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Blacklist Envy

Critics of the war and critics of the critics of the war circle the wagons.

12:00 AM, Apr 25, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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ACTOR EDWARD NORTON attacked President Bush as possessing a "low quality mind" this week, and thus joined a long list of stars, pundits, and professors who have elected to stand opposite three-quarters of American public opinion. Others who have done so--including Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Janeane Garofalo, and the Dixie Chicks--have discovered that a lot of folks listen closely when celebrities speak and respond in the marketplace by refusing to buy products or tickets or to sponsor speeches. These responses have upset the Bush critics and their reaction can fairly be described as whining.

Robbins gets the "biggest whine" prize. "A chill wind is blowing," he intoned in hilarious self-parody at the National Press Club. The breeze he felt was in fact that of a younger demographic waving goodbye to the tired hypocrisies of the aging left. Hypocrisy is the best that can be said about Robbins and his life-partner Sarandon posing as victims, since both have been noisy supporters of boycotts and paybacks in the past: Sarandon urged Dr. Laura be run off television, and Robbins wanted Elizabeth Hurley in the dock for crossing a SAG picket line a few years back.

Yet now they talk about a new "climate of oppression." (Real victims of political pressure, say in Cuba or Iraq, would be astonished to learn that pampered elites in the West think it's tough sledding to have people say critical things about you and not buy your CDs.) The level of ignorance about what the First Amendment even is--a restraint on government, not private speech--makes these celebrity politicos even harder to take seriously.

And then there is Professor Jim Sleeper, lecturer at Yale and writer of letters to this magazine. Last week I wrote about his abuse of a pair of Yale freshmen who had dared to write critically of the tenured antiwar crowd. Professor Sleeper denied any error, and has repeated his characterizations of his opponents as "neo-Stalinists," "Stalinists," and "Fedayeen Uncle Sams." Then MSNBC's Joe Scarborough picked up the story and ran a segment featuring the students on Sunday night. An increasingly angry Sleeper responded with yet another column in Wednesday's Yale Daily News. It is a classic of the genre: The combative non-apology which doubles as an attack on critics of the critics of the war. (It also contains errors: Joe Scarborough is a former congressman from Florida, not California; and his producer, Gregg Cockrell, assured me that, contrary to Sleeper's claims, he left at least three messages for the professor on the Friday before the interview and another message on Sunday--all on a message machine that was Sleeper's.)

Robbins and Sleeper and all defenders of the critics of the war chant slogans about free speech and the First Amendment and seem wholly unaware that they are asking, in effect, for a silencing of views they don't like. No mature participant in the world of politics expects such deference, and it is laughable to treat blowback as repression. The collective "alarm" being voiced is really just blacklist envy: a desire for some sort of martyrdom to cover the embarrassment of having been very wrong on almost every prediction. Even self-proclaimed proponents of the war, like Sleeper, want the critics of the war to be given a pass and a respectful nodding to their concerns and positions.

Just as McCarthyism provided eventual cover for the Party-dupes in Hollywood all those years ago, today's "caucus of the wrong" is desperate for a new repression in which to dress up their policy pratfalls and divert attention from the hard fact that had they prevailed, Saddam's children's jail would still be doing a brisk business.

As for media treatment of celebrity and professorial pundits, I and others should offer any of them as much time as they'd like. Far from repressing Robbins and other thigh-slappers, I'd give them their own cable channel and let them whine away in full view, 24/7. Their full-frontal foolishness is a friend of my causes. They are all welcome to as much airtime as they will suck up. Team them with Robert Byrd and Tom Daschle and arrange for a barnstorming tour. There won't be 40 Senate Democrats left if we open the gate wide enough.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.