Tuesday, April 29, 2008
I feel bad for the High Opinionators of the press. One of the few perks of blogging is the ability to shut up when you have nothing to say; Opinionators have no such luxury. The need for column inches far outweighs the need for substance, and your editor will have your head if you cannot squeeze out some words onto the page like pressurized, canisterized cheese onto a cracker. Peggy Noonan, in this state, writes her column as if in a dream...
America is in line at the airport. America has its shoes off, is carrying a rubberized bin, is going through a magnetometer. America is worried there is fungus on the floor after a million stockinged feet have walked on it. But America knows not to ask. America is guilty until proved innocent, and no one wants to draw undue attention. [...]
Now America needs to go to the bathroom. Sweet Jesus, why did America drink an entire Starbucks latte on the way here? What was America thinking? America crosses its legs, hoping to hell the line speeds up. Crap, thinks America, did I leave the toaster plugged in? For some reason, America has always harbored the secret fear that somehow, of all the electrical appliances in the entire house, the toaster is the one that will spontaneously erupt into flames while America is away for a few days. So America always unplugs the toaster before leaving on a long trip, even while leaving all the other appliances and electronics that are, truth be known, probably much more likely to burst into flames for no apparent reason. What can America say? America learned it from its mother.
But we must short-circuit our personification of America as channelled by Peggy Noonan, who like all Opinionaters can channel all of America at the drop of a hat, whenever needed, because after a while Noonan has finally arrived at her destination, belt intact, premise disheveled:
Main thought. Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama's problem. America is Mr. Obama's problem. He has been tagged as a snooty lefty, as the glamorous, ambivalent candidate from Men's Vogue, the candidate who loves America because of the great progress it has made in terms of racial fairness. Fine, good. But has he ever gotten misty-eyed over . . . the Wright Brothers and what kind of country allowed them to go off on their own and change everything? How about D-Day, or George Washington, or Henry Ford, or the losers and brigands who flocked to Sutter's Mill, who pushed their way west because there was gold in them thar hills? There's gold in that history.
I must confess, not even in a deadline-inspired fever dream have I set myself down and wondered, really wondered, whether or not Barack Obama loved George Washington. I have watched Obama make speeches about race and class in America, but I have never considered whether Barack Obama has ever teared up at the late, great Henry Ford, messiah of the automobile and perfecter of the assembly-line anti-Semitic public screed. And what of the California prospectors? Does Obama sufficiently love them, or is he an anti-American asshole? All the while Obama has been speaking of America, in his speeches across the country, speaking of its history and future, its failures and successes, it never occurred to me that perhaps he did not really love George Washington, the Wright Brothers and Sutter's Mill, because he perhaps did not have the genetic pedigree to properly love those things? How can he compare to the patriotic lineage of the other two candidates?
John McCain carries it in his bones. Mr. McCain learned it in school, in the Naval Academy, and, literally, at grandpa's knee. Mrs. Clinton learned at least its importance in her long slog through Arkansas, circa 1977-92.
Mr. Obama? What does he think about all that history? Which is another way of saying: What does he think of America? That's why people talk about the flag pin absent from the lapel. They wonder if it means something. Not that the presence of the pin proves love of country – any cynic can wear a pin, and many cynics do. But what about Obama and America? Who would have taught him to love it, and what did he learn was loveable, and what does he think about it all?
McCain knows of patriotism, you see, because he has the lineage to know it. Clinton knows patriotism secondhand, through her exposure to it in the wilds of Arkansas. But what of Obama, indeed?
McCain learned patriotism in school, Noonan says, and this is an important point. What could Obama have learned of patriotism in his Hawaii high school class during the bicentennial year of 1976? The eventual Senator could not possibly have learned of patriotism there, in a state so ethnic that it could hardly be called a state! How could his Kansas-born American mother have taught him to love it, a woman with the suspiciously ethnic name of Dunham? How could his American grandparents, or his teachers? Could he have learned it from his fellow students, students like "America Online founder Steve Case, actress Kelly Preston and former Dallas Cowboys lineman Mark Tuinei?" Did their patriotism rub off on him, Ms. Noonan, or -- let us be honest, here -- was he too ethnic for it to stick?
Is that not what we are speaking of here, in the most circuitous possible of ways: the pedigree of the man, the suspicious ethnicity, the unnerving multiculturalism? Are we not speaking of the eugenics of patriotism, patriotism as inherited, bred trait? Because if we are not, by what metric are we taking the measure of such things, and is getting teary-eyed at the mention of gold prospectors truly the test to be administered?
I have never thought about these things, and yet I could have. Barack Obama wrote a book about America, after all, and one would presume that Noonan, as the very embodiment of the airplane-flying, shoe-removing nation would have at least been vain enough to read it, to see just how she came off. What does Obama love about America, indeed? Does he think America looks fat? Does he think America is witty? Clever? Obama is in a world of hurt, because America is apparently in a terribly insecure mood, and is not just asking Obama the safe question -- do you love me? -- but the followup question that any suitor knows to have swirling undercurrents of potential treachery: what do you love most about me?
