Fallen arches

RUSSELL BAKER

June 17, 1992|By Russell Baker

HAVING recently betrayed irritation with the homilies of Parson Quayle, I am suffering the consequences. A New Jersey man suggests I belong to "a cabal of ultra-leftists," and a fellow in Illinois, who really knows how to hurt a guy, calls me an "arch-liberal."

Isn't it bad enough being a liberal, plain style? Do I have to bear the burden of liberalism to the arch degree? It makes me wonder about the age of this Illinois fellow, so angered by my disrespect for the Right Reverend Quayle's moral discourse. I suspect he is a rather young man, too young to know the terrible sting of "arch."

In the literature and movies consumed by youth in the 1930s, "arch" was pretty much confined to the world's nastiest people. The culture abounded in "archvillains," the kind of people whose loutishness could not be adequately expressed as mere "villainy." Sax Rohmer constantly had brave Nayland Smith, the only man who could save the British Empire from enslavement by the Yellow Peril, referring to Fu Manchu as "the archfiend."

I believe if my correspondent were old enough to know the dreadful weight carried by that "arch," he would have been content to let me off as just a plain unmodified "liberal." Knowing the vileness that conservatives attribute even to plain unmodified liberals, I would have got his point. "Liberal" would have been stab enough, good Quayleman.

The other fan's placing me in "a cabal of ultra-leftists" was more pleasant. It's childish, yes, but in my fanciful moments I've always been attracted by the idea of cabals. Cabals have always seemed wickedly exciting, maybe because the alien sound of the word -- "cabals" -- suggests big-time conspiracies being cooked up by top-drawer people, the kind of people who, in real life, never let me in on their secret scheming.

I can imagine cabals of the most glamorous courtiers in England plotting to make sure King James finally dispatches Raleigh to the block. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that a cabal or two of fancy, high-class conservative intellectuals is pulling the strings that operate Dan Quayle in his present role as giver of moral counsel to the nation.

The present attempt to create divisive emotional confrontations over phony issues is a favorite strategy of, for instance, Patrick Buchanan, who studied the method under one of its masters, Richard Nixon.

The technique is to take a position so outrageously provocative and so offensive to the targeted crowd that you lure them into emotional defenses of the indefensible. In Nixon's heyday, Democrats spent themselves denying that they were part of a Soviet scheme to destroy the United States.

With Quayle we have an effort to create a villainous -- oh, all right, an archvillainous gang of cynical sneerers -- yes, a cabal, if you please, who are trying to destroy everything that has made the American family precious. This has the effect of making sensible people insist that Quayle is all wet, that they really do cherish the family.

What a waste of time, energy, intellect. What nonsense. And for the Quayle cabal -- the Quaybal? -- what fun.

The elements don't vary much. The provocateur sets up an Us vs. Them game, Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, Commie Haters vs. Commie Pals, Family Folks vs. Cynical Sneering Folks. The politics of a campaign is simplified down to the shouting level. Questions of governance go out the window while everyone has a good, dirty saloon brawl.

Typically, the mail fills with ridiculous letters about cabals of ultra-leftists and liberals of the arch variety, tempting the sucker to waste himself in replies attempting to refute nonsense: "What do you mean with that 'ultra-leftist, archliberal' stuff? I've spent my whole life fighting progress and campaigning to restore America to the way it used to be. That makes me conservative, you klunkhead. I'm the most conservative guy in this etcetera . . ."

Pretty soon, what do you have? A passionate campaign issue allowing everybody to blow out his arteries in excesses of emotion about an issue that isn't an issue. It is the classic old-style politics: Get everybody's brain turned off and tell 'em they've got to save home, flag and mother, but only if she's married and has father in the house.

Russell Baker is a syndicated columnist for the New York Times.

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