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June 2004

Sunday Night Journal — June 27, 2004

Marriage Fever

It is very convenient to find that someone else has said, and said better, what one has been thinking of saying, thus saving one a certain amount of trouble. Ever since I posted these comments on the homosexual marriage debate, I’ve been mulling over further remarks. One thing that has particularly struck me about the argument in favor of homosexual marriage is that it is largely couched in the language of rights and entitlement. It is mostly about the financial and legal benefits attendant upon marriage, and hardly at all about the sacrifices entailed. A recent letter to the editor in the local paper was a perfect exemplar of this, consisting of a list of social and financial benefits which normally accompany marriage and making an emotional plea against the exclusion from all these good things of people who happen to be attracted to members of their own sex. If anything was said of responsibilities it was brief and in passing.

When a man and a woman marry they know that they are sacrificing themselves for something larger—at least, they know this if they have any real respect for and understanding of what they are doing, which of course many nowadays do not. That something, of course, is the family of which they are now the founders; even at this fairly late stage of our attempt to separate marriage and child-bearing, it is still a general expectation that when one becomes a husband or wife it is more likely than not that one will sooner or later become a father or mother. The couple generally have at least some inkling that this new state may bring some extraordinarily serious responsibilities. This sacrificial spirit, which is central for real marriage, is not to be found in the arguments for same-sex marriage.

This review —by Kay S. Hymowitz, in Commentary—of Jonathan Rauch’s new book advocating homosexual marriage describes the terms in which the case is generally put: “a civil right, a public celebration of love, or a delivery system for government benefits.” That last phrase sums up the inexpressible dreariness of a great deal of what one reads on this subject. The review says most of what I have wanted to say, and says it very well. Rauch is, from what I have seen in periodicals, the most reasonable spokesman for homosexual marriage. And Ms. Hymowitz is respectful, and goes as far as she can in sympathizing with Rauch’s arguments, but in the end she cannot agree. I think she is one of a number of women who, as I have asserted before, recognize instinctively that the redefinition of marriage would not be good for women in general.

I particularly like her observation about the line of argument which which takes the high divorce rate and other symptoms of pathology in the institution of marriage as justification for further loosening its structure:

Defining marriage in terms of how "it is practiced today," as Rauch would have it, is like determining normal by taking the temperature of someone who has a fever.


Sunday Night Journal — June 20, 2004

Another Root Canal, Please, Doctor

When Ronald Reagan died a couple of weeks ago many of his prominent political opponents made an impressive effort to speak well of him. As one who disliked Bill Clinton as much as some disliked Reagan, I wondered how I would do in the event of Clinton’s death—could I speak both honestly and without derision? I even considered writing an anticipatory obituary here, such as I’m told large news organizations prepare for major public figures, just as an exercise, and made a few mental notes before dropping the idea. I found that I really didn’t want to think about him that much. I wanted to let bygones be bygones, to forgive and forget—especially to forget.

But no sooner is Reagan buried than here comes Bill, pushing his 975-page autobiography, and suddenly he’s all over the news again, with the same old retinue of PR hacks and the same old complaint that his impeachment was the result of a right-wing conspiracy, that he was guilty of nothing more than a lapse of sexual morality, and so on. All the rhetoric eventually comes round to the idea that the fundamental problem is that “right-wingers” are wicked—so paranoid, evil, and full of hate that they literally cannot live without persecuting some virtuous soul, preferably one who is an obstacle to their plans for slaughtering or enslaving most of the human race. (Not for the first time, or the last, do I note the irony in the hatred with which Clinton and his defenders regarded those whom they deemed to be haters.)

During Mr. Clinton’s administration much was made of the “Clinton haters,” those who seemed consumed by their dislike of the man. Although I always made an effort not to hate him (hate being against my religion), I could, roughly, be put in that category; certainly I had enough antipathy to him to qualify as a “hater” in the eyes of his defenders. But in all the verbiage I don’t think I ever heard my own views described with any accuracy.

So here, for the record, and briefly, because it is such a dreary topic, are the reasons why I dislike the man and thought him a bad president. I can pinpoint the moment it began. It was February of 1992, and I was in the hospital recuperating from back surgery, and I happened across the novelty of C-Span (we did not have cable TV then, or for many years afterward). Bill Clinton was participating, on stage with several African-American men, in some event having to do with civil rights. I had theretofore hardly known of his existence, and I listened to the end of his speech with an entirely open mind. I was impressed. I remember thinking that this seemed a hopeful thing: here was a Southerner (that was obvious) taking an active role in healing the nation’s racial wounds. Maybe, I thought, this was a man whom I could support.

