Friday, December 18, 2009

The Two Peggy Noonans

I'm firmly convinced that "Peggy Noonan" is two separate people who trade off writing conservative-oriented columns. Peggy #1 is an honest, intelligent right-of-center writer who isn't sparing of her own side. This is the Peggy who disowned Bush in 2005 and basically slammed Sarah Palin as an identity politics gamble from the start. I like Peggy #1--what's not to like? She's smart, fearless, and interesting.

Then there's Peggy #2, who is pretty much a standard-issue Laura Ingraham-style right-winger who writes the most bizarre and partisan nonsense you can imagine. She sounds just like Bill Kristol or Chuck Krauthammer, but the fact that everyone knows what she's capable of makes her somehow worse. This Peggy writes about how she fell in love with Reagan's shoe, or how it would be irresponsible not to speculate whether Bill Clinton has mob ties, or how the facts on torture should remain mysterious.

I can furnish links to all these, but what's the point? Anyone who follows politics has to have observed this phenomenon. I like to think that the Two Peggys live in the same house, forever trapped in some sort of strange merging of identities, as depicted in the film Persona. You know that it's got to be something weird to account for the exceedingly odd nature of her punditry.

I guess Peggy #2 showed up for work today:
"It is one thing to grouse that dreadful people who don't care about us control our economy, but another, and in a way more personal, thing to say that people who don't care about us control our culture. In 2009 this was perhaps most vividly expressed in the Adam Lambert Problem."
And what is the Adam Lambert Problem? (Aside from the new name of his band going forward, I hope!) Steve Benen explains:
"[I]t seems Adam Lambert is a singer, made popular by "American Idol." Lambert, who is gay, did some racy number on ABC several weeks ago; the network freaked out; and it caused a national stir for about a day and a half.

Noonan, however, sees a larger significance: 'Mr. Lambert's act left viewers feeling not just offended but assaulted.... It cannot be exaggerated, how much Americans feel besieged by the culture of their own country, and to what lengths they have to go to protect their children from it."

I don't know why, but I feel especially uncharitable to Noonan today. This is fucking bullshit, and if she were an op-ed writer for a newspaper that cared about the product it was putting out, it wouldn't have made it into print. People are upset because the economy isn't getting better and because the nine month-old health care debate is not seen as directly related to what they're going through. The growing pessimism toward Democrats and Obama's agenda aren't some sort of mystery. This is a phenomenon that occurs very often under a certain sort of situation. Both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were swept into office after their respective center-left parties failed to revive the economic problems in both countries, and when that took a little longer than people hoped, both leaders' popularity suffered. Both seem to have bottomed out around the same time: late 1982. As it turns out, the combination of high unemployment and Christmas put people in a shitty mood. And here we are in late 2009. This isn't exactly rocket science.

But Noonan, whose response to a question about Ockham's Razor would probably be something along the lines of, "No, I use Gillette," would rather connect American's bad mood to some obscure performance that most people either didn't watch or hadn't heard of or, if they did, probably shrugged it off. People just don't react the way to "shocking" musical acts now the way they did back in Noonan's heyday, the 1980s. Madonna might have legitimately shocked people back then, but after decades' worth of her imitators, shock jocks from Howard Stern to Marilyn Manson, as well as the proliferation of anger porn like Fox News, Americans have become accustomed to unparalleled levels of coarseness in our culture. It's not exactly something to be proud of, and I'd rather see a society where everyone respects each other, where everyone is honest. But I'm not exactly going to cry myself to sleep over it.

Noonan, though, seems to think that people base their moods on what goes down at the American Music Awards. Like all conservatives, she sees politics primarily as a battleground for the culture war, and she does not in fact seem to see a boundary separating them. Now, obviously, what's happening in the culture can have an effect on politics. But like the similarly misguided obsession with Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction", this act has few, if any, political implications. It has few lasting cultural implications. Reading what he did, it sounds little different from Madonna's old antics, or Prince's or Michael Jackson's, for that matter.

But this column is an excellent specimen of that species of conservative argument that says that, hey, X happened, and it was shocking. This clearly means that America is suffering from Y and Z. Therefore, Republicans should run things. I don't know what the lazy editorial equivalent for the left is--probably blaming everything bad in American society on racism and the GOP's courting of racists--but the wingnut argument is much, much more annoying. Adam Lambert has nothing to tell us about the state of the union. The unemployment rate, however, does. Most people* don't base their vote on homoerotic music performances--though considering that Prince was a huge star in the 1980s and the Republicans dominated the 80s, I can't say that with absolute certainty.

So, #2, please go home and let #1 write something next time. Thank you.

*I mean, aside from Republicans

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.