News and Features
Corzine: You set the right context.
The Federal Communications Commission is presently conducting an inquiry--a "rulemaking"--to determine whether to relax, or even to eliminate, the remaining few regulations that limit how many me
The hoofprints of Lucifer are everywhere. And since this is America, eternally at war with the darker forces, the foremost Enemy Within is sex, no quarter given. Here are some bulletins from the battlefront, drawn from a smart essay on "Sex & Empire" in the March issue of The Guide (www.guidemag.com), a Boston-based monthly travel magazine that has "about the best gay sex politics around," according to Bill Dobbs of Queerwatch, whom I take as my adviser in these matters.
In February 2000, Matthew Limon, an 18-year-old, had oral sex with a 14-year-old schoolmate. A Kansas court sentenced him to seventeen years in prison, a sentence duly upheld by a federal court in February. Last July, an Ohio court sentenced 22-year-old Brian Dalton to seven years in prison because of sex fantasies he wrote in his diary. A woman teacher in Arizona faces 100 years in prison for having an affair with a 17-year-old boy. Frankly, I'd have risked two centuries in prison to have sex with Miss Hollister when I was in school.
Apropos the triumph of identity politics across the past thirty years, Bill Andriette, the author of "Sex & Empire," remarks that "the same PR machinery that produces all these feel-good identities naturally segues into manufacturing demonic ones--indeed, creates a demand for them. The ascription of demonic sexual identities onto people helps drive repression, from attacks on Internet freedom to sex-predator laws. Identity politics works gear-in-gear with a fetishization of children, because the young represent one class of persons free of identity, the last stand of unbranded humanity, precious and rare as virgin prairie."
This brings us into an Olympian quadruple axel of evil: sexually violent predators (familiarly known as SVPs), preying on minors of the same sex. There's no quarreling between prosecutor and judge, jury and governor, Supreme Court and shrinks. Lock 'em up and throw away the key.
The other day I listened to Marita Mayer, an attorney in the public defender's office in California's Contra Costa County, describe the desolate business of trying to save her clients, SVPs, from indeterminate confinement in Atascadero, the state's prime mental bin.
Among Mayer's clients are men who pleaded guilty to sex crimes in the mid-1980s, mostly rape of an adult woman, getting a fixed term of anywhere from ten to fifteen years. In the old days, if you worked and behaved yourself, you'd be up for parole after serving half the sentence.
In California, as in many other states, SVP laws kicked in in the mid-1990s, crest of the repressive wave provoked by hysteria over child sex abuse and crime generally: mandatory minimum sentences, erosion of the right to confront witnesses, community notification of released sex offenders, surgical and chemical castration, prohibition of mere possession of certain printed materials, this last an indignity previously only accorded atomic energy secrets.
So California passes its SVP law in January of 1996, decreeing that those falling into the category of SVP have a sickness that requires treatment and cannot be freed until a jury agrees unanimously that they are no longer a danger to the community. (The adjudicators vary from state to state. Sometimes it's a jury, or merely a majority of jurors, sometimes a judge, sometimes a panel, sometimes a "multidisciplinary team.")
Mayer's clients, serving out their years in Pelican Bay or Vacaville or San Quentin, counting the months down to parole date, suddenly find themselves back in jail in Contra Costa County, told they've got a mental disorder and can't be released till a jury decides they're no danger to the community. Off to Atascadero they go for a two-year term, at the end of which they get a hearing, and almost always another two-year term.
"Many of them refuse treatment," Mayer says. "They refuse to sign a piece of paper saying they have a mental disease." Of course they do. Why sign a document saying that for all practical purposes you may well be beyond reform or redemption, that you are Evil by nature, not just a guy who did something bad and paid the penalty?
It's the AA model of boozing as sin, having to say you are an alcoholic and will always be in that condition, one lurch away from perdition. Soon everything begins to hinge on someone's assessment of your state of mind, your future intentions. As with the damnable liberal obsession with hate-crimes laws, it's a nosedive into the category of "thought crimes."
There the SVPs are in Atascadero, surrounded by psych techs eager to test all kinds of statistical and behavioral models, along with phallometric devices designed to assist in the persuasion of judge and jury that, yes, the prisoner has a more than 50 percent likelihood of exercising his criminal sexual impulses, should he be released.
Thus, by the circuitous route of "civil commitment" (confining people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others), we have ended up with a situation that from the constitutional point of view, is indeed absolutely Evil: people held in preventive detention or being locked up twice for the same crime.
