Richard Cohen gets it seriously right about right-wing hate speech; David Brooks gets it wackily wrong about his pal Rahm
"Four dead in Ohio": Neil Young performs "Ohio" in Toronto's Massey Hall, 1971.
I didn't begin to encounter Richard Cohen's writing until he was a full-blown columnist. (Feel free to take "full-blown" in the most lurid sense you can imagine.) Every now and then you get a glimpse that someone you've known only as a gargoyle may not have always been as we see him now.
As a matter of fact, if I'd known that the column in question was in fact a Richard Cohen column, I doubt that I would have clicked through. But washingtonpost.com has this bizarre habit of circulating periodical e-newsletters touting it current crop of opinion pieces without identifying the author. As if an opinion can exist independent of the person who's expressing it. And so if there's a blurb in the e-newsletter that sounds like it might be interesting, you have to click through just to find out who wrote the damned piece.
Here's what got me in the "Today's Opinions: Afternoon Edition":
1) When words can kill
On the right, hateful rhetoric is fired like bullets.
There must have been a morning edition of this e-newsletter in which I'd noticed this promo, and paused over it, principally wondering who might be writing on the subject. This time I decided to find out, and imagine my surprise to find that it's that obnoxious gasbag Richard Cohen.
He explains that in the course of his bicycling he has lately been hearing a good deal of Neil Young's "Ohio," and has to "repress a tear" when he hears the line "What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?"
"Ohio" has been around for 40 years, and I have heard it over and over again. It's about the 1970 killing of four students at Kent State University during a demonstration against the Vietnam War. The killers were the equally young men of the Ohio National Guard. I was in the National Guard myself once. How did this happen? "This summer I hear the drumming. Four dead in Ohio." . . .
The line about the woman dead on the ground hits with concussive force. I feel I knew her. One of the four killed was Allison Krause, and she went to school in the Washington area. Her father, Arthur Krause, sometimes called me. Arthur had devoted himself to seeking justice for his daughter. He should have known better. He was a Holocaust survivor.
Cohen was a reporter at the time of the Kent State killings, he tells us, and he coveted the story, which was obviously a huge one. But "the journalistic sluggers whooshed out of the newsroom, jumped a plane and wrote the story."
But it is a story no more and so, on the bike, the full horror of it came through: My God, American soldiers had shot American college students. This was not China, not Tiananmen Square, and not Iran and the pro-democracy rallies of last year -- not any of those places. . . .
He ran through his mind how it had happened.
Bullets had killed those kids, sure -- but they were fired, in a way, from the mouths of politicians.
The governor of Ohio, James Rhodes, demonized the war protesters. They were "worse than the Brownshirts and the communist element. . . . We will use whatever force necessary to drive them out of Kent."
That was the language of that time. And now it is the language of our time. It is the language of Glenn Beck, who fetishizes about liberals and calls Barack Obama a racist. It is the language of rage that fuels too much of the Tea Party and is the sum total of gubernatorial hopeful Carl Paladino's campaign message in New York. It is all this talk about "taking back America" (from whom?) and this inchoate fury at immigrants and, of course, this raw anger at Muslims, stoked by politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Lazio, the latter having lost the GOP primary to Paladino for, among other things, not being sufficiently angry. "I'm going to take them out," Paladino vowed at a Tea Party rally in Ithaca, N.Y.
Oh, Mr. On-the-One-Hand, On-the-Other-Hand has to get in a jab at the Left. "Back in the Vietnam War era," he writes, "the left also used ugly language and resorted to violence." And this is certainly true, though kind of ripped out of context. Cohen has own "but," though, and it's a serious one:
But the right, as is its wont, stripped the antiwar movement of its citizenship. It turned dissent into treason, which, in a way, was the worst treason of all. It made dissidents into the storied "other" who had nothing in common with the rest of us. They were not opponents; they were the enemy: Fire!
On my bike, I recalled those days and wondered if they have not returned. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words -- that singsong rebuttal notwithstanding -- can kill. We lose presidents to words and civil rights leaders to words -- homosexuals and immigrants and abortion providers, too. Richard Nixon is named in the song because he was the president at the time and because his words were ugly. He was enthralled by toughness, violence.
I hear the song more clearly now than I ever did. It is a distant sound from our not-so-distant past, but a clear warning about our future. Four dead in Ohio. Not just a song. A lesson.
