I was as surprised as the next conservative when Thomas Frank became a columnist for the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. The Journal editorial page is conservatism’s most prominent platform, while Frank’s criticisms of conservatives – in many articles and his books, What’s the Matter With Kansas? and Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule – are among the most strident on the Left. As I’ve slogged through one predictable essay after another I’ve kept thinking, “Why does the Journal give so much valuable real estate to this guy?”
Now I get it – and I’m embarrassed it took me so long. A house lefty who writes an article on “My Friend Bill Ayers” does more to remind conservatives why they’re conservatives than a Fox News marathon. What’s hard to understand is why Frank, in every other instance hypersensitive to the way conservatives and capitalists exploit the worker, would be complicit in advancing the WSJ editorial agenda by turning in copy indistinguishable from a right-wing parody of left-wing obtuseness.
Frank could have titled his piece, “My Hero Bill Ayers.” Ayers is not only “a dedicated servant of those less fortunate than himself” and “unfailingly generous to people who ask for his help.” He is a “kind and affable and even humble” man, who “has been involved with countless foundation efforts and has received various awards. He volunteers for everything.” Saint Francis has no right to polish this guy’s halo.
There was, of course, some vaguely unpleasant business involving Ayers a very, very long time ago. Frank skips past the Weathermen trivia quickly, describing it as a group that “planted bombs and issued preposterous statements in the Vietnam era.” How does Frank feel about all that? “I do not defend the things Mr. Ayers did in his Weatherman days.” (But neither does he criticize them.) “Nor will I quibble with those who find Mr. Ayers wanting in contrition.” Those who make this accusation might be right, but the point is too insignificant to argue about.
Frank, however, immediately does go on to quibble, saying that Ayers’ critics have it wrong, and their criticism reveals their own shortcomings, not his: “His 2001 memoir is shot through with regret, but it lacks the abject style our culture prefers.” As several critics have shown, the “shot through with regret” summary is a howler.
Contrast these mild and carefully measured criticisms with how Frank assesses Republicans’ attacks on Barack Obama for associating with Ayers. “This is their vilest hour,” he says evenly. “The McCain campaign . . . has chosen to mount its greatest attack against a man who poses no conceivable threat to the country, who has nothing to do with this year’s issues, and who cannot or will not defend himself.” (Really? Why can’t he, or won’t he?) The Republican efforts to criticize Ayers, and criticize Obama for associating with him, are “desperate and grotesque.”
So. Denouncing a guy who tried to set off bombs in police stations and military bases? A crime against humanity. Being a guy who tried to set off bombs in police stations and military bases? The moral equivalent of jaywalking.
There’s an interesting ambivalence/hypocrisy/dishonesty about the attitude of the American Left in 2008 to the American Left of 1968. “We don’t go in for that sort of thing anymore,” the modern leftist insists, but can’t refrain from adding, “When you think about it, though, the ‘excesses’ committed in those days were understandable, defensible and really quite noble.”
The voting is less than three weeks away, and Obama is ahead in all the polls. The one thing that might yet turn the election in the Republicans’ favor would be for Thomas Frank to write a Journal article every day until November 4th.