One of my oldest and best friends sent me, via e-mail, a joke about Elian Gonzalez, back when the six-year-old Cuban refugee led most newscasts. I do not remember the joke, but knowing Bob, who’s a bright and witty guy, it must have been a good one, as jokes go. I e-mailed back, however, that I didn’t find much in the Elian Gonzalez case to laugh about.
Via e-mail (once again), Bob went apoplectic, demanding that I remove his name from my column mailing list and never communicate with him again. He said a number of things in that purple e-mail rage that I’m sure he regrets now. We have established touch once again. Bob assures me that he has “pretty much gotten over” what made him so mad in the first place.
Checking over my column mailing list responses a few weeks back, I noted that one address got bounced regularly, this one from a fellow I did not know well, the father of one of my son’s former classmates. The bounce message informed me that my missives were being blocked as “porn.”
We are losing friends, left and right. We have fallen under the sway of enforcers, left and right, who forbid us to think in certain ways, on pain of expulsion from one society or another.
In the situation conservatives know best, we confront conventional liberalism — not apparatchik, activist liberalism, but take-it-with-your-coffee-and-newspaper everyday liberalism — in the business establishment, academe, the media, public education, and most of daily discourse in our major cities. Most people keep a weather eye out for what most of decent society thinks, and adapt their thinking accordingly. Right and proper: Most people like to be comfortable.
But the enforcement habit holds sway, however genteelly. So what is perceived as the wrong point of view can cost you a job or otherwise cripple your career, or get your child’s application rejected from a good school, or lose you the warmth and comfort of your oldest and best friendships.
It got bad during the Clinton impeachment, and didn’t stop thereafter. It’s gotten worse with the Iraq war.
Here, for example, is a blog (to which I have mercifully misplaced the URL and domain name; it’s some “comedy” writer associated with Al Gore) written about two weeks after journalist Michael Kelly was killed in Iraq. The blogger criticizes Washington Post religion writer Hanna Rosin’s eulogy of Kelly.
“…she writes as if Kelly’s public work — the work that made him seem like a ‘crank’ (Rosin’s word) — was less important than his private behavior. What really matters? Not Kelly’s work. What really matters to Hanna Rosin is the way Kelly treated her and her friends — not the damage he did to his country.”
Kelly, you see, had edited some establishment magazines, including the New Republic, a liberal organ, so he knew and had worked with lots of mainstream journalists. Meanwhile, he wrote witty, passionate, mostly conservative columns for the Washington Post. (And since his death, the heart has gone right out of the Post‘s op-ed section.) Most of his liberal colleagues simply couldn’t believe it. Mike was such a nice guy; how could such a nice guy write things like that? In this, the anonymous blogger has a point. But that those columns damaged the country?
This is enforcement, dripping Dowdian acid: “Yes, Little Hanna, you can now admit it — and Americans can now recoil in horror to see how addled our press really is.” I.e., Michael Kelly ought to have been drummed out of polite society.
There is enforcement on the right, too, not nearly as common. Most prominently, David Frum’s extended indictment of the “paleoconservative” movement in National Review compelled attention for its historic account of the development of a set of unfortunate ideas. The article concludes:
“The paleoconservatives have chosen — and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.”
However correct Frum’s indictment of the paleos is — and it’s a good one — this is enforcement.
But all that enforcement? It’s all politics, an insider’s game, even for a bit player like me who would really rather write like some combination of my boyhood hero Ernie Pyle and Dave Barry than like Charles Krauthammer. And that’s where enforcement should be kept, in the tiny political world. Sadly, where Mensheviks and Bolsheviks used to duke it out in dusty rooms and obscure journals, you now have knockout party palookas throwing haymakers in 24/7 media.
One wonders if King Solomon had cable TV in mind when he wrote, “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared.” (Proverbs, 22:24-25)
That brawling has spilled over like a boiling poison. In the real world, you have to have friends and colleagues. In the real world, people need people.
So if a political idea gets you a knife in the back at the office, in a vestry meeting, or before an admissions committee, you really do make the wiser decision not to say it.
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