Dead Presidents; Passive-Aggressive Tributes; Opinion as Language; Doreen St. Felix Crashes and Burns

[Have you no reaction to the death of George H.W. Bush?]

No. No, it’s hard for me to react to the death of a person that I didn’t even know.

[Do you mean, somebody you didn’t know personally, or . . .]

No, it’s not like that. It’s a matter of how seldom the man interacted with the American public in the years since he left office. And it just so happens that I was born the same year that he lost his re-election campaign to Bill Clinton.

[So, you have firsthand experience only of his post-presidential life. Needless to say, you never saw him working with Reagan. You never even saw him working with Dan Quayle.]

Correct. I’m much more familiar with George W. Bush. A lot of people are, considering that he served two terms, and governed much more controversially, but I know H.W. almost entirely through history, through what I’ve read about a time that came and passed before I was born. I can’t even remember seeing H.W. making a prominent public appearance during my lifetime.

[What about the opening ceremony to Super Bowl LI? He rolled out in his wheelchair and tossed the coin, didn’t he?]

Oh, hey, you’re right! I do remember that. And boy, did he look sickly. When I saw him that night, I didn’t think he stood a chance of making it to the end of the year, but here we are, almost two years later.

[It calls to mind the death of Ronald Reagan. Do you remember that?]

Vaguely. That was 2004, I believe? I was twelve years old.

[And politically unconscious?]

Not exactly. Reagan died shortly before Fahrenheit 9/11 was released, and I was fascinated by the media fireworks surrounding that film. And then, in the autumn, I went to the cinema to see Team America: World Police, two or three weeks before W. Bush was re-elected.

[But Reagan’s death was of much less interest to you than any of those three events?]

Oh, absolutely. I might not have even really paid attention to Reagan’s name until he died. H.W. basically exists only in a historical sense for me, but Reagan is, in my mind, almost entirely a relic. But you brought up Reagan in connection with Bush for a different reason?

[Yeah, you mentioned H.W. being sickly. We all know about Reagan’s decline towards the end of his life—or towards the end of his time in office, if the rumors are true—but that information didn’t become commonplace until a few years after he died. I wonder what kind of stories we will eventually hear about H.W.’s final years.]

Probably nothing too scandalous. Reagan’s decline was interesting only because he might have been suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease while he was in office. There’s no reason to believe that something similarly shocking was true of H.W. If it turns out that he was impaired cognitively after he left office, it isn’t really relevant to an understanding of the man as a public figure.

[That is true, although there has been a marked effort to understand, or newly understand, H.W. in the aftermath of his death.]

I suspect you’re referring to something other than the natural surge of interest that occurs every time a public figure dies.

[Of course. I’m referring to the political debate that is being waged over the man’s legacy.]

And what an unpleasant debate it is. It isn’t nearly as contentious as the Kavanaugh debate, but it is certainly reminiscent of that squabble’s hostility, paranoia, and pervasive ugliness. I wonder if we are living in a post-Kavanaugh world, one wherein every political debate will be acrimonious to the point of potential lethality.

[We could be. One of the characteristics of such a world would be an immediate assumption of the worst in our opponents, and that has definitely been the case in the debate on H.W.]

Yes, the immediacy of the ugliness is really startling. We’re rushing into the worst-case scenario without first understanding why the debate must be so hideous. I’m not even sure what this latest debate over H.W. really means, or what the question of it is.

[Well, the debate centers around the coverage of H.W.’s death in left-wing media. The man has been eulogized as a humane and courteous leader, even within far-left outlets such as CNN and, to a lesser extent, the BBC. However, conservatives are questioning liberals’ motives in speaking of H.W. in these laudatory terms. They believe that this deluge of posthumous praise is insincere, that it is actually a veiled assault on President Trump.]

In other words, when a liberal commentator speaks of H.W.’s civility and eloquence, that person is contrasting H.W.’s respectable behavior to Trump’s lack of decorum, even if Trump isn’t mentioned by name.

[Right. Passive-aggressive political commentary.]

Well, if that’s the case, then it’s interesting how someone can write a piece without mentioning Trump even once, and yet, everyone is perfectly aware that the piece is about Trump. In the first place, it reveals yet another layer of our unhealthy national obsession with Trump: regardless of our political leanings, everything really does have to be about him. It came as a most refreshing surprise when Ralph Breaks the Internet did not appear to reference Trump even once, although I did think about him when a group of characters was described as “deplorable”.

