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George Will On The “Indignation Industry”

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Yesterday I featured an interview with St. Louis Post Dispatch editorial page editor Tony Messenger (who hung up on me after 25 minutes committed to a forty minute interview —audio and transcript here) on his paper’s decision to drop George Will from its opinion pages.

Today George Will joins me to respond to the paper’s decision.




HH: So pleased to welcome back now George Will, the author of A Nice Little Place On The North Side. If you haven’t read it, yet, it is the best baseball book in years, though it doesn’t say much about the Cleveland Indians. I believe, however, it sparked outrage in St. Louis. It was insufficiently bowing to Stan Musial, I think, and as a result, it offended Cardinals fans, one of whom, Tony Messenger, the editorial page editor, trumped up charges and took him to the court of the Stalinists. And George Will, you’ve been exiled from St. Louis. How do you react to this?

GW: Well, since I’ve always thought as a Cubs fan that the Cardinals are part of the Axis of Evil, I take this, I’m brave about it, put it that way.

HH: Now I have got a lot to cover. I had Mr. Messenger on yesterday until he hung up on me, and did not follow through on his commitment to stay with me long enough to question him. But he did at one point admit this, and I think it’s important to put this up front and center. In his comment about defrocking you, he said your column was, “Offensive and inaccurate,” and here’s what I asked him.

HH: So you are agreeing there is no place where a factual inaccuracy exists in Mr. Will’s column?

TM: To the best of my knowledge, no there is not, and we did not correct on.

HH: He admitted then that you weren’t inaccurate. Do you find that odd that he put it into his explanation then that you were?

GW: Well, actually, the only thing I’ve done in connection with this little kerfuffle was I sent him an email a couple of days ago saying I thought it improper of the Post-Dispatch to accuse me of an inaccuracy, but not specify them. And I said would you please tell me any factual inaccuracy, and he sent back that the inaccuracy was in my conclusions, which means my opinions. So I think that cleared that up sufficiently.

HH: It’s also, I have a theory about what’s going on here. But before that, a couple of other preliminaries, the President’s report, the White House report on this, which you took apart for its math, the very first footnote cites an academic by the name of Krebs, who has just published a paper that says the measurement of victimization, especially sexual victimization, is a topic that has to be the source of much debate. That’s from the abstract. Nobody quite knows how to measure what it is that we’re talking about here. And I, honestly, I had read your column three or four times. I don’t know how anyone can be offended by your column. So the question becomes what is really going on here?

GW: Well, first of all, we have in indignation industry in this country, a whole set of people whose job is to draw attention to themselves by having their default position in life, furious anger. It’s partly the internet, and now look, the internet is a wonderful, wonderful thing. It’s one of the great things since Guttenberg for human flourishing. But what makes it so is it has lowered all barriers of entry into the public forum, which means that the inability to read, write or think are not barriers to participating in this. And so you have an enormous number of people who are A) incompetent, and B) they have a vested interest in being offended all the time so that they can C) be heard over the general clamor and static of life. So it’s a sort of perfect storm of constant synthetic indignation.

HH: Yeah, I saw you talking with Brian Lamb about this, and I thought you’re right. The internet has become sort of the vast Asian Steppe, across which these hordes of opinion purveyors rampage. But I think there’s a bigger issue here, and I think it has to do with the war on women. And hear me out. The war on women worked marvelously well for the Democrats. they need to gin it up again. And in order to gin it up again, they must get this indignation industry that you refer to, George Will, something to chew on. And they’re going to use this report, and anyone who comments on it, regardless of the nature of their comment. As I stopped Mr. Messenger in his tracks, I’ve represented a woman who was assaulted on college. I know they are wholly ineffective in dealing with this, because they did not go to the police, a comment you made to Brian Lamb, which I think most people need to understand. Universities need to go to the police when this happens.

GW: Well, yes, society has decided correctly that rape ranks just below murder as the most serious of felonies, which being the case, when rape is suspected or claimed, call in the police. I mean, A) we have evolved standards and procedures for dealing with serious crime, but B) and I have to say this, it will make people a little hesitant before they say I was raped, as opposed to annoyed or treated boorishly or something else. I had a recent dust-up with four Senators who wrote a letter to chastise me, and I wrote back saying A) I think I may take sexual assault more seriously than they do, because I’m trying to work against the making the definition of sexual assault so capacious that it becomes a classification it doesn’t classify. And it sweeps everything in, and therefore trivializes the important problem of sexual assault. So this is a war with many fronts.

