It's always a struggle to keep your eyes from glazing over when reading Peggy Noonan, but I managed to make it to the end of her new column for The Wall Street Journal. She leads by declaring the late William Safire "one of the great ones, the Elders," and then explains herself:
Who are The Elders? They set the standards. They hand down the lore. They're the oldest and wisest. By proceeding through the world each day with dignity and humanity, they show the young what it is that should be emulated. They're the tribal chieftains. This role has probably existed since caveman days, because people need guidance and encouragement, they need to be heartened by examples of endurance. They need to be inspired.
We are in a generational shift in the media, and new Elders are rising. They're running the networks and newspapers, they own the Web sites, they anchor the shows. What is their job?
It's to do what the Elders have always done, but now more than ever.
Wake up, she's getting to the point:
You know the current media environment. You think I'm about to say, "Boy, what's said on cable, radio and the Internet now is really harmful and dangerous." And you're right, and it is….
Two examples from just the past week. A few days ago, I was sent a link to a screed by MSNBC's left-wing anchorman Ed Schultz, in which he explained opposition to the president's health-care reform. "The Republicans lie. They want to see you dead. They'd rather make money off your dead corpse. They kind of like it when that woman has cancer and they don't have anything for us." Next, a link to the syndicated show of right-wing radio talker Alex Jones, on the subject of the U.S. military, whose security efforts at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh show them to be agents and lackeys of the New World Order. "They are complete enemies of America….Our military's been taken over….This is the end of our country." Later, "They'd love to kill 10,000 Americans," and, "The republic is falling right now."
This, increasingly, is the sound of our political conversation.
I'm going to interrupt right here to point out that Alex Jones is a part of the mainstream "political conversation" today in roughly the same way that Billy James Hargis was in the '60s. That is, not at all.
I see it this way. There are roughly 300 million people in America. Let's say 1% of them, only 1 in 100, are composed of those who might fairly be called emotionally unstable—the mentally ill, those who have limited or no ability to govern their actions, those who act out, as they say, physically or violently. That's three million people.
Let's say a third of them are regularly exposed to political media rants from right or left. That's a million people.
What effect might "they want to see you dead" and "the Republic is falling right now" have on their minds?
I was once in a small joust with Roger Ailes about violence on television. I was worried about it. He responded, I paraphrase: But there's comedy all over TV, and I don't see people breaking out in jokes and laughter on the streets. True, I said, but depictions of violence are different. Violent images excite the unstable. Violent words do, too.
There are social scientists who would dispute that.
This is why, I think, so many people — I include, literally, every person I know, from all walks of life, and all ages — are worried that our elected leaders are not safe, that this overheated era will end in some violent act or acts.
Stop reading this and ask whoever's nearby, "Do you find yourself worrying about President Obama's safety?" I do not think you are going to get, "No."
I went upstairs and asked my wife, who's a Democrat. She said, "No, why?"
I'm going to stop quoting long chunks of the column, partly out of mercy for my readers and partly because I'm starting to feel like a heckler. I just think it's remarkable (though not unprecedented) that Noonan can switch so easily from denouncing other media figures' apocalyptic rhetoric to spouting apocalyptic rhetoric of her own. How easy would it be to turn her own arguments against her? ("Stop reading this and ask whoever's nearby, 'Do you find yourself worrying about Glenn Beck's safety?'") The novelty of her article is that she explicitly ties her fears of a pending catastrophe to a yearning for a strong hand to "rescue America from the precipice" and "lead through this polarized time." The strong hand of…media "Elders." Like William Safire. And, um, "Walter Cronkite, Bob Novak, Don Hewitt, Irving Kristol." Yeah, she included Novak. I guess she never saw him on Crossfire.