Saturday, January 15, 2011

As American As Cherry Pie

(Okay, I think I now see where I'm heading with this. Sorry for the long delay since the last post.)
I've said it many times: the worst thing about Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church is that they can be used as an extreme point, compared to which everyone else can claim to be moderate. Jerry Falwell, for example, or my RWA1, who just linked on Facebook to a USA Today article reporting that Phelps and his church will celebrate the Arizona shooting of Giffords and others. "The demon-possessed preacher rides again," RWA1 commented. See? RWA1 is in the middle of the road, a moderate, reasonable voice stuck between the demon-possessed extremists of the ultra-right and the hate-filled extremists of the ultra-left, like Barack Obama. Like Goldilocks, he's found the seat that is just right.

Soon after, RWA1 followed up with a link to one of the wacko sites he relies on, the Washington Examiner, which explained that the "far left" is acting just like Phelps:
It's exactly the same as the explanations the far left is resorting to in its efforts to pin the recent Tucson, Arizona shooting onto conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, John Boehner, Glenn Beck, and the right generally.
Even the face of an overwhelming amount of evidence that Jared Lee Loughner had exactly zero connections to Palin et al., many on the left are continuing to insist that conservatives and libertarians bear at least some responsibility for creating a "climate of hate" simply by engaging in the exact same type of vigorous political speech that the left is continually urging its politicians to engage in.
I have to remind myself that by "the far left" this guy means "anyone to the left of Rush Limbaugh." As I've said before, in a country the size of the US, you can find "many" people who are saying just about anything. And yes, there are many Americans like the idiot in the photo above, just as there are many Americans who think that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, who think that his name alone tells you he's a terrorist, who think that the Bill of Rights is Communist propaganda ... or who think that, as some Tennessee Tea Party groups are complaining, the American Founders should be depicted in history textbooks so as to conform to the Right's notions of -- what else can you call it? -- political correctness:
At a press conference, two dozen activists presented their proposals -- I'm sorry, their "demands" -- for the new state legislative session. Among them are sweeping changes to school materials that they probably have not actually read.

Take it away, awful person:

The material calls for lawmakers to amend state laws governing school curriculums, and for textbook selection criteria to say that “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership."

Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group's lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address "an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another."
Now, I agree that there has been some talk -- sometimes confused, sometimes evil -- from liberals in the wake of the Tucson shootings that I reject. Look again at the idiot in the photo above. By her own criterion she is a murderer. The rhetoric of her sign is extreme, confusing speech with action, and defames people who have not committed any act of violence and probably would not. So, she's committing hate speech, and since she equates hate speech with murder, QED: she is a murderer herself. That's one big trouble with attempts to limit freedom of speech: they almost always will backfire on the would-be censor.

I'm not the only person who rejects such positions. Glenn Greenwald responded promptly with a post criticizing the "reflexive call for fewer liberties," citing first a former advisor to Bill Clinton who advocates making it easier to commit people who seem to (ill-defined) others to exhibit signs of mental disturbance. But the Clintons, and their Democratic Leadership Council cronies, are not "the left" by any sensible standard: the whole point of the DLC was to move the Democratic Party to the right. I'd go further than Greenwald in attacking that position, partly because of the very poor record of mental health professionals in respecting the civil liberties, or mere personhood, of those unlucky enough to fall into their hands. There was a famous experiment done in the 1960s, I believe, in which several graduate students presented themselves for commitment to a mental hospital, claiming that they heard voices. After admission they dropped that claim, but it proved to be very difficult to get them out. The doctors couldn't tell when a person was healthy.

But that's not really here or there. There may well be exceptions out there, but since it became known that accused shooter Jared Loughner had a history of mental problems (which was almost immediately after the shootings), every commentator I've heard or read has been careful to stress that this was not a political assassination attempt, that Loughner was not motivated by politics. What exercises people like RWA1 or Matthew Sheffield, the Washington Examiner blogger I quoted above, is that there has been criticism of right-wing discourse, accusing figures like Palin and Limbaugh and Beck of creating a "climate of hate" when all they are doing is "engaging in the exact same type of vigorous political speech that the left is continually urging its politicians to engage in." That's not the strongest line of argument to pursue, and not merely because "the left" has no politicians at the national level.

