Monday, December 06, 2004

Tar and Feathers

At first David Horowitz's A Look at Al Franken’s Liberalism, Fair and Balanced had a kind of grim slapstick about it. Horowitz was struck by the ease with which Al Franken could characterize anyone who offended him as being a "racist" with impunity and wondered whether liberals had an unlimited license to tar and feather. Horowitz had been on the Sean Hannity show discussing former President Clinton's on-then-off attempts to assassinate Osama Bin Laden. Some time later, a reader pointed out how Franken in his book Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them characterized the Horowitz and Hannity interview.

"The fact that Osama isn't actually a foreign head of state and that Clinton issued his presidential directive to assassinate him didn't stop Hannity from writing in his book about a February 2001 episode of Hannity & Colmes on the topic. Guest racist David Horowitz is quoted as saying: ‘We can protect ourselves from terrorist threats like Osama bin Laden. It would be nice if the CIA were able to assassinate him.’”

Horowitz's first reaction was to point out his civil rights movement credentials, which despite being entirely factual, had a strange pathos to it.

As it happens I marched in my first civil rights protest in 1948 before Al Franken was born. For more than fifty years I have supported minorities and defended their civil rights in public word and deed, and raised millions of dollars to help inner city minorities whom racism has scarred. In fact there is no single cause – except America’s wars against totalitarian foes – to which I have devoted myself more consistently that than that of racial equality. Not a shred of evidence exists to the contrary. I have written more than a million words on racial and political matters -- all of them public record. There is not a single sentence, or phrase, or comment of mine that could be cited to justify Franken’s attack.

His next effort was to pay Franken back in his own coin by putting his likeness on the cover of with the caption 'Al Franken,: Racist.' Yet the source of Franken's unlimited powers of vilification remained a mystery to me until a Belmont Club reader pointed out Robert Kaplan's magnificent essay The Media and Medievalism. Kaplan had been struck by Elias Canetti's observations in Crowds and Power, his study of the rise of oppression in interwar Europe. Canetti thought that the real tools of totalitarians were not simple brutality but "the right to question and to demand answers, the right to judge and condemn, and the right to pardon and show mercy." And it these precise powers that, with the fall of the Communist International, Kaplan believes the modern media has arrogated unto itself.

While quite a few regimes, particularly in the Middle East, employ that secrecy and brutality invoked by Canetti as their ordinary means of control, he is far more interesting when he writes about the power to question and to demand answers, to judge and condemn, to react swiftly, and to forgive. After all, secrecy and brutality are so obviously elements of control that they require little explanation. But listen to him on another element:

'All questioning is a forcible intrusion. ... The questioner knows what there is to find, but he wants actually to touch it and bring it to light. He sets to work with the sureness of a surgeon, one who ... stimulates pain. ... The situation is most dangerous for the person questioned when short, concise answers are demanded ...'

Kaplan well understands that the right to question, judge and condemn are commonly regarded as virtues. But he also knows that all modern tyrants appear on the world stage in the garb of saviors.

To the extent that the left is still vibrant, I am suggesting that it has mutated into something else. If what used to be known as the Communist International has any rough contemporary equivalent, it is the global media. The global media’s demand for peace and justice, which flows subliminally like an intravenous solution through its reporting, is — much like the Communist International’s rousing demand for workers’ rights — moralistic rather than moral. Peace and justice are such general and self-evident principles that it is enough merely to invoke them. Any and all toxic substances can flourish within them, or manipulate them, provided that the proper rhetoric is adopted. For moralizers these principles are a question of manners, not of substance. To wit, Kofi Annan can never be wrong. ...

It took a generation for President Gerald Ford to be respected for pardoning Richard Nixon -- an act that helped secure domestic peace even as it may have cost Ford an election. Indeed, not only has Ford himself been pardoned by the media, but so, too, it now appears, have presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush the elder: two men whom the media were accustomed to savage. Who knows, armed with an acquittal by the media, it may not be long before Bush the elder or even Ford start appearing on historians’ lists as minor great presidents. As Canetti would know: To judge and condemn, and then to pardon, well, that is true power!

Yet this power to demand answers is a strangely negative one; it carries with it no obligation to provide them in turn. Kaplan notes that "People on the left rarely write books about leadership and taking charge: That is the domain of business and military types." It is simply their business to criticize. Franken did not have to suggest any practical means to combat mass terror. It was entirely sufficient for him to label anyone who advocated assassinating Osama Bin Laden a "guest racist". Of explanations there need be none.

... some of our most prestigious correspondents have occasionally remarked that the only favoritism they harbor is toward the weak or toward the victims in any crisis ... Because the media confuse victimization with moral right, American troops in Iraq have had occasionally to contend with unsympathetic news coverage, which in an age of mass media has concrete tactical and strategic consequences. Last spring, I accompanied the first United States Marines into Fallujah. After several days of intense fighting, the Marines -- reinforced with a fresh new battalion -- appeared on the verge of defeating the insurgents. A cease-fire was called, though, snatching defeat from victory. No matter how cleanly the Marines fought, it was not clean enough for the global media, famously including Al-Jazeera, which portrayed as indiscriminate killing what in previous eras of war would have constituted a low civilian casualty rate. The fact that mosques were blatantly used by insurgents as command posts for aggressive military operations mattered less to journalists than that some of these mosques were targeted by U.S. planes. Had the fighting continued, the political fallout from such coverage would have forced the newly emerging Iraqi authorities to resign en masse. So American officials had no choice but to undermine their own increasingly favorable battlefield position by consenting to a cease-fire ... -- the Marines were defeated less by the insurgents than by the way urban combat is covered by a global media that has embraced the cult of victimhood.

Horowitz should account himself lucky. Marines have paid Franken's piper with their lives and have no magazine on which to emblazon his picture. In the hierarchy of the blameless a "guest racist" stands far higher than the baby-killing executioner of innocent civilians in mosques. I would not count too much on his impressing Al Franken with his civil rights credentials. Men who will malign those who would die for them are unlikely to be impressed by any civil rights record. They are too perfect and powerful to care.