I'm not sure the point can be made much better than this.
SO IS IT POSSIBLE THAT DAVID BROOKS
WAS ONCE . . . WELL, SOMETHING DIFFERENT?
Nah, I don't think so either. And you may well say that anyone who reads a David Brooks column deserves what he gets. Which is true enough, except that it doesn't deal with the faux credibility his blithering gains from appearing there on the op-ed pages of the New York Times print and Web editions. No matter how furiously the NYT folk work at debasing the brand, it still carries an implication of substance.
Today, in an especially egregious outing, "The Soft Side," our David is out to defend his friend Rahm Emanuel -- who used to phone him about stuff he'd written or might write apparently, if I remember right, about every 30 minutes -- from all the vicious things that are being said about him now that he's slithered out of the White House and his second-to-none access to the president. It's a piece that's wrong-headed in so many ways that one wouldn't know where to begin if one were of a mind to take it seriously.
I may yet write about the substance of today's column, if I can't get the bad taste out of my mouth.
SIDEBAR ON VILLAGE OBLIVIOUSNESS
I mean, really now, is it possible that none of the Village media hucksters have even the most rudimentary knowledge of what the health care faux-reform hullabaloo was about, or what happened in the course of it? After Mara Liasson's either incompetent or mendacious bungling about Master Rahm's "prescience," we have our David recallling how he "criticized the lack of cost control" in the package. I mean this literally: How is it possible for anyone with any interest in matters political not to know that nobody in the Western Hemisphere fought more tenaciously than Master Rahm against any cost-reducing proposal that would in any way have inconvenienced the megacorporate interests of Big Pharma and the health insurance giants?
(Corollary question: And how is it possible that such people draw paychecks from outfits like the NYT and NPR?)
Just for now let's play Villagers-for-a-day. That means, for one thing, that we're going to skip over the whole issue of being coopted by pols with agendas (hmm, that's redundant, isn't it?) and just focus on what our David thinks is the charge against his pal Rahm: that's he's impolite and bad-tempered.
Now, as longtime readers of DWT know only too well, Howie and I between us have written, ahem, a lot about Master Rahm, and while I'm sure that the subjects of his rudeness and ill temper have come up, and they're legitimate points, as symptoms of the kind of mind we're dealing with (genus: bully, species: wildly and unmeritedly self-assured), our issue is his ruthless whoring on behalf of the corporate masters who have so generously coopted him (ooh, that word again!).
If you've got a barf bag handy, try reading this:
Rahm has somehow managed to remain true to his whole and florid self. He’s managed to preserve the patois of Chicago, the earthy freneticism of his Augie March upbringing.
He made some big mistakes: Trying to use the financial crisis as an opportunity to do everything at once. He can sometimes be harsh. But he has generally lived up to his ample heart. He gave up the chance to be speaker of the House because of his affection for Obama. He gave up the chief of staff job and returned to Chicago because that city is in his bones.
I interview a lot of politicians. Rahm is unique. Flawed like all of us, he is a full human being, rich and fertile from the inside out.
Ah, so that's it. Our David's pal Rahm's one and only flaw, if we forget that occasional cussing, is that he's too deeply and sincerely committed to doing too much good too fast? Oh jeez, oh jeez. (Can't you just imagine what the Master says about that simpering simpleton Brooks behind his back?)
Now it's certainly possible for an authentic journalist to have, by virtue of sustained personal exposure possibly including personal contact, a special understanding of a public figure. The late Murray Kempton, the greatest columnist of them all, had (as I understand it from exposure rather than personal contact) a streak of sympathy for Richard Nixon on a personal level, and when it's Murray Kempton, if you're smart, you listen. (The mitigation he found was in some ways more damning than other commentators' fire-and-brimstone damnation.)
For the most part, though, this idea of journalists, even columnists, giving us deeper insight into public figures by virtue of personal relationships is, well, theoretical. In David B's case, since he spends his whole professional life showing how clueless he is about any substantive issue you can think of, or at least any that he can think of, it's not surprising that he has no clue as to why his pal Rahm is so reviled. Let's just say that no, Davy, it's not because he uses profanity. (Although, again, the way he uses profanity may be legitimately symptomatic of substantively objectionable qualities.)