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The History of the Shrill

Now that Peggy Noonan has joined the Ancient, Hermetic, and Occult Order of the Shrill--those who have been driven into shrill unholy madness by the mendacity, incompetence, malevolence, and disconnection from reality of George W. Bush and his administration:

OpinionJournal - Peggy Noonan: Republicans hearken back to Reagan... they agreed with what he did... they believe he was a very fine man.

This is not now how they feel about Mr. Bush....

William F. Buckley this week said words that... had the power to make one sit up and take notice.... Mr. Buckley's judgments... raise the question of what Bush's political philosophy is--I mean what he thinks it is.... He doesn't believe in smaller government. Or maybe he "believes" in small government but believes us to be in an era in which it is, with the current threat, unrealistic and unachievable? He believes in lower taxes. What else? I continually wonder, and have wondered for two years, what his philosophy is--what drives his actions.

Does he know? Is it a philosophy or a series of impulses held together by a particular personality? Can he say?... People... feel safer with a sense that their leaders have aims that are intellectually coherent. It would be good for the president to demonstrate that his leadership is not just a situational hodgepodge, seemingly driven and yet essentially an inbox presidency, with a quirky tilt to the box...

Now that there is nobody at all not paid-for who thinks George W. Bush has any business sitting in the Oval Office, it is time to answer some of the questions the yung'uns have about the origins of the Order of the Shrill, which I date to an exchange between me, Tyler Cowen, and Andrew Northrup:

Tyler Cowen: I've had enough. Here is our latest foreign policy initiative: "New US curbs on travel to communist-ruled Cuba went into effect on Wednesday..." Here is the full, sad story. Here are more details about the human costs of the policy. Here is some material on America's failed use of sanctions against Cuba. What do you have to do to join The Ranks of the Shrill? Does someone have to send you an E-Invite? Posted by Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen Seeks to Join the Ranks of the Shrill: Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Webjournal: By the power vested in me by Paul R. Krugman, and through the invocation of the ideas of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Lord Acton, John Stuart Mill, and all the other friends of liberty, I hereby enlist and welcome Brother Tyler Cowen to The Ranks of the Shrill.

The Poor Man: The Coalition of the Shrilling: Brad DeLong intones the forbidden verses which consecrates an aspirant into the Occult and Hermetic Order of the Shrill:

By the power vested in me by Paul R. Krugman, and through the invocation of the ideas of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Lord Acton, John Stuart Mill, and all the other friends of liberty, I hereby enlist and welcome Brother Tyler Cowen to The Ranks of the Shrill.

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Krugman R'lyeh wagn'nagl fhtagn! Aaaaiiiiii!!!!

Posted by The Editors at July 2, 2004 09:18 AM


That is not shrill which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even shrillness may die. Posted by: Hal at July 2, 2004 09:57 AM

Why does Yog-Sothoth, the goat with a thousand young, hate America? Posted by: Tweety Fish at July 2, 2004 10:13 AM

Yog-Sothoth hates America too, but every student of the dark lore knows that Shub-Niggurath is the black goat of the woods with a thousand young. Now, if you'll excuse me I must go and re-heat my breakfast burrito. Posted by: Comic Book Guy at July 2, 2004 10:48 AM...

More seriously (or is it less seriously?), those were (and these are) strange days.

I guess it started, I think, with that extremely strange and not-very-analytical Svengali of the Bush Social Security reform plan, Peter Ferrara, who wrote back in 2001 about "the fierce, shrill, and unreasoned denunciations of allowing workers the freedom to choose a personal-account option for Social Security may impress the gullible... and denounced ..the highly irascible Paul Krugman...

That was, I think, the start of a very peculiar meme: a piling-on of critics of Bush--especially of Paul Krugman--whose sole criticism was that he was "shrill." The critique was neither that he was a bad economist, nor that his accusations that the Bush administration was lying about a whole bunch of stuff were incorrect (indeed, one of Paul's most vicious critics, Andrew Sullivan, gloried in the fact that Bush was lying about his tax cut. See So if you wanted to attack Krugman, but could not attack him because his analytics were right, and could not attack him because his accusations of Bush administration dishonesty were correct, what can you do? Well, a bunch of right-wingers led, IIRC, by Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan found a way.

Here's Kaus:

"Comparative Advantage" by Nicholas Confessore: "[Krugman] is obviously a very smart guy, basically liberal, with complicated views, who once recognized when his own side was wrong. And at some point he switched and became someone who only sees what's wrong with the other side, in fairly crude terms," says Mickey Kaus. "The Bush tax cut is based on lies. But it's not enough to criticize a policy to say that it's based on lies. You have to say whether it's good or bad for the country."

