A George Will Follies Review
by John Chuckman
August 22, 2003
I used to read George Will occasionally just to see how strange words bent to political purpose could become. No political commentator in America is better able to use large words to say something at times indescribably odd. I don't ask you to take this from me on faith. I offer examples, although none is recent since my tolerance for this sort of stuff has worn thin.
By outward appearance, George is the eternal American schoolboy. I imagine George's conception of himself and the career he would follow may have been fixed when, as a reticent, dour twelve-year old with cowlick and glasses, he achieved an early social success blurting out a big word he had read, startling his teacher and breaking up his class. He has been repeating the same trick for decades to the applause of intense, pimply-faced boys in starched white shirts with dog-eared copies of Ayn Rand tucked under their arms.
America's plutocrat-Junkers do have courtiers serving them just as the great princes of antiquity had. However, the pop-culture tastes of these modern great eminences do not employ the likes of Walter Raleigh or Francis Bacon. Instead we have Rush Limbaugh as one of the court jesters, still doing frat-boy jokes about physical differences between men and women forty years after college, and we have George as one of the sages, who appears from all the sage-like figures of history and literature to have selected Polonius as his model for style.
A few years ago, George nearly choked over plans to move a statue of some women to the Capitol Rotunda in Washington. He was upset about an expense, as he gracefully put it, to "improve the representation of X chromosomes." The statue is of suffragists. George couldn't resist passing along a demeaning nickname, "The Ladies in the Bathtub," he picked up somewhere, perhaps at one of Trent Lott's good-ol'-boy get-togethers down on his plantation.
George tried to make the nickname an issue of artistic merit. Artistic merit? The sculpture of the Capitol Rotunda is as uninspired a collection of stolid, state-commissioned hulks as ever graced a giant marble room. Aesthetics have never played a role.
George said he'd "stipulate" the women were great Americans - an interesting choice of words, "stipulate," the arid language of lawyers allowing one to proceed in court or settle a contract without further discussion of some (usually minor) point. He then observed "the supply of alleged greatness long ago exceeded the supply of space for statues in the Rotunda."
Well, clearly, choices do have to be made. And could it be news to anyone, apart from survivalists, huddled in abandoned missile silos, savoring George by candlelight as they bolt down freeze-dried snacks, that politics play a role in every choice in Washington? My God, members of the U.S. Congress, overwhelmingly male, actually have the flag that flies over the Capitol changed about every thirty seconds to provide a steady supply of authentic relics for interested, influential constituents, almost the way tens of thousands of true splinters of the Cross were fashioned as princely gifts in the Middle Ages. American presidents sign laws with fists full of pens, one for each loop of the signature and as gift for each key supporter. Politics just doesn't get more ridiculous anywhere.
What's annoying about a statue to the movement that gave (slightly more than) half the nation's people the right to vote? The importance of what it symbolizes equals any democratic advance in the nation's history. Why should a symbol for this achievement be the target of scorn?
The Rotunda collection already had highly ambiguous symbols that never upset George. Garfield was an undistinguished Civil War general and an undistinguished politician, ennobled only by a frustrated office-seeker assassinating him. Grant, despite his importance in the Civil War, was one of the most dangerously incompetent presidents before Bush. Jackson was a violent backwoods madman and unrepentant slave-holder, colorful and interesting at a safe distance, but America would have been a far better place without most of his presidential accomplishments. Hamilton, a truly great figure in American history, was nevertheless a man who had absolutely no faith in democracy.
It would be unfair to draw conclusions about George's prejudice only from his opposition to the statue, but in writing about it, he managed, over and over, to use words of scorn and derision.
How do you explain a squib that the possible removal of a reproduction of Magna Carta in favor of the statue "might displease a woman" (Queen Elizabeth II, whose gift it was)? Wouldn't you say it might displease the British people whose representative the Queen is? What explains his calling the statue one "less to past heroines than to present fixations"? Why his belittling description of the campaign for the statue as "entitlement mentality"?