"It's using psychiatry, like religion, to put people away," Mayer concludes. "Why not hire an astrologer or a goat-entrail reader to predict what the person might do? Why not the same for robbers as for rapists? What's happening is double jeopardy. People don't care about child rapists, but the Constitution is about protections. How do I feel about these guys? When I talk to my clients I don't presume to think what they'll do in the future. I believe in redemption. I don't look at them as sexually violent predators, I see them as sad sacks. They have to register; they could be hounded from county to county; even for a tiny crime they'll be put away. Their lives are in ruin. I pity them."
But not goat entrails, surely. The animal rights crowd would never stand for it.
The divergence in British and US views on the Middle East has become acute.
Pat Buchanan surely holds the record for the greatest impact on a presidential election with the fewest votes. With less than 0.43 percent of the tally nationally, he still managed to decide the 2000 election. But for the thousands of votes mistakenly cast for Buchanan in Palm Beach because of the infamously confusing "butterfly" ballot, Al Gore would be President today and George W. Bush would be the Republican Michael Dukakis.
Buchanan's pernicious influence, however, did not end with the 2000 election. He's now picking up where he left off with his infamous "cultural war" speech to the 1992 Republican convention, a speech, as Molly Ivins quipped, that "sounded better in the original German." Well, Buchanan's been translating from Deutsch again, this time with The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization, his new book. The Death of the West harks back to the xenophobic jeremiads of the early twentieth century, such as Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race, Lothrop Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color, Houston Stewart Chamberlain's The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century and Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West.
Indeed, enterprising journalists and historians looking to expose the next Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin should consider comparing Buchanan's book side by side with these others. In addition to revising Spengler's title, Buchanan shares Stoddard's love of watery metaphors--both books gush with rising tides, surging oceans and flooding rivers of nonwhites, all of which push inexorably against the ever more precarious dams and dikes around the white world. The two authors also share a predilection for quoting Rudyard Kipling, the poet laureate of the "white man's burden."
Each of these earlier books shares the same simple theme: It's Us against Them, and with fewer and fewer of Us and more and more of Them, things look grim for Us. Buchanan readily accepts the "demography is destiny" argument: "As a growing population has long been a mark of healthy nations and rising civilizations, falling populations have been a sign of nations and civilizations in decline." Buchanan's data clearly put the West into the latter category. "In 1960, people of European ancestry were one-fourth of the world's population; in 2000, they were one-sixth, in 2050, they will be one-tenth. These are the statistics of a vanishing race."
And who's responsible for this disappearance? For Buchanan, women bear most of the blame. Liberated by technological and cultural changes, he argues, Western women have abandoned their true calling as designated racial breeders. "Only the mass reconversion of Western women to an idea that they seem to have given up--that the good life lies in bearing and raising children and sending them out into the world to continue the family and nation--can prevent the Death of the West."
Faced with declining birthrates, the only alternative available to Western nations if they wish to maintain themselves is massive immigration from the burgeoning populations of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. But for Buchanan, this medicine is worse than the disease, since immigration on this scale entails the introduction of too many nonwhite non-Christians. Regarding Europe, he writes: "And as the millions pour into Europe from North Africa and the Middle East, they will bring their Arab and Islamic culture, traditions, loyalties, and faith, and create replicas of their homelands in the heartland of the West. Will they assimilate, or will they endure as indigestible parts of Africa and Arabia in the base camp of what was once Christendom?" Clearly he thinks the latter. The United States faces a similar danger, he warns: "Uncontrolled immigration threatens to deconstruct the nation we grew up in and convert America into a conglomeration of peoples with almost nothing in common--not history, heroes, language, culture, faith, or ancestors. Balkanization beckons."
Buchanan must know that many have rung this tocsin before him, and each time it has been a false alarm. The West's population has probably declined relative to the rest of the world ever since the Western world defined itself as such. For example, when Stoddard wrote in 1922, he sounded the alarm because Western nations had declined to only one-third of the world's population. By 1960, as Buchanan points out, the Western share of the world's population had fallen to one-fourth. Despite this relative decline in population, he considers 1960 as the height of Western power and influence. Furthermore, most evidence suggests that Western nations are at least as powerful now as in 1960, even with the decline in population.