[Does that speak to your unhealthy obsession with Trump?]

Oh, absolutely. We are all infected with the Trump virus, for which there appears to be no known cure. The only way to avoid this condition is to exist entirely outside the political consciousness, but I’m not convinced that you can step out of it. It may be that, once you become absorbed in current politics, you will never be rid of your obsession with Trump.

[Does the success, for lack of better word, of the subliminal assault on Trump reveal something else about the state of our political culture?]

I’m not sure if this refers to our political culture, per se, but I find it disturbing how we can make ourselves understood without using precise language. Take a look at the previous sentence: even if this phenomenon of “successful, imprecise language” is not political, a reader can understand how it functions politically. As a writer, I don’t even have to make sense or to think about what I’m saying. All I have to do is plug in a handful of references to concepts that are sometimes vaguely understood, and the reader will pick up the rest of the slack. It’s a process as astonishing as it is frightening.

[Have you ever seen that chain email that pops up every once in awhile? It consists of a single paragraph, almost every word of which is misspelled—and yet, it can be understood without any real trouble. It’s meant to illustrate the plasticity of language, as well as the ability of the mind to recognize information that is only partially familiar. Is there a correlation to this phenomenon of yours?]

Yes, except the process I describe is far more disconcerting. The misspelled words have a clear relationship to their properly spelled counterparts. When we’re speaking of concepts, there is no “properly spelled” standard to observe, the deviation or corruption is much more convoluted than a simple misspelling, and the “relationship” of one concept to another is not established.

[You’re going to have to provide a concrete example.]

All right: take a look at an article written by Doreen St. Felix for The New Yorker in September. The title could not be more direct, even pedantic: “The Ford-Kavanaugh Hearing will be Remembered as a Grotesque Display of Patriarchal Resentment”. Unfortunately, the rest of the piece is, actually, that: a series of pieces, a collection of disconnected thoughts that are stitched together to comprise a kind of conceptual map. St. Felix does not make a statement or promote a point of view; she merely redirects us to a number of other ideas, our understanding of which is contingent, not upon our knowledge, but upon our ideology.

[In other words, it is not our opinion of the piece that is determined by our political leanings, but our understanding of it, our interpretation of it.]

Exactly, and that shouldn’t happen. I shouldn’t have to be a liberal to know what something is, to acknowledge the validity or the existence of something. That is a symptom of a broader culture of intellectual dissonance, of irreconcilable disagreements over reality. And that mental chasm, as all of us ought to understand by now, cannot be bridged politically. We have to start somewhere more fundamental than that. Politics, after all, is a kind of application, not the origin of thought.

[That’s all very interesting, but let’s try to remain focused on St. Felix. Can we have the link to her column before we begin?]

[All right. Where should we start?]

Probably in the first paragraph, wherein St. Felix declares, “it should be plain as day that what we witnessed was the patriarchy testing how far its politics of resentment can go. And there is no limit.”

[God, what a mess. And that was the opening paragraph? I don’t even know where to start. In the first place, half of her readership is going to disagree with the very concept of “the patriarchy”. No, I’m wrong: more than half of her readership will have no idea what she’s talking about when she refers to “the patriarchy”, and yet, a detailed understanding of that premise, as well as an acceptance of its application in reality, is necessary if one is to make sense of what she’s saying.]

You can see that it is not a matter of whether St. Felix is right. It’s a matter of whether her words can be understood by someone who disagrees with her. The reader’s disagreement is only part of the problem; the far more troubling component is the unintelligibility of the piece to, at the very least, half of the American people. It’s as if opinion has become language, or something.

[It could be that we are witnessing the genesis of such a phenomenon: the evolution of opinion. Opinion and cognitive functioning are now interchangeable terms. If you disagree with St. Felix, then don’t even bother responding: she’ll be unfamiliar with whatever language you are using to craft your response.]

And I wasn’t even especially concerned with the opening paragraph. Her column becomes doubly incoherent as it extends. She claims that Kavanaugh “exemplified the conservative’s embrace of bluster and petulance as rhetorical tools”. I am no conservative, and I thought that Brett Kavanaugh embarrassed himself in his speech before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but I have no idea what she means when she alleges that “bluster and petulance” are the “rhetorical tools” of conservatives far and near. Bluster and petulance may have been on display in this instance, but where are her other examples?

