Politics & Policy

The Great “W”

Can the whining stop, please?

I would love to see George Bush put his flight suit back on one more time. It’s not that I think he looked so dreamy. No, I just think it would be the perfect outfit for him to reprise Robert Duval’s classic role in The Great Santini. And, that way, he could bounce a basketball off the foreheads of, I dunno, Al Franken, Tom Robbins, Paul Krugman, or some similar anti-Bush entertainer. Wouldn’t it be great to see him go up to, say, Krugman and start dribbling the ball off his cranium? “What? You gonna cry? [Bounce!] Huh? [Bounce!] Baby? [Bounce!] Gonna squirt a few? [Bounce!-Bounce!-Bounce!] Don’t like the Patriot Act [Bounce!], huh?”

(By the way, if you’ve never seen The Great Santini, the scene I’m referencing was parodied in Austin Powers II: The Spy Who Shagged Me between Dr. Evil and No. 2 with a globe of the world).

Unfortunately, it takes a lot less than a thump to the noggin with a basketball to make many of the president’s critics cry. For much of the last year, pretty much every Democrat has been campaigning on the issue of who can sob the loudest. Senators John Edwards, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Congressman Dick Gephardt have all whined endlessly about how the Patriot Act shreds, folds, mutilates, cuts, and tears the Bill of Rights, even though they all voted for it. “We cannot allow people like John Ashcroft to take away our rights and our freedoms,” declared John Edwards. If you close your eyes, you can almost see him stamping the floor like a ten-year-old girl who refuses to give up her pony. “When I am president of the United States, there will be no John Ashcroft trampling on the Bill of Rights,” insists John Kerry, sounding like a sobbing high-school dork who got wedgied at the prom by one of the cool kids. (“Someday I’ll be really cool and popular and there won’t be guys like that.”)

This would even be defensible if there were one iota, one scintilla (is a scintilla smaller than an iota?) of evidence that the Patriot Act has been abused. But there hasn’t been a single allegation of abuse of the Patriot Act that has survived judicial or any other reasonable scrutiny.

But that misses the point. Too many liberals have simply convinced themselves that they live in dangerous, scary times. Hopefully we will get to an age where we can look back rationally on left-wing hysteria. Unfortunately, as a culture, we can only mock “paranoid” right-wingers–left-wingers always have good reasons for wetting their pants. I truly believe any sane person looking back–say a century from now–would recognize how flimsy are the actual facts cited to support the nationwide bout of St. Vitus’s Dance over the “fearful climate” we are allegedly living under.

I mean, there are actual librarians in this country who are feverishly destroying the paper trails of twelve-year-olds who borrowed To Kill a Mockingbird in, say, 1987, lest the gumshoes of the state get their hands on such valuable information.

Of course, this goes beyond the just the Patriot Act. From the outset, September 11 provided an opportunity for so many liberals and left-libertarians to indulge their paranoia–not about terrorism or Islamic fanaticism or any of the other folks who want to murder us, but about our own society. “[A] number of government agencies and their cheerleaders would be clearly tempted to lock the Bill of Rights away in some basement dustbin of the National Archives,” announced The American Prospect just days after the 9/11 attacks. Before the month was out, self-appointed hero-rebels (can heroes be anything but rebels to the Left these days?) were putting on their Reinhold Niebuhr hats. The media reporter for the Village Voice thundered on September 27, “Something is burning this week, but it’s not the site of the former World Trade Center. It’s what’s left of the First Amendment–and every self-respecting journalist should sign up for the rescue mission.”

What seemed to drive so many liberals nuts was not so much that the First Amendment was being burned–it wasn’t. Or that the government was trampling on people’s rights wholesale–it wasn’t. No, what seemed to bother the Left crazy was that so few of them had anything of interest to say. For all the obvious reasons, most were incapable of really saying anything “judgmental” about third-world terrorists and anti-Western murderers. And even if they could say what facts and reason demanded, they couldn’t get passionate about that stuff. So instead, most of them simply fell back on their old training, the classic liberal subroutines clicked in, and they complained about the “climate” in America.

(I think that explains a large chunk of the current feeding frenzy about the Joe Wilson leak. In reality, I predict, this will turn out to be a case of someone doing something foolish, not a case of some master strategy to “intimidate” opponents. But reality will not intrude on the demands of Democratic fantasies.)

We heard, for example, endless twaddle about the “backlash” against Muslims and Arabs in America when, in fact, whatever backlash there was, was short, small, and incredibly mild by any historical standards. Sure, in a nation of 300 million there were some asses who behaved as you might expect–but at the same time, the president poured out treacle about how Islam means peace and gave stern warnings that bigotry would not be tolerated.