(Never mind, of course, that Paul always spent a lot of time, space, wordcount, energy, and breath criticizing the substance of Bush's idiot policies. Yes, they were bad for the country--and Paul said why.)

And here's Sullivan: - Daily Dish: I have long found Paul Krugman an insufferably pompous, shrill, Bush-bashing pseudo-populist...

The accusation--the only line of critique--is that Paul "only sees what's wrong with the other side, in fairly crude terms," or--in shorthand--is "shrill."

God alone knows why they thought this line of attack would do anything other than shred their own reputations. God knows why others took up this line of attack. But take off it did, both as a narrowly-focused attempt to degrade the reputation of Paul Krugman, and as a broader attempt to marginalize all who pointed out that the policies of the Bush administration were (a) stupid, and (b) justified by lies, and it took off both among the yahoos of the right and also among the denizens of the center-left.

Why did it take off? I think the reasons were well laid out by Nick Confessore:

"Comparative Advantage" by Nicholas Confessore: On balance, Krugman's record stands up pretty well. On the topics he writes about most often and most angrily--tax cuts, Social Security, and the budget--his record is nearly perfect. "The reason he's gotten under the White House's skin so much," says Robert Shapiro, a former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, "is that he's right. None of it is rocket science."

So if dismantling the facade of lies around, say, Bush's tax cut is so easy to do--and makes you the most talked-about newspaper writer in the country--why don't any other reporters or columnists do it themselves? Because doing so would violate some of the informal, but strict, rules under which Washington journalists operate. Reporters usually don't call a spade a spade, unless the lie is small or something personal. When it comes to big policy disagreements, most reporters prefer a he-said, she-said approach--and any policy with a white paper or press release behind it is presumed to be plausible and sincere, no matter how farfetched or deceptive it may be.

Similarly, among pundits of the broad center-left, it's considered gauche to criticize the right too persistently, no matter the merits of one's argument. The only worse sin is to defend a politician too persistently; then you become not a bore, but a disgrace to the profession and its independence--even if you're correct...

This seemed to hit the nail on the head: it was (and is) considered impolite to take what the Bush administration said about the rationales for its policies seriously. Consider the Washington Post's Richard Cohen, sneering on September 16, 2004 at those who took Bush's impact on the country seriously:

I was only briefly enamored of George W. Bush... who went to war in Iraq for stated reasons that turned out to be baseless and for unstated reasons that have yet to be publicly acknowledged... neoconservative foreign policy agenda in which violence plays too prominent and casual a role.... chilled by assertions of near-royal power... choice of judges, his energy policy, his unilateralism or the manner in which he has intruded religion into politics.... I nevertheless cannot bring myself to hate Bush.... In fact, Bush haters go so far they wind up adding a dash of red to my blue...[1]

In this context, given that criticisms of George W. Bush and the malevolence, mendacity, incompetence and disconnection from reality of him and his administration are--no matter how sound their analytics or how true their factual claims--going to be dismissed by many as impolite and "shrill," why not have some fun with and embrace the term?

And so the idea was off and running...

Faisal grabbed the website, after emailing "must. resist. temptation. to set up. group weblog" and being answered "Why is this temptation to be resisted? :-)." Andrew introduced the conceptual link to H.P. Lovecraft. (Wikipedia has the appropriate background reading:

And the ranks of the shrill are now... impressive indeed. Even the truly cowardly are now shrill. Only the bought-and-paid-for have not joined the ranks of the highly critical who have been driven into shrill unholy madness by the mendacity, malevolence, incompetence, and disconnection from reality of George W. Bush and his administration.

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Krugman R'lyeh wagn'nagl fhtagn!

[1] And, of course, it was only a month later that Cohen became what he had sneered at:

I do not write the headlines for my columns. Someone else does. But if I were to write the headline for this one, it would be "Impeach George Bush."... Not since the Spanish-American War has the United States gone off to war so casually, so half-cocked and so ineptly.... Yet from Bush comes not a bleep of regret, not to mention apology. It is all "steady as she goes" -- although we have lost our bearings and we no longer know our destination. (Don't tell me it's a democratic Middle East.) If the man were commanding a ship, he would be relieved of command. If he were the CEO of some big company, the board would offer him a golden parachute -- and force him to jump...