Politics & Policy

L’Esprit de l’Escalier, the ‘Times,’ Etc.

(Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
On mob politics, Bill Maher, sex, abortion, editors, and more

I’ve learned and gained and benefited from — and, on occasion, stolen — so much from my friend Jay Nordlinger over the years (including the years before I knew him) that I am sure he won’t begrudge the additional theft of his “Impromptus” mood for a few observations from Prince Edward Island, where Jay and I and some other writers, editors, readers, and friends of National Review are enjoying the Canadian cool, talking politics, and celebrating the work and legacy of William F. Buckley Jr.

A few things . . .

I am grateful to Rich Lowry for his kind words today in his column on the New York Times’s sudden disembrace of “cancelation culture” and the notion that journalists — especially, journalists writing for the New York Times — ought to be considered eternally discredited for an ill-advised tweet or an ill-framed utterance.

In my own case, I wish only that the Times would make up its mind about the Kevin D. Williamson question: On the one hand, the Williamson issue is considered important enough for the Times to publish a half-dozen or so articles on it, including a hilariously inept and lazy repurposing of a by-the-numbers denunciation of Larry Kudlow by Paul Krugman, but, on the other, the Times cannot be bothered to stir itself to perform any actual journalism or, say, review my book on the subject. Not a single Times writer contacted or even attempted to contact me for any of the articles the newspaper has written about me. The Washington Post, to its credit, at least eventually thought to inquire about the nature of the opinions that got people so excited. The New York Post, America’s newspaper of record, was by comparison more interested in the book than in the tweet.

I am sometimes surprised by the intensity of occasional public interest in me, a relatively obscure writer of reports about poverty and addiction, not-obviously timely essays about the Faust legend, and some literally bookish concerns. I can see a pretty obvious case for failing to take any notice of that. But I cannot see a case for wall-to-wall coverage of a six-word tweet years after the fact that simultaneously studiously ignores my actual work. Either I am interesting enough to write about or I am not. And if the Times is making these decisions based on some other criterion — what is politically useful to the Democratic party and its cultural allies, rather than what is newsworthy or of general interest — then Dean Baquet should say so, and quit pretending that he is running a newspaper.

Otherwise, he should give some serious thought to trying to do his job.

Of course, Baquet has an interest in mob politics, too. His newspaper and its writers are a participant in them and a furtherer of them, but also a significant target of them. The Times has shown that it can be bullied by twelve Caitlyns on Twitter into rewriting a headline, and Baquet himself has acknowledged that much of the pressure for the Times to conduct itself in a more partisan fashion comes from within the organization rather than outside it. The same was of course true in my experience at The Atlantic, and it almost certainly is the case for more high-profile figures such as Roseanne Barr. I meant to ask Bill Maher whether that was the case in his firing from ABC. More on that below.

To the Times’s credit, it mostly has chosen to stand up for itself and its independence. There have been headhunting expeditions against Bret Stephens, Bari Weiss, and Sarah Jeong, among others, and the Times mostly has held firm. (Despite the president’s ritualistic invocation of “the failing New York Times,” the newspaper’s improved business prospects seem to have reinforced its confidence.) And, of course, it will be up to institutions to provide the necessary counterweight to Millennial Hysteria on Twitter and elsewhere. And the institutions really are what this is all about: As I argue at length in The Smallest Minority, there wouldn’t really be any juice in getting Bret Stephens fired from a columnist’s job — the juice is in showing that you can make the New York Times jump when you say so. That’s power, and power that matters. The Times does not jump, usually. The Atlantic jumps. ABC jumps. And, much more significantly, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter all jump. CNN jumps.

I hope the Grey Lady’s not for jumping.

L’Esprit de l’escalier

A French term that is of constant use to writers who sometimes appear on television is l’esprit de l’escalier, meaning the spirit or the wit “of the staircase,” the unhappy experience of thinking of just the right thing to say — too late.

I was a guest on Bill Maher’s program on Friday, my second appearance there. Maher and his team are very gracious hosts. (The experience provides a tiny interesting window into the very different scales of HBO money and cable-news money.) The episode on which I appeared became instantly infamous because of Maher’s vicious denunciation of the late David Koch, whose philanthropy and interests I wrote about here. Maher and his writers are very good, but theirs is an adolescent form of comedy that instinctively retreats into viciousness and cruelty when the writers become unsure of themselves. That’s an old trick: People laugh at outrageousness and theatrical viciousness (cf. Trump, President Donald J.) as a way of relieving the consequent tension and discomfort. Hence the “I’m glad he’s dead” stuff, which was tedious, as opposed to the line about Koch’s desiring to be cremated and to have his ashes blown into the lungs of a child, which was genuinely funny.

What is striking about Maher and his team is how little they seem to know about their pet obsessions. Maybe it’s a Los Angeles thing, but it is remarkable. Maher, for example, made an entire film about religion, but in the course of a few minutes’ conversation with him (the last time I was on the show, a few years ago), it became clear that he knew almost nothing about the subject, e.g. the fact that there is an ancient and well-established tradition of understanding the creation story in Genesis as metaphor rather than as history and that the dispute over literalism is relatively new.

I had that in mind as Maher spoke enthusiastically about the idea of having rich people “buy the Amazon” on the theory that their ownership would give them an incentive to take care of it, which the government of Brazil seems unable to do. This is, of course, an idea long associated with the policy network supported by Charles and David Koch, particularly the Property and Environment Research Center. The value of this line of advocacy can be seen in, to take one example, the recovery of the white-rhino population.

