Thursday, December 4, 2008

Review - Patriotic Grace

I like to be fair, and sometimes I see an excerpt from something, formulate an opinion, and let that color my view of the whole. I try to minimize expressing that on this blog, and sometimes I fail. Back in October, in a post titled Punditocracy, I offered an opinion on Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan's new book, Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now (2008). Actually, the opinion was limited to an excerpt from the book that Tom Brokaw read; here's what I said then:
Peggy Noonan writes a column for the WSJ. One of her salient characteristics is the way that she, like Brooks, tries to explain America to itself. You can always tell in her frequent television appearances when one of these insights is coming. She cants her head, her voice gets even more whispery, and she gravely intones some fantastic "truth."

She writes this way as well. She had the good fortune of getting her new book hawked by Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press a week ago Sunday, and Brokaw even read a passage:
I think there is an unspoken subtext in our national political culture right now. ... I think a lot of people are carrying around in their heads ... a sense that the wheels may be coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks, that in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can’t be fixed, or won’t be fixed anytime soon. That our pollsters are preoccupied with ‘right track’ and ‘wrong track’ but missing the number of people who think the answer to ‘How are things going in America?’ is ‘Off the tracks and hurtling toward an unknown destination.’
There is enough truth here to be interesting, but I'm fascinated by the "unspoken subtext" part. Noonan wishes to believe that there is some collective unconscious operating in the American people right now, because she's smart enough to find this revealed truth, she's the one who's smart enough to detect that and parrot it back to her fellow pundits.

What she could do, of course, is talk to real people or, if that's too difficult, deign to read a few blogs. The text is neither "sub" nor "unspoken"; there are plenty of us setting out in sharp detail what we feel is wrong with this country, and Noonan need only dip her hand in the pool to find that out. But that would take some effort beyond sitting back in the chair and opining.
Playing the excerpt game is dangerous, as I've said, so I decided to read the whole book when I had the chance. I've had the chance, and not only do I stand behind what I wrote two months ago (it turns out that Noonan does acknowlege that there are opinions being expressed on the Internet - it's just that they're all mean-spirited and ill-informed, and can therefore be disregarded), I can go further - Patriotic Grace is one of the most profoundly irritating books I have ever read.

The book is small and short. At 192 pages of large text on 4-3/4" by 7" pages with large margins, I estimate that this book would come to barely more than 80 real pages of print. But it's even less substantial than that; it comes off as about four newspaper columns, bloated beyond recognition, then scrambled up so that there is no coherent line of thought that lasts more than a page or two. Whatever kernels of truth or effective writing are lost in a morass of repetition and vagueness. One wonders if this, like so many really bad albums over the years, was written to fulfill a publishing contract.

I can't really tell you what the content is, other than to give us a look at Peggy Noonan's mind - and it's a mind full of fear and irritation. She doesn't like where the country is going (and, as I stated above, believes that America agrees with her, though only she is perceptive enough to give proper voice to it), and she thinks something really, really bad is going to happen. Fortunately, though she can't prevent the bad thing, she does know how we should deal with it - and I'll get to that in a minute.

There are some flowers sprinkled among the weeds. Her writing about 9/11 is genuinely affecting (only a cynic would point out that, given our extant emotions about that horrific event, it would be hard not to be affecting). Almost as a throwaway, she points out that we need to build things again, and that our educational system needs to gear itself to the needs of the people who will do that kind of work, and I certainly agree with that.

But that is all pretty thin to support even this thin book. There are oddities throughout, things which have a reader thinking more about the author than the work. For example, her strange need to extol the virtues of middle-aged women, which seems to come from another book entirely, and appears two separate times to no effect:
It [airport security measures, something which irritates Noonan no end] reduces the status of that ancestral arbiter and leader of society, the middle-aged woman. In the new fairness, she is treated like everyone else, without respect, like the loud ruffian and the vulgar girl on the cell phone. [p. 2]
Middle-aged women are the last gentlemen. They project the stature of life. They maintain dignity. [Then follows a long story about how the middle-aged woman saves the girl on the cell phone from dying in traffic.] That is the middle-aged woman. She is saving everyone. We don't want to lose her kind! [p. 113-5]
I don't know why this is here, but I do know it's bizarre and illustrative of no point other than Noonan's self-aggrandizement. Is it even necessary to point out that middle-aged women also hold up signs with pictures of aborted fetuses outside of clinics, trying to influence public opinion by scaring children? No, it's not. Oddly enough, middle-aged women are people, some of whom possess special qualities, most of whom do not.

