Saturday, 9 October 2010


My obit of the right-wing columnist and TV pundit James Kilpatrick, who died almost two months ago, is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. I remember the Watergate tapes incident very clearly, the pathos of 'Jack' opining the tapes showed merely Nixon's great sense of humour, and my delight at the restraint Nick Von Hoffman showed by likening Nixon to a dead mouse on the kitchen floor of America, rather than the more apposite 'rat'. I still remember Kilpatrick's staged expression of shock, and thinking how shallow power's defense of itself could be.

Von Hoffman got fired anyway, too uncontrollable for the tight strictures and entertainment boundaries of a show like 60 Minutes. He was replaced by the anodyne wishy-washy middle-of-the-road Shana Alexander. It set the tone for America's right-left 'debate' for the next 40 years; unreconstructed right-wing extremists beating up on conservative centrists. You saw the result during the second Bush regime, when those opposed to an illegal war justified by lies and killing tens of thousands of people were labelled 'haters', and the only coherent mainstream opposition arose on a comedy show.

The question of Kilpatrick's racism is a more interesting one, whether or not you believe he actually did 'reform'. Articulating faux-leagalistic positions for racism is one thing, white supremacy another, but he was equally adept at both. That the right is allowed leeway to play- act around oppression by wrapping it in constitutional issues and still be taken seriously, while at the same time arguing thinly-disguised racism and be taken as jolly good fellows amazed me then and amazes me now.

It also bothers me that the issue of grammar and usage has been usurped by the right, as if only conservatives could write well. William F Buckley's patrician pretense and fake English accent charmed many Democrats (not least my mother, who watched his show faithfully, inciting my teenaged vitriol). I recall William Safire, the left fork of Nixon's tongue, lecturing us in his New York Times column on writing style, about how the word 'homosexual' came from the Latin 'homo' meaning man. At least the Times ran some letters correcting him, including one which suggested that 'homogenized' milk must then be milk from male cows. I think this appropriation of 'correct' prose serves the authoritarian impulse, but also is used to provide a thin coating of justification for conservativism itself, as if the use of proper English led naturally to the right.

Kilpatrick was a ground-breaker in many ways for American conservatives. It would be nice to say we won't see his like again, but we surely will, if generally in coarser versions.

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