The Magazine

Tangled Webb

Cognitive dissonance in Virginia.

Nov 6, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 08 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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The culture so dramatically symbolized by the Southern redneck [is] the greatest inhibitor of the plans of the activist Left and the cultural Marxists for a new kind of society altogether.

From the perspective of the activist Left, [rednecks] are the greatest obstacles to what might be called the collectivist taming of America, symbolized by the edicts of political correctness. And for the last fifty years the Left has been doing everything in its power to sue them, legislate against their interests, mock them in the media, isolate them as idiosyncratic, and publicly humiliate their traditions in order to make them, at best, irrelevant to America's future growth.

--from Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,

by James Webb (2004)

Yowie. We don't often hear rude talk like that up here in Arlington, Virginia, straight across the river from Washington, D.C. Here the leafy, winding streets are lined with Priuses and Volvos and the bumper stickers say "Visualize World Peace" and "Goddess Power." We especially don't hear such rude talk during Sunday afternoon house parties like the one Pat Langley hosted two weeks ago. Mrs. Langley is a Democratic party activist in this most liberal of suburbs in this most conservative of states. She'd invited friends, fellow activists, and neighbors over for punch and coffee and finger food. She wanted them to watch a campaign video and listen to a conference call over a speaker phone, and then give as much money as they could to her favorite candidate, James Webb.

That's the same James Webb--the staunch defender of the right to bear arms who's warned his countrymen about collectivist taming by the Left, its war on salt-of-the-earth "Joe Sixpack" through such programs as affirmative action, also known (to Webb, among others) as "state-sponsored racism." The same Jim Webb whose war novels bristle with contempt for the professional liberals, mollycoddlers, and antimilitary cultural Marxists who constitute society's decadent elite and who have made their home in the Democratic party ever since their treacherous betrayal of our fighting men in Vietnam.

Something's not right with this picture, obviously, but then so many pictures seem out of whack this election year, and nowhere more so than in Virginia. Here George Allen--former governor, favorite of the conservative movement, and one-term Republican senator of no particular distinction--is being challenged by the most sophisticated right-wing reactionary to run on a Democratic ticket since Grover Cleveland.

It turned out that not many people at Mrs. Langley's knew much about Webb. As committed activists, they were just happy he's a Democrat who's been running even in the polls with Allen and has a fair chance at an upset. And they know he's a Vietnam veteran whose two Purple Hearts, Silver Star, and Navy Cross testify to unimpeachable heroism. Other things they think they know about him, however, aren't quite so.

"He's a war hero, but you know he's refusing to let the campaign reference his war experience," one of Mrs. Langley's neighbors told me. "He refuses to exploit it. That tells you something right there about the kind of man he is." The neighbor didn't flinch when Mrs. Langley played the campaign video, which offered a parade of old combat pictures of Webb and a series of testimonials from his war buddies.

When I asked another neighbor what she thought of Webb's experience working in the Reagan administration--he served as secretary of the Navy late in Reagan's second term--she waved me off.

"He resigned in protest!" she said.

And so he did--but only when Reagan ordered cuts in the military budget that threatened the Reaganite goal of a 600-ship Navy. It's hard for anyone in these days of the Reagan Afterglow to remember that some people, back in the late 1980s, thought Old Ron was going soft.

Dreema Fisk, an Arlington poet and retired schoolteacher, told me she'd heard that Webb had once been a member of the Republican party--a group with which, she said, she was tragically familiar. "I come from West Virginia," she said, "and I discovered last time that my entire family back home voted for Bush." She shook her head and kneaded her hands. "I cried all night."

She said she was a Quaker. I asked her whether she'd read any of Webb's war novels. "Are they violent?" she asked. "Maybe I should read one."

Among those Arlingtonians who do know more about Webb, enthusiasm is often muted. As chairman of the County Board a decade ago, Ellen Bozman helped bring about Arlington's continuing era of Democratic dominance. At the party she told me that many of her acquaintances had expressed reservations about her candidate.

"I have friends who say they'll vote for him, but reluctantly," she said. "His service as a Reagan administration official, that bothers some people. And they worry--about other things."

"Like affirmative action?" I said.

"There are concerns here and there," she said.

"And guns," I said. "He's incredibly pro-gun."

"There can be reasonable differences Democrats can have," she said. "I had a cousin who had guns. He hunted. Of course, that was in rural Illinois."

"And the Confederacy. He really likes the Con fed eracy. He named his son after Robert E. Lee."

"One friend tells me she just won't feel right voting for him," Mrs. Bozman said. "I say, He'll listen. He'll learn."

