Room for hate

Published February 1, 2023

The New Criterion

Ibought a Tesla to help the environment,” wrote John Blumenthal for the Los Angeles Times in late December. “Now, I’m embarrassed to drive it.” The article seemed to me to be a kind of encapsulation of all the absurdities of our cold civil war. It was also one of an increasing number of press stories these days whose substance, such as it was, was entirely contained in the headline. You needed to read no further to understand all that the author had, or ever would have, to say in the course of registering his public status as a proud exponent of media groupthink—from the virtue signaling in his choice of motor vehicle to the environmentalist orthodoxy that constitutes his only notion of virtue to his horror of any possible association, however far-fetched, between himself and the latest media hate-figure.

This was, of course, Elon Musk, the chief executive officer of Tesla Motors and its successor company Tesla Inc., whose proprietorship of Twitter had lately led to the revelation of what could only be called collusion between the site’s previous management and elements of the deep state, principally the fbi—with the aims, among others, of suppressing heterodox views of the covid-19 lockdown or vaccines and compassing the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Mr. Blumenthal does not omit to include the conventional media characterization of the Trump partisans who complained about this collusion as “neo-Nazis,” since this is the implied justification for such collusion among the dwindling number of those on the left who believe, or pretend to believe, any justification to be necessary.

You can’t help wondering why, if someone wished to associate himself instead with the heroes of Old Twitter who had supposedly, by the practice of deceit and the stifling of dissent, kept the Nazis out of power, he should now be embarrassed by a much slighter association with Mr. Musk, the man who had made their doings known to the world. Why didn’t Mr. Blumenthal, rather, want to thank the billionaire industrialist for ensuring that the good guys got due credit for their actions? Is it possible that there exists, stirring in its troubled sleep deep within the soul of even so dull an apparatchik of the media Left as Mr. Blumenthal, some slight vestige of a conscience about such skulduggery?

The attempt to establish a moral equivalency between Mr. Musk and Mr. Trump was already well established even before the release of the “Twitter Files” through the agency of Matt Taibbi and other independent journalists beginning on December 2 of last year. A day earlier, perhaps in anticipation of the revelations yet to come, J. Peder Zane of RealClearPolitics wrote of “The Trumpification of Elon Musk”:

The relentless attacks on Elon Musk since he purchased Twitter should be familiar to most Americans. It’s exactly what Democrats and their media and corporate allies did to demonize Donald Trump. The McCarthyite formula is simple: Claim you are defending high-minded principles (Democracy! The rule of law! Civil discourse!) to justify efforts to delegitimize someone you’ve identified as a political opponent.

It is possible, not to mention in many ways advisable, to oppose Mr. Trump without supposing him to represent the sum of all evils in the political world.

Distasteful as it is, I think the repetition of this media strategy ought to be a salutary lesson to the Republican NeverTrumpers who have hitherto been strangely reluctant to point out to their new allies à gauche that it is possible, not to mention in many ways advisable, to oppose Mr. Trump without supposing him to represent the sum of all evils in the political world. Many such Republicans are now flocking to the as-yet-to-be-erected standard of Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida ahead of the 2024 election. I wonder if they will be given pause by Vanity Fair’s Bess Levin (whose tagline is: “It’s cheaper than therapy”), who has issued what she calls “A Comprehensive Guide to Why a Ron DeSantis Presidency Would Be as Terrifying as a Trump One.”

Substitute the name of any other plausible Republican candidate for that of Mr. DeSantis and you have the perfect template for all the exercises in Trumpification that are still to come—as they are certain to come for whoever ultimately inherits the place in Republican hearts once occupied by Mr. Trump.

Assuming it is not Ron DeSantis, who do you suppose might be next for the treatment? If you answered Glenn Youngkin or Greg Abbott or Mike Pence or Tom Cotton or Nikki Haley or Mike Pompeo or anyone else who might conceivably become the Republican standard-bearer in 2024, you’re obviously thinking strategically. Michael Tomasky of the new New Republic, for one, is not. The magazine’s year-end cover story, “You’re Honored,” was devoted to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife Ginni, who are “honored” as the 2022 “Scoundrels of the Year.” Scoundrels! An interesting choice of word, which we can now look forward to, I suppose, as another all-purpose term of abuse by those on the left, like “Nazi” (neo- or otherwise) or “fascist,” for anyone who doesn’t agree with them. But, given that even the most unhinged left-wing fantasist cannot imagine a Republican Congress will impeach Justice Thomas, it seems clear that the media’s addiction to the poisonous hatred first excited by Mr. Trump has now spread to this once-great liberal magazine under Mr. Tomasky’s editorship as something to be wallowed in for its own sake, for the sheer emotional satisfaction of hating.

