Peggy Noonan is pained about the state of public debate in this country. The longtime Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan speechwriter longs for a time when dignity flourished and political dissent was embraced. Lecturing with signature certainty in her latest column, Noonan bemoans the loss of "civic grace, democratic grace, the kind that assumes disagreements are part of the fabric, but we can make the fabric hold together."
After all, she laments, "Free speech means hearing things you like and agree with, and it means allowing others to speak whose views you do not like or agree with."
Peggy Noonan may be anguished, but at least she's sure who is to blame. It is liberals, those win-at-any-cost Democrats (and worse, celebrities!) who are silencing debate in this country. Plus, they're also being rude about it.
The way Noonan sees things, it's inquisitive, open-minded conservatives who are grappling with the hard questions, eager for public debate and a civilized, wide-ranging dialogue. They're the solemn protectors of dissent in this country, particularly vigilante about shielding unpopular opinions during wartime.
All of which begs the questions: Has Noonan ever watched Fox News where Bill O'Reilly tells guests to "shut-up" and unfurls insults, all while compiling an "enemies list"? Has she tuned into right-wing talk radio, which is designed to be hermetically sealed in order to keep dissenting voices off the air? And has Noonan ever read the right-wing war bloggers, who, as a rule, question the patriotism of anyone who speaks up against the war in Iraq?
Noonan's attempted maneuver about grace and free speech is clunky, but it's not unfamiliar. She's simply mimicking a popular right-wing attack that happens to be a classic Rovian, jujitsu thrust, which is to acknowledge your own weakness -- unhinged hatred for liberals and bullying desire to muzzle dissent -- and relentlessly project it onto your opponents, arguing that they're the ones who have blinders on and are driven by partisan rage. Consequently, Republican pundits pretend it's high-minded conservatives -- gentlemen and women who prefer the Queensbury Rules of intellectual combat -- who are trying to cling to a fading notion of poise and civility in the public square.
Where to begin? You could start with Media Matters for America's catalog of graceless attacks made by the likes of O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh, who owe their careers to their willingness to assault political opponents and stomp on minority viewpoints. In terms of Noonan herself, travel back to last year's Terri Schiavo right-to-die controversy and try to find the grace hidden in the insults Noonan hurled against anyone who disagreed with her radical notion that Congress needed to overrule the rights of Schiavo's husband and keep Terri alive via legislation. To Noonan, her opponents had a "bizarre passion" for death, were "unstable," "unhinged," and "red-fanged and ravenous." She warned that they were paving "the low road that twists past Columbine and leads toward Auschwitz."
And keep in mind that, by 2000, Noonan had literally run out of ways to call Clinton a creep and a predator (she once suggested he was being sexually blackmailed by Fidel Castro's intelligence service), so she started demonizing Al Gore, who was "not fully stable" and "altogether as strange and disturbing as Bill Clinton." And Noonan was actually late to the Gore name-calling game, which formed the foundation for mainstream conservative commentary during the 2000 election when Gore was "a monster willing to trash the whole country" (The National Review; 12/04/00) as well as being "self-obsessed, conniving, dangerous" (The Weekly Standard; 12/04/00).
And there's this despicable passage from the time of the Florida recount when it looked like Gore might actually become the next president of the United States. It was written by Noemie Emery and published by The National Review. Read it and keep in mind that Noonan now frets that it's the left that has lost its "civic grace":
Perhaps the worst thing that happened to Gore took place in 1938, when his big sister, Nancy, was born a girl. She, by all accounts, was the magnetic one, the one with charisma and humor; the born politician who could have gone out and won, on the strength of her talents, what her family so desperately wanted. But the sexes were wrong, and so poor Nancy languished, and took to the smoking and drinking that killed her. [Emphasis added.]
As for Noonan's allegation that it's liberals, not conservatives, who actively despise dissent, blogger Glenn Greenwald did an efficient job of demolishing that talking point, noting, as just one of many examples, that "David Horowitz has built his career over the last several years on his campaign to limit academic freedom through legislation."
Or how about the Fox News pundits in late March 2003 who were attacking journalists who raised legitimate questions about the early military progress of the invasion into Iraq. At Fox, that public discourse was slapped down as "disgraceful," "idiotic," "stupid," and "moronic."
Around that same time, Noonan was visibly irked by two notable Democrats who had the nerve to question the wisdom of the unfolding Iraq mission. "Two of our former presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, have been talking a lot about their views and feelings on Iraq," she wrote in a February 24, 2003, column. "It would be nice if they took to speaking less and thinking more."
Does that sound like a woman interested in debate?
The truth is that Noonan's weekly column has been driving liberals batty for years. I think it's partly because the Journal gives her such a high-profile and respected media platform, and yet, she consistently displays a complete disregard for facts, preferring when possible to make things up. A favorite habit is building entire columns around something she's heard second-hand, or by over-analyzing a single public gesture by somebody and giving it hugely important meaning. Or maybe it's because, like Dick Morris, she is habitually wrong about so many predictions. And after a while, her condescending tone of enlightenment begins to resemble nails on the chalkboard. For instance, read this Noonan gem from her March 24, 2003, column:
So far so good. The war has begun, and the world hasn't ended (alarmists, pessimists and prophets on left and right please note). Saddam Hussein may be hurt or dead. And so, on to Baghdad.
