Emphatically not, to judge by “American Happiness and Discontents: The Unruly Torrent, 2008-2020,” his latest anthology. The nearly 200 columns collected here confirm that Will is still a brilliant prose craftsman as well as a keen and dyspeptic political observer. Love him or loathe him, there is no one else like him.
Will is perhaps the last remnant of a distinctive slice of the old East Coast intelligentsia. He channels the sinewy, provocative and feline style of his journalistic model Murray Kempton, the buoyant cosmopolitan conservatism of his mentor William F. Buckley and the world-weary, scholarly wisdom of his political beau ideal Daniel Patrick Moynihan. An artisan of the aphorism as well as a luminous book reviewer and obituarist, he is a considerably more complicated thinker than the tweedy, bow-tied conservative persona he tends to project on TV.
It’s true that Will tends toward old-fashioned disapproval of much of contemporary life. He enjoys Sinatra, dry martinis at dusk, free-range parenting and baseball while disliking football, basketball, rock, pop, denim, video games, Planned Parenthood and public-service announcements at airports. He is content to address what he calls “a self-selected audience of intellectually upscale readers,” and if you don’t know what he means by “Pecksniffian Comstockery,” tant pis. The most frequent words he uses to describe American culture are “coarse” and “infantile,” and he has myriad ways of expressing his distaste for “today’s leveling winds of mindless egalitarianism.”
The Ivy League universities and their peer institutions are, for Will, the mephitic swamp from which most of what he detests in politics and culture emanates. Much of the book is given over to his denunciations of the ideas, language and scholarship of left-wing academics (which is to say nearly all of them).
But his particular loathing is reserved for the burgeoning class of university administrators, along with the intersectional apparatus of speech codes, bias response teams, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and the star chambers and kangaroo courts that they have conjured into being.
Perhaps Will’s most heated column of the past decade (included in this anthology) was a 2014 broadside against university administrators’ search for “micro-aggressions,” their making “victimhood a coveted status” and their denial of due process to male students accused of sexual assault. Will also rejected the Obama administration’s claim that 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted while in college. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch responded by declaring the piece “offensive and inaccurate,” apologized for publishing it and dropped Will’s column.
But Will is miles removed from today’s crop of anti-intellectual right-wing pundits and politicians. He believes that “America’s great research universities are ornaments of Western civilization” — a phrase he uses without irony or qualification — “so their descent into authoritarianism and infantilization matters.” For this reason, he opposed the Republican Congress’s imposition of a punitive tax on wealthy universities’ endowment earnings, pointing out that such funds support need-blind admissions at many of those institutions, thus fostering upward mobility as well as humanistic and scientific advance. And he sided with Harvard in the ongoing lawsuit conservatives brought against its affirmative-action program in undergraduate admissions, feeling that the university deserved some deference in determining “the mixture of merits that serves a university’s, and society’s, several purposes.”
Will has always been a conservative, albeit an idiosyncratic one. He hasn’t been a mainstay of the conservative movement since July 1973, when he became the first political columnist to call for Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Nonetheless, Will has consistently adhered to what he calls “conservatism’s substance,” consisting of “limited government, balanced budgets, free trade, curbs in executive power, entitlement reform, collective security.” And he demonstrated his fidelity to this credo when, as it became clear that Donald Trump would be the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, he exited the GOP.
Trump appears infrequently in “American Happiness and Its Discontents,” although this is partly because Will seemingly can’t bear to mention him by name. The anthology does include Will’s columns from last year in which he memorably characterized Trump as a “low-rent Lear raging on his Twitter-heath,” called for his removal along with “his congressional enablers” and analogized Trump’s rallies to “Fascism’s celebration of unfettered leaders proclaiming ‘only I can fix it.’ ”
Overall, however, Will has remarkably little to say about the collapse of the GOP into a party that, with or without Trump, seeks to rule without majoritarian support. His confidence that “presidents come and go” while “the Constitution and the American creed bide” seems ill-founded given the events of Jan. 6 and Trump’s continued stranglehold on Republican epistemology. Will stands almost alone with Ronald Reagan as an optimist on the political right who rejects “conservatives in the grip of cultural despair” as well as what he considers the anti-American, anti-capitalist and anti-progress pessimism of self-styled progressives.
Will can’t be accused of overlooking the darker aspects of America’s history. His columns included here grapple with the ongoing legacy of slavery, the eugenics movement that gave inspiration and example to Nazi Germany, the concentration camps approved by the Supreme Court’s 1944 Korematsu decision, the race riots and lynchings that persisted into the modern era, and the miscarriages of the criminal justice system that continue to disproportionately afflict African Americans. Will nonetheless rejects what he sees as progressive ideological efforts, such as in the 1619 Project, to deprive the American story of “the moral majesty” of its Enlightenment precepts.
But his optimism elides into Panglossianism with his applause for Justice Clarence Thomas’s 2009 call to gut the Voting Rights Act, which came to fruition with the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. There is simply no way to reconcile Will’s praise for the Voting Rights Act as marking the true end of slavery with the Republican Party’s ongoing suppression of minority votes, enabled by the removal of precisely those critical protections that Will dismisses as “a symbol of heroic days long gone.”
Will, in rejecting the current social-media-enabled ethos of oversharing, has revealed almost nothing of his personal life — with one massive, moving exception. In 2012, he wrote about his eldest child, Jonathan, who was born with Down syndrome, a congenital condition that causes mental disabilities and physical abnormalities. Historically, infants diagnosed with this chromosomal defect have been aborted or institutionalized; at the time Jon was born, the life expectancy for people with his condition was about 20 years.
Jonathan Will turned 49 in 2021. George’s deft portrait of his son is a switch suddenly thrown in a dark room, illuminating many of his beliefs, including not only his objection to abortion but also his conception of life, fate and grace. Jon shares few of the qualities that raised his father, a winner in “life’s lottery,” to his position among the nation’s elite. Nonetheless, during baseball season, he is a faithful attendee at home games of his beloved Washington Nationals, sharing a seat behind the dugout with his father and friends among the great and good, “just another man, beer in hand, among equals in the republic of baseball.”
American Happiness and Discontents
The Unruly Torrent,
By George F. Will
505 pp. $32