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John Walker: A man of no importance

By Barton Wong
web posted December 17, 2001

I like the right and all, but really, conservatives should stop smearing Marin County, California. Consider these quotes, written no doubt while the writer was indulging in a session of superior sneering:

Spann is a red-state guy, Walker a blue-stater…Walker comes from a wishy-washy, whatever-floats-your-boat family living in the shadow of -- where else? -- San Francisco.

(Jonah Goldberg, "Freedom Kills," National Review Online)

…what a journey for an American boy from Marin County, where all the cliché obsessions of shallow California--wine, therapy and real estate--flourish without irony…This is a world where learning is self-referential, where adults are only broadly tolerant. There are no external yes's and no's, or rights and wrongs here, just the fashionable relativism (Islam is as good as the family Catholicism) that makes places like Marin so cool.

(Shelby Steele, "Radical Sheik," Opinion Journal)

Mr. Walker is for real -- born John Lindh in 1981, and from that bastion of well-heeled dopehead progressivism, California's affluent Marin County… The marvel is that, after labouring under the twin burdens of the education system's multicultural orthodoxies and the preening moral superiority of their Boomer parents, no more Bay Area teens have signed on with Mullah Omar.

(Mark Steyn, "'Misguided Boy' deserves Afghan Justice," National Post)

I like all three of these writers, but they're quite mistaken here. Someone on the Right has to stand up to these wrong-headed claims about our liberal friends down in Marin County, so I guess I'll give it a try.

Ever since the election, the false myth of an America, culturally and politically divided along the lines of the conservative Bush-voting "Red States" and the liberal Gore-supporting "Blue States" had been perpetuated to the detriment of our political discourse. Supposedly, never the twain shall meet. I've never bought into this new paradigm because it's a drastic simplification of a complex social reality. But like all simplifications, this concept is easy to grasp and easy to communicate to a mass audience, so consequently, commentators have grabbed hold of it and used it to push forward their own partisan cases. The result is stereotyping and overgeneralization on a massive scale, as in this case with the conservatives and how they treat Marin County, California, or "Gore Country" in general.

John WalkerSince when did geography play such a decisive factor in shaping a person's character? Just because John Walker was born in Marin County and John Spann was a good, old boy from Alabama doesn't mean a thing. Geography is not fate. Regarding a New York Times profile of the two men which played this up, Andrew Sullivan wrote: "The thing that stood out most starkly is the blue-red split. In fact, both are almost absurd stereotypes of each part of America." It seemed absurdly stereotypical because it probably was. The attempt to turn the heroic and patriotic Spann into a typical product of a conservative upbringing and to smear Walker as an example of what happens when you give a child a liberal education is quite frankly, ideological nonsense.

How are we to know that Spann was a typical Bush-voting right-winger, as some conservatives seem to be too eager to portray him as? For all we know, he could have voted for Ralph Nadar last November. And does it really matter what his political beliefs were? Of course not. His brave actions spoke far more eloquently for what his true character was than any political manifesto. And what about Spann's partner, the anonymous "Dave," who tried so desperately to save him? If "Dave" turned out to be, say, a native of Ithaca, New York, the great red-blue theory is blown right out of the water. What many conservatives seem to be implying regarding John Walker is that just because your grew up in Marin County or you have a liberal, hippie upbringing or you have leftist political beliefs, you can't fundamentally be a patriotic American, which is manifestly a lie.

How many American traitors in this war have the "Blue States" so far produced? One; not a hundred, not a thousand, just one. Mark Steyn wonders in his article why Marin County hasn't produced more traitors. Well, quite possibly because John Walker is so obviously a single isolated phenomenon and not a typical product of "Gore Country" thinking. If Marin County had produced, say, five guys fighting for the Taliban, then there might a case, but one traitor does not turn San Francisco into a hotbed of anti-Americanism nor does it turn the Blue States into incubators of a potential fifth column. It is a most unfortunate coincidence that the one traitor had to be from Marin County, thus allowing conservatives to throw around their very favourite "Gore Country" stereotypes, but that's just what it was, a coincidence. If Walker had turned out to be from Texas, then we wouldn't be even having this argument. Instead, liberals would most probably be saying that Walker was a product of a "typical" Texas upbringing and that this led naturally to his fighting for a bunch of "right-wing" religious fanatics.

How are these right-wing smears against the "shallow," "dopehead" San Francisco Bay Area any different from Paul Begala's infamous (and justifiably much criticized) rant during the election about Bush-voting states being hotbeds of white racism and redneck homophobia? Mark Steyn has the temerity of accusing Walker's parents, whom he definitely does not know, of "preening moral superiority," but much of his article is nothing more than an exercise in preening moral superiority by the New Hampshire-based Steyn over those yogurt-eating, Birkenstock-wearing, hippie leftovers down by California way. In both Begala's and Steyn's articles, the writer is indulging in stereotyping both his presumed political opponents and entire areas of the United States for the sake of advancing a partisan ideological position. I expect nothing less from a liberal hack such as Begala, but such impoverished intellectual posturing is unworthy of Steyn. If we turn Walker into a symbol of what liberalism does to rot your mind, then not only are we overgeneralizing, we are smearing those liberals who have been supporting this war all along.