Buchanan's warnings about the United States ring just as hollow. Of the 30 million foreign-born residents, he claims, "Even the Great Wave of immigration from 1890 to 1920 was nothing like this." He's right--that wave surpassed the current one. Today, foreign-born residents make up about 11 percent of the US population, but from the 1870s to the 1920s, that number fluctuated between 13 percent and 15 percent.
Buchanan, however, also argues that today's immigrants are fundamentally different from earlier generations of newcomers; but again, there's no evidence for this. America was hardly more familiar to a Southern Italian peasant who came to New York City in 1900 than it is to an immigrant today from Nigeria or the Philippines. If anything, the spread of global markets and American popular culture has made recent immigrants more attuned to the ways of their new home than their predecessors of a century ago. Furthermore, the bulk of contemporary immigrants come from Latin America, and thus possess the Christian faith that Buchanan views as central to any definition of America. Indeed, the vast majority of Latin American immigrants share Buchanan's Catholicism. Nonetheless, these immigrants "not only come from another culture, but millions are of another race," making it difficult if not impossible for them to assimilate into US society. While Buchanan might consider Latinos as his brothers in Christ, he draws the line at having them as neighbors or fellow citizens.
September 11, Buchanan argues, painfully exposed the threat from contemporary immigrants: "Suddenly, we awoke to the realization that among our millions of foreign-born, a third are here illegally, tens of thousands are loyal to regimes with which we could be at war, and some are trained terrorists sent here to murder Americans." But the past is full of similar warnings about the enemy within. During World War II, anti-Japanese prejudices combined with national security concerns to result in the internment of thousands of US citizens. During World War I, "unhyphenated" Americans saw German-Americans as the Kaiser's minions, engaging in sedition and sabotage to aid the cause of the Fatherland. Yet as these instances demonstrate, the real threat, then as now, existed largely in fevered nativist minds.
This selective and myopic view of American nativism runs throughout The Death of the West. On the one hand, Buchanan refers to nativist statements by such people as Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge to support his assertion that concerns over immigration are not un-American. On the other hand, while he is correct that nativism has always been one of America's multiple political traditions, Buchanan has nary a mention of how pervasive, inaccurate and pernicious such sentiments have been. Of the Know-Nothings, he knows nothing. He quotes Al Smith, the first Catholic nominated for the presidency by a major party, but includes no mention that anti-Catholic prejudices made a major contribution to his landslide defeat in the 1928 election, as he was vigorously opposed by Protestant leaders and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. (After the election, the joke went, Smith sent a one-word telegram to the Pope: "Unpack.") To Buchanan, it seems, anti-Catholic sentiment is a recent development and limited to left-wing intellectuals. Overall, he chooses to ignore the fact that nearly every immigrant to this country confronted nativists who argued that their race, religion, ethnicity or culture made them unfit to become full American citizens. Furthermore, if these previous nativists had had their way, they would have excluded the ancestors of most current American citizens, including Buchanan's.
Buchanan recognizes that he's in a minefield with this subject, and he makes some efforts to tread lightly. To rebut accusations that he's an anti-Semite, he sheds crocodile tears over the danger to Israel from a growing Arab population and occasionally (but not consistently) refers to America's Judeo-Christian values. But like Dr. Strangelove's hand, Buchanan's anti-Semitism refuses to stay under control. As examples of conservative leaders who have failed to fight the culture wars with sufficient zeal, he singles out Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Norman Podhoretz. One might well ask why these three when one could level similar charges against Jack Kemp, Bob Dole, John McCain and even George W. Bush.
By the end of the book Buchanan has dropped all pretenses, declaring America to be a Christian nation. His racism is equally apparent. For example, in addition to warning that many current immigrants are of a different--that is, nonwhite--race, he includes a lengthy discussion of black crime rates. Given that most blacks can trace their American ancestry back further than most white Americans, it's clear that Buchanan defines America not by "history, heroes, language, culture, faith, or ancestors" but by race.
If Buchanan's diagnosis of the problem is objectionable, his solution is even worse. For him, democracy, a shared culture and even a common race offer no defense against the West's impending doom. Rather, he argues, "If the West expects a long life, it had best recapture the fighting faith of its youth." And what were these youthful characteristics? "Protestant monarchs and Catholic kings alike did not flinch at burning heretics or drawing and quartering them at the Tyburn tree. The Christianity that conquered the world was not a milquetoast faith, and the custodians of that faith did not believe all religions were equal. One was true; all the rest were false." To believe otherwise invites disaster, "For it is in the nature of things that nations and religions rule or are ruled."
