I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Seriousness v. Superficiality

Even though it is only mid-January, I am absolutely certain that Peggy Noonan, in today's Wall St. Journal, wrote what will be the year's most ironic column. After sharing her dislike for the President's speech ("One couldn't find the personal geography of the speech") and expressing some muddled, rationale-free resistance to the "surge," Noonan laments that the real problem with the country is that the Democrats are so "superficial":

The second is the power vacuum that will be created in Washington if the administration is, indeed, collapsing. The Democrats of Capitol Hill will fill that one. And they seem--and seemed in their statements after the president's speech--wholly unprepared to fill it, wholly unserious in their thoughts and approach. They seem locked into habits that no longer pertain, and absorbed by the small picture of partisan advancement at the expense of the big picture, which is that there nation is in trouble and needs their help. They are sunk in the superficial.

In the very next paragraph -- the very next one -- this is her complaint about the Democrats:

When Nancy Pelosi showed up at the White House Wednesday to talk with the president it was obvious she'd spent a lot of time thinking about . . . what to wear. She wrapped herself in a rich red shawl. Dick Morris said it looked like a straitjacket. I thought she looked like a particularly colorful mummy.

Seriously, how is it even possible that this thought did not occur to Noonan as she wrote her column: "My criticism of the Democrats is that they are so superficial and unserious, and to prove that, I'm now criticizing Nancy Pelosi for her clothing choices. I seem to be exhibiting, as completely and transparently as possible, the very flaw which I am attributing to Democrats." Wouldn't just a minimally functioning human brain compel that recognition?

In any event, Noonan's "argument" here illustrates a larger point. As always, "serious" means "one who (a) takes every and any position on the war except for withdrawing, or (as in Noonan's case) (b) takes no position at all but who expresses much concern and emphasizes how Serious these Matters Are." As an addendum: repeatedly advocating positions that directly contradict previously advocated positions (or even misrepresenting one's prior, now-discarded positions) is no bar whatsoever to Seriousness status, provided that withdrawal is never, at any time, one of the advocated positions.

Conversely, "unserious" (or, in Noonan's lexicon, "superficial") means "advocating an end to the war now, rather than in some vague, distant, indiscernible, never-to-arrive future." That is what Pelosi has done. Hence, Pelosi (unlike Noonan, who has no position) is "superficial" and "unserious."

Among the political and punditry establishment, there has emerged a consensus that there is only one way to show that one is a truly respectable, mainstream, Serious Thinker about the war. It is to do this:

(1) acknowledge (reluctantly) that the war is going very poorly and wrinkle one's foreheads to show grave concern over the problem;

(2) oppose escalation (but respectfully, acknowledging what a serious, thoughtful -- even resolute -- option it is);

(3) oppose withdrawal (categorically, dismissively, snidely, as though any person with a grain of responsibility would never think of such a thing, given how patently reckless it is).

Engaging in that exercise is the only way to avoid being either a pro-Bush "escalator" or an unserious, irresponsible McGovernite Defeatocrat. That is why, for instance, Jason Zengerle and Joe Klein's rhetoric (and that's all it is) has provoked such strong reactions. It's because -- just like Noonan's grand angst-ridden deliberations here -- they are such pure personifications of the desire to strike the pose of seriousness and substantive analysis and thoughtful advocacy while saying nothing about the war that is even remotely serious or substantive or thoughtful. They are advocating nothing.

Thus, in the same column where Noonan criticizes Pelosi for being "superficial" (even though Pelosi's plan -- withdrawal -- has been clear for some time ), Noonan herself never takes any position at all about Iraq. The non-superficial Noonan writes a whole column about Iraq. What does she think should be done? Who knows? Clear positions are for the superficial partisans.

She says things are going badly. She's against the surge (maybe). And while she says that military and intelligence planners "must be instructed to draw up serious plans for an American withdrawal," that is not in order to withdraw, but only because doing that "might concentrate the mind" of the Maliki government. The closest Noonan comes to an affirmative expression of belief about what the U.S. should do in Iraq is this, her concluding paragraph:

What is paramount, it seems to me, is a hard, cold-eyed, even brutal look at America's interests. We have them. I'm not sure they've been given sufficient attention the past few years. In fact, I am sorry to say I believe they have not.

But what does that mean? It means nothing. It's meaningless and superficial. It is empty rhetoric. But that is all that ever spews forth from the serious, very-very-concerned, responsible commentators -- "we need to think very carefully about all of the serious implications of this war and look long and hard about how best to minimize the damage."

In reality, Noonan -- like all Serious Commentators -- favors (without saying so, but it is the logically necessary meaning) that we should stay mired in a war that (as she acknowledges) is patently failing, but neither change course nor leave. At bottom, what it amounts to is an argument that is premised on this "thought": "What we're doing is horrible and counter-productive and we should keep doing it indefinitely."

None of this is new. This twisted game has been going on since before the invasion. Those who emphatically opposed the war were the frivolous, unserious hysterics who should be ignored. Those who strutted around with infinite "concerns" and serious qualms and who never took a real, definitive, clear position about whether they favored the invasion or not, were (and still are) the intellectual heroes, the ones who could see all sides, the thoughtful, complex non-partisan guardians of political wisdom who were too afraid and principle-free to say clearly what they believed.

That is still the prevailing orthodoxy among the Washington establishment, the playbook for showing that you are a serious, thoughtful, careful, non-ideological thinker who is truly and deeply concerned about Iraq. But the concern never translates into any actual ideas or advocacy for action -- and it thus results in our staying in Iraq forever without even bothering to defend that position. Nothing is more superficial or unserious -- or intellectually bankrupt -- than that.

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