Notes and Comments: January 2002: The Struggles of Anthony Lewis

Article excerpt

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 cliches 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. …