Buchanan's right-wing nativism is nothing new, so it might be tempting to dismiss him and his book as inconsequential. After all, didn't the 2000 election prove that Buchanan had only marginal electoral support and that even the Republican Party considers his views too extreme? But votes don't always measure influence, and The Death of the West has clearly struck a responsive chord. Not only does it stand near the top of the New York Times bestseller list, but its author remains a prominent fixture on the TV talk-show circuit. Indeed, it's interesting to contrast the reception of The Death of the West with that of Buchanan's previous book, A Republic, Not an Empire. The latter set off a firestorm of criticism, especially among Republicans and conservatives, when Buchanan argued that Hitler had not threatened the United States. If anything, The Death of the West is even worse, since Buchanan moves beyond minimizing the danger of Hitler to the open espousal of many of his doctrines. Yet this time around, the conservative commentators have not been nearly as critical. Then, of course, Buchanan was in the middle of bolting the GOP, potentially splitting the conservative vote and throwing the election to the Democrats. None of this came to pass, with Buchanan even helping Bush to win Florida. But the lesson seems clear: Conservatives are more than willing to tolerate Buchanan's racism and xenophobia, so long as he doesn't pose a direct threat to their political interests.
Even more disturbing than Buchanan's kid-gloves treatment by the media and the right is that the book's popularity stems from and seems likely to reinforce the upsurge in nativist sentiments after September 11. For many Americans, those tragic events gave even more reason to see the world in manichean terms and to divide Americans along lines of race, religion and ethnicity. Consequently, relatively open immigration policies came under attack. In Congress, a House caucus devoted to immigration restriction doubled in membership after September 11. Representative James Traficant, Democrat of Ohio, spoke for many of those members when he asked, "How do you defend your home if your front and back doors are unlocked? What do we stand for if we can't secure our borders? How many more Americans will die?... If 300,000 illegal immigrants can gain access to America every year, trying to find a better life, do not doubt for one moment that a larger contingent of people with evil intentions could gain entry into America and continue to kill American citizens."
Thankfully, such sentiments have not gained much headway in the ensuing months. Although the Bush Administration has backed off its proposal for granting amnesty to illegal immigrants from Mexico, it has shown few signs of embracing significant immigration restrictions in response to September 11 and has even agreed to restore food-stamp eligibility to legal immigrants. In Congress, immigration opponents have failed even to gain a formal hearing for their proposals. Yet the popularity of The Death of the West shows that nativist attitudes have not disappeared, and Buchanan's diatribe will undoubtedly help reinforce such views. Furthermore, both opponents and supporters of open immigration recognize that another incident of terrorism is perhaps all that is needed to turn The Death of the West from polemic to policy.
A historian questions whether he led a slave revolt, but his heroism still stands.
Some magazines have an identity problem, and some don't. The New York Review of Books doesn't, as you may have noticed. It's relentlessly highbrow, which is how we like it. For the most part. But every once in a while, a little bit of pop culture creeps in, hooray, and then the editors do their best to hide it. In the February 14 issue, for example, there's an ebullient review of Stephen King's Dreamcatcher, among a million other of his books, by the always bubbling and boiling John Leonard. But the cover gives no hint that this amusement lurks within. Instead, it plugs yet another review of yet another book on Anthony Blunt (Blunt and Kim Philby are to NYRB what the Beatles are to Rolling Stone: no issue complete without at least one mention, even if it has to be in the personals); a searing legal indictment of Bush's military tribunal "concept" by Aryeh Neier, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch; and, smack in the center, a piece by John Updike on Gustav Klimt in New York, the exhibit at the new Neue Galerie on Museum Row in New York.
Updike's review is fine, but it gives me the feeling, again, that there are two sides to the man: Updike the great writer, and Updike the whiny curmudgeon who hangs out in New York, goes on taxing trips to China and believes he heard the twin towers "tinkle" to the ground from his vantage point in Brooklyn. Thus the Klimt review begins with a litany of complaints about traffic flow at the museum and the placement of the bookstore and gift shop on the ground floor (where else would they be?), with the brave Updike thrusting forward like a great beaky bird through the plebes. "As stated," he writes, "the café, with windows on Fifth Avenue, was thriving; in my haste to get to the art I missed the bookstore and 'design shop.'"
