Wednesday, August 27, 2003

According to Lynn, every Democrat at next year's National Convention should be locked in the hall so Bill Whittle's latest essay, a screed on responsibility, can be read to them. Well, fair enough…but only if Republicans similarly agree to hear David Neiwert's magnificent Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism. I won't hold my breath.

I have mixed feelings on Bill Whittle. He is a good writer, in the sense that he's very good with words with a special flair for employing metaphor to illustrate his points. (His high point, for me, was the essay about courage and the shuttle Columbia. Aside from a predictable and dull section about why liberals are wrong about America, that essay was superb and, in its last section, utterly haunting. I still re-read it once in a while.) As an essayist, though, I find him to be really unfocused. The metaphors are always engaging, always fascinating; but when he shifts gears into his meat-and-potatoes, he basically derails into the same basic anti-liberal ranting that's been the standard fare for folks like Rush Limbaugh, Dennis Prager and all the rest over the last decade. So whenever Whittle comes up with a new essay, I find myself enjoying and attentively reading the metaphoric stuff; but then he inevitably gets to "What's wrong with liberals/leftists", and then I shift to skimming, because really, I've heard and read it all before. (Especially the opening bit here, where he indulges in the usual "My side is diverse and fascinating, whereas the other side is monolithic and hates us all" bit.)

Aside from the weirdos at Democratic Underground, I know of few people on the liberal side who actually hold the simplistic set of beliefs that Whittle keeps attacking. This reduces a lot of what he says to strawman status: he keeps refuting points no one is making, or if someone is making them, they are not representative of any rank-and-file of the left of which I am aware. Consider his attack on Deconstructionism. Now, I am no expert on that subject, but I suspect that I know at least as much about it as Whittle does (I've actually read some Derrida, frex), and it's a more complicated discipline and set of ideas than he lets on. The fact is, there are forces at work in a given author's writing that the author might not even be aware of. It happens all the time. Can the idea be taken too far? Clearly…but it's not something to be dismissed in three paragraphs. This reminds me of one time I was listening to Rush Limbaugh ranting on about the left's adoration of moral relativism - - which doesn't exist, but never mind - - and he cited as an example a Hindu religious text, the Bhagavad Gita. The only way that the Bhagavad Gita can be taken as professing moral relativism is if one hasn't read it, or anything about it.

This, ultimately, is the overwhelming impression I get of Bill Whittle: he's not a man arguing against liberals. He's a man arguing against what he's been told liberals believe by others. He also happens to do this very well, which is why he has a large following.

It occurs to me, in the end, that Bill Whittle is not an essayist, as much as he calls himself one. He is basically a preacher, and what he is writing are not essays but sermons. There's not a thing wrong with that. Preachers can crystallize things and frame them in interesting ways, and the sermon is an amazingly old and rich literary form. I've heard many a boring Christian preacher, but I've also heard a number of them who were able to illustrate Christianity through words that made me think of things in new light. Maybe not convincing, but new. That's Whittle's strength. The problem is, he doesn't stick with what he's really good at; instead, he starts with it and then wanders off into territory that's well-mined and well-established and well-explored. When that happens, the only people who will be moved are the already-faithful. Lynn says she finds it hard to imagine anyone reading a Bill Whittle essay all the way through and not being completely convinced. This seems to be suggesting that he needs the weight of a lot of words and metaphors to convince, because he lacks arguments, but I don't think that's what Lynn is getting at. For myself, I find it hard to imagine anyone reading one of Whittle's essays all the way through and being convinced unless they were convinced already.

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