Friday, June 25, 2004

Abuse of Power, Chickenhawks, and the Limbaugh Defense

Can you handle the truth?

THINKING OUT LOUD. Sometimes ideas come in messy clusters that intersect and bounce off one another in ways that defeat linear argumentation and presentation. The result is not so much a line as a wandering climbing vine of the sort that can crush a barn or strangle an elm tree. I fell into such a mess when I decided that despite reservations, I should publish a link to Christopher Hitchens's review of Fahrenheit 9/11 in the online magazine Slate. It's been just a week or so since Hitchens did his best to eviscerate the memory of Ronald Reagan, chiefly by a process of name-calling that depended on our willingness to accept the writer's assumption of superiority over his subject. Now he has turned his black heart toward Michael Moore and concocted a lengthy polemic that begins with contempt and ends with rhetorical annihilation. If I dismiss his diatribe against Reagan, why should I endorse his verbal assassination of Moore? And why should I elevate Moore by linking him to an essay that takes him seriously when it seems so much more fitting just to make fun of him?

At length I opted for linking to Hitchens's piece because his weapons in this instance -- unlike the Reagan attack -- comprised journalistic and intellectual ethics which he demonstrated that Moore had betrayed in his movie. There was pure vitriol in his presentation, as always, but there was also extensive citation of Moore's deliberate falsifications of fact, meretricious editing, and blatant self-contradictions concealed by a uniform sarcastic tone. This time, in short, Hitchens's argument was sound, and the determination of so many mainstream Democrats to bless Moore's propaganda as legitimate nonfiction commentary made me realize the educational value of this particular lengthy analysis.

So I hunted down a link to the review, at which point I discovered a second link, this one to a rebuttal also published by Slate. The author was one David Edelstein, presumably a film critic by trade. Edelstein did not attempt to counter most of Hitchens's charges. Rather, he chose to regard them as immaterial in light of his own emotional history:

Back in the '80s—the era of Reagan and Bush 41, when milquetoasts Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis were the ineffectual Democratic candidates and Jimmy Carter was off building houses for poor people... when there was an explosion of dirty Republican tricksters like Lee Atwater and trash-talking right-wingers, from Morton Downey Jr. to the fledgling Rush Limbaugh—I found myself wishing, wishing fervidly, for a blowhard whom the left could call its own. Someone who wouldn't shrink before the right's bellicosity. Someone who would bellow back, mock unashamedly, and maybe even recapture the prankster spirit of counterculture figures like Abbie Hoffman.

Abbie Hoffman? His was the "prankster spirit" that conspired to incite the appallingly ugly riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Nostalgia for the 1960s is an eerie phenomenon, and one we're not through paying for, as the rest of Edelstein's piece makes clear. His Hoffmangeist leads him to this extraordinary confession:

In 20 years of writing about film, no movie has ever tied me up in knots the way Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (Lions Gate) has. It delighted me; it disgusted me. I celebrate it; I lament it. I'm sure of only one thing: that I don't trust anyone—pro or con—who doesn't feel a twinge of doubt about his or her responses. What follows might be broadly labeled as "waffling," but I hope, at least, that it is bold and decisive waffling.

Is this what it means to be an open-minded 'moderate' in the liberal view? Perhaps so, because Edelstein immediately concedes all the following:

Needless to say, Fahrenheit 9/11 never waffles. The liberals' The Passion of the Christ, it ascribes only the most venal motives to the other side. There is no sign in the filmmaker of an openness to other interpretations (or world views). This is not quite a documentary—which I define, very loosely, as a work in which the director begins by turning on the camera and allowing the reality to speak for itself, aware of its complexities, contradictions, and multitudes. You are with Moore, or you are a war criminal. The film is part prosecutorial brief and part (as A.O. Scott has noted) rabid editorial cartoon: a blend of insight, outrage, and sniggering innuendo, the whole package threaded (and tied in a bow) with cheap shots, some of them voiced by Moore, some created in the editing room by intercutting stilted images from old movies.