Another challenge. Snooty lefties get angry when you ask them to talk about these things. They get resentful. Who are you to question my patriotism? But no one is questioning his patriotism, they're questioning its content, its fullness. Gate 14 has a right to hear this. They'd lean forward to hear.
There is an intriguing sentence, that. No one is questioning his patriotism, they're questioning its content, its fullness. It quite literally means No one is questioning his patriotism, only how much of it he has. So it is unambiguously questioning his patriotism, by virtue of questioning its volume: there is no way around it. Imagine, though, the snootiness, the profound intellectualism required for some lefty to point out the meaning of the very sentence. Peggy Noonan is a professional wordsmith, and if she can embrace the entirety of America in her own head, she can certainly declare that a truism is false, and get away with it. If she declares that she can question the measure of patriotism within a man without questioning the patriotism of a man, would not it be the height of arrogance to object -- the sign of a word-based elitist cult that has attacked the professional Republican speechwriters of this world for far, far too long?
Because Gate 14, the well-guarded portal into Noonan's own hypothesis of America, demands to know the answers to Noonan's questions. It is possible for a man named Barack Obama to love George Washington, or know about the pioneers, or admire the Wright Brothers? No matter how many books he writes, no matter whether he dedicates himself to becoming a state senator, or a United States senator, is it possible for him to love America as much as a man whose grandfather was an Admiral -- and how do we make him prove it? What things should he write that will prove it, if we are not interested to read what he has already written? What things shall he say, rather than the things he has already said but which we were not actually listening to? If a tree falls in the forest, but all the pundits block their ears, does the tree make a sound? Or does it only make a sound if a Republican declares it has?
Obama cannot prove his patriotism any more than Peggy Noonan can; if we presume patriotism to be love of country, we can look at written words, and spoken words, and concrete actions to offer evidence, but if we are intent on ignoring all of it then yes, there is no way Obama can satisfy the entirely nonpartisan, America-channelling skepticism of Peggy Noonan.
Noonan offers not a single element of evidence to support her hypothesis that the patriotism of one candidate needs evaluation, but that of the other two does not. It is a hypothesis not simply devoid of fact, but devoid even of blind assertion: there is no anecdote given to support the theory. There is no past event to be pointed at, or suspicious phrasing to be parsed, or even hushed conspiracy theory. Noonan at no point, during her channelling of the American psyche, offers even one thin word towards explaining why Obama's patriotism needs questioning: she merely asserts that it does, in comparison with the candidate that "carries it in his bones," and "learned it in school, in the Naval Academy, and, literally, at grandpa's knee."
All we can glean from this is that we should presume presidential candidate Barack Obama did not learn it in school. Why? We are given the implication that he did not learn it from his family -- why? We are presented with the assumption that the Naval Academy is the granter of patriotism -- what, then, of the hundreds of millions of the rest of us, who did not attend? Are none of us patriotic, not a single damn one? Can it be as easily parsed as all that?
We are left only with the same empty whispers carried by every other far-right critique of the man: Noonan provides a momentary pseudoliteracy for the same premise, more crudely uttered, that pervades the right. Obama as very young child spent four brief years overseas: is he a Manchurian candidate, or a secret Muslim? Though religious, like all good patriots should be, Obama attends a Chicago church whose black pastor has said controversial things: is he secretly more black and angry than he lets on?
Does Barack Obama, in other words, as a black man who grew up exposed to different cultures, from Hawaii to Jakarta to Harvard to Chicago, have the genes for true patriotism?
We know this is the question. We can fathom from Noonan's complete unwillingness to define even the barest of arguments for her not-sufficiently-patriotic premise that the argument is something either to crude or too embarrassing to be expressed. Surely, Noonan cannot possibly believe that spending a mere four years, from ages six through ten, outside of the United States is enough to permanently desiccate the patriotism of an American -- many, many American children suffer the same fate, being shuffled from country to country as their military or diplomatic or career-driven parents require. (Obama was born in Hawaii; McCain was born in Panama.) Surely, Noonan cannot argue that his Kansas-born, Seattle-raised mother did not sufficiently raise him in the ways of America, since she had not attended the Naval Academy -- Obama's grandfather was a World War II soldier. And surely, Noonan is not such a dunderheaded fool as to presume that the high schools of Hawaii could not properly teach their charges of American history, of George Washington or the Wright Brothers or why they should cry at mention of nineteenth century prospectors. All the other attendees of his rightly famous and much-heralded Honolulu private school seemed to have had those lessons.
So what, then, is the excuse for the premise? What is it about Obama's face or demeanor that alarms Noonan so, that she and America must carefully study the true patriotism of the man? What is it about him that sends the fear of secret betrayal through her spine, something not shared either by the genetically superior McCain or even the loathed but still-faintly-praised Clinton?
Noonan will not tell us, though she is quite certain all of good-hearted, conservative America instinctively should feel those same fears, for the same unspecified reasons. We are left to presume her intentions are the same as all others who have broached the subject.
Labels: Peggy Noonan