I have been meaning for days to comment on Dave Neiwert‘s though-provoking six-part series (the last post has the links to the first five) critiquing Michelle Malkin’s book Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild, but I wanted to wait until I got a copy of the book.
Having read it, I certainly agree with the main thrust of Neiwert’s criticism: Unhinged is egregiously unbalanced.
Malkin sets out to prove that while conservatives are commonly stereotyped as intolerant, extreme, rabid, etc., it’s really liberals who are all of the above. And she collects some good examples of left-wing nuttiness and nastiness, from conspiracy theories on the “stolen” 2004 election to kill-Bush fantasies to Cameron Diaz suggesting that voting for Bush meant voting for legalized rape to her own (Malkin’s) racist and misogynist hate mail. But it’s absurd for her to suggest that there is no similar nuttiness and nastiness on the right, or that conservatives “conservatives zealously police their own ranks ” against extremists and conspiracy wackos. I don’t recall anyone anyone “policing” unhinged right-wingers like Dan Burton, the Indiana Congressman who called Bill Clinton a “scumbag” and shot pumpkins in his back yard to prove Vince Foster was murdered. Ann Coulter, the very model of the unhinged right-winger (and assassination-joke maven), is featured in Malkin’s screed only as a victim of the nasty left. Malkin has only words of praise for Rush Limbaugh, who (among other things) has compared then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to “the devil” and “Satan.” The Terri Schiavo case was an appalling example of the unhinged right, but the only bad behavior Malkin notices is liberals criticizing the Randall Terry freak show outside the hospice.
So Dave Neiwert’s critique, on those grounds, is entirely justified. As he says, it is deeply disingenous for Malkin to pretend that the kind of ugliness she documents on the left has no counterparts on the right, or to reduce “unhinged” right-wing behavior to a few negligible acts by a few “nutballs.” And Malkin’s lack of response to Neiwert’s criticism is, well, telling. (I should note, by the way, that I am not a Michelle Malkin fan. I used to like some of her columns, and we met for lunch when I was in Seattle in 1999; but later on, I began to find a lot of her rhetoric increasingly … well, unhinged, and I was particularly appalled by her defense of the Japanese-American internment.)
The problem is, while Neiwert clearly strives to be fair-minded and acknowledges that there is a lot of ugly behavior on the left, he can’t resist the partisan temptation to argue that right-wing nastiness is a lot worse.
For instance, he discusses what he calls “eliminationist” rhetoric on the right — talk, a lot of it ostensibly “humorous” but with a genuinely nasty undertone, about deporting, arresting, or killing liberals and leftists. Neiwert writes:
This is really only found on the left in the form of the “jokes” about assassinating Bush, which are indeed grotesque and worthy of real condemnation. But the left doesn’t appear to harbor fantasies about wiping out all conservatives — as the right does for liberals, commonly, frequently, and loudly.
Well, I’m not so sure about “commonly, frequently and loudly,” though Neiwert does cite some pretty egregious examples from Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly (who was “joking,” not so long ago, about how if SanFrancisco wants to bar military recruiters from its high schools, we should tell Al Qaeda that “every other place in America is off limits to you, except San Francisco”). But some of the left-wing examples Malkin cites are pretty bad as well.
Thus, Garrison Keillor, of Prairie Home Companion fan, has “joked” about amending the Constitution to deny evangelical Christians the right to vote. Eric Alterman, in an Esquire interview, remarked that he wished Rush Limbaugh had gone deaf and that “the country would be better without Rush and his 20 million listeners.” Arguably, “humor” about cutting off the “red states” has an “eliminationist” streak to it, as well. And Malkin documents a lot of left-wing nastiness wishing death and suffering on individual conservatives, such as Laura Ingraham when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Let’s not forget the admittedly marginal Ward Churchill asserting that the capitalist pigs who died on 9/11 deserved it, and a professor at a Columbia University anti-war teach-in wishing for “a million Mogadishus” (i.e. mass slaughter of U.S. soldiers) in Iraq. And let’s not forget Michael Moore’s 9/11 comment: “Many families have been devastated tonight. This just is not right. They did not deserve to die. If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who DID NOT VOTE for him! Boston, New York, DC, and the planes’ destination of California — these were places that voted AGAINST Bush!” Okay, this is not quite the same as saying that people who voted for Bush deserved to die in a fiery conflagration (in the next line, Moore says, “Why kill them? Why kill anyone?”), but the suggestion, you have to admit, is there.
