By John Dolan
Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism
By William Bennett
William Bennett, former Drug Tsar, specializes in teaching moral lessons of the nastier sort. His last book, The Death of Outrage, was a 200-page scolding of America for not being sufficiently scandalized by Clinton’s blow-job. Bennett’s own outrage never falters. He once denounced from the podium a child wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt. Bennett’s first claim to fame was informing on his Harvard roommates for using pot. They went to prison to be raped, and Bill was instantly a made guy with the Nixonians, quoting and quoted by every other sclerotic Phalangist on the far-right Op-Ed list.
Why We Fight, his latest book-length scold, steals the title of WWII propaganda shorts, and claims the same purpose: steeling American resolve for the great battle with Osama. But a better title would be Why We Iz Wight–and anybody who doesn’t think so is just wong as wong can be.
These naysayers are the villains of the book: those “elite” Americans who won’t put flags in their windows. The “elites” Bennett names are always academics from snotty Bohemian trust-fund schools like Brown. God knows there’s nothing wrong with hating those people. I hate ‘em myself, and I have cause, real, personal cause far stronger than Bennett’s.
But let’s introduce a little reality here: a professor making $65,000 a year may be many things–a nuisance, a noisy pompous ass–but part of an “elite”? That’s a lie. Nobody with an income like that makes it into the American elite. And it’s not just a matter of money; American academics, by comparison with those of any other Western culture, are utterly excluded from political as well as economic power. The present Prime Minister of New Zealand is a former Sociology professor; half her advisors are academics too. You get that kind of crossover in many cultures–but never in America.
That’s why American academics sulk and whine about the regime so endlessly and boringly. Nobody even listens to their jilted grumbling–except rightwing propagandists like Bennett, who must subscribe to an online clipping service called “Obnoxious Remarks by Leftist Professors.” This dry old rhetorical dung is useful to him in the same way it was to the prairie pioneers: he uses it as fuel. After stringing together dozens of unpatriotic utterances by people like Susan Sontag (shit, is she still alive?) and Stanley Fish, Bennett spends the second half of the book reassuring the reader of the “superior goodness” of American culture.
By the way, that overloaded phrase “superior goodness” is typical of the appalling prose produced by this self-appointed cultural guardian. Redundancies are something of a specialty for Bennett, who informs us that our enemies may employ “fake facades.” For the most part, he wisely abstains from any attempt at humor; but when he gives in to, er, mirth, the results are painful–as when he says the US has been “…a mecca [sic], if I may be permitted, for [Muslims].” Droll, eh? His wit is matched only by his modesty; he describes the “sheer effrontery” of those who disagree with him, and reports in disbelief that one liberal had the nerve to disagree “to my face.”
Bennett’s purpose in writing this odd little book isn’t nearly as clear as he asserts. Why should it be necessary to convince patriotic Americans (the only sort likely to buy a Bennett book) to feel patriotic? But here’s Bennett, working away as hard as an Alabama cheerleader to whip the crowd into a red-white-and-blue grand-mal seizure.
To adapt another WWII slogan: Is this rant necessary? After all, humans quickly come to worship whatever little clique we form. As Brendan Behan said, most groups are “…very popular with themselves.” And if you were going to pick a nation which didn’t love itself sufficiently, would America be your first choice? Americans are nationalists to the core, far more than any other western people. But their patriotic fervor went far beyond normal levels after the WTC disaster, which led to a frenzy of hysterical patriotism: flags, anthems, the disgusting Kid Rock in red-white-and-blue videos….
Yet Bennett writes in worry and frustration, as if his readers were far too lukewarm and needed massive injections of staunch love of country. It’s as if all Bennett heard, in the roar of patriotic chants after September 11, were the scattered, frightened grumbles and half-hearted cavils of a few old professors. He constantly warns his readers that “We are under attack, and have been for some time.” And he doesn’t mean attacks of the WTC sort; he means attack from within, by seditious whisperers.
The question which interests me is this: is he just using the Leftie quotes to stir up his readers, or is he really so frightened that Americans will lose their nerve?
I suspect he really does fear this. And I think this strange partial deafness, in which only one’s enemies, only bad news, can be heard, is a fundamental characteristic of American right-wingers. Even when they’re winning by a landslide, they’re wretchedly unhappy, convinced that their enemies are only laying low, planning something terrible. Nixon’s paranoia was by no means a mere individual pathology; it’s the occupational disease of his span of the ideological spectrum. He was leading McGovern by the biggest margin ever recorded in a presidential election when his goons got busted at Watergate. All he had to do was coast, but he couldn’t see it; he felt only terror and vindictive rage.
That’s why the rightwing crazies loved having Reagan around to front for the cameras: because he was the only one who didn’t wear fear and hatred on his face. He simply lacked the attention span a paranoiac requires, and that vacancy made for a lovable canine smile.
Bennett is one of the bedrock nutcases; it’s never enough, for people like him. September 11, and the week that followed, were clearly bliss for him:
“In the wake of September 11, the doubts and questions that had only recently plagued Americans about their nation seemed to fade into insignificance. Good was distinguished from evil, truth from falsehood. We were firm, dedicated, unified. It was, in short, a moment of moral clarity….”
Do you hear the longing, the desperate nostalgia in that paragraph? If only there could be a mass slaughter every day! Then that “moral clarity” might last a bit longer, and give Mister Bennett the high he obviously craves. But the high never lasts. Sooner or later, people start arguing–and for all Bennett’s lip service to “democracy,” dissent is something that drives him into a genuinely pathological rage.
It’s unbearable to him that a handful of tenure-hungry jargon-mongers are saying snide things about America. Theirs are the only voices which really come through to him. To any sane listener, the sound of America after the attacks was one huge roar of outrage–but for Bennett, there is only “the Death of Outrage.” In the middle of an 80,000-seat stadium roaring out the anthem, Bennett would scan the crowd for the one or two cranks who refuse to rise from their seats–and he would follow them, collect their bitter grumbles, paste them together, and use them to make himself and his readers even angrier and more wretched, as he has here.
It’s madness, of course. But it’s a very adaptive madness. After all, Ladies and Gentlemen, who won the war? Bennett and his like are the true elite now. Their imaginary “liberal” enemies are a demoralized remnant, useful only to whip the victors into new kill frenzies.
This book is the rhetorical equivalent of a rock wielded by a paranoid schizophrenic. The imagined “enemy” has been ambushed, knocked down, battered to a pulp. He’s already dead, his head smashed–but the madman goes on battering the crushed skull, moaning, “Leave–me–aLONE! just–leave–me–aLONE!”