The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, July 29, 2002  

What Happens When Worlds Collide?

Whenever an event or crisis occurs that involves danger, fear, manual labor, faith, and family, it’s time to duck for cover, preferably before the punditocracy -- left, right, and center -- gets its hands on the incident, overanalyzes its significance, and ruins the (preferably) happy conclusion for everyone.

Such is the case already with the dangerous and nerve-wracking rescue of nine Pennsylvania coal miners trapped underground for nearly four days. As best we can tell, the accident at the mine and the ultimate recovery of the miners drew the interest, sympathies, and prayers of a wide range of Americans. The success of the rescue effort, which required overcoming several heartbreaking set backs, was applauded by millions of Americans across the political and ideological spectrum.

It is an event that we all shared, not unlike the attacks on New York and Washington last September. But, as expected, there are some who feel compelled to call the event their own, evidence of their special virtue, and worse, to use a tragedy (or potential tragedy) to support their own political agenda.

Michael Novak discovers the working class

Michael Novak, who we thought was a bit better than this, today has an essay on National Review Online, brazenly entitled “The Conservative Capital of the World.” No, Novak isn’t talking about Lynchburg, Virginia Beach, or Vienna, Virginia, he’s talking about Somerset, Pa., the scene of the mine accident under discussion here, conveniently, for Novak at least, located not altogether far from the spot where United Airlines Flight 93 either crashed or was shot down on Sept. 11, 2001.

“[T]he four days from Wednesday, July 24, until the wee hours of Sunday morning, July 28, brought a new birth of respect for the phrases ‘middle America’ and ‘blue-collar workers,’” according to Novak. “They showed all of us the heroism, toughness, and mental inventiveness of the humble people of America who at work get dirt on their faces and calluses on their hands. What a people!”

Novak must have struggled greatly to craft that paragraph, searching for the words that would enable him to sound awed and respectful but not condescending. He failed. But we applaud the effort.

Indeed, we suspect Novak sees precious few working-class or blue-collar Americans as he goes about his daily business. As a senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Novak thinks his deep thoughts -- and apparently his banal sentimentalities as well -- while ensconced in a nice office in a respectable yet undistinguished building at the corner of 17th and M Streets, N.W., in Washington, D.C., the most white-collar large city in America.

“From the cops and firemen at the World Trade Center to the miners and rescuers and families at Somerset this July, we have seen a beauty of the American soul that we of the highly educated elites know too little of, and from day to day too little admire,” Novak continues, rhapsodically, sounding a bit too much like American Stalinists of old who found delirium in their wholly misguided romantic fantasies about the working class.

To be fair, laboring amid the toiling masses of nearby Connecticut Avenue -- lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, lawyers, bankers, lobbyists, lawyers -- doesn’t bring Novak into contact with people engaged in manufacturing, mining, or construction, or to longshoremen, steelworkers, day laborers, and farm workers. And we’re quite sure such people aren’t regulars at the free lunches, cocktail hours, and dinners enjoyed by those of Novak’s standing in the think-tank community. As such, we concede that the daily rhythms of the lives of Somerset’s miners, their families, and friends -- together with their response to what appeared to be a near-certain tragedy -- were something quite new to this very privileged conservative.

Novak adopts a political agenda

Strangely, however, Novak goes a step farther, finding a political message in the events surrounding the Somerset mine crisis.

“The sense of community . . . was so powerful it could not be missed,” writes Novak. “These were people who understand instinctively what it is to sacrifice one’s own self-assertion to the urgent needs of the group, and to work as a high-spirited, attentive, docile, alert, and creative team. To hell with what liberals might say or do. They knew what they were doing, and they did things their way.” [Ed.: Emphasis added.]

What on earth is this supposed to mean? What would liberals have said or done differently? How does Novak know that the working-class -- and poor -- people about whom he is writing do not adhere to the basic tenets of American liberalism today? We don’t know, because Novak merely makes an assertion -- all well and good when preaching to the National Review choir, but not good enough when he must confront a skeptic.

Novak surprises us by descending into absurdity. “This operation was not politically correct. Not infrequently, it was not even grammatically correct. But in the universal language of the human spirit, it was not only correct but elegant,” Novak writes. [Ed.: Emphasis added.] What would have made the operation “politically correct”? And not grammatically correct! Who cares? Though, Mr. Safire, please call your office.

“Meanwhile, the cooperation and efficient teamwork of the rescuers up above was amazing to watch. Everybody seemed at attention, alert and quick to react,” writes the theologian. “Muscles must have ached with painful weariness as hour after hour passed, and one whole day of work faded into two -- some went forty-eight hours with barely two hours for sleep.”

Yes, manual labor is hard work and it is work that is too often neither respected nor appropriately compensated. Somehow we doubt the latter fact is of any concern to Novak and his colleagues at A.E.I.

“Competence, excellence, teamwork, the spirit of community, discipline, the willing acceptance of every nuance of command set forth by an intelligent, directing authority, compassion for one another, prayer, faith, trust, and pride in one another -- these precious dispositions were deployed hour after hour in a remarkable display of classic conservative virtues.” [Ed.: Emphasis added.]

So are we to believe that moderates and liberals do not value “competence, excellence, teamwork, the spirit of community, discipline, the willing acceptance of every nuance of command set forth by an intelligent, directing authority, compassion for one another, prayer, faith, trust, and pride in one another”?

This is a collection of lies, plain and simple. A familiar refrain of lies, to be sure, but lies all the same.

“For me, this event has been an especially emotional experience. But its validity reaches far beyond the small circle of my own humble family’s memories. It belongs to the ages,” concludes Novak.

Indeed it does, sir, to the ages, not to self-styled conservatives who ascribe inhuman and inhumane motives to the political enemies they so viciously and dishonestly attack, all the while comically and disingenuously portraying themselves as defenseless victims. It’s time to say, “Enough.”

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