Daily Archives: December 11, 2005

Extremism, hate speech, and moral equivalency

My post on “unhinged” political behavior on the right and the left (on Dave Neiwert’s critique of Michelle Malkin’s book Unhinged) has generated a rather heated discussion in the comments, as well as a thoughtful response here.

The main thrust of a lot of the responses from the left is that is that I am drawing a false moral equivalency between extremist rhetoric on the left and the right when the right is demonstrably worse. (Some posters from the right make the same criticism in reverse.)

Most of the criticism focuses on what Neiwert calls “eliminationist rhetoric” — talk of getting rid of political opponents “either through violence or through mass roundups and incarceration.” Ann Coulter provides some grist (“My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building”; “We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed too”). There’s also a 1995 quote from Rush Limbaugh (“I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus — living fossils — so we will never forget what these people stood for”), and another one from 2005 where Rush muses aloud that if it’s a good idea for us to learn from the laws of other nations, we ought to borrow the new British law allowing the deportation of hate-preaching extremists: “Wouldn’t it be great if anybody who speaks out against this country, to kick them out of the country? Anybody that threatens this country, kick ’em out. We’d get rid of Michael Moore, we’d get rid of half the Democratic Party if we would just import that law. That would be fabulous.” There is also Bill O’Reilly’s suggestion that the staff of Air America be locked up for “undermining” the country, and his comment about not protecting San Francisco from terrorist attacks in retaliation from the city barring military recruiters from schools.

All this is, of course, vile stuff, and there is no excuse for it (including “humor”). And I’ll concede that it has no precise equivalent on the left (Ward Churchill is too negligible to count — his only fame comes from the right). I’ll show interpretive charity to Michael Moore and assume that when he lamented that if the 9/11 terrorists wanted to get back at Bush, they struck at cities where most people didn’t vote for him, he meant only that the attack made no sense from that angle, not that it would have been better if they had struck in, say, Dallas. And I’ll stipulate that when Garrison Keillor — who has an audience of nearly 4 million on National Public Radio — joked about taking the vote away from born-again Christians, it wasn’t quite so bad as joking about killing them off.

But is it that qualitatively different? Dave Neiwert, after all, cites as one of his examples of Ann Coulter’s out-of-bounds rhetoric her suggestion that women shouldn’t vote (because they tend to vote the “wrong” way).

No one really thinks (I hope) that Limbaugh, Coulter, and O’Reilly are seriously advocating the murder and incarceration of millions of liberals. What makes their rhetoric so poisonous is that (a) as Neiwert points out, it amounts to “a declaration of enmity” rather than a desire to debate, and (b) certain ideas, such as killing or rounding up one’s political opponents, are too vile to be broached even as a “joke.”

Viewed that way, there isn’t that much distance between urging deportation and urging secession. Laudably, Neiwert points to the “Fuck the South” post-election screed, which calls for the expulsion of the Southern states from the Union and ends with “Fuck off,” as a lamentable example of hateful speech on the left: “[I]n the end, it’s an argument for writing off your fellow Americans.” But there are other, more mainstream examples of this mindset; two prominent Democratic pundits, Lawrence O’Donnell and Bob Beckel, made post-election comments about Southern secession.

The issue is hate as a dominant mode of relating to people on the other side of the political divide. It can be expressed in “liberal hunting license” bumper stickers as documented by Neiwert. Or it can be expressed in this Democratic Underground thread, where a poster writes that she didn’t stop to help a stranded motorist with a small child in sweltering heat after she saw a “W” bumper sticker on the woman’s car, and most of the other posters not only reassure her that she shouldn’t feel bad but congratulate her. (One poster writes, “[E]verytime I see one of those stickers, the hate that fills my mind is almost embarrassing. People I don’t even know, and I see that sticker and all of a sudden I hate their guts.”)

And in some cases, of course, there are pretty close parallels. Here’s Rush Limbaugh (once again documented by Dave Neiwert) on the four Christian peace activists taken hostage in Iraq the other day:

I like any time a bunch of leftist feel-good hand-wringers are shown reality. … I’m telling you, folks, there’s a part of me that likes this. Probably, even with this, though, you know, they’re not going to see the light of day.

And here’s Markos Moulitsas (Daily Kos) on the four U.S. contractors murdered in Fallujah in 2004:

I feel nothing over the death of merceneries (sic). They aren’t in Iraq because of orders, or because they are there trying to help the people make Iraq a better place. They are there to wage war for profit. Screw them.

As for extreme rhetoric migrating into the mainstream: in an earlier post, Dave cites Karl Rove’s liberal-bashing remarks to a Republican audience in June (“Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers”) as an example. Yes, I agree, that was a nasty, divisive, unfair comment. Some liberals seem to think no high-ranking Democrats have made equivalent conservative-bashing comments. Really? Well, here’s Howard Dean:

“This is a struggle between good and evil and we’re the good.”

“I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for.”

And here’s more Howard Dean:

Speaking about election reform, he said it is unconscionable for voters to have to stand in lengthy lines at polling places given the demands of work and family. “Republicans,” he said, “I guess can do that because a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives.”

In terms of actual violence toward political opponents: As Dave Neiwert says, it obviously exists on both sides, and I’m not going to try to figure out who’s done it more. Ideologically, there are trends at the extremes on both sides that lend themselves to condoning political violence: on the right, the flirtation with vigilantism; on the left, the flirtation with revolutionary violence. (The tendency to romanticize such violence exists even among mainstream liberals: check out, for instance, this analysis of a 2002 New York Times piece about Chesa Boudin, the devoted son of two Weather Underground terrorists who are serving time for the 1981 murder of two police officers and a security guard in a Brinks armored car robbery.)