What has made Webb acceptable to the Demo crats of Arlington, however unevenly, is his furious opposition to the war in Iraq, which he declared early, before there was even a war to oppose, in an op-ed in the Washington Post in September 2002. And Webb's opposition to the war is doubly valuable to Democrats because of his bona fides as a warrior. Demo crats are so sick of being labeled the peace party--mostly because they are the peace party--that they grow faint at the first flash of a battle ribbon, in hopes of proving they too are just as recklessly bloodthirsty as their opponents.

This warrior romance has led them into numberless absurdities. It explains why, for example, they stuck that Snoopy helmet on poor Michael Du kakis and forced him to ride around in a tank. And it explains the entire national convention of 2004, in which desperate Demo crats nominated an undistinguished career politician for no other reason than that he was a decorated war hero and then launched his campaign with ceremonies so martial they might have been borrowed from a Latin American coup: phalanxes of saluting veterans, crisscrossing color guards, brass bands pumping Sousa tunes--everything short of a firing squad to liquidate the opposition.

The embrace of Webb in Virginia has had the same effect. One "Webb for Senate" brochure shows what happens when the Mommy party tries to thump the hairy chest it doesn't have. "Jim Webb has the courage to change Washington," says the headline, over paragraphs that jump with words like "fight" and "threat" and "leadership" and "tough." "Jim understands how to protect our men and women in uniform." Hey thanks, Mom! Wait a sec. Aren't they supposed to do the protecting?

There's a large difference between Webb and John Kerry, however. A spokesman of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, whose hand Webb refused to shake for 20 years, Kerry is genuinely a man of the left--a centimillionaire of the wind-surfing left, to be sure, but still a man whose every political instinct made him feel right at home in the peace party of George McGovern (another war hero, about whom Webb once said: "I wouldn't have voted for him if you put a gun to my head."). Webb, by contrast, has a long history of right-wingery. He built a career from the revulsion he felt at the left wing's failure to appreciate the Vietnam war or the men who fought it. One of his first public disputes, in 1981, involved his opposition to the minimalist design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which he called an insult to veterans.

Webb is what the political taxonomists like to label a blood-and-soil conservative. That point of view appears most plainly in Born Fighting, his only popular work of nonfiction. The argument that runs through it is an ingenious act of cultural jujitsu. The book traces the history of Scots-Irish immigrants--the Southern rednecks referred to in the quotation at the beginning of this article--from their violent origins in the old country to their violent arrival in America and on through their violent progress across the Eastern seaboard into the rural South and mid-Atlantic, where they have at last learned to channel their propensity for violence into activities both admirable (the military) and stupid (NASCAR).

Webb's trick is to adapt this history of white folk to the categories of contemporary multiculturalism. He turns liberalism's assumptions of ethnic grievance and victimization to the service of people who, in more conventional accounts, have themselves been seen as the victimizers. Webb rails against "the wielders of cultural power such as Hollywood, academia, and major media [who] chip away at the core principles that have defined the traditions and history of [Scots-Irish] people." And now his people are fighting back. "In a society obsessed with multicultural jealousies, those who cannot articulate their ethnic origins are doomed to a form of social and political isolation. My culture needs to rediscover itself, and in doing so to regain its power to shape the direction of America." Using diversity dogma to put the white man back on top--it is a marvelous inversion.

It also underlies the economic populism that allows Webb to slide edgewise into the mainstream of today's Democratic party. He says he was moved to run for the Senate when he saw "the breakdown in our society along economic lines." He has come to rescue his people--the poor whites who (along with poor blacks) have been the chief victims of globalized turbocapitalism. In every speech he cites the same statistics: "Ten percent of Fortune 500 companies pay zero corporate income taxes," he says. "When I was 24, the average CEO earned 20 times what the average wage-earner did. Today my son is 24, and the average CEO earns 200 times what the average wage-earner does." He is vaguer on the subject of how to fix this unhappy state of affairs. He supports a higher minimum wage and an end to "corporate tax breaks which cost American jobs." At the same time, though, he says he supports a cut in the capital gains tax, in case a redneck wants to sell his stocks.

The vagueness doesn't bother his supporters, because the war is the true rationale for his campaign. And here too he has worked an amazing inversion--one that also could have been predicted from his books, particularly the impressive string of military novels that have made him well known. Webb is not only a gifted novelist but something rarer: a novelist of ideas. And all his ideas are reactionary. Together the books form a long, eloquent protest against the wussification of America, exemplified in the Washington world of slick pols, butt-covering bureaucrats, and the panty-waist, nancy-boy journalists who serve as their stenographers. Webb's complaints about modern politics are much sterner, and much more plausible, than the milk-and-water clichés of "anti-Washington" candidates out in flyover country. Webb hates Washington as only someone who works here can.

