Politics & Policy

A Nasty Little Storm

How it can go in journalism today

Years ago, someone cracked, “There are two kinds of people in the world: people who say there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.” (I confess the cracker was me.) I have never liked the “two kinds” formulation. But I sometimes think there are two kinds of journalist in America today: those who write about other journalists, and those who write about the president, Congress, the Supreme Court, etc.

I’m amazed at how many writers spend their lives writing about other writers. Say the president makes some big announcement, or Congress passes some major act, or the Supreme Court hands down some important decision. If you’re an “old-fashioned” journalist, you’ll write about it. But then five other journalists will write about what you have written: dissecting it, distorting it, damning it . . .

Who wants to work like that? Many, it seems. Legions of people don’t care about what the president says or does; they just care about what Rush Limbaugh says about what the president says or does.

I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, and I don’t surf the Web (although there are a few sites I regularly go to). It’s not that I’m opposed to these things; it’s that there are so few hours in the day. But I am vaguely aware of what’s being said, because people tell me. It gets around in various ways. No one is completely cocooned, I suppose. And I know that I come under attack now and then. It goes with the territory.

Occasionally, I’ll get an e-mail from some blogger on the left, and the e-mail will contain nothing but a link. The link will lead me to some slam he’s written about me. A day or two will go by, and he’ll e-mail again. This time, he’ll say, in effect, “Hey, don’t you see that I’ve slammed you? How come you’re not responding to me? What’s the matter with you? Why won’t you play?”

One time, I had Impromptus, my regular National Review Online column, up. This is kind of a grab-bag column, containing many and disparate items. This particular column ended with an item about golf. A reader wrote me with indignation: “So-and-so has been beating you like a mule for days, and you’re writing about golf? Come on, man, get in the game! Defend yourself!”

Thing was, I didn’t want to get in the game — not that one. I wanted to write about all the things I wanted to write about, including golf. And people are always trying to control your time, you know?

About ten years ago, a Solzhenitsyn son told me something about his father: He almost never answered his critics (who were numerous and fierce), and he didn’t even read them. He preferred to write The Red Wheel. “He could have written The Red Wheel,” said his son, “or he could have dealt with his critics. There wasn’t time to do both.”

One day, or week, he did read his critics, and he answered them, in one fell swoop. The answer appeared in that famous Russian exile journal, published in Paris. Can’t remember its name. Anyway, Solzhenitsyn bent to his critics that one time. Otherwise, he kept his shoulder to the wheel (so to speak), letting the world say what it would.

I’m not comparing myself to Solzhenitsyn, believe me: He was writing his epic novels, I’m writing my little journalistic ditties. I will say, however, that I know how he felt.

Let me tell you about an experience I had last week. I did my usual columns, reviews, and blogposts (no magazine piece). On Monday afternoon, a colleague appeared at my door. “You’ve stirred up controversy,” he said. Once upon a time, stirring up controversy was a good thing, in journalism — particularly in opinion journalism. But I could tell by my colleague’s tone, this was not a good thing. He said, “People are complaining about a post of yours.” “What do you mean, ‘people’?” “You know: people.” People out in the great Land of Comment.

I didn’t think anything of it. People are always complaining. And you should probably be happy they’re paying attention.

Let me interrupt my story to share a memory with you. Probably seven years ago, I made a mistake in a review — a recordings roundup, as I recall. I confused Mario del Monaco with Franco Corelli, or the other way around — I can’t remember! Still have them confused. And the whole, nutso operatic world went nuts. I said to someone working at the Met, “I didn’t think anyone was reading.” “Oh, they do,” he said.

Fifty reviews go by, not a word — and then, bam.

So, not long after that first colleague appeared at my door, another colleague sent me an e-mail. She said, “Someone has called in to complain.” And not long after that, another colleague sent me an e-mail, containing a link from Twitter: A tweeter was slamming me. Then still another colleague e-mailed me to say, “Just wanted you to know there is Twitter activity. This could be bad for you.”

Uh-oh. Twitter activity? That sounded oddly unnerving — like a mob forming. And bad for me? That was dramatic, even operatic.

My blogpost was about Chief Justice Roberts, and conservative fears that he was “growing” in office. “Growing,” in the winking vocabulary employed by us righties, means becoming less conservative and more liberal. I wrote,

During the 1980s, Tip O’Neill and other liberals said, “We were hoping that Reagan would grow in office, but he hasn’t grown at all.” What they meant was, he had not shed his small-government principles and his hawkish views. He had not accepted the post-LBJ state, and détente. He had not learned to love Big Brother. He was still clinging to guns and religion, so to speak. He was as provincial, blinkered, and right-wing as ever.