We are about to startle and reorder the world. We are going to win this thing, and in the winning of it we are going to reinspire civilized people across the globe. We're going to give the world a lift.
And this is a woman who today feels comfortable -- three years later and nearly 700,000 dead Iraqi civilians later -- lecturing anti-war liberals about right and wrong and how to behave? Her vanity truly knows no bounds.
Noonan's flimsy construct
Noonan's latest argument that unhinged liberals are gagging free speech and ruining politics with their singular lack of civility is built around four mostly flimsy examples of recent political dust-ups. I say mostly because the first one actually holds up to scrutiny. It took place at Columbia University, when Jim Gilchrist, the leader and founder of the controversial, anti-immigration group the Minuteman Project was invited to speak at a forum on campus. When that time came, a group of Columbia students stormed the stage en masse and shut the event down. I concede Noonan's point. It's almost always a mistake when college kids -- on the left or the right -- issue a heckler's veto and start declaring who does and does not represent a legitimate part of the debate for their campus, and the Columbia donnybrook was no exception.
Noonan should have quit while she was ahead. But determined to spot a trend, she went digging for more evidence of liberals silencing debate. She turned her attention to the October 2 broadcast of the CBS Evening News, and a provocative "Free Speech" segment by Brian Rohrbough. His son was killed during the Columbine massacre years ago and CBS News invited him specifically to speak on the same day Amish students were gunned down in Pennsylvania. Rohrbough proceeded to uncork a radical-right sermon about how godless liberals were running the country by, among other misdeeds, teaching evolution in the classroom.
Not surprisingly, Rohrbough's fringe comments, and specifically the timing of them, in the wake of the Amish massacre, sparked criticism. But what did news executives at the supposedly liberal CBS network do? They defended Rohrbough's right to speak. Still searching for proof of a liberal conspiracy to silence unpopular speech, Noonan turned her attention to a news report that Rohrbough's tirade "prompted a storm of criticism, some of it within the ranks of CBS News."
Do you see irony that seems completely lost on Noonan? She insists liberals can't stomach vigorous debate, and then she attacks anonymous CBS News employees because some of them took part in a vigorous debate about the appropriateness of its recent programming.
From unknown CBS News employees, it was onto aging pop divas. Noonan was deeply, deeply concerned about a single sentence Barbra Streisand recently uttered onstage at a New York City concert. Babs reportedly dropped an F-bomb on a guy who yelled out, "What is this, a fund-raiser?" in reaction to a mid-concert skit mocking Bush. The entire incident lasted approximately five seconds, and Streisand later apologized for her unkind words. But Noonan, who wasn't at the concert, was certain the incident represented a crucial insight into the mindset of liberals -- that they can't stand dissent and want to smother it.
Surprised that Noonan was painting herself as a defender of dissent, I went Googling in vain to find her defense of the Dixie Chicks, who, after their single-sentence utterance against President Bush in 2003, earned the wrath of hysterical conservatives, who literally steamrolled the group's CDs and issued death threats. All I've been able to find is a Journal editorial calling the attacks on the Dixie Chicks' unpopular speech as "heartwarming" and "refreshing." I'm sure Noonan finds this quite distressing.
The final target in Noonan's column was Rosie O'Donnell. (Understand that in Noonan's world, college kids, along with singers and actresses, are suitable stand-ins by which to judge progressives nationwide.) The Journal columnist was aghast that O'Donnell, now a co-host of ABC's The View, got into an extended debate about gun control with the show's Elisabeth Hasselbeck, who is conservative. "Elisabeth needed to be educated," Noonan wrote ominously. "The education commenced, Rosie gesturing broadly and Elisabeth constricting herself as if she knew physical assault were a possibility."
Go watch the exchange between O'Donnell and Hasselbeck and try to find the portion where there's any sign the former Queen of Nice might "physical[ly] assault" her co-host. Good luck, because the tirade Noonan described simply never took place on ABC. In fact, what you see is a surprisingly well-informed, and yes, passionate debate about gun control among two bright, daytime talk-show hosts. But to Noonan's fragile ears, mean ol' Rosie was trying to crush public discourse.
Of course, what Noonan doesn't acknowledge during her extended sermon about progressives trying to muzzle voices they don't like, is that it's O'Donnell who is currently on the receiving end of a censorship campaign, launched by evangelicals who want O'Donnell fired from ABC, because (are you ready, Peggy?) they don't like the things O'Donnell is saying on television. Janice Crouse, senior fellow with the conservative Concerned Women for America, announced last month that O'Donnell "ought to be fired summarily for making" controversial comments about Christian fundamentalists. And Bill Gray, of the World Christian Ministries, writing online for The Conservative Voice, demanded that O'Donnell be silenced by the network: "I want no more of Rosie O'Donnell. I have sent this message to the president of ABC. ... Let's let him know that this time ABC has definitely crossed the unforgivable line -- and ONLY an ABC minus Rosie will ever satisfy Christian America or a Christian world."
So much for open debate. So much for grace. And so much for Peggy Noonan.