wing bile wasn't enough -- over the course of more than a decade -- to influence the votes of 527 Floridians in 2000?
Sorry, Leon -- we've tried ignoring these people. We've tried playing nice. It's not working.