But after he had finished speaking I kept watching him and I saw something in his face that bothered me. It was familiar, yet for a minute or two I couldn’t place it. Then it hit me: crooked preacher. He was a type all Southerners know, or should know: one skilled in the use of piety for manipulation.

From then on I was suspicious of him, and suspicion grew into a conviction that he was a deeply dishonest man. And here in a nutshell is why so many conservatives disliked him so much: we were (and are) convinced that he was (and is) a dishonest man—not just occasionally mendacious, like many a politician, but a seriously unscrupulous man—and yet he was winning. I don’t deny that the latter was the source of much of the intensity of our detestation—one naturally finds it more difficult to accept one who cheats and wins than one who cheats and loses.

As for the impeachment: to paraphrase the famous catch-phrase of the ’92 campaign, “It’s the felonies, stupid.” It was not adultery that led to impeachment, it was perjury. I feared at the time, and don’t know that I was wrong, that to let a sitting president get by with lying under oath might in time prove a terrible blow to the rule of law.

Clinton was only the latest in a long line of lying Southern demagogues. As a political personality he has much in common with the early George Wallace. And one of the few pleasures in watching the political scene between 1992 and 2000 was to see sophisticated liberals, who believe themselves above all to be smarter than everyone else, falling for the same bag of tricks which had worked with the hicks of Alabama in the 1960s. Clinton acted out on the political stage something very like the events of Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant and dreadful short story “Good Country People.”

Let it be said—it will always be said, and truly—that Clinton is a brilliant and gifted man, and I believe that in one of the self-described compartments of his soul he is a man who wants to do good and to be good. Perhaps he could have been a great man, but he was not. If he were to ask my advice, I would suggest that he get off the stage and retire to a quiet life of penance, contemplation and good works. Failing that, could he at least get off the stage?

What neither Clinton nor his admirers seem to understand is that most of the man’s opponents—I believe I am safe in generalizing my own sentiments to some degree—so far from desiring to pound his reputation into the dust, really would rather not think about him at all. The Clinton presidency was for us a miserable experience. Who wants to relive a root canal? Anger and frustration are unpleasant emotions. Mr. Clinton cannot be president again, and, to repeat myself, I would prefer to forgive and forget.

But it looks as though we will not be allowed to forget. If the conventional wisdom is true, Mr. and Mrs. Clinton intend that she will reach the White House. And Mr. Clinton is clearly determined to rehabilitate his memory. It looks like we are going to have to listen to the angry buzzing of the Clinton spin machine for years to come.

Sunday Night Journal — June 13, 2004


I started noticing a few years ago that liberals and other opponents of conservatism seemed not to be using the word “conservative” as their preferred epithet for the enemy in the way they once had done. Instead, they seemed to be using the term “right-wing.” The most famous use of the term was Hillary Clinton’s famous assertion that a “vast right-wing conspiracy” was seeking her husband’s ruin. I have no data at all on this other than my own observation, but it seems to me that most of my left-of-center acquaintances, and most left-of-center pundits and politicians, use “right-wing,” “right-wing extremist”, “extreme right,” “religious right,” and so forth far more often than they use “conservative.” Somehow these terms convey, and are certainly spoken and written with, a venom not communicated by “conservative.” Similarly, “left-wing” is generally a definite pejorative, while “liberal” is mild, and is the preferred self-description of a certain party, just as “conservative” is the preferred self-description of another party. Part of the pleasure in using a pejorative is that it is resented and preferably denied by its object.

Lately another term has joined “right-wing,” and perhaps even eclipsed it in popularity as a pejorative on the left: “neo-conservative.” This is driving some conservatives crazy, but not for the reason its users might think—not so much because conservatives resent being called neo-conservatives, but because as the term is used by the left it means almost nothing (aside, that is, from being a simple substitute for “evil”) as a description of an ideology. It simply refers to people in, or near, or vocally supportive of, the Bush administration who have been architects or advocates of the war in Iraq.

If "neo-conservative" has any meaning at all now in Pundish (the language spoken by Pundits), it's circular: the Bush administration is run and/or supported by neo-conservatives, therefore neo-conservatives are those who run and/or support the Bush administration. This usage of course is also to the liking of those conservatives (often called “paleo-conservatives”) who oppose the war; it allows them to excommunicate conservatives who support the war.

A lot of words have been expended on the right in mostly wasted attempts to explain exactly what a neo-conservative is, and why this or that administration figure is or is not one. This is a losing battle as far as the public war of words is concerned, although the pursuit of verbal precision is always worthwhile for its own sake. But I think there is a very simple reason why “neo-conservative” has gained such currency on the left: it’s because too many people consider “conservative” to be an accolade.

