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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
But bad news for America when one day down the bloody track, our
again bump up against fierce politically incorrect warriors and get
clocks cleaned as we did in the early stages of WW II and Korea and
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
that does the usual masterly job of capturing the whole movie in a few
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.
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.).