I continued with a point often vexing to today’s conservatives:

Truth is, some conservatives lamented that he had indeed “grown” in office. He had gone out of his way to accommodate liberals and moderates, and to accommodate the Kremlin. He was raising taxes, spending like crazy, welcoming wetbacks, pursuing arms control. One common cry from the right was, “None of this would be happening if Ronald Reagan were alive.”

Anyway, that was a long time ago. He is now our Saint Ronald. We have moved on to calling Mitt Romney a marshmallow. No conservative ever said a bad word about Reagan (and all Frenchmen joined the Resistance).

Yes, vexing indeed. A lot of conservatives don’t like being reminded that they were not always happy with their heroic president. He was striking tax deals, spending deals, amnesty deals, arms-control deals. Howard Phillips, the chairman of the Conservative Caucus, called Reagan “a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.”

But the Twitter-world complaint about my post did not have to do with Reagan; it had to do with a word, “wetbacks.” The scarlet R was being affixed to my garment. They — you know, the great “they” — were calling me a racist.

I was loath to respond, for a number of reasons. First, the charge was silly, unworthy of a response. And if I responded, would I be giving the charge credence, somehow? Would I be giving it oxygen it did not deserve?

Second, I did not want to insult my readers: No one had really misunderstood me in my blogpost. No one had mistaken my meaning or method. Those who were complaining were simply making mischief — seizing an opportunity.

Third, if you respond once, they — the great “they” — expect you to respond again and again. They call the tune, you dance. If they accuse you again, and you don’t respond — are you granting the accusation?

Fourth, the charge of racism is just so shocking, that . . .

There were many reasons not to respond. I could go on. But I responded, huffily.

I explained that, in the offending passage, or allegedly offending passage, I was reflecting or parodying a mindset: the mindset of certain Reagan critics on the right. And I told the complainers and accusers to jump in a lake, get a life, etc.

One could have responded in a different way, of course. I might have pleaded my humanity and universality. I might have said, “I’m the most racially liberal person I know” (which is true, but certainly not for me to say). I could have told about my lifelong affection for the Mexican people. I could have said, “Do you have any idea how many Hispanic chicks I’ve been in love with?” (We can all say something similar, right?) I could have reported how, for years and years, I have received nasty mail from the anti-immigration right, saying I’m a no-good wetback-coddler (oops).


But I think race bullies, like other bullies, should be stood up to. They should be told to go to hell, in so many words (or exactly those). They should be shamed, if such shaming is possible.

Also, I don’t think writers should be like politicians — I mentioned this in my response: “I am not a politician. I’m a writer.” I don’t know when it started, but people now treat writers as though they were politicians. They “cover” writers, if you will — report and opine on them. Try to hound them from “office,” and so on.

But here’s the thing: I’m not trying to appeal to certain constituencies. I’m not trying not to offend. I’m not seeking votes. I am expressing certain ideas in styles I prefer, and if people don’t like the ideas or the styles — well, there are many, many fish in the sea, writer-wise and otherwise.

After my response — my second blogpost — the attacks on me did not decrease but increased. People in the Left blogosphere, generally speaking, said, “No matter what he says, he’s a racist, and that’s all there is to it.”

Now, look: I don’t flatter myself. I know this affair has nothing to do with me, really. These attackers don’t know me, have never read me, could not give a rat’s behind about me (which is fine). They’re trying to harm National Review and conservatives in general — tarring us with the brush of racism, their favorite tool.

They have hit me with their brush before — pinned the scarlet R on me. Give you an example. Like everyone else, I comment on State of the Union addresses. After President Obama’s in 2010, I had a long list of items, including this: “Obama looks arrogant, whether he’s arrogant or not. I don’t think he can help it: It’s the upturned chin. When actors want to preen and so on, they turn that chin upward. Yikes.”

For that, Keith Olbermann, who still had his MSNBC show, named me one of “The Worst People in the World.” He pretended that, when you call Obama arrogant, you’re a racist. This is true even if you say he “looks arrogant, whether he’s arrogant or not. I don’t think he can help it . . .”

