Would somebody please give Harper’s literary editor Ben Metcalf a back rub? Or maybe pour him a cup of sleepy-time tea? Or buy him a gift certificate for some yoga lessons?
After all, it’s difficult for an editor to write a readable magazine column when he’s hyperventilating with anger — which seems to be exactly what’s ailing Metcalf in his current “Notebook” column in the front of Harper’s.
In the column, Metcalf ostensibly sets out to write a lofty, literary essay about the limits of free speech in this country. Is it legal, Metcalf wants to know, for him to write about his desire to strangle the president?
“Am I allowed to write that I would like to hunt down George W. Bush, the president of the United States, and kill him with my bare hands?” writes Metcalf.
“In truth, I bring neither a message nor a promise of violence,” he adds. “I seek only to gauge what level of discourse is still acceptable in this country by asking, in the hope that I might someday participate in that discourse, whether I am free to posit that it would probably be great fun, and a boon to all mankind, if I were to slaughter the president of the United States with my bare hands.”
Having posed the question, Metcalf half-heartedly seeks an answer.
Along the way, he reveals that in 1917 Congress passed legislation making it a federal offense for anyone who “knowingly and willfully deposits for conveyance in the mail … any letter, paper, writing, print, missive, or document containing any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States … or knowingly and willfully otherwise makes any such threat.”
The upshot, according to Metcalf, is that somehow George W. Bush has taken advantage of this not-exactly-new restriction on free speech. According to Metcalf, the president’s “free ride on our backs was made possible” by Congress’ 1917 decision.
How is the president getting a free ride on our backs because it’s illegal to make threats against his person? How is that different than any other president since 1917? What does that have to do with the current tension between the White House and the reporters who cover it?
Metcalf never explains. Instead, he haphazardly vents his pent-up anger, and the column soon breaks down into a four-alarm hissy fit against the president.
“I hardly mean to imply that George W. Bush is a delusional party hack whose aim is to rob and mislead us for the benefit of his friends,” he writes. “That idea deserves to be stated outright: George W. Bush is a delusional party hack whose aim is to rob and mislead us for the benefit of his friends.”
Just in case that was too subtle, Metcalf reiterates the point.
“True, George W. Bush is an ignorant, cruel, closed-minded, avaricious, sneaky, irresponsible, thieving, brain-damaged frat boy with a drinking problem and a taste for bloodshed, whose numerous crimes have been abetted by the moral corruption of his party cohort and whose contempt for American military lives alone warrants his impeachment, but what has it ever won us to say so?” he adds.
In the end, all of Metcalf’s rage adds up to quite a spectacle — like watching a toddler in the midst of a temper tantrum, clenching his fists, and smashing at his tinker toys with his favorite Tonka Truck. Several thousand words in, we found ourselves thinking, “Go ahead Big Guy, keep going, get it all out of your system…”
Not that Metcalf’s column is without its merits. Along the way, he succeeds at the previously unlikely feat of making his “Notebook” predecessor, Lewis Lapham, sound like the soothing, moderate voice of reason.