He proceeds in the course of describing the movie's tactics to make another revealing admission about himself:

In one scene, his camera homes in on a Flint, Mich., woman weeping over a son killed in Iraq, and the effect is vampirish. After the screening, a friend railed that Moore was exploiting a mother's grief. When I suggested that the scene made moral sense in the context of the director's universe, that the exploitation is justified if it saves the lives of other mothers' sons, my friend said, "When did you become a relativist?"

I'm troubled by that charge—and by the fact that we nearly came to blows by the end of the conversation.

The ends justify the means. It's okay to use purely emotional exploitation if the motivation is saving lives. (I suppose if we could put enough sobbing mothers on TV, that would be a valid substitute for learning anything about the world outside mama's living room.) Using similar logic, he arrives at the conclusion that all the chicanery and cheap shots in the movie are acceptable. His first stated reason is what I call the Limbaugh defense:

...when it comes to politics in a time of war, I think that relativism is, well, relative. Fahrenheit 9/11 must be viewed in the context of the Iraq occupation and the torrent of misleading claims that got us there. It must be viewed in the context of Rush Limbaugh repeating the charge that Hillary Clinton had Vince Foster murdered in Fort Marcy Park, or laughing off the exposure of Valerie Plame when, had this been a Democratic administration, he'd be calling every day for the traitor's head. It must be viewed in the context of Ann Coulter calling for the execution of people who disagree with her.

He runs a number of slick misrepresentations by us here, overlooking the fact that Michael Moore has accepted an Oscar for a documentary that was a work of fiction, which is professional misconduct of an order not exhibited by the opinion purveyors he wishes to hold to a documentary standard. Limbaugh may have repeated the charge that Vince Foster was murdered, but I'll bet dollars to donuts he never averred it was the truth. Laughing at the outing of socialite (inactive) spy Valerie Plame is hardly unethical; I'm willing to do it again right here without fear of seeming unethical. (Ha ha. See?) And I can guarantee that Ann Coulter's desire to execute those who disagree with her is akin to her long hair and short skirts, a mere fashion statement. Edelstein does not stop here, though. He ups the ante. Considerably. He may regard his second stated reason as merely an elaboration of the first, but I do not. See what you think. He lays it out for us in the concluding paragraph of his essay:

Along with many other polite liberals, I cringed last year when Moore launched into his charmless, pugilistic acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. Oh, how vulgar, I thought—couldn't he at least have been funny? A year later, I think I might have been too hard on the fat prick. Six months before her death in 1965, the great novelist Dawn Powell wrestled in her diary with the unseemliness of political speech during an "artistic" event: "Lewis Mumford gave jolt to the occasion and I realized I had gotten as chicken as the rest of America because what he said—we had no more right in Vietnam than Russia had in Cuba—was true but I did not think he should use his position to declaim this. Later I saw the only way to accomplish anything is by 'abusing' your power." Exactly. Fahrenheit 9/11 is not a documentary for the ages, it is an act of counterpropaganda that has a boorish, bullying force. It is, all in all, a legitimate abuse of power.

At first I wondered why Edelstein had, in his recitation of Limbaugh's misdeeds, omitted the one that has drawn the most ink in recent weeks -- his purportedly serious comparison of the events at Abu Ghraib with mere hazing, such as might be practiced at Yale's Skull and Bones initiations. But I skipped that for the time being to consider the importance and the merit of the Limbaugh Defense, which is everywhere employed to justify the rhetorical excesses of Democrats from Al Franken to Teddy Kennedy to Al Gore.

Do you see how the cluster phenomenon works? We started out with a consideration of the controversy over Michael Moore's latest act of cinematic vandalism, but now we're forced to review the antique litany of charges against Rush Limbaugh. He has become the Great Excuse, the Carte Blanche Exculpation of all liberal venom, hatefulness, and ire. We're not even supposed to discuss the works of someone like Moore on the merits because it doesn't matter what his demerits might be as long as Rush Limbaugh is still within spitting distance of the Golden EIB microphone.

