Marching to the music of his Midtown Manhattan dinner companions, Bill Buckley, in a recent syndicated column, called on the US government to issue an ultimatum to the Iraqi government: either deliver your terrorists or face our collective anger. Although there is no available evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the September 11 bombings, according to Buckley, there is at least one book now showing that Saddam "sponsored" the attack on the World Trade Center that took place in 1993. Buckley goes on to argue that stronger action should be taken against Iraq, in addition to the present embargo and continuous bombing, contrary to the more lackadaisical approach expressed by Buckley’s "much admired" colleague Bob Novak.
It is by no means irrelevant to understanding this particular intervention that Norman Podhoretz, whom Buckley seems to revere the way Hobbes did the state — as a "mortal god" — pounded Novak last week in the New York Post as a hater of Israel and as a proven enemy of the Jewish people. Podhoretz hit the ceiling when Novak ascribed the call sounded by Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer to get tough with Arab states to their fixation on Israel. Without repudiating (which might seem tantamount to anti-Semitism) Podhoretz’s predictably tasteless outburst, Buckley re-presents his point of view, minus the bile.
Putting facelifts on neocon politics is something that Buckley’s magazine does with some regularity. One observes this practice with particular clarity in the recent blowup between media personality Ann Coulter and National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg. After agonizing over Coulter’s contribution to NRO submitted right after the World Trade Tower bombing, Goldberg not only refused to publish her screed but also got Coulter mad enough to walk out on his publication.
According to Goldberg, on October 3, it was wrong to allow Ann, who is really a "smart and funny person," to engage in "emoting rather than thinking," without "self-censorship," particularly when his own prestigious publication was at stake. Both Rich Lowry, the adolescent who is technically in charge of the magazine-version of the same deteriorating product, and Goldberg, his like-minded subordinate, complained about Ann becoming an "embarrassment" to her and to them.
As Jeff Elkins wisely observes on the Rockwell website (October 7, 2001), the NR editorial board has learned one lesson from the Left, especially the CP. When you wish to slander an opponent who may otherwise get the better of you, accuse him or her of having mental problems. Thus Goldberg points out that Coulter has gone from "emoting" to writing a "long, rambling rant " in defense of her position.
The parting on Coulter’s side was even more acrimonious. While she failed to notice the irony of Goldberg’s accusing her of "sloppy" writing and thinking, a classical case of the pot calling the kettle black, she made the cutting remark to the Washington Post that her hypersensitive critics at NR are "just girly boys." Coulter was referring specifically to the facts that Goldberg had regretted publishing a column of hers on September 12 that offered this plan for dealing with Muslim terrorists: " We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." In the column that had precipitated her departure from NRO, the exuberant Ann called for careful inspection at airports of "suspicious-looking swarthy males" and underlined the merit of throwing troublesome Muslim visitors out of the US.
Unlike David Horowitz, who swooped her up on October 3 as a writer for his online publication, I’m not sure Ann was writing "tongue firmly in cheek" when she recommended devastating Muslim countries. On September 12, she was still reeling, as we learn, from the shock of losing friends to terrorist violence. She also pronounced what may be taken as standard neocon prescriptions for dealing with Muslim enemies; and her words, however impassioned, were perhaps less frenetic than the appeal to the American government that issued from the usual neocon suspects hours after the bombings of September 11.
Certainly Coulter’s delight over the "carpet bombing of Germany" in World War Two and her desire to apply this tactic to fighting Muslims could not have disturbed Goldberg’s or Lowry’s handlers in the least. The call for bombing Middle Eastern Muslim countries, on September 12, directed at the government by Bill Kristol and Bill Bennett and thirty seven of their clients, was at least as macabre as anything suggested by Ann Coulter.
Ann made two mistakes with her employers in terms of pr. Most grievously, she pushed the "Christian" alternative to being Muslim, a road that the neocons and their happily captive movement do not care to take. The de rigueur alternative to being a Muslim terrorist is being a global democrat, an identity defined by Commentary, Weekly Standard, and, less vigorously, by National Review.
Presenting the West as a Christian society will offend not only Jewish liberals and neocons. Perhaps even more critically, such a designation will unsettle the hypermodernists who will applaud a war against Muslims only if it is properly spun as a progressive cause. Though the carelessly reading Goldberg last week defended Silvio Berlusconi’s affirmations about Western moral superiority, he dropped from his expression of support any endorsement of Berlusconi’s glowing references to the Western religious heritage. Goldberg recast the Italian premiere’s statement in a way that stripped it of any controversy. It was made to appear that Berlusconi was saying that the "West is best" because our society is awash in "human rights." Berlusconi was of course saying far more, a textual problem that Goldberg either didn’t perceive or tried not to notice.
Coulter committed a second error by ignoring how politically correct NR has become in its newest incarnation. Whether John Miller and Ramesh Ponnuru bashing the "nativist" critics of Third World immigration, Jacob Heilbrunn belaboring the supposed pervasiveness of Holocaust-denial, or the editors disdaining public displays of the Confederate flag, one can usually count on NR to read like a caricature of The New Republic. (The latter fortnightly, to quote a black boxer’s self — description, is "the real deal.")
More than twenty years ago I published a commentary in Intercollegiate Review characterizing NR as an "imitation Commentary for upwardly mobile Catholics." By now those words of disparagement would be unwarranted praise for the same publication.
Allow me to push my own envelope a bit further by agreeing with Coulter on the girly fragrance that has crept into NR. Having read that magazine during its salad days in the sixties, I can attest that it once amounted to something, when Frank Meyer, James Burnham, Will Herberg, Thomas Molnar, John Lukacs, Russell Kirk, and a much younger and infinitely more spirited Bill Buckley provided their unvarnished opinions. (Up until a few years ago, it was still worth reading, to the extent that it included Taki, the still unmuzzled John O’Sullivan, and occasional polemics by Peter Brimelow.)
What made the old NR an exciting read was not, as movement conservative parrots would have us think, that "there used to be very few conservative publications." Rather the magazine in the sixties said things that one didn’t encounter on the editorial pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, even when those newspapers were well to the right of where they stand now. These days the magazine and its webzine specialize in neutered prose somewhere between political correctness and gesturing toward positions they are too terrified to take.
One understands of course the pressures to which they are subject. Like the avuncular Bill, they may not get their hoped-for invites — or checks — unless they fawn on the people who count in New York circles. But this pandering results in a form of writing that goes with the teatime chatter and disproportionately big bowties that I associate with these chaps when I observe them on TV.
There is something else that strikes me about those who, for New York journalists and party-throwers, represent the official opposition. We are looking at redundant people, who are given attention because the Left, both liberal and neocon, have closed the political debate to those whom they consider "extremists." The "girly boys" fill places in a mock forum that excludes the truly vigorous Right. Towering above Coulter’s critics are the neocon warriors, who have forced their way into the public spotlight. These strong, driven types came to power by making alliances all over the place to drive the serious Right off the edge of the earth. The real battle for the soul of conservatism will be fought between them and that part of the Right they failed to vanquish. As the French say, "c’est tout de la frime."