There are stylistic irritations, such as, in a discussion of the inadequacy of our civil defense efforts: "This is - how to put it? - not enough." If the author is really wrestling with a turn of phrase, as is implied by the question, and the result is, "not enough," then writing a whole book full of word and phrase choices must be utterly agonizing.

I could go on picking specific nits, but I don't want the review to become longer than the book itself. I'll just mention three more things, then urge you not to waste even the minimal time it would take to leaf through this.

First, while I'm never clear on how much one can blame an author for publishing blurbs, the comparison of this book to Thomas Paine's Common Sense on the flyleaf and promotional material is an utter abomination.

Second, and more substantially, you will search in vain for the purpose of the title. The term "patriotic grace" isn't even mentioned until page 43, and there is no nailing down of what Noonan means by "patriotism," or what she means by "grace." She does write:
[A] grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we're in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative. That admits affection and respect. That encourages them. That acknowledges that the small things that divide us are not worthy of the moment; that agrees that the things that can be done to ease the stresses we feel as a nation should be encouraged, while those that encourage our cohesion as a nation should be supported.
That's pretty much it as far as the title of the book is concerned.

For patriotic grace is, at the current moment, an oxymoron. We've become a nation of jingoistic moralists, where shouting down your opponent while asserting your love of country is considered the truest form of patriotism. Where large media outlets have been created to perform a kind of advocacy journalism that blurs or ignores reality. Where an attempt at grace is seen to be a concession, an acceptance of loss (if you say, "I think your point of view has some merit," you've already given up). We can hope that's changing, that the election of a seemingly gracious man to the presidency will change that, and I certainly wish that to be true, but we've got a long way to go.

And Noonan gives us no way to get from here to there, just some gentle exhortations of no particular weight. But there's another big problem here, which brings me to my third point.

Noonan clearly still admires, maybe you could call it "worships," her former boss, Ronald Reagan. And few people did more to create a climate in which patriotic grace is impossible than Reagan. His simplistic insistence that patriotism was a blind love of country and, by extension, its leaders, corrupted the concept immeasurably. And, while he may have personally been a delightful and gracious man, his minions ratcheted up the partisan nastiness that is so prevalent today.

More importantly, Reagan created the climate that produced George W. Bush, and we need say no more about that. One cannot argue for transcendence without accepting one's own culpability in creating the situation that demands that, but Noonan, who put so many pretty words in the speeches of Reagan and Bush père, offers none of that insight.

This comes as no surprise. It is the classic stance of the winner, now in decline, who has wrung what there is to be gained from the situation, and now wants to step back and argue, "Let's all be friends." Noonan has profited enormously from her position as the thinking conservative, and has ridden the tide of the unpleasantness that has resulted from the Reagan/Bush/Gingrich/Bush years to fame and fortune.

But now the tide is turning, and she sees that, and she knows that it's time to urge that we take the gloves off and return to our corners, because she's about to get knocked out. That it might be time for the Wall Street Journal to find a columnist who offers a bit more balance, one who didn't take a leave of absence to work for the election of George W. Bush to a second term, well, that wouldn't be too gracious, would it? Let's just all join hands, and carry each other down the stairs (as she puts it), let bygones be bygones, and all get along.

The biggest problem, of course, is that even if that is the message of this work, it's not well-expressed enough to induce anyone to want to bury the hatchet, and not clear enough to tell us how. It is curious that this obnoxiously self-aware book completely misses the author's own responsibility in making that difficult.

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