As it happens, I've been mulling this curious fact for quite a while now. A month or two ago, I read a little personal essay in Salon magazine by a woman who was mortified to learn that her psychiatrist was a Limbaugh listener. Her friends told her to get a new therapist immediately. Her own reaction was bafflement and confrontation. She couldn't believe that this woman who had understood her, helped her, and led her to better decisions in her life could possibly see Limbaugh as anything but a detestable idiot. She revealed to the psychiatrist that she knew this dirty secret about her. She was further confounded when the psychiatrist admitted the truth of the charge and remained calmly unapologetic about her vice. Ultimately, the writer of the essay acknowledged that she was still seeing the same therapist but felt profoundly mystified by this flaw in her being.

I suspect that we were supposed to share the woman's mystification. Yet I found in her words the beginning of an unraveling of mystery. I realized that the hysterical character of the writer would never have allowed her to listen to Limbaugh, such was her horror of this Evil Eye of the Radio (oxymoron intended). She would have felt herself violated and traumatized by the experience. Her knowledge of Limbaugh was a vicarious phenomenon. She loathes Limbaugh because of what other right-thinking liberals have told her about him.

Those of us who have listened to him at some length generally find it hard to reconcile the standard description of Limbaugh with the reality. He is accused of being rude, mean, arrogant, hateful, racist, deliberately dishonest, and wild-eyed in manner. His audience is supposed to consist of automaton followers, who are so obedient to his every whim that they call themselves ditto-heads, so ignorant that they aren't even aware of their status as mindless rubber stamps.

The only problem with all this is that it's not true. Limbaugh's fabled ego is in large part a manufactured persona, one that cleverly counterpoints his confident and often satirical monologues about politics. Every time he returns to his standard self-congratulating refrains -- "I, in my infinite wisdom, have figured out more than the amateurs in the audience can do by themselves," "I, who can discover the truth, making zero mistakes, with half my brain tied behind my back" -- he is winking through the airwaves at his ditto-heads, reminding them that they are hearing personal opinions inflated with sarcasm and a profound sense of fun. He is sharing his most important message of all, not to take it all too seriously, because in that direction lies misery.

That's why one of the most enduring, and sometimes infuriating, aspects of Limbaugh's radio persona is his insistence on a Reagan-like optimism. Many of the ditto-heads, far from echoing his pronouncements, try to penetrate that optimism with anecdotal evidence from the heartland of the myriad ways that American liberty and culture are in decline. He is unfazed by such sermons and seeks to reassure them that all is not lost. (The term ditto-head by the way arose from the amount of time wasted in the early years of his show by callers who couldn't make their point without first telling him how grateful they were that a conservative was finally on the air after generations of the liberal media monopoly. He asked them to stop this practice and simply say "ditto" instead.)

Nor is he mean. He is courteous to callers, and even when it becomes obvious that the angry person at the other end of the phone has lied to the screener in order to vilify him, he allows them to make their principal point, and he attempts to respond with reason or humor rather than hostility. He may hit the kill switch after an exchange or two, but usually he does so only after a caller has begun repeating himself -- the equivalent, on radio, of the dreaded 'dead air.'

Yes, he uses inflammatory terms and nicknames -- feminazis, the French-looking senator Kerry, etc -- but he conspicuously does not call even the most truculent callers names, and unlike many talk radio hosts he frequently returns good for ill, offering advice to those he believes misguided in their hostility. I recall an instance when, shortly after his revelations about drug abuse, a doctor called in to insist that Limbaugh's hearing loss was definitely caused by drug abuse and, further, that the cochlear implant would cease working, in fact had already begun to deteriorate, according to the doctor's diagnosis. It was an astonishingly vindictive performance, and Limbaugh did no more than mildly respond that the doctor's assertions were not true. It was not that he wasn't wounded; it was that he wasn't going to respond in kind.