But it isn't just the Right who holds up John Walker as a typical product of "Gore Country." Liberals themselves seem to indulge in this shallow-minded practise. Mark Steyn writes regarding a San Francisco Chronicle defence of Walker:

As one headline put it: "A Product Of Bay Area Culture." Exactly, I thought. But, this being the San Francisco Chronicle, they were applying the label with pride. Rhapsodizing about the area's "religious tolerance" and the way children are taught "to accept other cultures" and value "critical thinking about the U.S. role in the world," senior writer Louis Freedberg concluded that Walker's only misfortune was that "his search for identity intersected precisely with the World Trade Center attacks."

Yet again, the writer is playing to our stereotypes of what "a product of Bay Area culture" would be like, but because he comes from the Left instead of the Right, he thinks this is a good thing. Well, if betraying the country of your birth is a good thing, I suggest Louis Freedberg go back and do some "critical thinking" of his own. His mind could do with some using once in a while.

The big problem I have with turning John Walker into a simple product of either his upbringing, geographical location, or cultural milieu, as the above writers seemed to have done, is that it subtly robs Walker of any responsibility for his actions. It's like the bank robber who says that he went into a life of crime because he had a bad childhood, or those leftists who excuse black violence as a result of their "culture" as if those blacks didn't know any better, and who always put the blame on the surrounding oppressive "white" power structure. If John Walker really is a typical product of what happens if you are brought up in the liberal culture of the Bay Area, as the conservatives have argued, then surely Walker didn't know any better since the culture he was brought up in didn't have any counterexamples to thwart his growing moral nihilism. And if that is true, then the real blame lies not on Walker's shoulders (since he was merely a naïve 20-year old whose actions were inevitable given his upbringing and cultural milieu), but on the surrounding culture which produced him. This neatly reproduces Freedberg's argument for why we should let John Walker go unpunished. Blaming the surrounding culture for a person's actions instead of the person himself is a fundamentally left-wing premise, yet in smearing Marin County and the Bay Area as hotbeds of anti-Americanism, the terms of Freedberg's argument have already been accepted by right-wingers such as Steele and Steyn. It absolves of Walker of ultimate responsibility. We're all now victims of our upbringing.

But making John Walker into a symbol of "Bay Area culture" or "liberalism" or "critical thinking" is symptomatic of a larger question. Why should we turn John Walker into a symbol of anything at all? In their search for larger meaning, commentators tend to overinflate the importance of things, so that single events or persons become symbols of larger trends in our society, even when those trends manifestly don't exist. Remember how the killing of James Byrd was a "symbol" of growing racism in America and what would happen to blacks if George W. Bush was elected? Wrong. Or how the horrific murder of Matthew Shepard was "symbolic" of a massive wave of homophobia sweeping the nation? Wrong again. Hence, we see conservatives turn Walker into a symbol of liberal nihilism, even though, as I point out above, this brand of "liberalism" has produced exactly one traitor so far. Jonah Goldberg in his article, "Freedom Kills," argues that Walker is a symbol of what happens if you raise children according to the principles of cultural libertarianism. Yet it cuts both ways. A reader wrote in to Andrew Sullivan making a fairly convincing case that far from being the inevitable product of hippie parents and a liberal upbringing, Walker is in fact, a right-wing religious fanatic:

I am not sure how a religious fundamentalist and zealot like John Walker is an embodiment of the American Hating Left. He is a right wing religious nut just like the guy arrested here in Cincinnati last week for sending fake anthrax to abortion clinics. While you may be correct that his permissive parents and his multicultural context may have produced him (sounds like something some right wing nut case would say about homosexuality, right Andrew?), what it produced was a right wing Islamic religious nut who hates the West and America for its decadence (which he enjoyed and benefited from) and sin, just like his brothers on the right wing Christian extreme (like maybe Tim McVeigh, who was a Catholic to boot?).

As it stands, it seems that Walker can be interpreted as representing any number of ideological positions depending on where on the political spectrum you're shooting from. Perhaps it's a mistake to even apply such labels as "right-wing," or "liberal" to John Walker and the Taliban. After all, does anyone really care if Hitler was "right-wing" or "socialist" and do such labels matter? Of course not. Hitler and the Taliban are so far off the edge of the political spectrum as to be on another planet. They needed to be eliminated for the evil forces they were, not weighed and classified according to some ideological scale. Calling them right or left-wing is to insult genuine right and left-wingers who don't go around murdering Jews or imposing tyrannous theocracies.

Freud famously said that "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," and the same applies to John Walker. To inflate him into something bigger than he really is, is to accord him an importance he doesn't deserve. He isn't symbolic of any greater moral rot in the heart of American society nor is he to be upheld as a representative of a wider political movement. John Walker is what he obviously was from the very beginning, a moral idiot and a traitor to his country, nothing more.

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