There are lots of columnists out there, including, for better or worse, yours truly. You can read screeds from left and right and come away with nothing new or thoughtful or worthwhile; you can reinforce your prejudices or maybe, occasionally, let in a glimmer of a new idea.
I would submit that, with some regularity, Peggy Noonan emerges as the best of the best.
This notion was reinforced by her column in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal. There is a line somewhere between plagiarism and tribute; I shall try not to cross it.
Noonan writes of a moment in time when you realize that there has been an epochal change in something and you are not going back. She is referring to politics, and a conjunction of circumstances that is going to give us a choice between a “crazy man and a criminal.”
She cites examples of people she knows who point to some incident in the past few months, or years, that has triggered the thought that the country has crossed politically into some kind of irrational limbo, and who see no way out.
The social fabric has erupted into seemingly irreconcilable factions that have managed to throw up two presidential candidates clearly not worthy of the office, but one of whom will nevertheless occupy it.
Noonan’s column is remarkably personal, mourning the loss of leadership, standards, ethics and, I might add, followership, as unthinking people line up behind empty candidates spouting empty promises.
She is a conservative, with a small “c,” but this is as bipartisan as anything she’s ever written. You cannot read it, no matter how partisan you may be, without at least taking pause and considering how we got here.
This is not what was anticipated in 1787. Yes, that was a different time, and, except for the name, a different country. If there is anything our history proves, it is that you can neither anticipate nor avoid unintended consequences, because they are, well, unintended.
The Constitution drafted back then is at heart a very simple document. It provided very clear rules for a small government. It has since been loaded with amendments and court decisions and often contradictory laws which at a minimum have complicated it to the point of near-incomprehensibility, and in the view of many conservatives, virtually voided it.
This may have been unavoidable in the course of history and an expanding nation, Noonan said, but it has encouraged the fragmentation of our society into as many interpretations as there are opinions. Compound that with modern media channeling individuals into thought patterns reminiscent of those in “1984” who remain ignorant, perhaps willfully, of any intruding alternate views, and you get a populace ready to fragment and fall in behind whoever can narrowcast most loudly.
I confess I share Noonan’s disappointment and frustration with all this. Like her, I see no way back. Though she is younger than I am, perhaps we are both too old to appreciate a future that seems so bleak. Perhaps there is some brave new world out there that will appear and make everything all better.
But I’m forced to share Noonan’s reasons for writing her column:
“Because my country is in trouble. Because I felt anguish at all the estrangements. …
“Because some things that shouldn’t have changed have changed. Because too much is being lost. Because the great choice in a nation of 320 million may come down to crazy man versus criminal.”