All this may seem overlong, but it's a necessary foundation for what it is that the liberals really hate about Limbaugh. For it cannot be the case that none of them has ever listened to him. The secondhand convictions of those who don't listen are nevertheless important. These are the things liberals wish were true about him. And the extraordinary depth of their hatred arises from the fact that they're not true. They hate him for all the things he is not.

He is not a racist or race-baiter, which is not to say that he does not make fun of "The Reverend Jesse Jackson," but that his political terminology is not code for a return to segregation and white supremacy. When a man talks for three hours a day, five days a week, for a dozen years, it doesn't take a mindreader to determine whether he favors a law that is truly color-blind or a law that seeks to restore priivilege to the prejudiced. Limbaugh truly believes in the power of individuals of both sexes and all races and faiths to succeed by dint of hard work and ceaseless aspiration.

Limbaugh is not most of the things he is accused of being. He is not a ranter, but a talker. He takes remarkably few calls. It would be physically impossible for anyone to rant for three hours a day without relying on callers as targets of opportunity. The show's format simply doesn't allow for that. He is not particularly religious, either, as his more than occasional salty references make clear. He does not hate women. Men who keep marrying women may not have figured them out entirely, but they still seem to regard the opposite sex as worth the effort. He is not irrational. The general course of his show is a fairly spontaneously developed line of argumentation about the point at hand, interrupted by digressions but rarely derailed by them. He likes thinking. He likes hearing himself think out loud. And 20 million listeners like to hear him do it.

He is also not a coward. He is routinely dismissed as a chickenhawk, but there are many kinds of courage, and all of them are admirable. This is a man who endured what has to have been an inconceivable nightmare. Having worked his way to the top of his profession, the number one radio host in all the land, he continued to perform while the one sense most important to a career in radio, hearing, fled catastrophically away from him, leaving him at last in utter silence. Yes, he had the wherewithal for the expensive last resort that was available, but no one should kid himself that Limbaugh's cochlear implant is not a very imperfect and difficult prosthesis. He persevered through the deafness, through the operation that can restore voices but never music as you and I know it, and he never whined or even mentioned the irony of this particular loss to a man of his vocation. All that takes guts, even for a millionaire.

In sum, Limbaugh is not the vile kneejerk reactionary bigot that liberals would want a man with his following to be. Like the woman puzzling over her ditto-head psychiatrist, they cannot comprehend that the millions who listen to Limbaugh are not hateful ignorant fools. For the liberal vision of right and wrong to hold, the dittoheads must be troglodytes. And so must he. That it ain't so is the bitterest pill of all. With their usual convenient and solipsistic logic, liberals leap to the conclusion that they need populist troglodytes of their own to counter the imagined ogre they have created in Rush Limbaugh.

Thus, we have liberal justifications aplenty for the Frankens and Moores who are every bit as nasty, mean-spirited, and irrational as the Limbaugh they have invented to appease their superior egos. This is the only way in which a liberal like Edelstein can proudly plant a flag in the moral quicksand of "the ends justify the means."

Clusters of ideas. We should be done by now, right? But there is still hanging in the air that exorbitant rationalization at the end of Edelstein's defense of Michael Moore: "legitimate abuse of power."

We go reeling back to an earlier question. Why would Mr. Edelstein so conspicuously avoid mentioning the latest, most inflammatory charge against his bete-noire Limbaugh? Because he cannot dare to mention Abu Ghraib in this context, and he knows it. The first word that follows is "abuse," as the military-hating mainstream media has ensured, and no clever liberal is going to make the mistake of evoking "prisoner abuse" when he is arguing in a separate instance for "legitimate abuse of power."

Still, I am obliged to bring it up, because Mr. Edelstein and his fellow Moore apologists are in a box on this one, a box that discloses the true and complex nature of their self-professed "moral relativism."

Back to Limbaugh. He has been pilloried for comparing, however tongue in cheek, the Abu Ghraib abuses with hazing of the kind seen in college fraternities. This is considered outrageous, even though it does not amount to an argument for "legitimate abuse of power," but for understandable abuse of power. Limbaugh, we are supposed to believe, is trivializing crimes that can be allowed no circumstantial mitigation of any kind, because... why? Because liberals know better.

