Notes & Comments January 2002
The struggles of Anthony Lewis
On the departure of Mr. Lewis from the New York Times.
We know it seems churlish to say “Good riddance!” when someone bids farewell. Just as obituary is a genre that favors eulogy—de mortuis nil nisi bonum—so valedictions tend to elicit polite good wishes. There are exceptions to every rule, however, and the final column by Anthony Lewis in The New York Times on December 16 vividly demonstrates this truth. As with so many of Mr. Lewis’s contributions to the op-ed pages of the Times over the last three decades, “Hail and Farewell” is an excruciating compendium of politically correct clichés that seamlessly blends smug self-satisfaction and unrelenting disdain. It deserves derision, not fond expressions of bon voyage.
To some extent, of course, smugness and self-satisfaction are occupational hazards facing those who regularly write opinion pieces for major newspapers. How could they not be? Expected to speak instantly, and with at least the appearance of authority, on any issue of public moment, such editorialists must adopt a pose of wise knowingness in an atmosphere of maximum exposure. They must write with conviction about matters they barely had cognizance of two days before. Most of them must flog the political and social programs espoused by their newspapers. Their columns gradually become pulpits, dispensing dogma, not insight. The reward is public acclamation—brief, but intoxicatingly intense. Those who lack character come to believe their publicity.
Mr. Lewis is a case in point. His departing column is in some ways a wonderful rhetorical object. In the short space of seven-hundred-odd words it manages to push eighteen left-liberal hot buttons and stand up for twenty-seven—some say thirty-two —articles of East Coast establishment orthodoxy. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the friend of free-speech libertarians, is lovingly quoted, as he is in so many of Mr. Lewis’s dicta. Moral equivalence? You bet: Mr. Lewis begins by deploring Islamic fundamentalism but then goes on in the next breath to warn that “the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism is not to be found in Islam alone. Fundamentalist Christians in America,” etc., etc. Osama bin Laden and Billy Graham: the twin threats of religious fundamentalism. Citing Justice Louis Brandeis, Mr. Lewis piously tells us that the “most important office in a democracy” is “the office of citizen.” Mr. Lewis, we know, occupies that high office. But what about the millions upon millions of believing Christians in the United States? Do they not count as citizens?
No column by Anthony Lewis is really complete that doesn’t raise the specter of McCarthyism, so it is only fitting that in this tour d’horizon of the “turbulent decades” since the late 1960s, Mr. Lewis informs us that “During the cold war, fear of Communism brought the abuses of McCarthyism.” This is the cue for introducing one of his two main gambits.
Today again fear threatens reason. Aliens are imprisoned for months on the flimsiest of grounds. The attorney general of the United States moves to punish people on the basis of secret evidence, the Kafkaesque hallmark of tyranny. Recently F.B.I. agents went to a Houston art museum and, on suspicion that it was promoting terrorism, scrutinized a work that showed a city skyline burning.
Mr. Lewis is very fond of the word “reason.” Invoking it to bolster ideas and sentiments he approves of is his second main gambit. The “faith in reason,” he tells us, is the “foundation stone of the United States.” Never mind that an equally important foundation stone of the United States is religious freedom—which does not, pace Mr. Lewis and the ACLU, mean freedom from religion. Mr. Lewis, of course, is eminently reasonable. All his friends in Cambridge, Massachusetts—since they agree with him on every essential point—are reasonable, too. But God-fearing Christians, the Attorney General of the United States, agents of the F.B.I: are they reasonable? Mr. Lewis clearly has his doubts.
What struggles Anthony Lewis has had to endure in his tenure at the Times! “I am an optimist about America,” he tells us. But it has been hard, hard:
[H]ow can I maintain that optimism after Vietnam, after the murder of so many who fought for civil rights, after the Red scare, and after the abusive tactics planned by government today? I can because we have regretted our mistakes in the past, relearning every time that no ruler can be trusted with arbitrary power. And I believe we will again.
But no ruler in the United States, with the possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt, has ever been “trusted with arbitrary power.” Mr. Lewis trots out a long list of supposed abuses of power and inappropriate reactions to “fear,” beginning with the Sedition Act of 1798 (a prudent piece of legislation in our opinion). He touches lightly on the internment, during World War II, of thousands of American citizens whose only crime was being of Japanese descent. (Thank you, F.D.R.) But he reserves special fury for John Ashcroft. Why? Every person that John Ashcroft has detained is guilty of some infraction, major or minor as the case may be. And none, we believe, is a U.S. citizen. In our view, given the enormous threat to national security posed by al-Qaeda, the Attorney General’s response has been measured and appropriate—i.e., reasonable.
Anthony Lewis harps again and again on the dangers of yielding to “unreasoning fear.” But what about the culpable folly of not responding to a clear and present danger when it hits one in the face? Thank God people had sense enough to be scared by the Red scare. What Stalin and his successors intended was scary, and anyone who doubted that was either a fool or a Soviet apologist (not that the categories are mutually exclusive). On September 11, a small band of murderous fanatics, directed by implacable enemies of America, killed thousands of people, destroyed billions of dollars worth of property, and sent shock waves through the civilized world. It is reasonable to assume that colleagues of those terrorists are secreted here and there around the United States, biding their time.
Editorialists for The New York Times are made of stern stuff, we know. It takes a brave man to pontificate for the country’s most powerful newspaper, risking the widespread agreement and adulation of established liberal opinion. Nevertheless, the failure to recognize danger as dangerous is not an expression of bravery or higher virtue; it is a form of sentimentality, an evasion of reality. The proper response to the fearsome is fear, leavened by its moral stimulants: courage and just anger. In “Hail and Farewell,” Anthony Lewis says that “The hard question is whether our commitment to law will survive the new sense of vulnerability that is with us all after Sept. 11.” We beg to differ. The hard question is how a political simpleton like Mr. Lewis could have lasted thirty-two minutes, let alone thirty-two years, at an organ that prides itself on being our paper of record.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 5, on page 1
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