It takes either an extremely well-trained memory or serious ignorance (or, what the hell, typical right-wing disregard for fact) to claim that there's nothing out of the way about recent right-wing discourse -- and I mean not fringe figures like Fred Phelps, but the right-wing mainstream. That's an odd word, I admit, but figures like Limbaugh, Palin, Ann Coulter, and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson before them, have enjoyed considerable access to the corporate media, where they were treated with remarkable respect. Palin was the vice-presidential candidate of the Republican Party in 2008, for goodness' sake. Limbaugh is an honored figure in the Republican Party. I can't think of any comparable leftist who has ever had the same kind of corporate media visibility that these people command more or less at will.

I was about to add that I can't even think of any any Democrat, "liberal" or otherwise, who regularly engages in the same kind of rhetoric routinely used by right-wing figures, but that's not quite true. A little over a year ago the Democratic National Committee responded to Republican criticisms of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to President Obama in intemperate terms. Glenn Greenwald
noted that the DNC accused the GOP of having "thrown in its lot with the terrorists" and putting "politics above patriotism" because -- just like the Taliban and Hamas -- some Republicans objected to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama. Salon's Alex Koppleman described how some progressive groups, including Media Matters and some blogs, embraced the same theme, even producing videos "suggesting that the right has aligned itself with terrorists." Media Matters' Chris Harris wrote a piece entitled "RNC agrees with the Taliban," and actually labelled the mere act of questioning whether Obama's Prize was warranted to be "unseemly and downright unpatriotic."
The same thing happened when President Clinton bombed Iraq in 1998 and some Republicans doubted his motives for doing so: numerous Democrats accused them of unpatriotically failing to support the President at this critical time (when, just coincidentally, he was under investigation by the Congress for improper fluid exchange). But that's just the problem: there is mainstream, bipartisan hostility toward anyone who criticizes a sitting President, especially when he's engaged in killing dirty foreigners. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are bothered by that, as long as they're the ones in power who get to accuse their critics of sympathy for terrorism. Only a few far leftists, really -- fringe figures -- are bothered by it.

What is at issue here is something different: the overheated rhetoric that greeted the rise to prominence, nomination as Democratic Presidential candidate, election, and inauguration of Barack Obama. To describe it as "the exact same type of vigorous political speech that the left is continually urging its politicians to engage in" is absurd. (But consider the source.) We're talking about hysterical accusations that Obama is a terrorist, a covert Muslim, a socialist, a fascist; a refusal to admit that he had won the election and the Republicans had lost, with ongoing hints that if he refused to 'obey the will of the people' in unspecified ways then revolutionary remedies would follow; and these were not fringe reactions, or not only from the fringe. They were the bread and butter of the Tea Party movement, and of the Republican National Committee.

Nor was it only words. Numerous right commentators have claimed that "the left" also resorts to the same rhetoric, which is only partly true. Yes, George W. Bush was sometimes called a fascist, but usually when I saw it there was some actual comparison made between Bush's actions and policies and historical fascism. The Republican claims were made by people who clearly had no idea what fascism is, or communism, for that matter. I think it's telling that when John McCain conceded the election in 2008 and made conciliatory noises about his opponent, many of his supporters were furious and he had to try, not very effectively, to calm them down. That's why I keep citing RWA1, by the way: he's a very typical right-wing Republican, and though he thinks of himself as a sober conservative, the materials he links to with approval are anything but sober. They're inaccurate and dishonest at best, and crank rants at worst.

