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the ways of Wills

By Diogenes (articles ) | Nov 01, 2006

Joseph Sobran said of Garry Wills, "He has rarely written a bad sentence or a good book." The same goes for Wills's lengthy philippics in the NYRB. You bounce along cheerfully through the spunky prose and, at the end, what you've learned about the topic is principally that Garry Wills has strong feelings on it.

This month the target of Wills's artillery is the Religious Right in Washington. Here's an excerpt:

That [viz., John Ashcroft's refusal to use marshals to combat violence against abortion clinics] was one of many signs that this administration would not play into Dobson and Co.'s rhetoric of a "culture war" by using shock troops to keep the peace. Unwilling to hand the reins to evangelical legislators, the President himself called for an amendment to the Constitution outlawing abortion, only inviting evangelical leaders around him to celebrate the signing of the bill banning "partial birth abortions." The signing was not held, as usual, at the White House but in the Ronald Reagan Building, sending the unmistakable message that the administration did not wish their victorious allies of the moment to make themselves at home. Ashcroft moved enforcement of the ban to the Civil Rights Division, a signal that evangelicals rued, implying that abortion was merely one more pedestrian infringement of government-created entitlements.

Wills's aim here, you see, is to show the waning political influence of evangelicals on the Bush administration (i.e., as so far off-base not even responsible Republicans can take them seriously). But in another mood he may have seen fit to stress the waxing influence of evangelicals so as to stir up liberal anxiety about theocracy. Such is Wills's glibness that he could have used the same facts to make the opposite point. The adjustments are easily made:

That [viz., John Ashcroft's refusal to use marshals to combat violence against abortion clinics] was one of many signs that this administration thought of abortion as a sin, not as a right to be protected. The President himself called for an amendment to the Constitution outlawing abortion. He called evangelical leaders around him to celebrate the signing of the bill banning "partial birth abortions." The signing was not held, as usual, at the White House but in the Ronald Reagan Building, as a salute to the hero of younger evangelicals. Ashcroft moved enforcement of the ban to the Civil Rights Division, a signal that evangelicals appreciated, implying that the fetus is a person with civil rights to be protected.

Intelligent, well-read, academically nimble, Wills has never been a scholar. Unlike a scholar, Wills suppresses all counter-evidence to the thesis he has elected to defend: all facts are facts that support his position. It's not that he puts forth falsehoods, rather he only mentions a fraction of the truths pertinent to the controversy. Wills never hesitates, never suggests the data is equivocal, never admits to being stumped. For all his ability, he's a jingoist in a tweed jacket. "Bigotry," Frank Sheed wrote, "does not mean believing that people who differ from you are wrong; it means assuming that they are either knaves or fools." Wills assumes they are both; he feels no obligation to engage the contrary arguments because he refuses to admit that worthy counter-arguments exist.

P.S. In this post, as it happens, the latter citation (the theocracy-anxiety screed) is the genuine Wills and the earlier one is the fake. It doesn't matter much. I wrote the fake graf myself and had to check twice to make sure.

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