Politics & Policy

Safire’s Courage

It's not all that.

I know I am repeating myself but, then again, so is Bill Safire.

There is nothing — nothing — inherently virtuous, honorable, correct, wise, or laudatory about being a contrarian, a dissident, a maverick. Yeah, I know, in America we like rugged individualists who play by their own rules and all that. It’s become a keystone cliché of our culture to praise those who “break from the herd” because they have the “courage of their convictions.”

But look: If I declare that murder is good, torture is great, arsenic is harmless, and Mario Van Peebles is a gifted actor, yes, I am breaking with conventional opinion. But I’m also being an idiot. If I declare that I have the holy grail in my pants, can bake 12-minute brownies in 4 minutes, eat kittens because vests have no sleeves, and that aardvarks tend to split their infinitives, I may well be a brave dissenter from bourgeois norms, but I’m certainly a jabbering lunatic.

I’m on a tight deadline for the magazine, so I will get to the point. Any morality or virtue which redounds to the nonconformists in our midst must be tied to what it is they aren’t conforming to — and why they aren’t conforming. Dissent is a morally neutral word. As anyone who’s been heckled by a college audience knows, dissent and ground-thumping stupidity are hardly strangers (of course, conformity and stupidity have shacked up with each other more than once, too).

In fact, disagreeing for disagreement’s sake — simply to hear one’s own voice, or to hinder productive debate — is often an essential ingredient of asininity.

Bill Safire’s Dissent

Today we have a case in point. William Safire once again extols the fact that he makes arguments because he is a “contrarian.” This time he rehashes his hysterical accusation that President Bush seized “dictatorial powers” by authorizing the use of military tribunals — but neglects to mention that U.S. presidents have held these powers for over two centuries. (To see my original beef with that column, click here.) Apparently Safire got a lot of grief for that column, so today he tries to explain himself. And what a strange explanation it is. He seems to be saying that he offered the criticism because no one on the Left would. “Most liberal politicians dove under their desks for fear of seeming soft on terror. Not a peep out of Sen. Hillary Clinton; nothing but a wimpish waffle from the majority leader, Tom Daschle; and from Joe Lieberman, of all people, came an initial exhortation to try-’em-and-fry-’em that out-Ashcrofted Ashcroft.”

Now, to a self-described “conservative” one would think that offering an argument simply because liberal Democrats are scared to is not, in itself, anything to brag about. In fact, most conservatives I know define victory as the point at which liberals abandon their sillier arguments. I’ve never heard of an honest, true-believing conservative feeling the need to leap into a breach simply because liberals won’t.

I, for example, have never, ever, felt the urge to argue for nationalizing the health-care industry — even though liberal Democrats have been scared to since the HillaryCare fiasco. I don’t recall Bob Novak campaigning to posthumously award Alger Hiss the Presidential Medal of Freedom simply because Robert Scheer, Katha Politt, or Maxine Waters haven’t. Sometimes, even liberal Democrats are reluctant to make arguments for bad ideas, because they recognize that they are bad ideas — or because Americans won’t tolerate such stupidity.

Safire writes, “here’s the beauty part: My seeming political disloyalty (or perceived principled courage) was what media types call counterprogramming.”

Oh, well, counterprogramming! I didn’t know. My apologies. After all, you know what the Aristotelians say, “Arguments shmarguments, I’m counterprogramming.”

Safire’s even cute about the fact that his “dictatorial power” column might have been either “political disloyalty” or “principled courage.” No need to clarify — “counterprogramming” is justification enough.

In his defense, he does suggest that he wrote his original screed in order to “provide cover to politicians and Pentagonians who knew the president was suckered into going overboard by gung-ho Ninth Street power crazies.” But that still doesn’t clear up whether he was right or wrong on the merits. It’s just another way of saying he was making an argument because other people wouldn’t.

