Monday, February 11, 2008


Paul Krugman (via) ought to know better! He says that “during those years [1964-1972] America did indeed become the land of slander and scare, of the politics of hatred”, thanks to the wickedness of Richard Nixon and his malevolent campaign tactics. Nixon sowed the wind, and we now reap the whirlwind. “In fact, these days even the Democratic Party seems to be turning into Nixonland.” Krugman’s an economist, not an historian, but then I’m neither, and I know better.

Yes, the dirt that’s already being flung in this year’s campaign is dirty. But it’s not an artefact of the Nixon era, though Sleazemeister Richard Nixon did set new 20th-century standards for political vitriol, contumely, venom, and spleen. (There’s a name for a law firm for you.) American politics has always been about throwing acid in the face of your opponent and his supporters. (Until the 21st century, you and your opponent were always “he.”)

I learned this in my high school American history class back in the 1960s, for heaven’s sake, from Thomas Nast cartoons reproduced in the textbook. I think I even remember my 6th grade teacher quoting the immortal jingle “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, haw haw haw!” from the 1884 Presidential campaign, referring to the out-of-wedlock son fathered by the bachelor Grover Cleveland. The cartoon above, showing the Irish as unassimilable lumps in the American melting pot, is one of the milder examples of racial hatred from the good old days of American peace, freedom, and brotherly love. Those were the days when gangs of thugs, armed with clubs, would roam the streets, trying to keep members of the other party from voting. (More details can be found in Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward’s Why Americans Don’t Vote, and Why Politicians Want It That Way [Beacon Press, 2000]).

But suppose for the sake of argument that Krugman (and so many others like him) are right: that we live in an unprecedented Nixonland of eternally springing hate. I don’t see the point of sitting around wailing about it. I argued earlier that it’s self-serving for atheists to call recalcitrant theists “postmodernists” – the charge is bogus to begin with, and amounts to a declaration of one’s incompetence to debate them. I think something similar is going on here. I’m not sure why politicians (and their defenders) answer the goon squads by yammering about “hate” and lack of civility – did their consultants clear this tactic with focus groups? Whatever the reason, it doesn’t work. The attacks continue, probably because the outraged yelps tell the goons that they found their target. I don’t recommend responding in kind either, though of course the liberals have their own goons, as Krugman and Avedon admit (and I pointed out before), who go after their enemies. So the cycle of abuse continues, which is clearly what the political mainstream wants. It makes it easier to avoid addressing issues, which neither party really wants to do.

I’ve always found that the best way to deal with bigots is to take them apart rationally, taking their stupid slogans and abuse as if they were meant seriously, and answering them point by point. This frustrates them no end, and they usually end up complaining that they’re being picked on, that they didn't mean what they said seriously, so lay off awready. In the case of David Shuster’s stupid remark about Hillary Rodham Clinton ‘pimping out’ her daughter Chelsea by using her in her campaign, for example, it would have sufficed to point out (as Krugman does in his column) that Chelsea is an adult, that politicians’ children often work in their parent’s campaigns – indeed, that nobody flaunts their private lives like campaigning politicians. Instead there was outrage, and Shuster was suspended from MSNBC, though as far as I can tell, “pimp” no longer is as negative a word as it was in Hillary’s and my youth. Half the profiles on MySpace, it seems, announce that they were “pimped out” – decorated and enhanced – with this or that software package. Hiphop has made the word ubiquitous, and drained it of much of its former punch. I suspect Shuster was trying to show that he is Hep and With-It, which doesn’t mean that he isn’t too stupid to live, but then so are most of the major-network news anchors and pundits.

It’s certainly not pleasant to be called names, but I can’t help thinking of all the people who’ve worked for political causes in the face of physical attacks by thugs or police, long imprisonment, torture, and (often quite horrible) death. I don’t mean only dissidents in the old Soviet Union, or Hitler’s Germany, or Iran under the Shah (and after), or Israel, or the many vicious dictatorships the US has supported around the world. I mean also labor, feminist, and African-American activists right here in the United States. (Think for a moment of the coward John Kennedy, who cravenly refused to act for as long as he could while people were being beaten and murdered in the Deep South; and then think of the courage of the Civil Rights activists who went on resisting even though they knew they were on their own.) The threats, and surely their own fear, didn’t stop them from talking back boldly to their captors and would-be masters. I’ve often wondered what I’d do in such conditions, and I don’t assume I’d be brave. But I think it’s a safe bet that our politicians, and their supporters, who crumble in the face of verbal insults, wouldn’t last a second; indeed, they are already collaborators with Bush. What use are they, then?