Stinking To High Heaven
Why the rhetoric of people like Pat Buchanan gives America a bad odor
By Lance Morrow
(TIME, Mar. 4) -- Bring back the sense of shame. Restore it to a place of honor. Give it the nicest office in the brain. It is not only social conservatives who urge it. By now, almost everyone agrees that shame is socially indispensable--the individual's internal police department. Without a barrier of protective shame, the raw sewage of the country's id (pornography, crime, a general violent rottenness and social stupidity) seeps upward, into the ego and superego. A kind of moral imbecility smells up the public places. Life in America begins to look like a long afternoon of shameless, aberration-of-the-day television talk shows, tacky and moralistic by turn, the sleepwalking rhythms interrupted at precise intervals by bursts of bright commercial adrenaline.
Politics--as we vaguely remember every four years--is the most important of the nation's public places. There, of course, the tradition of shamelessness goes back almost to the beginning, spanning the period roughly between the Enlightenment and Ricki Lake.
The early 19th century's Know-Nothings, with their hatred and fear of Catholics and immigrants, anchored a lineage that ran through the Ku Klux Klan to Michigan's Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s, with his anti-Semitic radio broadcasts and sympathetic sermonettes about Hitler and Mussolini. Pat Buchanan wants Americans to recover their sense of shame about things like sex and pornography. But he is worse than oblivious to the political sewage. It is the medium he has chosen to swim in.
Sometimes this evil nonsense takes the form of language. Sometimes it is a powerful presence that lives just beneath the surface of articulation. Even when it is subarticulate, everyone recognizes it instantly--feels its menace, knows its smell, a radioactive something that registers on the mind's Geiger counter. The signals are unmistakable--the sneer, a semaphore of eyebrows, the "lock-and-load" swagger.
Buchanan's appeal on economic issues is rational, if simplistic. It is his language in other parts of the field that is scurrilous. In waging the culture wars, he introduces a hateful ethnic dimension. Almost all the 20th century's horrors (the slaughter of the Armenians, Stalin's starvation of the Ukrainian kulaks, the Hitler Holocaust) have begun with a demonization of others. Buchanan has a genius for techniques that bundle his enemies together and subtly satanize them. His litany of Jewish villain names (ticking off "Goldman, Sachs...Greenspan" as if they were the Elders of Zion) is slyly anti-Semitic; he uses a tone of barroom xenophobia on "Jose," his multipurpose Mexican bashee. He says, "Listen, Mr. Hashimoto [the Japanese Prime Minister]," as if he meant "Mr. Tojo." Buchanan is almost as brilliant at populist bullying as George Wallace was in the days when the Alabaman ranted at "pointy-headed intellectuals who can't park their bicycles straight." After reviewing Buchanan's quotations over the years, even one who loathes political correctness and hate-speech codes is likely to start seeing their usefulness. In any case, if it quacks like a bigot, then it probably should not be a presidential candidate.
The river of American politics has been dirty enough as it flowed through time. But it has been refreshed from time to time by that part of the American conscience that insists politics be a higher calling than it ever really is in practice. The ideal insists on a certain decorum of language in the mainstream and flushes out the rhetoric that does not belong there. It tends to flush out the rhetorician as well.
But here is the problem: Buchanan's candidacy occurs in the context of what might be called the Great Nineties Conflation, wherein too many elements of American life (politics, moralism, journalism, sports, crime and the justice system, to name some) have merged with one another to form a sort of metaphysical entertainment conglomerate. The O.J. Simpson trial will be remembered as a classic of the conflation. Rush Limbaugh, whom some credit with the Republicans' 1994 electoral deluge, is a prototype; his material is relentlessly political-cultural, and he describes himself as an entertainer. For years after Buchanan left government, he made his living as an entertainer-provocateur in the comparatively new genre of loudmouth political television. Now he is running for President.
Where are the borders between those roles? In the great conflation, by what standards is a controversialist-politician to be judged? Hence the further problem: Does Pat Buchanan mean what he says, or is he merely putting on a great show of fire breathing and machete work to stir up the audience, as he was paid to do on Crossfire? Does it matter whether he means what he says? The question may be as silly as trying to judge the intentions of an adolescent who strikes matches one after another and tosses them toward piles of dry leaves to see if they will catch--a dangerous but curiously speculative game.
A fire, once lighted, has a life of its own. So does rhetoric that inflames people and encourages hate. It is curious that candidate Buchanan, protector of the family, acts like a man who is trying to burn down the house.
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