"Those monuments that permeated the nation's capital, and the lofty words that washed over the Congress every day, inundating its activities, became in a way artificial. They reminded Doc [a veteran congressman suddenly stirred to idealism] and the others that either the past was false, or the present was a disappointing mockery of what once was greatness."

The decadence of this nation of pussies shows itself most clearly in the relationship between the military and its civilian leadership. Out in the real world, military men "soldier on for the children still at home," knowing that "such a motivation seems medieval in modern America." Soldiers are atavists, grounded in reality, connected by blood to the soil of a place, and the farther one travels from the military life the more unreal America gets. Civilians live in a world of appearances and insincerity and false emotions, "going off to business school or playing Nintendo" while their betters take up arms to save their candy-butts. Politicians in Webb's telling are always "posturing . . . each of them possessed with the type of personality that could slap the back and shake the hand of a complete stranger [yuk!]. . . . Touch pat shake smile. The human tools of American politics."

Invariably in Webb's novels the soldiers erupt in frustration against the civilian leaders. "You can figure it out for yourself," says one fed-up military man in Something to Die For. "The legislation after World War Two that created the Department of Defense and supposedly ensured civilian control over the military has been a disaster. Do you think I'm kidding? Ask yourself why we won every war before 1947, and we haven't won one since . . . " Webb asks himself the question in nearly every novel, and he has a ready answer: The country is run by people like "Chicken Hawk," the secretary of defense in Something to Die For. "They call him Chicken Hawk because he didn't have the guts to serve when there was a war on and now every time there's a crisis he wants to send them in."

Webb makes the same case in arguing against the Iraq war. George W. Bush "has no feel for military culture," Webb says. Instead the president is surrounded by "theorists who have never been on a battlefield, who have never put a uniform on, and who are looking at this thing in a totally different way from people who have had to worry about their troops." Webb seldom misses a chance to point out the military record, or lack of it, of Dick Cheney. If Cheney and the theorists had some military experience, he says, they would never have tried "putting a Judeo-Christian military system in the cradle of Muslim culture." This is Webb's second ingenious bit of jujitsu: By his logic, the war in Iraq isn't an assertion of American power, but another disastrous symptom of a country gone soft, the feckless gesture of a superpower brought low by wusses.

Both of these inversions--the use of multiculturalism to advance the ethnic interests of white people, and the use of warrior rhetoric to discredit the Bush administration's war--might be extremely valuable to Demo crats, if they knew what they were doing.

But that's never a safe bet. Webb's right-wing populism and the liberalism of today's Democratic party make for an abrasive fit, and hints of it showed the other morning at Cecilia's, a Latin restaurant on Columbia Pike, in Arlington. Walter Tejada, Arlington's leading Hispanic politician and the man responsible for making Democrats of the county's growing immigrant population, arranged for Webb to attend a small rally with what Tejada calls "the community."

Webb's views of immigration, like many of his positions on questions of domestic policy, are unformed. It's not hard to imagine where his populism and ethnic allegiance would lead him, though. One thing that all economists agree on--those who favor the present influx of immigrants and those who don't--is that mass immigration lowers the wages of unskilled, uneducated native-born workers; "my people," as Webb calls them. A quick way to raise those wages would be to cut off the future flow of unskilled immigration. Yet this step toward "economic fairness" is not available to a Democratic candidate these days (or to many Republicans either).

In a brief and uncomfortable stump speech, Webb told the Hispanic crowd that he was against a guest-worker program. "We must first define our borders," he said. "And then we must ensure corporate responsibility, because a lot of this is going to come down to the employers."

The crowd seemed puzzled. Later reporters asked Webb to clarify his position. With Tejada next to him, he said he favored some path to legalization and citizenship for the illegals already here. Tejada nodded solemnly. But what about the future? a reporter asked. Would Webb favor tough economic sanctions against businesses that employ illegals, as a way of drying up the tide of immigrants?

"Yes," Webb said, "there needs to be corporate enforcement. We've had no corporate enforcement for six years! There's got to be employer sanctions, otherwise you're going to keep wages down. We have got to get a handle on this."

Tejada glanced at the ceiling. Punishing employers who hire illegals is not, needless to say, part of the game plan for the community, or for Arlington Democrats.

After Webb was gone, I asked Tejada about this. "Does Webb really want to punish employers who hire members of the community?"

"The devil is in the details," Tejada said. "Jim is a very complex thinker. We as a country need to have a long debate about these things."

"But wouldn't punishing employers reduce the opportunities for workers coming across the border?" I said.

"We will continue to work with Jim on this," Tejada said. "We will consult with him, advise him going forward. Educate him."

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.