And since then, along with the rhetoric, we've seen an upsurge in political violence and threats of same. As FAIR's Jim Naureckas wrote a couple of days ago after providing a partial list of incidents:
These individuals no doubt have a range of relationships to reality, and their ideologies may likewise vary from Tea Party orthodoxy to idiosyncratic conspiracy mania. (One person on the list appears to be a genuine ecoterrorist.) But it's hard to deny that this seems like a remarkable amount of political violence in a little more than two-and-a-half years. (This impression is bolstered statistically by reports that the Secret Service has had to deal with a 400 percent increase in threats against the president, that U.S. Marshals are facing double the number of threats against judges and prosecutors, and that Capitol Police found that threats against congressmembers tripled in the first quarter of 2010.)
Alexander Cockburn commented at Counterpunch:
You can date the moment Republicans and Tea Partiers reckoned heavy talk about guns was okay, a sure headline grabber and vote puller with the right wing base, from the coverage of a man in New Hampshire last August with a pistol strapped to his leg who stood outside an event where Obama was promoting his health care bill, He carried a sign saying , "It Is Time to Water the Tree of Liberty,” a reference to a Thomas Jefferson quote: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Open carriage of handguns is legal in New Hampshire, and the man was standing on the private property of a nearby church that had no problem with an armed fellow hanging around. A few days later a black man stood outside Arizona’s Phoenix Convention Center where President Barack Obama was speaking, with an AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulder and a pistol on his belt. Like New Hampshire, Arizona is an "open-carry" state, which means anyone legally allowed to have a firearm can carry it in public, so long as it's visible. The Secret Service said the man would not have been allowed to take the weapon into the hall where Obama was speaking.

We’re not standing on a level deck here. When George Bush was president cops would arrest protesters just carrying signs by the side of the road along which the president was scheduled to drive. A guy with a rifle or a side arm would have been behind bars in ten seconds, in New Hampshire or Arizona or anywhere else.
And, a couple of days later:
If Palin was in the Animal Rights movement she would have been indicted, sentenced and imprisoned long ago. To draw a specific comparison: the SHAC 7 were convicted of “animal enterprise terrorism” for running a website which posted the names and addresses of individuals tied to the animal testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences. They were not charged with any act of property destruction, they were charged with “conspiracy” on the grounds that they should be held accountable for the actions of others in the same movement.
Palin of course is a vigorous opponent of abortion. An anti-abortion campaigner back in the 1990s ran a website called The Nuremberg Files. It published the names and addresses of doctors who performed abortions and others who made that possible, either by running clinics or providing protection or issuing legal opinions from the bench. When one of the doctors on the list (or clinic owners, cops providing protection, judges, etc.) was killed, a strike-through line would appear over their information. When they were wounded, their names would be greyed out. In its old form the site is now down after a court ruled following the murder of Dr Barnett Slepian that the strike-through and euphoric rhetoric accompanying each 'aborted' abortionist amounted to incitement. Check out what's on line at present, from the man who originated the site:
It's true that similar rhetoric and gun display had some currency on the Left in the 1960s. There was a lot of talk of Revolution, celebration of Che Guevara and other actual revolutionaries, and some Black militants posed for fetishistic photographs of themselves with weapons. This sort of thing was crushed by the government, the most notable example being the murder of Fred Hampton in his bed by Chicago police in 1968. But the Right has a longer, bloodier history of such things, from lynchings around the US to murders of Civil Rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s, to assaults on antiwar activists down to the early 2000s. I'm haunted by the Peekskill Riots of 1949, which I first read about in Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace's documentary history Violence in America (Knopf, 1970). Concertgoers leaving a benefit concert by Paul Robeson in Westchester County, New York, had to run a gauntlet of rioters. As Wikipedia describes it:
Security, organized by labor unions, was tight with union men standing in a circle of protection around the entire concert grounds and sitting with Robeson on the stage. Attended by 20,000 people, the concert went off without incident. However, as concertgoers were leaving, they were picketed on by hostile locals and outside agitators, who threw rocks through windshields of the cars and buses, chanting "Go back to Russia, you white Niggers" and "Dirty Kikes". Much of the violence was also caused by anti-Communist members of local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion chapters. Some of the concertgoers and union members, along with writer Howard Fast and others assembled a non-violent line of resistance, locked arms, and sang "We Shall Not Be Moved". Some people were reportedly dragged from their vehicles and beaten. Over 140 people were injured and numerous vehicles were severely damaged as police stood by, the most famous case being Eugene Bullard, a World War I veteran and first Black aviator, who was beaten by a local, two policemen and a state trooper.
This history shows the irrelevance of talking about a "climate of hate" caused by rhetoric. It's the other way around: The rhetoric is the product of a history of overt violence; usually tolerated, often condoned, and sometimes committed directly by the government. The reason why discourse like the bipartisan samples collected here is disturbing is that it's not just rhetoric: the US government kills, tortures, bombs, ravages. As the Black Panther leader H. Rap Brown declared in 1967, violence is as American as cherry pie. Numerous bloggers have pointed out that for President Barack Obama to deplore the violence in Tucson while he orders and justifies far greater violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere is outrageous dishonesty. IOZ, writing a parody of Obama's Tucson speech, put it most clearly: "What kind of country have we become, where we can shoot each other even as our brave men and women are overseas, shooting others?"

