Matt Yglesias and others have raised their collective eyebrows at the fact that Jay Nordlinger of National Review Online was willing to very casually deploy the derogatory term “wetback.” As it turns out, Nordlinger is a repeat user of this word. In 2006, Nordlinger wrote that for many on the right, George W. Bush was “big-spending, wetback-lovin’ squish.” And going back away, I discovered that other National Review writers have used the term “wetback”, notably the magazine’s resident light verse writer William H. von Dreele, who wrote in 1979 that his love of Mexican tomatoes could only meant that “I’m a wetback to the core.”
Words, of course, only have meaning in the context in which they are used. On at least one occasion National Review employed “wetback” in a defensible way, in an article from February 14, 1986 by K.E. Grubbs Jr. deploring anti-immigrant sentiment titled “Just Another Wetback.” But the other uses of “wetback” have all been as an offhand slur, the type of derogatory term you habitually use when talking about an inferior race.
Robert McNamara died earlier today. In 2004, I used the movie The Fog of War to look at the larger meaning of McNamara’s life. Here’s my article:
McNamara as War Manager
Although he was only two years old at the time, Robert McNamara claims he can still remember the spontaneous celebrations that broke out in 1918 when the end of the First World War was announced. The cheering was premature. President Woodrow Wilson had promised a “war to end all wars” but in fact his country would never get far from the shadows of armed conflict. For many crucial years in the subsequent decades, McNamara would be intensely involved in his country’s war-making decisions. As Errol Morris makes clear in his new documentary The Fog of War, McNamara has participated in a large sweep of modern U.S. history.
More than any other person, McNamara embodies the triumph of modern management techniques in modern society, including in military affairs. In McNamara’s career we see both the promise and perils of “managerialism” – the belief that trained technical experts are the folks who are best equipped to govern over large organizations, be it a corporation, a university, a charitable agency, or an army.
Ronald Reagan awarding James Burnham the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1983.
War propaganda often rests on the myth of eternal enmity: the current enemy must be portrayed as perennially and irredeemably vile. George Orwell aptly limned this mindset in his novel 1984: “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.” During the two world wars, Anglo-American historians wrote many a book arguing that Germans have always been stinkers from the Gothic barbarians and autocratic Frederick the Great to the amoral Bismarck and psychotic Hitler. This whole literature of eternal Teutonic villainy was conveniently forgotten when West Germany became a pillar of NATO.
Reading the conservative press now you would think that Arabs and Muslims have always and everywhere been the enemies of Western civilization. We’re invited to imagine that the current troubles in Afghanistan and Iraq are just the most recent manifestation of a clash of civilizations that goes back to Mohammed, the Crusades, and the conquest of Constantinople.
Yet within the lifetime of our parents, conservatives were surprisingly pro-Arab. This was particularly true of the most salient issue in the Middle East, the Palestinian refugee problem. As surprising as this may sound, the mainstream consensus view of American conservatives from the late 1940s until well into the late 1960s was that the Palestinians had been deeply wronged by Israel and deserved restorative justice.
Consider Regnery Publishing. Founded in 1947 by Henry Regnery, it was the premier publishing house of the postwar conservative renaissance, issuing classic books by William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, James Burnham and many other writers. During this period it also published a steady stream of books championing Arab culture and sympathetically describing the plight of the Palestinians. These books included Nejla Izzeddin’s The Arab World (1953), Alfred M. Lilienthal’s What Price Israel (1953), Freda Utley’s Will the Middle East Go West? (1957), Per-Olow Anderson’s They are Human Too (1957), and Ethel Mannin’s Road to Beersheeba (England: 1963; America: 1964). Anderson’s book was a collection of photographs taken at Palestinian refugee camps, Mannin’s volume a novel about Palestinian refugees. Utley’s book uttered a sentiment typical for these books: “freedom and justice for Israel depend on freedom and justice for the Arabs.”