Now, another important point. Dave argues that extremist elements have gained too much influence in the Republican Party; and, especially after the Terri Schiavo fiasco, I’m inclined to agree. I have been appalled, for a long time, by the fact that a shrill hatemonger like Ann Coulter was being treated as a legitimate pundit on the right. (I was also pretty disgusted by the right’s anti-Clinton vendetta.) However, Dave also adds:

The only left-wing extremist movements of any note in 2005 — the animal rights/eco-terrorist extremists particularly, though the anarchists and anti-globalists who helped make the WTO demonstrations a fiasco also fit the bill — do not have any kinds of significant footholds or influence within the Democratic Party.

Note that here, Dave defines extremist movements very specifically as ones that engage in lawlessness and violence. In that case, I’m not sure who those extremist elements in the GOP are. Dave has cited the embrace of Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry by mainstream conservatives during the Terri Schiavo battle, and I’ll be the first to say that Terry is odious. But if we’re going to look for counterparts on the left, let’s ask who has more influence: Randall Terry in the Republican Party, or Al Sharpton in the Democratic Party? (For Sharpton’s long record of extremism, including his role in fanning the flames of racial violence in several cases, see this column by Jeff Jacoby.)

If we define extremism to include people and movements that engage in violent and, well … unhinged rhetoric, then I would point to at least two extremist elements that do have influence with the Democratic Party mainstream.

(1) The Congressional Black Caucus has endorsed the “Millions More Movement” led by the Rev. Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (characterized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center as well as the Anti-Defamation League). On July 20, 2005, most of the CBC’s 43 memers attended a strategy session with Farrakhan. (See this page for some of Farrakhan’s more interesting comments over the years.)

(2) While being opposed to the war in Iraq is certainly not an extreme position, the antiwar movement, unfortunately, has been heavily enmeshed with extremist elements such as the hardcore communist group A.N.S.W.E.R. (see this critique in the liberal magazine Salon.com).

The issue of the anti-war movement and extremism also brings me to the rather painful issue of Cindy Sheehan. Yes, I know that some people on the right have crossed the bounds of decency in attacking Sheehan (for instance, Rush Limbaugh when he bizarrely suggested that her story was the equivalent of Bill Burkett’s “forged documents”). But Sheehan’s very real grief does not excuse her very extreme rhetoric (“The biggest terrorist in the world is George W. Bush”), of which many examples can be found here. See also here, and here, and here. (The last link is to a transcript posted on David Horowitz’s website, not the most reputable source in the world, but I haven’t see any suggestiong that the transcript is inaccurate.) Among other things, Sheehan has hailed as a hero Lynn Stewart, the attorney who was convicted of aiding and abetting a terrorist conspiracy for serving as a liaison between her incarcerated client, terrorist mastermind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, and his network outside. Stewart is known for openly sympathizing with radical Islamic terrorism (which she sees is as a part of the anti-imperialist struggle). It is also worth noting that Sheehan’s writings are carried by the far-right website LewRockwell.com.

Back in August, a poster on Daily Kos mused:

Last night, occurred to me: Cindy Sheehan, Terry Schiavo reincarnated?

I’m not quite sure what she meant, but she was right: if the Terry Schiavo fiasco was the triumph, and nadir, of “unhinged” politics on the right, Cindy Sheehan’s protest has been the same for the left. (And, in both cases, those responsible are somewhat insulated from criticism by personal tragedy.)

Finally: if we’re going to talk about a left-wing counterpart to Ann Coulter, I would say that Michael Moore definitely qualifies. And how.

So, all in all, I stand by my earlier point. There is nastiness and ugliness aplenty on both sides, regardless of the exact forms it takes. To some extent, of course, perceptions of “ugliness,” “nastiness” and “unhingedness” (so to speak) are subjective. To me, saying that Bush didn’t lift a finger to help the victims of Katrina because he doesn’t give a damn about blacks is obviously unhinged. To someone to the left of me, that might not be so obvious. Likewise, to me, saying that any mainstream Democrats are sympathetic to America’s enemies is obviously unhinged. Others may differ. So, in the end, when approaching this issue, we are all to some extent captives of our own biases and perceptions; and I do not exempt myself from this general rule, as someone more “right” than “left” but deeply disenchanted, and troubled by, many aspects of conservative politics.

Trying to figure out who started it is fruitless, as well. Each side regards its own nastiness as reactive, and has examples to point to. And, for each side, “they started it” and “they’re worse” serves as an excuse to condone or even encourage nastiness in its own ranks. (A liberal friend of mine who had always despised Michael Moore, and prided himself on the fact that mainstream liberalism has not embraced Moore the way mainstream conservatism has embraced Coulter, concluded upon the release of Fahrenheit 9/11 that if this movie helps defeat Bush, then maybe Moore is exactly what we need in today’s political climate.)

Remember the proverb, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”? That’s what’s happening here. Eye-for-an-eye political debate is leaving us blind.

In 1946, George Orwell wrote in his essay, “The Prevention of Literature” (quoted with apologies to Catholics, though not to Communists):

The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent. Each of them tacitly claims that ‘the truth’ has already been revealed, and that the heretic, if he is not simply a fool, is secretly aware of ‘the truth’ and merely resists it out of selfish motives.

Today, this mindset has become rampant on the left and the right, and not just on the fringes but in the mainstream as well.

In my earlier thread, one poster asked if I would suggest any remedies for this problem. I wish I could. The only solution I can think of is to rebuke political hate speech and to ostracize its perpetrators — starting with those in one’s own camp. It should be up to politicians to take the initiative. Imagine if the next Republican or Democratic presidential contender gave a “Sister Souljah” speech denouncing the political hatemongers in his or her party. Is this really an impossible dream?


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