And yes, there are good arguments out there. There is room for reasonable disagreement, for saying that the tribunals are unnecessary, misguided, flat-out wrong, or, I guess, even dictatorial (obviously, I disagree with them). But Safire never — ever — offered any of these arguments. Instead he offered hysteria, with little connection to fact. He did seem to have conviction on his side, but now even that goes up in flames in homage to the great god of counterprogramming. Now, it’s pretty much just a hissy fit for hissy-fitting’s sake.

My Own Contrarian Position

And speaking of hissy fits, I’d like to make one last point. Last month John Ashcroft declared:

“We need honest, reasoned debate; not fearmongering. To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against non-citizens; to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists — for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.”

Ashcroft got a lot of grief for saying this — and I got a bit of grief for defending it in my syndicated column. As Safire’s column attests, the liberal (er, “conservative contrarian”) conventional wisdom has congealed around these words as somehow indefensible and, according to many, “McCarthyistic.”

I am still at a loss as to why.

From reading the editorials denouncing Ashcroft (see the Washington Post, for example), you would infer that no exaggerations or distortions of any kind could be characterized as irresponsible and thereby offering some aid to our enemies. As a theoretical matter, this baffles me. If the Post ran editorials day after day insisting that the President was a racist tyrant bent on rounding up millions of Americans with his “dictatorial powers,” would it be absurd of me to say that the Post was aiding terrorists? I don’t think so.

Hey, you know, now that I think of it, I could swear that when I was knee-deep in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, I was often told that Clinton’s critics were only helping Saddam Hussein. In fact, just the other day Richard Cohen rehashed this argument, heaping much of the blame for Osama bin Laden’s escape on the “vast right-wing conspiracy” and other “uber partisans of Washington.” You don’t hear me screaming at Cohen for questioning my patriotism.

(Hell, Cohen may even have a point that impeachment distracted Clinton from his duties — impeachments tend to do that — but that doesn’t mean anyone was wrong to impeach Clinton. Moreover, it seems that impeachment encouraged Clinton to take Bin Laden more seriously, not less. If it weren’t for the Lewinsky story, Clinton probably would have kept using the polls as a justification to ignore bin Laden — as Byron York’s devastating article demonstrates nicely.)

In a similar way, those people — Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, and, yes, Bill Safire come to mind — who eschew (in Ashcroft’s words) “reasoned and honest debate” for histrionics and exaggeration are in some small way helping our enemies. In much the same way that Orwell said British pacifists were objectively pro-Nazi, those who denounce the U.S. government as evil, dictatorial, and corrupt — without evidence or logic — are objectively helping those counting on our lack of resolve.

But let me be clear. I am not questioning anyone’s patriotism (okay, I do question Chomsky’s — but certainly not Safire’s or pretty much anyone else’s). You can aid your enemies by saying stupid things without in fact rooting for your enemies. If there had been a “contrarian” in Churchill’s war room who constantly interrupted important planning sessions with questions about British imperialism, or whether Winston was drunk, he would be aiding the Nazis but he wouldn’t necessarily be lacking in patriotism. Indeed, he could be burning with patriotic fervor and still be helping the Germans inadvertently. Similarly, if a British newspaper columnist consistently opined that the war was unnecessary and that Churchill was the real villain, you could not leap to the conclusion that he was unpatriotic — but only a fool would doubt that he was aiding Britain’s enemies.

This is a point that seems lost on lots of Ashcroft’s critics (and on mine too, as an uncharacteristically obtuse analysis at Spinsanity shows). Whether this misinterpretation is deliberate or sincere, I have no idea. But I do know that it stinks of conformity.


1. Stay tuned to Rod Dreher’s devastating coverage of Cornel West’s burgeoning musical career and spats with Harvard. Rod is on the case.

2. My buddy Nick Schulz is the editor of TechCentralStation. It’s a great site for techno-libertoid-economic-conservative types — as I’ve told you guys before. They’ve just made it better by redesigning it. If you’ve managed to make it this far down the page, please check it out.

3. And if you’re still here, please check out my syndicated column on the Secret Service racial-profiling dustup.

That is, if you’re looking for the good kind of contrarianism.


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