George attacks one national symbol but is especially protective of others. He is especially protective of the reputation of the Sage of Monticello, patron saint to America's militia and survivalist crowd. Thomas Jefferson, much to the surprise of people who know him only as a giant, worthy head on Mount Rushmore, provided the prototype for two centuries of American shadow-fascism: use fine words about freedom in your correspondence while living off the sweat of a couple of hundred slaves; a man who never hesitated to stretch presidential authority to its very limits, always seeking to extend American empire. Jefferson was a secretive, suspicious, and vindictive man. He was not a friend to the spirit of Enlightenment.
Conor Cruise O'Brien, Irish scholar, published a biographical study called "The Long Affair," in 1996, about Thomas Jefferson and his peculiar admiration for the bloody excesses of the French Revolution. Well, the Sage for Archer Daniels Midland went into a word-strewn fit over the book.
Perhaps, the single thing about the book that most upset George was O'Brien's comparison of a statement of Jefferson's to something Pol Pot might have said. Jefferson wrote in 1793, at the height of the Terror, "…but rather than it [the French Revolution] should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is." George wrote off Jefferson's brutal statement as "epistolary extravagance," and attacked O'Brien for using slim evidence for an extreme conclusion about an American "hero."
George went so far as favorably to compare the work of Ken Burns with that of O'Brien, calling Burns "an irrigator of our capacity for political admiration," as compared to one who "panders" to "leave our national memory parched." Whew! See what I mean about words?
I mean no disparagement of Ken Burns, but he produces the television equivalent of coffee-table books. O'Brien is a scholar, the author of many serious books. The very comparison, even without the odd language, tells us something about George.
But language, too, is important. The irony is that George's own words, "irrigator of our capacity for political admiration," sound frighteningly like what we'd expect to hear from the Ministry of Culture in some ghastly place (dare I write it?) such as Pol Pot's Cambodia.
But George should have known better. This letter of Jefferson's is utterly characteristic of views he expressed many different ways. Jefferson quite blithely wrote that America's Constitution would not be adequate to defend what he called liberty, that there would have to be a new revolution every 15 or 20 years, and that the tree of liberty needed to be nourished regularly with a fresh supply of patriot blood.
Jefferson's well-known sentimental view of the merits of sturdy yeomen farmers as citizens of a republic and his intense dislike for industry and urbanization bear an uncanny resemblance to Pol Pot's beliefs. Throwing people out of cities to become honorable peasants back on the land, even those who never saw a farm, was precisely how Pol Pot managed to kill at least a million people in Cambodia.
Jefferson is not now revered for his understanding of the economics of his day. He truly had none, a fact which enabled the brilliant Alexander Hamilton to best him at every turn. However this is not a mistake Jefferson's intellectual heirs make, since money and power no longer come from plantations and slaves. They understand money and pursue the principles of economics narrowly often to the exclusion of other important goals in society. Jefferson is only of value to them because of the powerfully-expressed words he left behind belittling the importance of government, the only possible counterbalancing force to the excesses that always arise from great economic growth.
What is it about many of those on the right relishing the deaths of others in the name of ideology? You see, much like the "chickenhawks" now running Washington, sending others off to die, Jefferson never lifted a musket during the Revolution. While serving as governor of Virginia, he set a pathetic example of supporting the war's desperate material needs. He also gave us a comic-opera episode of dropping everything and running feverishly away from approaching British troops in Virginia (there was an official inquiry over the episode). Jefferson turned down his first diplomatic appointment to Europe by the new government out of fear of being captured by British warships, a fear that influenced neither Benjamin Franklin nor John Adams.
But real heroes aren't always, or even usually, soldiers. Jefferson, despite a long and successful career and a legacy of fine words (expressing thoughts largely cribbed from European writers), cannot be credited with any significant personal sacrifice over matters of principle during his life. He wouldn't give up luxury despite his words about slavery. He never risked a serious clash with the Virginia Establishment over slave laws during his rise in state politics. And in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, he lamely and at length blamed the king of England for the slave trade, yet, when he wrote the words, it was actually in his interest to slow the trade and protect the value of his existing human holdings.