Here in Alabama we just had an election. Almost literally every candidate described himself or herself as a conservative. Granted, Alabama is perhaps just a smidgen to the right of most of the nation, but it is really not so very different from the other so-called red states, meaning those which went for Bush in the 2000 election. Despite a generation of enlightened insistence that "conservative" equals "bad," a large portion—in many places a definite majority—of the people believe the opposite. For polemical purposes, then, “right-winger” works much better. You can call Hitler a right-winger with at least some plausibility, but it really makes no sense to call him a conservative. (Similarly, you can call Stalin a left-winger, but it makes no sense to call him a liberal.)

"Neo-conservative" serves a similar purpose, with the additional benefit of having vague associations of sneakiness and elitism. It also allows the speaker to imply that he really doesn't have anything against True Conservatives, just the wily neo variety.

There’s a bit of irony in this in that “neo-conservative” properly refers to a handful of ex-liberals who moved rightward in (roughly) the 1970s, and in general what continues to distinguish them from traditional conservatives is precisely that they tend to be more liberal on social and moral questions: quite a few of them, for instance, are quietly “pro-choice” on abortion. Indeed the war itself might, if one were to attempt to apply ideological categories consistently, be seen as a liberal enterprise, an attempt to impose rational and democratic structures upon a region poisoned by a toxic mixture of some of the worst features of both modernity and traditional ways.

Sunday Night Journal — June 6, 2004

Ronald Reagan and D-Day

To judge by most of the news reports I’ve seen over the past couple of days, one would think that Ronald Reagan had been a far more universally admired president than he was. But while he was president anyone who was at all left of center politically and culturally viewed him with a hostility ranging from dislike to intense loathing. Most of the people I worked with during the Reagan administration fell somewhere in this group. The one who comes to mind first was the woman who considered him a very personal enemy and literally could not stand to look at him—she told me once that before reading a magazine with Reagan’s picture on the cover she had to tear the cover off and throw it away. I thought this very odd and somewhat amusing, but I developed more sympathy for her when I found myself having similar feelings about Bill Clinton.

Amid the talk about Bush-hating these days I think it’s often glossed over that this kind of polarization has existed with the majority of the presidents of the past few decades: Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. Carter, Ford, and Bush Sr. did not, as the saying goes, rise to the level of distinctness which provokes the hatred that these four did. For that matter, it was probably true of FDR, to say nothing of Lincoln, so perhaps we worry too much about it.

Have the people who hated Reagan mellowed toward him, or are they just keeping a tastefully low profile on the occasion of his death? I don’t know, but for my part, I certainly think more highly of him than I did when he left office. Although I voted for him twice, it would be dishonest of me to pretend that I was always a great enthusiast. I had, and to some extent still have, a sense of things so deeply awry in the modern world that I had, and have, only limited hope for what can be accomplished politically, although in 1980 I thought Reagan’s forthright conservatism clearly preferable to Carter’s somewhat sneaky liberalism. (I had voted for Carter in ’76. It seems unlikely that I will ever vote for another Democrat.)

I don’t think I considered it a seriously credible possibility in either 1980 or 1984 that the Soviet Union would collapse before the end of the decade, the Cold War effectively end, and the poised missiles of MAD become less of a threat than they had been for the preceding thirty years. I’m sure historians will argue forever as to whether and in what degree Reagan was really responsible for this, and no doubt it’s an over-simplification to give him all the credit, but surely it would be even more of one to give him no credit. Beyond my crediting him with this accomplishment, I think more highly of him now because evidence in the form of letters and other personal papers, as well as the testimony of those who knew him, has emerged over the past decade or so that reveal him to have been a man of far more substance than either his detractors or even the popular image concocted by his own political campaigns would lead one to believe.

Almost as much as the man himself, Americans seem to be mourning the passing of another link with what very many of us see as a better time, the period before 1960 or so, and especially the years before and during World War II, contradictory though this may seem, considering the troubles of those times. So it seems appropriate that Reagan’s death coincided with celebrations of the anniversary of D-Day. Surely there is a great deal of romantic illusion in this nostalgia, but the fact that it occurs not only in those who can actually remember those times but in those born afterward, sometimes well afterward, must, if it does not prove that the earlier time was wonderful, at least prove that we are not pleased with our own. All over the political spectrum, with the exception perhaps of the radical left, one meets the feeling that something has been lost, and when people try to articulate this they almost always include the word “decency,” a term which in the American vocabulary encompasses a great deal. To say much more than this would require an essay or perhaps a book. But whatever this thing we call decency is, Ronald Reagan seems to have possessed it in great degree—not only apparently, as his detractors would have it, but actually. May he rest in peace, and may we recover decency.