Neiwert also asserts that the left-wing ugliness documented by Malkin is something new, and primarily “reactive” to years of liberal-bashing by El Rushbo and his ilk. That’s true if you want to talk about “kill Bush” rhetoric, or in-your-face, “lies and the lying liars who tell them”-type conservative-bashing.
But I think Neiwert is overlooking a lot of nastiness of a more genteel variety — the “Republicans are evil people who want to poison the air and water, starve kids, throw Grandma out on the streets, enslave black people and kick puppies” variety. Remember the “If you elect Republicans, black churches will burn” campaign ad? Or the one in the 2000 presidential campaign in which the daughter of James Byrd Jr., the black Texas man who was deliberately dragged to his death behind a car, said she felt as if her father was killed all over again when Gov. Bush refused to sign the state’s hate crimes law? Or the “Uncle Tom” slurs directed at black affirmative action opponent Ward Connerly? Or the charge that Robert Bork would take us back to segregated lunch counters? (I am not at all a Robert Bork fan, but that was disgraceful.) There’s been a lot of that stuff; I remember a 2001 a cartoon in the New York Daily News which showed Bush Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton (accused of being too friendly to polluters) mouthing the slogan, “Leave no child alive.”
Here’s another example where I think Dave Neiwert overlooks extremism on the left while going after (and, I think, somewhat exaggerating in this case) the right-wing variety:
Meanwhile, let’s not forget the American right’s newfound infatuation with Joe McCarthy. First it was Jonah Goldberg, then Ann Coulter, and now this. Pretty soon we’ll hear it coming out of Sean Hannity’s mouth too: “Joe McCarthy was not so hot in the way he went about doing things, but he was right.“
First of all, I think Neiwert is being a bit unfair to Jonah Goldberg, who was talking about the rampant use and abuse of the term “McCarthyism” (and who called McCarthy “a lout, generally speaking”). Ann Coulter did pen an apologia for McCarthyism in her book Treason (see more on the subject here), which was widely criticized by conservatives (even David Horowitz thought she’d gone too far). As for the latest example cited by Neiwert — well, that’s kind of an interesting story (via Steve Benen at WashingtonMonthly.com).
About two months ago, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) wanted to name a post office in Berkeley after a 94-year-old former city councilwoman. Rep. Steve King of Iowa accused the woman, Maudelle Shirek, of having communist ties and he led a fight to defeat Lee’s measure. Accused of engaging in blatant McCarthyism, King said, “If [Lee] studied her history, she’d recognize Joe McCarthy was a great American hero.”
All right, so Steve King is a jerk and an apologist for an authoritarian bully who deserves his ill repute (and who did more damage to anti-communism than he ever did to communism). But who’s Maudelle Shirek? This complimentary feature on her from the San Francisco Chronicle includes this tidbit:
Her ideals have found expression not only in Berkeley but also all over the world — in Africa, Moscow, Prague, Nicaragua and Cuba, where she dined with Fidel Castro.
So it’s extremist to praise TailGunner Joe, but not extremist to hobnob with Fidel? I would suggest to Dave Neiwert that Maudelle Shirek’s choice of heroes is at least as bad as Steve King’s. Maybe even worse.
So what’s the bottom line? There’s a lot of ugliness, extremism, and “unhinged” behavior across the spectrum of American politics right now. And there is a regrettable tendency, across the spectrum, to ignore, downplay or excuse it when coming from one’s own side. Michelle Malkin doesn’t even try to rise above this partisanship. Dave Neiwert tries, but doesn’t, in my opinion, quite succeed.
Addendum: Not to plug my old articles in every blogpost, but here’s a relevant Reason column from 2003: “Bipartisan Coulterism: Who’s meaner, conservatives or liberals?“
Update: For a follow-up to this post, see: Extremism, hate speech, and moral equivalency.