Unlike Mr. Lincoln later, who had none of his advantages of education and good social contacts, Jefferson did not do well as a lawyer. He never earned enough to pay his own way, his thirst for luxury far outstripping even the capacity of his many high government positions and large number of slaves to generate wealth. Again, unlike Mr. Lincoln, Jefferson was not especially conscientious about owing people money, and he frequently continued buying luxuries like silver buckles and fine carriages while he still owed substantial sums.
Jefferson spent most of his productive years in government service, yet he never stopped railing against the evils of government. There's more than a passing resemblance here to the empty slogans of government-service lifers like Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich who enjoy their government pensions and benefits even as they still complain about government. Jefferson's most famous quote praises the least possible government, yet, as President, he brought a virtual reign of terror to New England with his attempts to enforce an embargo against England (the "Anglomen" as this very prejudiced man typically called the English).
Jefferson, besides having some truly ridiculous beliefs, like those about the evils of central banks or the health efficacy of soaking your feet in ice water every morning, definitely had a very dark side. Any of his political opponents would readily have testified to this. Jefferson was the American Machiavelli.
It was this side of him that put Philip Freneau on the federal payroll in order to subsidize the man's libelous newspaper attacks on Washington's government - this while Jefferson served in that very government. At another point, Jefferson hired James Callender to dig up and write filth about political opponents, an effort which backfired when Callender turned on Jefferson for not fulfilling promises. Callender famously dug out and publicized the story about Sally Hemings, Jefferson's slave-mistress, his late wife's illegitimate half-sister (slavery made for some amazing family relationships), a story we now know almost certainly to be true (by the way, dates point to Sally's beginning to serve Jefferson in this capacity at 13 or 14 years old). It was this dark side of Jefferson that resulted in a ruthless, years-long vendetta against Aaron Burr for the sin of appearing to challenge Jefferson's election to the presidency.
George charged O'Brien with wronging Jefferson on his racial views by quoting from Jefferson's youth and ignoring a different statement years later. But history really doesn't support George. Jefferson was challenged by others over the years on this issue, and, rather than argue a point on which he knew he was vulnerable, he tended to keep quiet, but there is no good evidence he ever changed his views, despite bits of writing, twinges of his own conscience undoubtedly, that sound sympathetic about how blacks might have arrived at their then piteous state.
Jefferson expressed himself in embarrassingly clear terms about his belief in black inferiority. And it is important to note that in doing so, he violated one of his basic principles of remaining skeptical and not accepting what was not proved, so this, clearly, was something he believed deeply. There is also reliable evidence that on one occasion he was observed by a visitor beating a slave, quite contradicting Jefferson's public-relations pretensions to saintly paternalism.
When Napoleon sent an army attempting to subdue the slaves who had revolted and formed a republic on what is now Haiti, President Jefferson gave his full consent and support to the bloody (and unsuccessful) effort.
Hero? I have no idea how George defines the word, but by any meaningful standard, Jefferson utterly fails.
In another flight of fancy some years ago, George equated honest efforts to limit campaign contributions to attacks on the First Amendment, about as silly an idea as claiming the Second (well-ordered-militia) Amendment defends the right of every household to own tanks and missile-launchers.
America restricts many forms of commercial expression deemed destructive or dangerous. Liquor advertising on television, certain forms of cigarette advertising, pornography, and racist propaganda are among these. Are these attacks on the First Amendment? Well, if they are, concerns for the Amendment are trumped by concerns for protecting children from noxious substances.
I'm not sure I can think of a more noxious thing than the complete twisting and distorting of democracy by money in Washington. Restrictions on things like liquor advertising testify that people recognize the suggestive, manipulative nature of advertising, yet America's national elections have pretty well been reduced to meaningless advertising free-for-alls between two vast pools of money.
