Monday, December 31, 2007

The Message, and the Messenger

...and so we come to the end of yet another year, and as such this seems like a good time to try to close the books on yet another of those long-running topics: why I no longer write political commentary for public consumption. As I frame my answer, I keep coming back to Arthur C. Clarke's rules for writing. (I'd love to be able to say that Sir Arthur passed these rules on to me personally when we last met, but in truth, I got them from my agent, who got them from an article he once read.)

Herewith, Sir Arthur C. Clarke's rules for deciding whether or not to write something.

1. It must be about a topic that you absolutely love and find fascinating.

2. It must be something you feel you can write better than anyone else out there.

3. The money must be right.

Rule #3 pretty much kills the whole subject from the get-go, as for most freelance writers political commentary is a cost center, not a profit center, but that would make this a really short bit of bloggerel, so I'd best ramble on a bit further.

As for Rule #2, there are already plenty of other people out there doing better commentary with more enthusiasm than I could ever hope to muster. Aside from Vox Day , who I read daily if only to discover who my former apprentice is enraging this time, I regularly read Joel Rosenberg, because he's plugged into local law enforcement and 2nd Amendment issues far better than I'll ever have the time to be; Power Line, because John and the boys have a genuine knack for finding good if otherwise un- or under-reported stories; Big Lizards, because Dafydd ab Hugh writes well and usually has something interesting to say; Chris Naron, just because; and Ed Morrissey's Captain's Quarters, if only for the daily cartoon.

In the competition for attention, that's already a formidable array of established talent to go up against. Then, if you factor in the serious professionals — say, Peggy Noonan at The Wall Street Journal, who I never miss reading, or Mark Steyn — well, that pretty much wraps it up for Rule #2.

In truth, though, it's Rule #1 that's my biggest problem. To be successful in writing commentary, you have to keep it plugged in and cranked to 11 all day every day, and I just can't find it in me to sustain that level of passion for politics. Perhaps it's a moral failing on my part, but there are days — many days — when I care far more about the botulism epidemic that is killing Great Lakes aquatic waterfowl than I do about whatever the heck it is that's happening in Kerplopistan this week. Why, there are days I care far more about identifying one new little twit that's been hanging around my backyard bird feeder than I care about all the words and inactions put together of all the overstuffed old big twits that are hanging around the public pork feeder in Washington.

Besides, there is also some sort of Secret Rule #00 that doesn't fit neatly into Sir Arthur's model, and it states (as Vox so often demonstrates) that if you become successful enough at doing political commentary, in time you become the story.

I don't know about you, but as for me, I started writing to tell stories, not to be one.

In support of the Secret Rule #00 thesis, then, I offer up five books that did not make my Christmas recommended reading list, because in all cases the identity of the messenger far outweighs the content of the message.

The foremost modern example of the message being overshadowed by the messenger, of course, was Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name lives on as a curse. I once believed as many of you do, but as it happens I then had the good fortune to be allowed access to part of the Venona archives, and because of what I read there I will now defend Sen. McCarthy with remarkable vigor. He was perhaps a drunken buffoon (but then, who from the Fox Cities isn't?), and when he gave that famous Lincoln Day speech in 1950 the list of "known Communist agents" he waved may in fact have been a blank sheet of paper, but the truth of the matter is, Senator McCarthy was right. The Roosevelt - Truman White House and State Department was riddled with Communist agents. The Communist Party of America was a wholly owned subsidiary of the KGB. The Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss were guilty as sin, prominent members of the American Left were criminally and treasonably complicit in Soviet espionage and agitprop operations on American soil, and we had the cable intercepts and KGB payroll records to prove it. The reason Eisenhower and the Army chose to hang McCarthy out to dry in 1954 wasn't because he was wrong; it was because the grandstanding fool had come within a hair's breadth of disclosing the existence of the most important American intelligence operation since the cracking of the Imperial Japanese naval codes.

These are the facts, and in Treason, Ann Coulter names the names, makes the charges, and presents the evidence with remarkable clarity. And yet, because this book was written by well-known conservative lightning rod Ann Coulter, it's either ignored or dismissed as mere overblown right-wing propaganda.

Similarly, in The New Thought Police: Inside the Left's Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds, Tammy Bruce makes and supports the accusation that the American Left, and especially the American Academic Left, has since at least the 1960s been engaged in a systematic and darn near Stalinist campaign to eliminate free speech, redefine the language, deconstruct and destroy American culture, yadda yadda yadda, okay, what right-wing so-called think tank spawned this mo—

Oh, wait. She's a lesbian. A militant feminist. For seven years she was the president of the National Organization of Women's Los Angeles chapter and a member of NOW's executive board. That "inside" in the subtitle isn't a mere rhetorical flourish; she really was inside.

Hmm. A most interesting and disturbing book.

Next, I want to call your attention to A Republic, Not An Empire, by Patrick Buchanan. If I were teaching an honors course in American history, this book would be required reading. If I were running for President, this book would be the basis of my foreign policy. This has to be one of the most well-researched and thoughtfully articulated historical -slash- political visions I have ever had the pleasure of reading, and I highly recommend it.

Likewise, Buchanan's 2004 book, Where the Right Went Wrong, is a profoundly intelligent and mercilessly incisive critique of George W. Bush's foreign relations and trade policies, and a far better book than anything comparable produced thus far by the parting on the left. And I would strongly recommend it, except —

Except that there's the matter of Buchanan's 2002 book, The Death of the West, and his latest book, Day of Reckoning. I don't feel qualified to comment on Reckoning; I haven't read it yet and am more than a little afraid to. But The Death of the West is one of those books that really made me squirm.

Not because I fundamentally disagree with it; I guess in large part I do. If present trends continue unchanged, I agree that the future will look a whole lot more like Mogadishu than Star Fleet. But what puts me off about this book is the strong reek of racism. I categorically refuse to accept the idea that brown, yellow, black or red people are somehow intrinsically incapable of being as civilized as white people. And before anyone jumps down my throat, I know that Buchanan does not overtly make that argument in this book. All the same, I couldn't help coming away from this book with the impression that Buchanan was making that argument in subtext.

Or maybe this just proves I've already been co-opted by the New Thought Police...

And with those hopefully final words on the subject, I'm done testing the flexibility of my "no politics" rule and back to writing about fiction and the business of writing. Don't forget the Friday Challenge, don't get overserved tonight (or at least if you do, don't drive), and we'll see you next Wednesday.

Happy New Year!