I'm glad the King review is there as a counterweight to the difficult walk amid the gifts and the latte drinkers and the Austrian furnishings, but it shouldn't be a secret kept from newsstand buyers. Leonard's encompassing review includes the funny and instructive story of King buying a table at the National Book Awards for himself and John Grisham (among others), who will never be invited or granted such a prize by what Leonard, borrowing a fine word from King, calls "those shit-weasels, the anal-retentive literary establishment." Not at the table, and not on the cover.
I've always been a coward, and the events of September 11 have not alleviated the problem. I own: one roll of duct tape, a medium-sized Leatherman tool, a small flashlight, seven surgical masks, a box of latex gloves, many cans of beans and a box of Carnation evaporated milk, all bought in the aftermath of that day. I admit it's not total coverage. But then, I am not much of a survivalist. Five months after the attacks, I went through some of the post-9/11 magazines, and I now know why survivalism is not for me. A person who depends on one box of Carnation (which, I have learned from my reading, lasts only six months) should not go on living on an earth that will be filled with post-Armageddon survivalists. We could not be friends. They call knives "edged weapons."
Of course, all the survivalist and mercenary magazines are pro-gun, and they seem to think that having a gun will somehow help you in the next new world. In Terrorism Survival Guide's second issue, an article about choosing the right firearm tells families that "self defense has reached a level in this era of murderous terrorism that to be unarmed is equivalent to surrendering to ruthless evil." It's hard to imagine how a handgun would help as a skyscraper flattens to the ground, but I suppose the civil unrest that might follow could justify it. (And I did like the look and name of that Black Widow .22 Magnum, which weighs in at just over 6 ounces and is only 5 inches long and would fit quite snugly next to my Leatherman and flashlight.) As ever, Soldier of Fortune is the most interesting of the wacko military mags. Like Aryeh Neier--to whom you can safely say its writers are not too often compared--it abhors Bush's military tribunals, and its March issue contains a semi-thought-provoking piece on Johnny Michael Spann and Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, with most of the ideas and attitudes taken from Seymour Hersh's piece on Tenet in The New Yorker last fall. Hersh and SOF: another unusual team. But then again: The World Has Changed. You can tell it has, because in the photo of a young girl and her Barbie doll in Terrorism Survival Guide's article "What Do We Tell Our Kids?", the girl is wearing a supermodern protective plastic helmet, and Barbie has on a pink tank top, lace skirt and gas mask.
Heebs and the Rest of Us
There's a new niche magazine: Heeb, the New Jew Review. Intended to stir up controversy, this sparky and slightly inane newcomer will reignite the old, old controversy over what it means to be Jewish. If it means skateboarding and deejaying and graffiti-writing, I've blown it completely. But there are some great things in here, too: a wrong-minded but amusing meditation on the use of Jews in The Simpsons; a lovely homoerotic paean to Allen Ginsberg, with a moving photo of the great one in his bathrobe, cooking; a twisted essay on Pizza Hut's new Twisted Crust pie, which the writer insists is a reference to the swastika (Hakenkreuz, in German, or twisted cross); someone's old bubbe reviewing the latest pop music ("Oh, I love that beat!"). Heeb takes only a minor interest in the major crisis facing Jews today--there's a short bit (in a department called Underground Oslo) on the Old City Peace Vigil, a small interfaith group that is bravely keeping up a protest in the shadow of the Western Wall. Everything in this eye-catching magazine is irreverent, but only a teaspoonful is important. Still, it's a rare pleasure to see my people not take themselves too seriously. Oh, and it has a centerfold of Neil Diamond. Not nude, but the mutton chops are swell; he's like a luscious pinup from another lifetime.
In my last column, I called the expansion of profiling that has occurred since September 11 "equal opportunity." I meant it ironically, but a surprising number of people took me literally. So I want to make clear that I don't consider this upgraded frisking any kind of opportunity, nor do I think that its expansion is really the same as equality. I am also aware, as was pointed out to me, that there are people in the world who might appreciate a good cavity search, confident that this is all for their benefit. And while I understand that we have all become subject to "nothing more than" the same ministrations that visitors to maximum security prisoners go through, the fact that some think this is the best of all possible worlds strikes me as fatuous.
The billions of dollars currently being pumped into police and surveillance budgets represent an unprecedented investment in a heavily patrolled world. Such an extraordinary buildup will inevitably exacerbate questions about the limits of state force; it will require the greatest vigilance to prevent our turning into not just a police state but one big global military base. Specific categories of us will probably continue to bear a special burden--black women in airports are, according to some figures, searched more than anyone else because I, as Typical Black Everywoman, meet the description of a drug courier better than you--as in You, profiled Nation reader and Typical Ungendered White Person.
