Politics & Policy

Beware the body-snatchers, &c.

I seem to be reading a lot about conservatism lately, especially with the publication of Sam Tanenhaus’s book, The Death of Conservatism. As the book title says, we’re supposed to be kaput. And what is conservatism supposed to be, in some minds? A philosophy or temper that basically accedes to liberalism, while perhaps tinkering around the edges.

I remember something that I used to hear George McGovern say all the time. When he was feeling magnanimous and thoughtful, he’d say, “This country needs both a left wing and a right wing, both liberals and conservatives: liberals to make progress; and conservatives to manage the scope and pace of change.”

That is British Toryism, more than a modern American conservatism. WFB put paid to loser or accommodationist conservatism. He rejected the idea that conservatives should just stand around sighing over the world, or muttering, “Kids today.” Many in the “accommodation” school, however, want to claim Bill now: They are body-snatching. There is a whole lot of this going on — and it will continue, for a very long time.

WFB had a long, productive, dramatic, glorious, well-documented career. We must hope that it is not grotesquely distorted, that the body-snatchers do not succeed entirely.

‐A man named Jim Pouillon was murdered in Michigan. You may have read about it; you may not have. Pouillon was an anti-abortion protester, known to the anti-abortion movement across the nation. A man driving by one Friday morning did not like his sign, which was of the “graphic” variety. He shot him dead. This man also killed someone else that day — a businessman unconnected to the anti-abortion movement.

Earlier this year, when an abortion doctor named George Tiller was killed, there was a national outcry over the nature of the abortion debate in America. The anti-abortion side was said to be intolerably violent. Pro-life groups were made to lament and condemn Tiller’s murder, at great volume. After Pouillon’s murder — very few peeps, very few demands. Pro-choice groups said that the murderer’s second murder proved that he was not acting from pro-abortion beliefs. A fair point. But we know that the murderer disliked Jim Pouillon’s sign.

The victim’s friends said he was quiet, gentle, committed, idealistic. The chief assistant prosecutor for Shiawassee County, Mich., said, “There was some displeasure with how open he was. He tended to carry big signs with very graphic pictures of fetuses.” And we all know how people hate to look at that.

I have a memory, from long ago. I was driving somewhere in Michigan, in fact — my home state. There was a man outside a building, probably an abortion clinic, holding a sign. An anti-abortion sign. I imagine he was thought a freak by most people driving by. I drove by him and waved, giving him a thumbs-up. He was maybe surprised I did not flip the bird.

I thought, “You have to be pretty weird to stand outside with a sign like that, all day. I would never do it — not in a million years. What is wrong with me?”

‐It was as predictable as the sunrise: the widespread charge that criticism of President Obama is racist. That was written in stone. And it didn’t take too long. It has intensified like mad in the last couple of weeks, but it began months ago. When the tea-party protests got going — this was April — Janeane Garofalo said the following on Keith Olbermann’s show:

“This is about hating a black man in the White House. This is racism straight up and is nothing but a bunch of tea-bagging rednecks, and there is no way around that.”

Of course.

Would you like to know my favorite sign of all time? It appeared at that “9/12” rally in Washington. It said, “No Matter What I Put on This Sign, You’re Going to Call It Racist.”

“Racist” has long been the most explosive and damning charge in America — the worst thing you can say about a person, really. And it is an immediate shutter-down of conversation: When you say that someone or something is racist, the accused side must slink away, even if sputtering about the unfairness of it all.

Will it work this time? It always has, this charge — false charge — of racism. But maybe not. Maybe it won’t work. And wouldn’t that be something? And you can’t go a whole four years, or a whole eight years, without any criticism of the president, can you?

It is a great day when a black man can be president. It will be a great day when criticism of a black president can be accepted as just that: criticism. And if you’ve repeatedly claimed racism where no racism exists — who will listen to you when real racism arises? Wolf-crying on racism does harm all around.

Not that you don’t have enough to read, but I wrote an extensive piece last year about Obama, race, and our politics (“That Old Devil Race”): If you’re interested, go here.

‐The other day, Chief Justice Roberts said something awfully funny. He was talking to students at the University of Michigan Law School. Someone asked him if too many justices came from elite schools. He said no: “Some went to Yale.” (Roberts went to Harvard.)

Kennedyesque (meaning JFK-esque), or better — don’t you think?

‐In that recent speech to Congress, President Obama used the phrase “illegal immigrants.” He then went on Univision and took it back, in a way. He had said “illegal immigrants” only because he was quoting conservatives’ language back at them. Is “illegal immigrants” to be a verboten or stigmatized phrase now? Is it to be an equivalent of “wetback”?