No one objects to informative discussions of liquor, cigarettes, or racism on television, yet any thoughtful person knows that advertising for the same products or ideas is something else altogether. Do the most fundamental issues of a nation deserve the debased treatment they receive in election advertising campaigns? The Lincoln-Douglas Debates cost little but supplied voters with real information, something that cannot be said for any money-drenched campaign of the 20th Century.
When a particular aspect of free speech, as the right to give and spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, undermines democracy itself, it is not just one Amendment at stake, it is the whole evolution and meaning of the American Constitutional system.
Further, large amounts of campaign money, in economic terms, represent barriers to entry against newcomers, outside the two money-laden, quasi-monopoly parties. Try marketing a new product against a firm with the market position of a Microsoft or a Coke without tens of millions to spend, no matter how good your product, and you'll see what I mean by barriers to entry. This is something many find instinctively repellent and unfair in their most ordinary, everyday shopping and business dealings. How much more so where it directly affects the entry of candidates and new ideas into government?
Apart from the sheer ugliness of watching members of Congress grovel for money, we have many examples of money's pernicious influence on elections. The CIA has spent God knows how many millions of dollars influencing elections in other countries, yet observe America's great touchiness a few years back over even a hint that China may have played the same trick. This only shows how well Americans understand what money does to politics, yet whenever someone tries to do something to improve a rotten situation, George and other courtiers switch on their word processors and start felling trees.
My last citation from George concerns his regret over the coarseness and lack of civility in America, what George called "Dennis Rodman's America," or in another place, "a coarse and slatternly society" jeopardizing "all respect…."
Unfortunately, George's historical errors gave him a false basis for measuring moral decline. He wrote that the youthful George Washington was required to read "110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior." The fact is the highly ambitious Washington chose the small book and forced himself to copy out the rules in longhand so that he might become more acceptable for advancement in British colonial society.
Young Washington was heavily influenced by associating with families from the cream of British colonial society, people not at all characteristic of average colonial Americans. Most of America then was a rude, rough place. Newspapers regularly libeled and abused with a ferocity we can scarcely imagine today. Drunkenness and brawling were common. Fights often included such grotesque practices as gouging out eyes. And, of course, the filthy brutality of slavery was normal, on exhibit in many streets.
It is simply wrong to say that American behavior has gone downhill from a golden age. Europeans in the 19th century noted with horror the way Americans spit tobacco juice everywhere - even on the floors and carpets of the most elegant hotels. Visitors to the White House used to clomp around in muddy boots, pawing and even walking on furnishings, cutting souvenir swatches from the drapes and carpets and grabbing anything small enough to stuff under a coat - often leaving the place a shambles after a large public gathering.
At times there have been rules or practices that might now be cited as exemplifying a lost age of gentility, but citing these in isolation misrepresents the general tone of the past. While George cited the clean language used in movies under the Production Code in the 1940s, he neglected to mention that, while Hollywood worried about sexual innuendo in scripts, in any American city a policeman might freely and openly address a black citizen as "niggah." And while Hollywood fussed over suggestive words in "Casablanca," it was still possible in some parts of the country to lynch a black man and suffer no penalty.
But George is more concerned about sexual coarseness than violence. This happens to be a characteristic America's Puritans. It has also been characteristic of tyrant-temperaments. Hitler did not permit off-color or suggestive stories told in his presence. Lincoln, on the other hand loved a good off-color joke.
Now, again consider George's words about "a coarse and slatternly society" jeopardizing "all respect…." Slattern? Just what century does he think it is?
In fact, it is easily observed that people who use foul language are expressing anger and frustration, and there are lots of angry people in America: the pressures of the society do that to you. Trying to get at the cause of the anger would raise a discussion of civility to something worthwhile, but George seemed simply to want to "tut tut!" a bit like some marquis in the late 18th Century worrying about the niceties just before the deluge.
John Chuckman lives in Canada and is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company. He writes frequently for Yellow Times.org and other publications.