If Bill Maher really thinks that creating property rights in the Amazonian rainforest would provide a good basis for conservation work, then he should salute David Koch, among others. Welcome to the club, Bill.

It doesn’t end there, of course. I do not know if Bill Maher cares very much about rhinos. I do know that he cares a great deal about marijuana, but does not seem to understand that most of the policy work and advocacy leading to the liberalization of marijuana laws in many states owes its success to the support of the Koch network, and in part to the advocacy of National Review and writers associated with it. When William F. Buckley Jr. was arguing for drug legalization, it was Jesse Jackson, the Democrats, and the progressives opposing him, in no small part because the Left can always be counted upon to take a patronizing and paternalistic view toward those it purports to represent. The Left is, of course, in the process of trying to rewrite that history.

David Koch was a supporter of gay marriage, abortion rights (unfortunately), marijuana legalization, and much else, in addition to his straightforwardly philanthropic support of various worthy institutions, which included a $100 million endowment for the New York City Ballet. The idea that this was all part of a grand scheme to lower his taxes by 7 cents on the dollar or to raise his net worth from $52 billion to $53 billion is preposterous. No intelligent person in possession of the basic facts could possibly believe it.

Mobs, Greater and Lesser

I was on the show to talk about The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in an Age of Mob Politics, my energetic and occasionally filthy jeremiad against the popular culture of our time and its deformation of our political discourse. Bill Maher, too, considers himself an opponent of mobs. And I think his heart is in the right place.

But he was nonplussed when I explained to him that the Electoral College, which he says he hates, is one of the glories of our Constitution, which is in most of its best features wonderfully antidemocratic. The Bill of Rights, for example, which I sometimes describe as “America’s Great Big List of Things You F***ing Idiots Don’t Get a Vote On,” puts certain rights beyond democracy, beyond the vote. It does not matter if 70 percent or 90 percent or 99 percent or 100 percent of Americans believe that the New York Times should be censored or that Muslims should be prohibited from practicing their faith — the mob does not get to say so. Bill Maher and likeminded critics complain that the Senate is where legislation goes to die, apparently unaware that that is precisely what the Senate is there for, and what its original design (as a body representing the states themselves rather than the American people corporately, with senators chosen by state legislators rather than by popular election) was intended to achieve.

The presidency, as originally conceived, also was designed in part to provide a check against the democratic passions of the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, the presidency has supplanted the House in its role as witless and slavering tribune of the plebs. The Electoral College helps to mitigate that a little bit by subjecting the presidency to 50 different mobs with different interests and different agendas rather than having it be the creature of a single unitary mob. Forcing factions to compete for power and influence in a way that frustrates the fickle and addled will of We the People was baked into the American constitutional cake from the beginning, for good reason. Bill Maher is probably smarter and better informed than 80 percent of the electorate, and he often does not know what he is talking about.

A Note to Writers

Those of us who can read along with Maher on the teleprompter are bound to laugh a little when in the course of a diatribe about someone else’s stupidity and illiteracy his writers write “guild [sic] the lily.” Even in Hollywood, nobody forces a lily to join a union. In my role as a newspaper editor, I used to see a lot of raw Associated Press copy, some of which comes with the grammar and spelling of a deranged third-grader, and then watch in wonder as these same illiterate journalists snickered at the ineloquence of Dan Quayle or George W. Bush. We are all of us lucky to have good editors.

One Last Thing

I stopped Maher at one point during the show and scolded him a little for having delivered what I rightly described as “a stupid, cheap applause line.” The subject was abortion and my view that abortion should be prohibited as a homicide. (If it is not a homicide, then it is nothing of any importance; it is not tax evasion, or littering, or failing to use the right font size in an OSHA poster.) “What about the men who get women pregnant” Maher demanded. “Do you want to punish them, too? Huh?” I’ve heard 10,000 variations on that line, and every one of them was stupid.

That line of argument in fact represents exactly what it is we pro-lifers always are accused of by the pro-abortion camp: proposing to punish people for having sex. As a political matter, meaning as a matter of regulation, I do not care who has sex with whom, even a little bit. If we are talking about consenting adults, I am perfectly content that the law remain silent on the question of who and whom and how many and in what combination or combinations — and even, contra my friend Madeleine Kearns, whether money changes hands. Nor do I believe that the law should take any note of contraception. I only insist that, if the sex should result in a pregnancy, we do not legally permit the willful killing of individual living human organisms. I don’t care about the sex — I care about the violence, about the killing.

It is strange that so many so-called liberals cannot quite make out the difference between consensual sex and premeditated homicide, and that they are so eager to punish people for engaging in consensual sex. Not that they really believe it. They only believe that people will nod approvingly or, in the case of a television audience, applaud like trained seals at the concluding harrumph. No self-respecting person could take Maher’s argument seriously — and that is true irrespective of anyone’s belief about the question of abortion as such.

It is difficult to resist the urge to deliver vapid applause lines, to please a crowd when one is in front of one. But we ought not allow that temptation to cause us to say things that are, beyond question, stupid. Living in abject need of the mob’s applause is no different from living in abject fear of the mob’s criticism — it is to be a creature of the mob in either case. The only freedom and independence are in learning to be equally indifferent to both praise and obloquy.

(I’ll let you know when I’ve managed to achieve that.)


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