The Magazine

Tangled Webb

Cognitive dissonance in Virginia.

Nov 6, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 08 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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"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.