Note, too, that when Limbaugh is being attacked for his "hazing" remarks, the standard charge of "chickenhawk" is, for once, kept under wraps. Why is that? Because even though liberals are absurdly making the case these days that no one who has not served in combat -- including the President of the United States -- is qualified to have opinions or propose strategies involving military action, we are obliged to remember that morality is relative in the liberal universe, and so one does not have to have served in combat to deliver final judgment in advance of the facts on troops who have misbehaved in a combat environment. (If you're keeping track of the liberal physics involved here, observe that this is an absolute judgment wrapped inside a relative judgment, which makes it okay. Uh, somehow.)

Thus, Limbaugh, who would not normally be permitted to have an opinion about matters military, is in this case entitled to an opinion as long as it agrees with the correct opinion. (Of course, it's highly important that relativism be applied scrupulously and artfully in multiple aspects of the 'chickenhawk theorem,' because I'm sure liberals wouldn't like to defend the slam-dunk implication of the theorem that 99.9 percent of all women over the age of 40 should keep their damn mouths shut when it comes to matters military. Anyway, we digress...)

There is a further irony here, which is to say another contradiction hovering in the relativist atmosphere of the liberal universe. Was Limbaugh so wrong, after all, to bring up hazing as a point of comparison? The answer is no. In fact, the subject of hazing is so relevant that it might lead to the perverse conclusion that if the chickenhawk theorem ever applies, this might be its most plausible proof.

Those of us who have not served in combat units know little of the cultural meaning of hazing in a dangerous discipline. Civilian ignorance has caused this somewhat unsavory aspect of military life to become frankly controversial at intervals in the past. Does anyone remember the 1997 scandal involving the hazing of Marine paratroopers? It began with the broadcast on national television of this video. People were horrified to observe that the young Marines who had just qualified for their jump wings had those wings pinned literally to their chests by the unit's veterans. They saw brave young men screaming in pain during an apparently pointless hazing ritual. How could this have been allowed to become a marine tradition?

The top brass immediately leaped in to express their horror and outrage:

The top officer of the Marine Corps on Friday condemned hazing incidents in which young Marine graduates of a paratrooper school had their metal insignias pounded into their chests by fellow Marines.

"I am outraged that Marines would participate in such disgusting behavior," Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak said. "There is absolutely no excuse for this type of behavior."

But there were distinguished combat veterans who weren't hesitant to point out that some of this outrage was disingenuous and that civilians couldn't fully understand what they were condemning. Colonel David Hackworth, one of the most decorated soldiers in U.S. military history, wrote:

Last week, the media dropped more bombs on our proud Marine Corps then the Japanese did from Wake Island to Iwo Jima.

"Bad Marines," "Brutal Marines," "Beastly Marines," chanted the pancaked, blow-dried anchors of the Fourth Estate who'd glommed onto some old video tapes showing elite Marine Recon troopers having their golden jump wings pounded into their chests.

The politicians quickly joined the chorus of wailers. Secretary of Defense William Cohen said he was "disgusted" and "disturbed" and implied that heads would roll.

True, the TV footage was shocking. Like much hazing, the "wing initiation" had gone over the top.

Such behavior is impossible to defend, and now, because of the camera, that practice will come to a screeching halt.

But what if there had been video cameras at Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, Chosin reservoir, and Hue? I wonder if the shocking footage of these terrible blood baths would have put an end to war?

He avows his own hope that a day will come when there is no more war, and he informs us that all combat veterans feel the same way. Then:

But until war disappears, warriors such as our extraordinary Marine Recon men of the bloodied chests are needed. They are some of the toughest fighting men in the world. They've been forged and tempered in fire and are as hard as steel.

They're special men. Not stockbrokers, accountants and lawyers. They jump out of perfectly good airplanes, mainly at night, dropping behind enemy lines to slit throats and create instant carnage. They do brutal stuff in training because war is brutal, and they must be macho to survive.