Michelle Cottle of The New York Times, a newspaper, as Ira Stoll pointed out, currently owned and operated by the fifth generation of the Ochs-Sulzberger family, was obviously eager to get in on the end-of-year, awards-season fun by nominating the poor black boy from Pinpoint, Georgia, and his wife as the “Most Egregious Nepo [i.e., nepotistic] Couple” of the year. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that, corrupt as the media were even then, such casual abuse of once highly respected public figures could have appeared in a serious newspaper ten or fifteen years ago—any more than it would have occurred to Nicholas John Roske that murdering Clarence Thomas’s fellow Justice Brett Kavanaugh would “give his life a purpose,” as he told police he thought it would when apprehended outside Justice Kavanaugh’s home last June.

Even during the worst of Bush Derangement Syndrome on the left, a burning hatred of one’s political “enemies” had not yet become the dominant mode of American politics, as of the American political media. Now we must suppose it is. More than one observer pointed to the inspiration Justice Kavanaugh’s would-be assassin must have received from a speech given three months earlier by the Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer when the latter said:

I want to tell you, Gorsuch, I want to tell you, Kavanaugh, you have released the whirlwind and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.

In the same spirit, The New Republic article’s sub-head claimed that “The Supreme Court justice and his right-wing-activist wife are working hand in hand to destroy American democracy.” Can such a monster be allowed to live?

The word “democracy” is evidently being used in its currently most usual media sense as “rule by Democrats.”

Here, as in the headline of Mr. Blumenthal’s anti-Musk screed in the Los Angeles Times, there is no need to read any further. The word “democracy” is evidently being used in its currently most usual media sense as “rule by Democrats,” and everything else, including the descriptor “scoundrel” as applied to right-wing activists and their spouses, must automatically follow from that. See OED s.v. “scoundrel,” sense Aa: “‘A mean rascal, a low petty villain’ (Johnson). Now usually with stronger sense: An audacious rascal, one destitute of all moral scruple.” I wonder if, in Mr. Tomasky’s view, this description could apply not just to Justice Thomas but also to all the Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices? Or, indeed, to all Republicans? “Enemies” they may be, but even during wartime it is common for soldiers to show some respect for their enemy, if only as a formidable foe. For their political enemies, however, the American Left and the media they dominate can apparently feel nothing but hatred and contempt.

Among the year-end “awards” being handed out by Michelle Cottle in the New York Times column mentioned above is one to Mr. Musk for “Most Expensive Midlife Crisis”:

The standard cliché is for an aging man to buy an expensive sports car. But what if he already owns a company that makes expensive sports cars? Mr. Musk opted to drop $44 billion on a social media platform he has no clue how to run in an effort to paint himself as a free-speech crusader. All he has achieved thus far is to fuel rumors of Twitter’s demise, damage Tesla and convince much of the world that he is less mad genius than narcissistic ass. Well played.

So I guess we can put her down, along with Mr. Blumenthal, in the “nothingburger” column of journalists who see nothing discreditable or even out of order in Old Twitter or the deep-state denizens who collaborated with it in suppressing and besmirching and belying the political “enemies” of the Democratic Party. Accordingly, Mr. Taibbi and his fellow reporters on the Twitter archives have all come in for their own heaping helping of the abuse accruing to Mr. Musk, on Twitter and elsewhere, simply for doing what journalists were once expected to do and winkling out discreditable government or corporate secrets. Their critics, like Mr. Blumenthal, may be willing to acknowledge by implication that the secrets are discreditable while at the same time assuming the discomfiture of Mr. Trump or other evil ones is sufficient justification for the imposture.

They must be of a mind with but less frank than the late Senator Harry Reid who cited as his justification for having lied about Mitt Romney’s not having paid any taxes for ten years the fact that “Romney didn’t win, did he?” (See “Deliberate falsehoods” in The New Criterion of November 2021). As recently as 2015, Chris Cillizza, then working for The Washington Post, called this an “appalling defense of his attack on Mitt Romney’s tax record.”