[I see what you mean. One would have to be on board with St. Felix’s entire point of view if this column is to make any sense. No “undecided” observer is going to read her article and walk away in agreement with her, and there is no chance whatsoever of a conservative coming around to her perspective.]

No, and I would argue that St. Felix wants it that way. She seems to have such overwhelming disgust for conservatives that she would prefer they remain convinced of their own ideology, rather than extend them a helping hand to understand her views. This piece was not written for all Americans; it was written for St. Felix and her friends, so to speak. It’s an inside joke gussied up as a work of political philosophy.

[I suppose every writer has to start with some kind of premise. You had your own premise in mind when you started this discussion about St. Felix’s shortcomings. However, you are allowing me, as a person unfamiliar with the article she wrote, the opportunity to understand where you’re coming from. You don’t start at the end of your thought, refusing even to articulate it, and then take only your closest intellectual compatriots along for the addendum. That’s what this piece by St. Felix is: an addendum to a story we have not been told.]

One of the most puzzling passages is to be found here: “There was talk of his reputation being torpedoed and his life being destroyed. This is the nature of the conspiracy against white male power—the forces threatening it will always somehow be thwarted at the last minute.”

[I’m already confused. Is she saying that the conservatives suffer from a baseless paranoia about the end of “white male power”, or is she saying that there is, in fact, a laudable and worthwhile conspiracy against white male power already underway, and that the last-minute thwarting of this effort is to be regretted?]

I would assume she was going for the former message, but I don’t really know. Part of the issue is that she brings up the issue of Kavanaugh’s “reputation being torpedoed and his life being destroyed”, but then she doesn’t do anything with that issue. Is this her way of saying that both of those concerns were ridiculous, so foolish that they don’t even deserve to be responded to? If so, then I’m afraid we’re riding very different trains of thought. That concern would appear to be perfectly valid to any reasonable person under other circumstances, so if there’s something about thissituation that invalidates this concern, then St. Felix has an obligation to explain the difference—assuming, of course, that we have accurately followed her thought hitherto.

[Yeah, this piece of St. Felix’s is a mess. It probably has some potential somewhere, but in its present state, it’s only the crudest form of a rough draft. And considering the tone she chooses for the piece, one that seems to be a serviceable definition of “petulance and bluster”, it is hard to imagine her exercising the discipline required to write a somewhat more, shall we say, measured expression.]

If we can muster up the strength for one last example, take a look at this selection from the final paragraph: “The Hill-Thomas hearings persist in the American consciousness as a watershed moment for partisanship, for male entitlement, for testimony on sexual misconduct, for intra-racial tension and interracial affiliation.” That sentence was actually what has inspired me to read her column several times, with each reading bearing even more desperation for some semblance of conceptual coherence, or even cohesion.

[And you won’t find it here. In the first place, how does she conclude that the Hill-Thomas hearings “persist in the American consciousness” as any of these things? There’s no question about what those hearings mean to her, but her personal interpretation is not synonymous with the character of “the American consciousness”. She is substituting her personal opinion for objective reality, which is actually in keeping with the phenomenon of “opinion as language” that we outlined above.]

It would be a difficult task to determine which piece of that sentence of hers is the most embarrassing, but I would choose her reference to “interracial affiliation”. What does that even mean? Is she identifying Clarence Thomas as an Uncle Tom? Is she suggesting that all affiliation between races is ugly and immoral, or only in certain instances? If the latter, then what are these certain instances? If the former, then why? And why do we have to guess about all of these things?

[Because we’re not her cheerleaders. As you said, this piece isn’t meant to encourage thinking. It isn’t meant to welcome new people into her intellectual fold. It’s a parade of platitudes, a series of superficial slogans intended to produce a certain reflex—in this case, a nod. A constant nodding of the head by those who believe they already possess all of the information and all of the knowledge that could ever be desired or needed as pertains to the Kavanaugh hearings. It is anti-thought, the liberal’s answer to Dinesh D’Souza.]

It’s so disorienting, I don’t even remember how we got here.

[We were talking about the passive-aggressive nature of left-wing media’s coverage—]

Oh, yeah. Yeah, nobody on the Left was enamored with H.W. while he was alive, unless it was really that enchanting when he supposedly voted for Hillary. Now that he’s dead, he’s a convenient punch line for Trump’s critics. Nothing more.

[Is that all you have to say about this little segment in our ongoing political history?]

Yeah, I’m tired. It’s been a long day.