But the biggest complaint centered on the “erosion” of free speech and the supposed clamping down on dissidents. After Bill Maher acted like Bill Maher and called Americans cowards in the wake of 9/11, Ari Fleischer said that all Americans should “watch what they say.” Anyone who watched Fleischer understood he meant nothing ominous or sinister about it–that is, unless you’re already hardwired to see evil conspiracies in the government and to see yourself as some sort of hero-dissident. To this day, Fleischer’s comment is deliberately misread or over-read by liberals who are desperate to put some meat on the bones of their baseless conviction that free speech is under assault.

Another phantasm of the liberal imagination is that they’re having their patriotism “questioned” at every turn by those nasty conservatives. I’m of two minds about this omnipresent assertion. On the one hand, I kind of want to say, “So what if we are questioning their patriotism?” After all, I can think of quite a few people with highly questionable devotion to the United States of America and its traditions. And there’s no doubt for anyone who watches C-SPAN or the Democratic debates that there are plenty of liberals out there who are far more passionate about beating Bush than about beating al Qaeda. And, besides, conservatives have their humanity and decency questioned by liberals every day. We’re told that if we don’t agree with this or that policy it must be because we hate blacks, or the poor, or gays, or women–etc., etc. Why is that any less despicable–or more appropriate–than questioning those liberals who instinctually assume that anyone who attacks us has a good reason and that anything we do in response is some kind of overreaction? Frankly, I think that if you believe–or even suggest–that the U.S. “deserved” 9/11, or that the French have better ideas about how to run America than the Republicans, then maybe you’re not all that patriotic after all.

But, on the other hand, almost all of the evidence that the Left uses to support the claim that conservatives go around questioning the patriotism of liberals is bunk. Oh sure, there are lots of assertions. “It is . . . clear how wrong the president was to sit back and let his political pals orchestrate a campaign to question the patriotism of those who urged a full national debate” on war with Iraq, Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe wrote last year. New York Times entertainer Paul Krugman concurred. “The Bush administration,” he wrote, is “always quick to question the patriotism of anyone who gets in its way.”

But these guys never provide any examples of what they’re talking about. It’s as if they think everyone who reads them already agrees with them. And, come to think of it, that might be largely true. Regardless, besides one campaign ad against former-Senator Max Cleland in Georgia, which was certainly defensible on the merits, I can’t even think of a serious example offered by the Left to back up their constant whining about how their patriotism is being questioned. I loathe these sorts of arguments: but sometimes it’s hard not to think that they’re complaining so much because they’ve got something to be insecure about.

Most of the complaints fall into the “it’s-not-fair-to-criticize-me-when-I’m-attacking-you” department. Remember how former-Representative Cynthia McKinney (D., DingbatLand) said any criticism of her amounted to an attack on her right to free speech? Or how, just last week, Ted Kennedy flipped out and said that President Bush “hatched” this war in Texas for political reasons? President Bush called Kennedy’s unproven assertions “uncivil.” Representative John Conyers responded, “The White House should immediately apologize to Senator Kennedy for calling his legitimate criticism of the rush to war ‘uncivil.’” And the week before, when John Ashcroft finally responded to the hysterical wails and lamentations of his critics, the Washington Post denounced his “tantrum”–even though it agreed with the substance of his points–saying, “The attorney general of the United States has no business jeering at those who, rightly or wrongly, disagree with his policies or disfavor a particular law.”

And now we’ve come full circle. “No administration has the right to tell Americans that to dissent is disloyal, and to disagree is unpatriotic,” booms newly minted presidential candidate Wesley Clark. Clark promises a “New American Patriotism” where dissenters aren’t afraid to criticize the government.

Now a whole governing philosophy has been constructed around facts that do not exist in this space-time continuum–and liberals are eating it up.

So let me just get this out of the way as quickly as possible. Criticizing someone else’s criticism–even when a government official does it–isn’t an assault on free speech. It is free speech. And leadership does not require saying “thank you sir may I have another” every time some yutz takes an unfair swipe at you. If giving as good as you get intimidates people from speaking their mind, maybe that’s a good thing, because it most likely means those people haven’t thought through their positions well enough to offer an opinion worth listening to. If that makes you sad, if that makes you want your boo-boo-kitty and a cookie from your mommy, that’s fine. But spare me the prattle about how dissenters are being intimidated. Either offer some facts or stop your whining.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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