Think about that logic for a minute. What Reid is saying is that it’s entirely immaterial whether what he said about Romney and his taxes was true. All that mattered was that Romney didn’t win. Where to begin? How about with the fact that this all-means-justify-the-ends logic—assuming the end is your desired one—is absolutely toxic for politics and, more importantly, democracy. (Worth noting: Reid is far from the only one who practices this sort of thinking; it’s the rule rather than the exception in political Washington, where winning—no matter the cost—is the only goal that matters.)

And yet, somehow, in 2015 there was still a corner of the establishment media where such things could be said and the proto-Trumpification of Mr. Romney could be disapproved of. During the Trump years, Mr. Cillizza went to work for cnn and there became so accustomed to “this sort of thinking” when it came to winning against Mr. Trump that it seems to have proved too much even for cnn. I wonder, could there be any significance to the fact that the network let him go on the day before the Twitter Files were first made public?

Surely not! And yet how one longs for the moral clarity that Senator Reid must have taken with him to the grave when one reads the official statement of the fbi in response to the Twitter Files’ revelations of the Bureau’s collaboration with Twitter to restrict the flow of information to the people in advance of an election:

The fbi regularly engages with private sector entities to provide information specific to identified foreign malign influence actors’ subversive, undeclared, covert, or criminal activities. Private sector entities independently make decisions about what, if any, action they take on their platforms and for their customers after the fbi has notified them.

The Bureau followed up the statement days later:

The men and women of the fbi work every day to protect the American public. It is unfortunate that conspiracy theorists and others are feeding the American public misinformation with the sole purpose of attempting to discredit the agency.

Talk about contempt! This is the kind of thing that gives gaslighting a bad name. But the saddest thing about such an insult to the intelligence of the American people is how utterly unsurprising it is. For more than six years now, since the days of James Comey, the same kind of prevarication has been obvious to anyone not a party to or a dupe of the Bureau’s many deceptions. We all know they’re lying. They know we know they’re lying. They don’t care. For with the media’s support—indeed, with the eager assistance of people like Michelle Cottle or John Blumenthal—whom are the dirty cops of the nation’s chief law-enforcement agency to fear?

But the saddest thing about such an insult to the intelligence of the American people is how utterly unsurprising it is.

They partake of a sense of immunity from punishment or even serious scrutiny that has spread from the scrutinizers themselves, also known as the media, to the Democratic Party in Congress and the rest of the deep state. “What’s striking,” wrote Jonathan Turley for the New York Post, is that

leading Democrats have been open about precisely this type of corporate manipulation of political speech on social media. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called upon these companies to use enlightened algorithms to protect users from their own bad reading choices. Even President Biden called for such regulation of speech and discussions by wise editors. Without such censorship and manipulation, Biden asked, “How do people know the truth?”

It is needless, I suppose, to mention the irony in the use of the word “truth” when, as Mr. Turley goes on to point out, both Twitter officials and their government-sponsored handlers have now been revealed as having lied and lied again about their efforts to muzzle the politically disfavored. As with Mr. Blumenthal and others of Mr. Musk’s critics, they have just enough grace not to be openly proud of their lies, as was Senator Reid—who, in a later interview, called his lie “one of the best things I’ve ever done”—but not enough to repent for the corruption of our political culture that those lies, like Senator Reid’s, have so largely been responsible for. The nothingburgers can’t see what the problem is, so long as Trump didn’t win, did he?

As I suggested in these pages a decade ago (see “Lexicographic lies” in The New Criterion of October 2012), the iniquity of lying seems to me to be not just a matter of “saying the thing which is not” (in Jonathan Swift’s formulation) but in the breach of some obligation of faith. Kant notwithstanding, there can be nothing to be ashamed of in lying to an enemy who is seeking your destruction. The cultural breakdown that has produced this tsunami of lies amid which we are all now living, or trying to live, is the renunciation by our public men and women of their obligation of faith with the American people, a dim recollection of which must be what is responsible for such vestigial shame as may still beset the otherwise unapologetic liars. That renunciation may never have been made explicit, but it is implied in every word and action presupposing that those who disagree with us are our enemies.

Mr. Bowman is well known for his writing on honor, including his book, Honor: A History and “Whatever Happened to Honor,” originally delivered as one of the prestigious Bradley Lectures at the American Enterprise Institute in 2002, and republished (under the title “The Lost Sense of Honor”) in The Public Interest.

Mr. Bowman is well known for his writing on honor, including his book, Honor: A History and “Whatever Happened to Honor,” originally delivered as one of the prestigious Bradley Lectures at the American Enterprise Institute in 2002, and republished (under the title “The Lost Sense of Honor”) in The Public Interest.

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