HH: And the other front is that the university has taken a hands-off stance towards the young men and women in their charge. They dare not say anything about anyone’s behavior lest they be accused of mildly being prudish and severely of being authoritarian. And into this, and you had a beautiful phrase, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and general boorishness, a whole bunch of Vesuviuses erupt. What’s the university to do? Do they have to go backwards towards norms? Or do they go into an era of complete, we have nothing to do with anything, we abdicate?

GW: Well, forty, fifty years ago when people went to college, they went to a place where the college acted in loco parentis, that is it still had some parental responsibilities for maintaining decorum or good order and all the rest. That is pretty much gone. But colleges have to, they have to have a sort of stern talking to when kids get to their campuses about alcohol. I’ve just spent four years on the Princeton’s board of trustees. I know the problems of college campuses, and I’ve had, my last child just graduated from college, so I’ve been through this. I think we have to understand that this is a combustible mix. You’ve got young people on campuses, a lot of drinking, and I think there’s a case to be made, frankly, for lowering the drinking age so that people experiment and begin to take, do this at home and don’t consider it illicit, and therefore, or are treated more as adults, and they treat alcohol more as an adult experience. There are a lot of things to be done, but the idea of bringing back in loco parentis is a non-starter. That genie is out of the bottle.

HH: Now I also want to turn to the part of the interview I had with Mr. Messenger which is emblematic of journalists generally. I asked him in order to find his North Star on this subject about Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey, names which with he was not familiar. And I asked him about Tawana Brawley, and he was not familiar with that. So I went, I pulled my ace in the card out, the ace of spades, which was Alger Hiss. I always ask journalists what they think about Alger Hiss. And he had no clue about who Mr. Hiss is. And I’ve just come to the conclusion, George Will, that a lot of people who are practicing opinion journalism don’t have any basis upon which to form their opinions. They are historical morons.

GW: Well, it’s historical amnesia. And historical amnesia means, as one of the things Woodrow Wilson said I actually agreed with, that we were children forever. We never learned from the past. As you and I know, Alan Weinstein wrote a wonderful book called Perjury.

HH: Yes.

GW: It simply closed the question. We now have the answer. Alger Hiss was engaged in Soviet espionage, and it was a big event in American history. And people ought to know about it. But a lot of people don’t. I mean, you can go through a very fine American university and not take a course in American history, and a lot of people obviously are doing so.

HH: And you should be able to remember, Bill Clinton wasn’t president that long ago. His wife is running now. There were a number of accusations leveled against him. If you’re going to opine on this subject, ought you not to have a standard measured against your condemnation or lack thereof of the president at the time?

GW: Well, of course, but again, for a lot of people now in journalism, that’s as ancient as the Peloponnesian Wars.

HH: And a last question, Mrs. Clinton is out and about, and making a mash of it. It’s, as I said yesterday, a Macy’s Parade meets the Rose Parade of miscues and pratfalls. It’s an absolute gaffe-a-thon. After this, do you think, you’re the first one who said you thought she might not run. Has that, on this program, you’re the first one to say that to me, has that suspicion strengthened in your mind?

GW: A little bit. I don’t think she’s having fun. She’s going to be 69. She has no demonstrable talent for retail politicking. The only time she tried it on a national scale, she was the overwhelming inevitable choice that turned out not to overwhelm and not to be inevitable. This was 2008. Furthermore, I think the energy in the Democratic Party is on the left, and they find her and her Goldman Sachs speaking fees unexciting.

HH: And as a result disqualifying? Or simply boring?

GW: Well, you know, a lot of people are in politics because they want excitement. So boredom is a serious defect. A great social scientist, Robert Nisbet, once said that boredom is one of the most explosive forces in modern life. People get bored, and they begin to thrash about for excitement. And I think they’re going to look around for someone more exciting.

HH: And on a last question, speaking of boredom, the Cubs are 30-40. Is this helping book sales on A Nice Little Place On The North Side? Or is it hurting?

GW: I don’t know if Cubs fans want to be reminded of this. And even worse, you’re an Indians fan?

HH: Yes, and we’re only three games out of first place.

GW: What a game last night.

HH: Yes, and Swisher, a walk off.

GW: Swisher’s grand slam walk off?

HH: Yes.

GW: I’m telling you, if you could just get, I think that happened in front of about 10,000 fans. We’ve got to get people out to that ballpark.

HH: The Tigers are coming in this weekend. Your loyalties will be gladly accepted if you wish to transfer ownership.

GW: Well, I’m thinking about it.

HH: George Will, always a pleasure, thank you for joining me.

GW: Glad to be with you.

HH: And I hope that others in St. Louis know where to find you on the internet, if not in the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

GW: Glad to be with you. Thanks.

End of interview.


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