As both our esteemed editor, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., and George Will have pointed out, it didn’t take long for Senator-elect Jim Webb, representing the courtly Southern gentlemen of Virginia, to demonstrate that he himself is no gentleman. At a White House reception he publicly snubbed his host, President Bush, and took the occasion of the President’s polite inquiry after his son, a Marine serving in Iraq, as an invitation to air his political differences with him. “Boor” (Mr. Will’s word) and “cad” (Mr. Tyrrell’s) do not seem terms too strong to describe such deplorable behavior, though some people might have pointed out that it could hardly be counted a surprise in a man who makes such a public fuss about his record of military service and uses it to belittle and intimidate others — a man who, moreover, is apparently unashamed of having achieved his present eminence by turning his coat and betraying so many of his former friends and colleagues in the Republican party.
But I wonder if Mr. Tyrrell can be right to say that the man whose campaign slogan was “Born Fighting” is a throwback to the days of Andrew Jackson and dueling politicians? On the contrary, it seems to me that his accusation of cowardice brought against his opponent, Senator George Allen, during the late campaign for the latter’s failure to serve in Vietnam could only have been issued by someone who knew he was safe from a challenge. Or, I suppose, a fool. Can’t rule that out. But what struck me about the Senator-elect’s ungentlemanliness was that he seemed to be proud of it. He was not being merely uncouth but was rude on principle, and in this he showed himself to be very much a man of our own times. In fact, Mr. Webb illustrates how the psycho-therapeutic revolution of the last century helped to undermine the traditional honor culture to which, despite his military vainglory, he remains such a stranger.
Manners, you see, are fake. Manners are inauthentic. Manners are pretending to have feelings you don’t have. And for post-therapeutic man the feelings he does have are the most important things in the world. Not to nurture and fondle them and take them out for public display on the slightest pretext would be to be guilty not only of dishonesty but of “repression” — than which not even President Bush is more to be hated. That’s why Fightin’ Jim is so proud to be a boor, a cad and a jerk. It’s not just that he doesn’t know or care that that’s what he is, though he may not. It’s that he expects the world’s applause for being authentic and true to his feelings. Unfortunately for him, the world rarely does applaud such authenticity, for all its theoretical approval of it. Just because we believe implicitly in true psychic reality — whether angry, hate-filled or lascivious — it doesn’t mean that we enjoy seeing it on public exhibition.
The first “we” in that last sentence is rhetorical. I, for one, don’t believe in true psychic reality. I believe it to be a modernist superstition from which our culture’s enlightened liberation cannot come too soon. But that happy day seems a very long way off. In fact, it’s not too much to say that Mr. Webb owes his senatorial seat to the undiminished power of the same superstition, since Senator Allen’s casual use of a word, “macaca,” which might or might not have been a racial epithet, was made into a scandal by the Washington Post and other interested parties on the sole and sufficient but unspoken assumption that the word was a key to unlock the secrets of the Senator’s discreditable racialist unconscious. Now and forever after, he will find himself in the company of such “celebrity racists” as Mel Gibson and Michael Richards for no better reason than that the use of a racial taunt (if, in his case, that is what it was) is assumed to be an expression of psychic reality.
Look here, for instance, for what the Post‘s columnist Eugene Robinson had to say about Mr. Richards’s outburst in a nightclub in Los Angeles:
Anyone who thinks that racism in this country is history really ought to watch the video of Kramer going postal. I’m not saying that everyone is like Michael Richards….I’m not saying that evil lurks in the hearts of all men and women. But I am saying that, as a society, we still haven’t purged ourselves of racial prejudices and animosities. We’ve buried them under layers of sincere enlightenment and insincere political correctness, but they’re still down there, eating at our souls.
Really? How does he know? Rather than getting into the metaphysical realm, isn’t it easier to suppose that Mr. Richards, when he was attacked, simply reached for a weapon that would wound as he himself had felt wounded? It wasn’t polite. It wasn’t honorable. It wasn’t admirable — except, barring the racial content, to those like Mr. Webb who admire sincere expressions of feeling above all else. But why do we have to bring anybody’s soul into the matter? Alas, there is an answer to that question. The reason is that doing so is what feeds the scandal-devouring beast that our media and political culture have become in the absence of the honor that Senator-elect Webb is very far from being alone in spurning.
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