Someone needs to muzzle Peggy Noonan

Special Assistant to President Reagan, chief speechwriter for Bush I during the 1988 Presidential campaign, contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal, conservative lapdog; Peggy Noonan is many things, but she is neither a scholar, nor a particularly insightful social critic (Exhibit A). She has a more impressive resume than most of her slack-jawed, neoconservative colleagues, but her ideas aren't exceptional or original (Exhibit B). Her schtick is Right Wing apologetic, inflected with familiar over-tones of self-righteousness, a misplaced sense of entitlement, and a retrograde cultural sensibility. Think of her as Ann Coulter's older, slightly less obnoxious sister.

Before I say anything else about Peggy, I want it known that I don't actually make a habit of reading her narrow-minded tripe. In spite of the ubiquity of conservative prattle, I generally do a pretty good job of avoiding it. I have somehow managed to expend very little cerebral capacity contemplating the ideas propagated by Ms. Noonan and others of her ilk, and I feel that I am better off because of this. But every so often, she pens something so infuriating that I'm compelled to respond; to wit, Noonan's WSJ op-ed piece from last Thursday.

In "It's Policy, Not Poetry," Ms. Noonan addresses Democrats' vexation over the successful manipulation of symbols (religious imagery, the flag) by Republicans, arguing that the very allegation of symbolic manipulation indicates a "kind of crazy and paranoid way of looking at rhetoric." She asserts that there's no hidden agenda behind Bush II's frequent religious references, and contends that the success of Republican messages isn't due to the secrets encoded therein. As Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, explains, "the president's references to God are both carefully considered and well within the traditions of presidential rhetoric...they're not code words, they're our culture." Noonan adds that the "real secret" is that "the most successful phrases are not imposed top-down from the candidate to the people; they bubble up and emerge and are used by the candidate." In other words, Republican rhetoric works not because politicians and speechwriters cynically manipulate religious or patriotic images, but because it corresponds to the essential, underlying truth of the world: the American public, that ephemeral, chimeral heart of democracy, is religious and patriotic...and Republican.

Noonan's relevance and reputation are closely tied to the ascendance of conservative cultural and political influence over the past half-century. She excels in her role as a cheerleader for the winning team, primarily because she truly believes in the righteousness of its triumph. Conservative dominance is Just because it accurately reflects the beliefs of the majority of Americans. It is the Public Will. To think otherwise is, in her words, crazy and paranoid. Republican rhetoric works because it coheres with the vision of the world shared by a majority of Americans. As such, Noonan suggests that Democrats are doomed to fail, unless and until they quit worrying about symbolic manipulation and start speaking in terms that resonate with the majority. She concludes her essay with these words of advice for the Democratic Party:

"I know something the Democratic Party can do right now that will improve its standing and increase its popularity. It can be done this week. Its impact will be quick and measurable.

It is this: Stop the war on religious expression in America. Have Terry McAuliffe come forward and announce that the Democratic Party knows that a small group of radicals continue to try to "scrub" such holidays as Christmas from the public square....Have Terry McAuliffe announce that from here on in the Democratic Party is on the side of those who want religion in the public square, and the Ten Commandments on the courthouse wall for that matter. Then he should put up a big sign that says "Merry Christmas" on the sidewalk in front of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters on South Capitol Street. The Democratic Party should put itself on the side of Christmas, and Hanukkah, and the fact of transcendent faith.

This would be taking a stand on an issue that roils a lot of people, and believe me those people don't think conservatives are scrubbing America of Christmas, they think it's liberals; and they don't think it's Republicans, they think it's Democrats. Confound them, Terry! Come forward with a stand. It is the stand that is the salvation, not mysterious words or codes or magic messages.

Do this, Democrats. Announce you will apply pressure to antireligious zealots throughout the country. You have nothing to lose but a silly and culturally unhelpful reputation as the party that is hostile to religious expression. What you could gain is respect and gratitude. Pick up that Christmas tree, Terry, take it outside and put a star on top, stand next to it, yell Merry Christmas and ring a bell. That's a manipulation of symbols that would actually make sense."

There are so many problems with this passage that I'm not even sure where to start. First of all, we already have a party that stands "on the side of those who want religion in the public square," thank you very much. These are the same folks who are working hard to impose their religious perspective on public policy and law in the name of religious freedom. We call them Republicans, and they're the ones we're fighting against.

Secondly, and this always kills me, notice how Noonan tries to minimize her Christian-centric perspective by aligning support for Christmas with "Hanukkah, and the fact of transcendent faith." Classic move, and one that only serves to highlight her obvious bias: she doesn't demand that McAuliffe light a minorah in a window of the DNC headquarters, nor does she even pretend that Jewish religious symbols will ever be on display on the courthouse walls. Religious freedom is convenient cover for the imposition of a Christian theocracy, at the expense of the freedoms of Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians. Again, thanks for the advice, Ms. Noonan, but I think you miss the point.

Finally, this essay exemplifies a fundamental misunderstanding of democratic politics, the glaring lacuna at the heart of conservative ideology: the point of government is not to blindly serve the interests of the majority, but to balance majority desires and the minority interests against which they are often aligned. In Peggy's world, politics is reduced to the blunt force will of the majority, and there is no room for those that refuse to get on board. It's not unusual for Noonan to spew insipid nonsense, but this kind of thinking is downright dangerous. Noonan offers a prescription for politics of the lowest common denominator. This is the strategy employed by Rove, and it is fucking genius - evil genius. Democrats didn't lose the election because the youth vote didn't turn out, or because a majority of Americans think Bush is doing a bang up job. Democrats lost because rednecks, bigots and religious zealots turned out in droves to support state initiatives barring gay marriages. This is the majority Bush taps into every time his rhetoric drifts into the realm of religion, the majority Noonan champions as fundamentally American. And as long as politics is played according to their rules, the meaning of freedom and justice will be narrowly circumscribed to fit their religious beliefs.


Blogger Silver Zephyr said...

the fonts are kind of strange on this post - you might want to check the formatting. it changes halfway through. also, i linked you to my blog. and i might let you put it on girlstown...for a small fee...

4:27 PM  
Blogger From My Lips to Your Ears said...

Peggy Noonan is a NOOsance. She freaks me out. I try to avoid her columns as well but sometimes; like an accident, you cannot look away.

I loved this entry.

12:54 PM  

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