Magazine article The American Conservative

Up against the Wall

Magazine article The American Conservative

Up against the Wall

Article excerpt

In the fall of 1995, as my 105-year-old friend Henry W. Clune lay dying, America's oldest living novelist asked me to run my fingertip along the spines of his dozen or so books, which occupied a shelf in his bedroom. (Henry was the usual Upstate authorial mix of vanity and self-deprecation.)

"Not bad," he grinned as my finger tickled his oeuvre. (I don't usually tickle oeuvres, but in this case I made an exception.)

Henry was born in the mild morn before the storm clouds of empire rolled in. He admitted to wearing a "Remember the Maine" button in 1898, but hey, he was just a kid. When I was 8, I cried when Hubert "[Vietnam] is our great adventure--and a wonderful one it is!" Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon.

Henry passed a few mercifully quiet hours on the front during World War I, from which he emerged an admirer of the Socialist Eugene V. Debs. The noble Debs, a patriot of Terre Haute, Indiana, spent almost three years in a federal prison for a Hall of Fameworthy 1918 speech in which he told an audience in Canton, Ohio, "you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder." (Priggish despot Woodrow Wilson refused to release Debs after the war; that act of justice was left to a far better man, the peaceful Warren G. Harding, whose paperboy in Marion, Ohio, Norman Thomas, would succeed Debs as America's leading Socialist.)

Things got bad, and things got worse--I guess you know the tune.

The War Party called the Peace Party Nazis in 1941, Communists in 1951, Soviet dupes in 1961, dirty hippies in 1971 ... must I go on? In 2011, those who heed George Washington's counsel to seek "peace and harmony with all" will be called mullah-headed appeasers of Irano-fascism.

We live in an age in which one is free to view pornography that would make de Sade wince and gore that would make Leatherface retch, yet we have less "free speech," as the Founders would have conceived it, than ever before. The range of permissible political opinions has narrowed to encompass the rat-hair's breadth separating Mitt Romney from Joe Lieberman, and woe betide the straggler who wanders away from the cage.

Blame war. Blame TV. Blame the nationalization of political discourse, as regional variations and individual peculiarities are washed away by the generic slime of poli-talk shows. …

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