Blacks and Latinos are the profiled shape of the "war on drugs," even though the majority of actual drug abusers are young white people like Governor Jeb Bush's poor daughter, Noelle. The "war on terror" promises to be even more sweeping. For the time being, our new international, militarized police force has increased its scrutiny, from black women in airports and black men in cars, to include Middle Eastern men anywhere, Asian people who look vaguely Filipino, as well as ample Minnesota housewives actually armed with sets of silver fondue forks.
Is this better or worse? I think it's a misuse of data, often creating a false sense of security. The kind of profiling that seems to inform the majority of stops and searches is usually based on statistical relations so vague as to be useless. Such profiling, premised on diffuse probabilities about looks and dress, ethnicity or nationality, class or educational status, begs for more analysis. Otherwise it can be defeated on the one hand by guards and gatekeepers whose interpretation of looks or class status is skewed by selective and subjective prejudice and on the other hand by travelers committed to the art of disguise.
The attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were carried out by deeply rational and well-trained operatives whose tactics defied easy profiling. They looked--and were--well educated; they dressed professionally. The fact that the FBI actually had information that some of them had been involved in terrorist networks counted less in the real world than that they looked good. After all, it is true that in a very large sense sleek, well-dressed professionals commit fewer crimes than the hungry, grumpy lower classes. I have this painful recurring dream of the security guards at Logan on September 11, carelessly waving all eighteen men through, while strip searching long lines of black women having bad hair days.
I worry that we're doing the same thing with shoes: Richard Reid was able to board an airplane because he played against the expectation embedded in profiles. He looked odd enough to have been stopped and questioned, but ultimately looks had little to do with what made him dangerous. Although they were suspicious, security officials did not discover his criminal record, surely better evidence of his propensities than whether he wore a ponytail. He was finally allowed on board; he was a British citizen, and British citizens were not the subject of any profile. They searched his bag but not his shoes, because shoes were not at that point the subject of any profile. Now that we know thick-soled sneakers can be turned into weapons of mass destruction, airports spend a lot of time removing and examining them. It's likely to catch copycats, I suppose, which is not a problem to be ignored, but does anyone really believe that Al Qaeda would use shoes again? In other words, while there is, after Richard Reid, a marginal relation between shoes and bombs, the actual odds of it ever happening precisely like that again are slim to nonexistent. Indeed, what distinguishes professional operatives who calculatedly sow terror is that they take the time to play against type.
So I worry when I hear about plans to expand profiling as we now seem to practice it. I worry when I hear about plans to have our thumb prints taken, our irises scanned, our DNA plotted. How can we be putting all this work into appearances when appearances bear no necessary relation to intent? The risk of this is not just one of diminished dignity or privacy. The problem ought to have been made clear to us in the wake of "accidents" like Amadou Diallo. The problem ought to be apparent in recent news stories about the CIA having flown an unmanned surveillance craft over a street in Afghanistan. It had a night vision camera on it that caught in its scope a group of men conversing who fit a profile because one of their number was unusually tall, as is Osama bin Laden. After some consultation at the remote site where the CIA officers and their telemonitors were located, the CIA decided to bomb the group. The men were killed, but as of this writing, the CIA admits it still doesn't know who the men were. Civilians on the ground claimed that the men were townspeople scavenging for scrap metal.
This death by actuary. This profiled guilt. This trial by night vision drone. Our superlative technology permits us to listen, scan, survey and X-ray anybody and everybody in the world. But a sea of data alone won't help us if there is no higher wisdom in the final analysis. Good "intelligence" means more than eyes and ears--there must be a heart and a brain, or we will never achieve the global stability we all so desperately desire.
The McLaughlin Group is about to "celebrate" its twentieth anniversary. We might as well "celebrate" the discovery of anthrax.
The show flatters itself--and its corporate sponsor, GE--that it is providing some kind of public service. It's even offered on PBS in many cities, and its website features such faux educational trappings as classroom guides and discussion-group questions, along with $50 golf shirts. And while ratings have dropped steadily and precipitously for the past seven years, that is due largely to the fact that it has very nearly taken over our media world. Entire cable networks are devoted to its ethos, and even the old reliables of respectable political discourse--like NBC's Meet the Press and CBS's Face the Nation--are dancing to its dissonant tune. Before McLaughlin, public affairs television programs were often dry and pompous, but with the exception of the painfully pompous Agronsky and Company, they were devoted to the proposition that reporters--like everyone else--should appear on news programs only when they've learned something of value of which most people are unaware (hence the word reporter). The McLaughlin Group transformed this essential qualification from specialized knowledge to salable shtick. Not only television but journalism itself has never recovered.