As I’ve said a thousand times in this column, nowhere is America crazier — or nowhere is American craziness more clearly seen — than in our language: than in our acrobatics over language. Strange, depressing stuff.

‐A reader wrote me to say that he thought he had heard a perfect NPR moment. “They said this morning, ‘Today a gay grandfather and his gay grandson. And we meet a Muslim football player struggling through two-a-day practices during the month of Ramadan.’ Jay, is that not perfect?” Yes, pretty much.

‐Another reader wrote, “Hello, Mr. Nordlinger: A line from a Wall Street Journal article made me think of you and your detestation of hissing. Did you catch it?” I had not. The reader meant this:

[Michael] Moore is a kind of political weather vane on the left, so interesting is his latest choice of political villains. He gives Barack Obama a free pass for supporting corporate bailouts, but he rakes Bob Rubin, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner (“a failure at everything he has done in life”) over the coals. The crowd at Byham Theater, including incoming AFL-CIO boss Rich Trumka, hissed at the mention of each member of this Democratic economic policy troika.

Yup, that’s what they do: hiss. The reader was thinking of an essay of mine, published in National Review a year ago: “‘A Perpetual Hissing’: Notes on an unfavorite practice.” Go here.

‐Don’t know if you caught a “special” Impromptus I did last week: a write-up of a talk I had with the mayor of San Ramon, Calif., Abram Wilson (here). The column — or whatever it was — occasioned an unusually large amount of mail. Wanted to share with you one letter, from someone who lives nearby: not near me, but near Wilson:

Thank you! [I blush.] Mayor Wilson is indeed the remarkable person you have portrayed. Although I have met him at civic events, I don’t know him personally. But I have observed and admired the mayor for years. He is smart, honorable, and a patriot. I note that he is a supporter of organizations that assist military personnel who have been injured in Iraq or Afghanistan.


I live in the Assembly district next door, one so gerrymandered that a Republican cannot be elected. I donated to the mayor’s first Assembly race and will do so again. We need him in Sacramento!


The candidate who defeated him ran a vile campaign against him: deceptive television ads funded by massive amounts of outside union money and the state Democratic apparatus. The unions et al. will pour more money into this coming campaign to try to smear this honorable, kind, intelligent, hard-working man again.


Thanks for introducing your readership to Abram Wilson. Keep your fingers crossed.

‐Wanted to give you a couple of New York vignettes, or noticings: I’m in Arizona at the moment, but was home last week, and this is what I saw: on a bench along the Hudson River, a middle-aged, bearded man just chillin’, in his sandals — and reading a book called The Myth of the Free Market. I thought that was pretty good. Would have been better if he had been wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt!

I enjoyed this, too: Saw a sign on the street advertising a network of “Young Jewish Professionals” — showed a group of vibrant young people conversing and having a good time. I thought, “Glad they specified Professionals — to keep out all the young Jewish truck drivers, janitors, and carpenters.” (Yes, yes, I know about Jewish carpenters — please don’t write. Thanks!) (I also know about the professionalism of carpentry, etc. Again, thanks!)

‐Show-off sentences? Couple of weeks ago, I wrote, “Recently, I was riding through Nîmes with Tony Daniels. (I know, that’s a show-off sentence.)” A reader contributed,

A few years ago, my wife was visiting with some friends who love to travel. At one point, one of them — who works for the World Bank and seems to have been everywhere — started a sentence with, “When I was in Zanzibar . . .” We all agreed that was a great line.

More recently, I saw one of the Apollo astronauts on a video talking about his experiences. He said, “When I was on the moon . . .”

As Bill Buckley would say, beat that.

‐A little fun with names? Reader writes, “A woman at our church was ‘Marcia Patterson.’ She pronounced her first name ‘Mar-SEE-uh.’ I always referred to her as ‘Mar-SEE-uh Pat-TER-son.’”

I was also reminded of something the other day: Years ago, at a golf course, I worked with a young woman named Anitra. She had no idea that her name was famous, through Peer Gynt: made famous by Ibsen and, perhaps even more so, by Grieg. I remember thinking how sad it was: She had gone all her life with this highly unusual name and never knew its grand association. Was that not a failure of the culture generally?

I sang her a little of “Anitra’s Dance.” She was not amused, or interested — I think.

Well, that’s a weird note to end on — no, let me end on another one:

‐What are you doing on October 27? Anywhere near Phoenix? Want to support a golden (though not Golden State) institute, and have a rollicking good time in the bargain? The Goldwater Institute is holding its annual gala dinner. I will be there, moderating a panel — Jonah Goldberg and Mark Steyn will be on it. There will be other luminaries soon to be announced — luminaries in addition to the dazzlingly luminous Goldberg and Steyn. For information on the dinner, go here.

And I’ll see you, somewhere!


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