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JONATHAN CHAIT

Oh, now the right wants to talk nice

January 07, 2007|JONATHAN CHAIT

IN THE 1990S, prominent conservatives suggested that President Clinton was a murderer, a conservative senator warned that the president might be shot if he visited that senator's state, and a Republican majority leader told Democrats, "Your president is just not that important to us." And there were many other nasty episodes. But ever since a Republican has held the White House, certain conservatives have decided that political anger is now the main problem of American life and that it resides primarily on the left.

The latest such conservative is Peter Woods, who has written an article in National Review holding me up as the apotheosis of this trend. Woods refers to my "anger" and "nastiness" and writes that I represent "a kind of political theater -- a special kind of theater in which the performer enacts rage and attempts symbolically to annihilate his opponent."

Because he is obviously very sensitive, I will try to explain myself as delicately as possible, in the civil and respectful tone that he finds appropriate.

Let me begin by saying Woods is obviously a brilliant and discerning man. I'm sure he writes in good faith and is a caring father or son or cousin to somebody. If I were to run into him, I would greet him warmly, offer him a drink and start gently washing his feet.

Yet I must ever so gently point out that his logic falls just a wee bit short. In 2003, I wrote an essay for the New Republic defending hatred of George W. Bush, an essay to which Woods attributes many of the ills of modern life. According to Woods, "its essential message is, 'I am to be believed and reckoned with because I am angry.' "

I would meekly suggest that this was the opposite of the point of the essay. I wrote that I personally find Bush to be a quite distasteful person, but you must separate your view of the man from your view of his policies. That is the reason why I forcefully (and, in retrospect, mistakenly) supported the Iraq war and upbraided my fellow liberals for allowing their disdain for Bush to color their view of the enterprise. The point of the essay was that personal anger can exist, but it ought to be put aside, and there were sound and natural reasons why liberals loathe Bush.

Woods further claims that I have exposed myself again with another article in the New Republic. Let me explain this one. Recently, a libertarian named Brink Lindsey wrote an article for the New Republic arguing that liberals needed to form an alliance with libertarians. I found his argument interesting (and I encouraged its publication) but ultimately unconvincing. So I wrote a reply, arguing that it would be ideologically and politically counterproductive for liberals to follow Lindsey's advice.

This is the article Woods seizes on as verification that I and other liberals are driven by blind rage. "It is the proof that the American Left's anger is ultimately not about Bush," he writes. My article, in his description, exuded "withering disdain." Most horrible of all, it ended by quoting Michael Corleone -- from "The Godfather, Part 2" -- saying, "My offer is this: Nothing." My use of this quote, Woods writes, was an effort to "adopt the persona of a gravely insulted Michael Corleone."

Well. As for the "withering disdain," I do confess that I found Lindsey's argument unconvincing. But in my reply, I did write that Lindsey's offer was "written in a friendly spirit" and I called it "quite thought-provoking." If my politesse was not up to Woods' standards, I humbly apologize and plead the constraints of space, without which I would have gone on in my praise of Lindsey in greater detail.

Moreover, by quoting a movie, I was not attempting to adopt the persona of a mafia don. Nor, for that matter, was I threatening to have Lindsey killed. I was simply trying to make a little joke. I am deeply sorry that in so doing I tore asunder the fragile threads of our civil society.

Some would suggest that the right's newfound obsession with tone is not only hypocritical but an attempt to stifle criticism through arbitrary criteria, much like campus PC-niks. But I would not suggest that because that would be an angry thing to say, and I do not want to do any more damage to civil discourse than I already have.

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jchait@latimescolumnists.com

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