My moment in the Olbermann sun, or darkness, led me to write an essay for NR: “‘Worst People’: Some notes on racism and anti-racism in America.” I wrote,

. . . racial taboos constantly hover over us, or at least some of us. I don’t think I would ever describe a black person as “articulate,” even if he were the most articulate person in the world — because that has been a white-condescension word for years. I even balk at referring to a five-year-old black kid as a “boy” — just because of the sting of history. Last fall, I reviewed a concert in which the performer had an exceptionally good sense of rhythm. But I didn’t say so, because the performer was black.

Was I being sensitive to the point of absurdity? I think so, yes — but I hope you will allow that American mores can do that to you. 

But let’s get back to last week. On Thursday, we had a little gathering after work — we NR employees, I mean. Before leaving the office, I ran into a colleague in the john. He said, “How about that ‘wetbacks’ thing, huh?” At the gathering, another colleague said, “How about that ‘wetbacks’ thing, huh?” And then another. And then another.

Later, I got to thinking: In the last few months, I have written on a great variety of subjects. In the current issue of NR, I have a piece about political labels. There are some interesting and unusual things in there, I think. In the issue before, I had a reporting piece from Taiwan. Very important questions in there. In the same issue, I had a rather idiosyncratic review of Peter Collier’s (excellent) biography of Jeane Kirkpatrick.

In the issues before that, I had a long report on the oil boom in North Dakota; a profile of the composer Michael Hersch; an essay on fashions and fads in human-rights activism; a piece on the romanticization of fugitive criminals; an examination of Anglo-American relations in the time of Obama; and so on.

I’m not sure that anyone commented on any of that. At least the comments were very few. And from Twitter, Facebook, and that great galaxy — nothing much, I’m sure.

Ooh, got another story for you! In 2009, I interviewed John Negroponte, the veteran American diplomat, who, not so long before, had been director of national intelligence. I asked him about the Iranian A-bomb. He said, in effect, that they were driving toward it and that there was really nothing we could do to stop them, though we might delay them a bit.

“Holy mackerel!” I thought. “What a thing I have to report, from such a source! I might even be invited on television! Some cable network might ask me to appear for two minutes at 4 in the morning! Could I even dream of, say, Fox & Friends?”

But the response of the world was — silence. No one said a word. Not even a co-worker.

Announce looming Armageddon, and you get zip. Use the word “wetbacks,” and the world will beat a path to your door. Funny, sick old world.

Speaking of funniness and sickness: I get some bad mail from the right, as I mentioned before — mail saying I’m a RINO, a squish, a disgrace to the conservative movement. Why don’t I go work for Mother Jones, huh? And then, the next day — or the same day — the Left will put a Klansman’s sheet over my head.

Conservatives should be used to being called a racist: Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and liberals have to call conservatives racist. But I find that I have never quite gotten used to it. “Racist” is the worst thing you can be called in America, given our history, and given the tenor of these times. When they have labeled you a racist, they have crippled your ability to operate, or tried to.

Also, because false charges of racism are made all the time, what can we say when real racism appears? The wolf is sometimes at the door, even if false cries of wolf fill the air.

The word “controversial” can be damaging too. Some years ago, David Frum made the following observation: Once you’re known as “controversial,” that label, or scent, can be hard to wash off. People won’t remember why you’re supposed to be controversial. You just are. They’ll shy away from you, regard you as unclean, somehow.

In Britain, a prizewinning journalist, believe it or not, went around slandering, libeling, and generally undermining other journalists he didn’t like. He did it in America too: sliming me and others in the pages of The New Republic. One of his tricks was to go into people’s Wikipedia entries, falsifying them, pouring poison into them. People will mess with your “Google results” too. They will do anything they can to tarnish you, to make you an outcast, to “scandalize your name.” (You know that old spiritual?)

The British journalist in question finally got his comeuppance. Others just skate.

Personally, I find it hard to know when to respond to attacks — whether to, how to. One of Rumsfeld’s Rules, I believe, is “Don’t be controlled by your inbox.” Don’t spend your day merely reacting to others. Do what you think it right to do. Carry out your own agenda.

I have spent an afternoon writing this little article here. And incidentally, I apologize for all the “I” and “me” in it. I’ve composed a veritable song of myself! There were a hundred other things I wanted to write about: the presidential campaign, Syria, the British Open, music . . . I wanted to write The Red Wheel (or my lowly equivalent)! Instead, I’ve sung this song, and maybe it’ll do a smidgeon of good, and I’ll see you later with normal stuff.


To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.


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