In their heads, machismo makes them bulletproof, capable of doing the impossible. They believe they'll all come back from the mission standing tall, singing the Marine Corps Hymn and walking that swaggering, cocky walk that only a Marine who's looked death right in the eye without blinking can.

What worries me about this latest hazing scandal is the inevitable long range aftermath. Cohen's comment that he'll have "zero tolerance" concerning similar antics may end in further diluting the vitally needed macho warrior spirit.

Commanders, worried about their careers, may again overreact and further soften training standards -- which except in units such as Rangers, Green Berets, Force Recon, and SEALs are already soft as jello throughout the forces.

We now have the most safety-first, politically correct military force in American history. Which is jolly great for the War of the Rose Petals. But bad news for America when one day down the bloody track, our soldiers again bump up against fierce politically incorrect warriors and get their clocks cleaned as we did in the early stages of WW II and Korea and most recently in Somalia.

Can we at least infer that there are complicated issues involved? For the conservative, this means that there is a different hierarchy of absolute and relative. We see a relative wrapped inside an absolute. The absolute is that we depend on our military to serve bravely, effectively, and honorably. The relative is that we don't always know, nor do they, what the practical, or inevitable, tradeoffs might be between 'effective' and 'honorable.' For the liberal, the hierarchy is, of course, reversed. The umbrella relative is that we may or may not need our military, because if wishes were horses, liberals would ride the dove of peace through every crisis, however ridiculous a dove might look in a field of flak. The absolute is that the military we put in the field has to observe every single nicety of civilian life, including the participation of women where they don't belong and the maintenance of behavior standards that wouldn't embarrass a poetry reading at Sarah Lawrence College.

If you're a conservative, you might see in Hackworth's op-ed of seven years ago an unsettling forecast of the confused and diluted military discipline we have observed at Abu Ghraib -- let's pretend female soldiers laughingly humiliating "politically incorrect warriors," in between videotaped orgies in the post-Clinton army. Chances are, the malefactors did not undergo a hazing ritual quite like the one that became such a scandal in 1997. Maybe theirs was more like what was done to most of the Abu Ghraib prisoners -- a clownish psychosexual ordeal that dulled their sensitivities without teaching them the gravity of their duty. Is this good or bad? How are we, mere civilians, to know?

Perhaps by thinking about it more deeply than the TV wags with their raised eyebrows want us to. Five years prior to the Marine scandal, a liberal screenwriter -- father of the West Wing Aaron Sorkin -- penned a script called A Few Good Men. It was about a hazing incident that turned fatal. Those of you who are old enough will recall that 1992 was just prior to the compulsory left-right hatred that Democrats now blame on the vast right-wing conspiracy and Republicans blame on Clinton himself. Be that as it may, Sorkin's movie laid out a genuine dilemma that had to be decided, interestingly enough, by the military itself rather than a mob of omniscient anchormen and cable pundits. If you need a refresher, here's a trailer that does the usual masterly job of capturing the whole movie in a few minutes time.

The inescapable point of the movie was that despite the life and death matters involved, there is no such thing as a "legitimate abuse of power." A subsidiary point was that there is such a thing as an understandable abuse of power, which should leave all of us, liberals and conservatives, humble and careful in our judgments.

And if we now circle back to the beginning point in our cluster of ideas, can we really make the claim, or allow Edelstein to do it for us, that Michael Moore's dishonest and libelous film trickery is legitimate in any sense?

I grant this has not been a neat discussion, and our conclusions may be far from neat as well. But the real world is not neat, either. And sometimes it's valuable to grab the oranges and apples from the ground where they fall and force ourselves to tell one from the other.

Thank you for your patience.

Click on the image for the Shuteye Town 1999 version of the movie.

UPDATE -- Michael Moore has defenders and all this analysis is not done in a vacuum -- CLICK HERE to see the valiant defense being mounted on Mr. Moore's behalf by his little oysters (Get it? A food reference.).

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