As evidence of how little education, expertise or good, old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting matters in this universe, consider McLaughlin himself. Before building his television empire, he earned his fame as a Jesuit sex lecturer. He ran a hapless Senate race in 1970 in Rhode Island as a McGovernite Republican--yes, you read that right--but still managed, with Patrick Buchanan's assistance, to land a job in the Nixon White House. There, in priestly garb, he defended the Unindicted Co-Conspirator as "a moral man, thirsting for truth." Nine days before Nixon's resignation, McLaughlin predicted that Watergate would soon be viewed as a "mere footnote to a glorious administration."
Aside from talk-radio and religious writings, McLaughlin's most significant brush with journalism was a brief stint as Washington editor of National Review, where he would sign his own name to the work of the NR's interns and research assistants. But the show turned him into a superstar in Reagan's Washington. He bullied and humiliated fellow panelists and terrorized his young staff members, at least three of whom felt themselves to be victims of his sexual harassment. According to the court documents of the lawsuit Linda Dean filed against him, McLaughlin told her that he "needed a lot of sex" and "would take care of every material desire" she had, as he fondled her "intimately and against her will." Dean was fired, but her lawsuit resulted in a private settlement. (I guess this would be as good a place as any to plug the second edition of my book Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy from Cornell University Press.)
The genuine journalists whom McLaughlin casts as foils on his show tended to hate his guts but could not walk away from the unmatched buck-raking opportunities it spawned. While McLaughlin appearances paid a pittance, they came with invitations from corporate sponsors to recreate the show at conventions for five figures a pop. Mediocrities like Morton ("Ronald Reagan is a kind of magic totem against the cold future") Kondracke and Fred ("I can speak to almost anything with a lot of authority") Barnes quickly developed celebrity cults. The more ambitious among them--like Kondracke, Barnes, Robert Novak and Chris Matthews--eventually used their newfound status to jump-start their own carnival-barking careers on rival networks. The warhorse Jack Germond stuck it out for fifteen years, at considerable cost to his self-respect as an honest reporter but considerable benefit to his income. (When Germond learned that the program would be distributed internationally, he replied that the panelists could now rejoice in "dumbing down the world." McLaughlin promptly benched him.)
In addition to debasing the culture of journalism, the McLaughlin monster also aided its corporate sponsors and conservative friends in shifting the foundation of political debate into the heartland of Reagan country--where it remains to this day. The group set up a center of gravity in which two right-wing ideologues, Buchanan and Novak, were "balanced" by the wishy-washy neoconservatism of Kondracke and the bourbon-laced, no-nonsense nonpartisanship of Germond--a down-the-line reporter with no political axes (or axises) to grind. McLaughlin acted--and I do mean "acted"--as referee. The net result was to bestow respectability on views that had only recently been the exclusive property of the caveman right and to marginalize liberalism beyond "responsible" debate.
The group's ideological legacy is hardly less significant than its deleterious impact on the civility of our discourse. I wonder how valuable it was, on a scale of one to ten, to George W. Bush in the late fall of 2000 to have a conservative punditocracy parroting James Baker's arguments before his case reached the Reagan/Bush-packed Supreme Court. And I wish I could predict whether Bush would have been able to shift the budget debate away from his showering trillions in tax breaks on the wealthy toward the alleged trade-offs between money for the war on terrorism versus that for health, education and the environment, without the spawn of the McLaughlinites marching in lockstep--like a parade of Stepford Wives--to the drumbeat of the Republican right wing. The ultimate public service of The McLaughlin Group has been to make it nearly impossible for anyone to speak to public issues on television except to repeat the most banal, and frequently conservative, clichés--albeit accompanied by snappy and self-serving wisecracks. Why not genuinely honor this signal achievement on its anniversary and start making calls to PBS and its local affiliates demanding that they stop wasting our precious contributions and tax dollars to broadcast it? Will it work? No predictions, there, I'm afraid, given the size of GE's sponsorship. But I promise you'll feel better about yourself.
Facebook Like Box