Still, I suspect that the Tea Party right were mostly taken by surprise when Gabrielle Giffords was shot. They enjoyed strutting around with their open-carry firearms, naming themselves after a violent act of civil disobedience while mostly limiting their activism to screaming abuse at their elected representatives, and using gun metaphors like "Second Amendment solutions", even probably fantasizing about rising up like the Sons of '76. Kiddies, the Boston Tea Party was no tea party. Most likely, they would have been Brit Loyalists during the actual Revolution, or at least slunk off quietly when it was time to march against the Redcoats. Like any bunch of rambunctious children, they were shocked and silenced when someone actually got hurt. And like children, they insist that it wasn't their fault, it's yours!

Which is all the more reason not to take them seriously on any level. They mostly can't face disagreement -- one of RWA1's funnier citations was a piece by the right-wing classicist Victor Davis Hanson, whingeing that because President Obama was exhorting Democrats to vote for Democrats and not Republicans, he was exhibiting a "Manichean" good guys / bad guys attitude, as though the midterm elections were an "existential battle like the Civil War." This was at a time when Republicans were claiming that the midterms would be "historic," a return to the ideals of limited government that America was really about. The Right can dish it out but they can't take it -- talk back to their bluster, and they fold right away, complaining that you're mean and are picking on them.

Which brings me to another buzzword that has been much in the air this past week: civility. Civility is one of those virtues that's usually for other people: I'm not being uncivil, I'm just engaging in vigorous political speech; you, on the other hand, are dragging civil discourse in the mud. It is annoying when liberals like Paul Krugman wring their hands about today's incivility and point to an imaginary past when we were all, like, nice to each other; as annoying as the Golden-Age fantasies one hears from the Right. But the trouble with the right's discourse (or that of the center, as it's laughingly known) is not really that it's uncivil: it's that it's a tissue of lies, with the boundaries drawn so as to keep tight limits on the discussion. As the queer scholar Jeffrey Escoffier wrote a decade ago, "Stoicism is necessary in public debate. No one enjoys being humiliated in public. Participation in public dialogue will not be fruitful if we do not learn to accept conflict, pain, and hurt feelings. Some of the detrimental effect of political correctness stems from the fear of being criticized or misrepresented in public. Expressions of anger and hostility should be expected" (American Homo, p. 200). And as the queer lawyer Glenn Greenwald wrote more recently, criticizing the moderation fetish of Comedy Central's Restore Sanity Rally,
One other point about this fixation on the "tone" of our politics. Political debates are inherently acrimonious -- much of the rhetoric during the time of the American Founding, as well as throughout the 19th Century, easily competes with, if not exceeds, what we have now in terms of noxiousness and extremity -- but far more important than tone, in my view, is content. For instance, Bill Kristol, a repeated guest on The Daily Show, is invariably polite on television, yet uses his soft-spoken demeanor to propagate repellent, destructive ideas. The same is true for war criminal John Yoo, who also appeared, with great politeness, on The Daily Show. Moreover, some acts are so destructive and wrong that they merit extreme condemnation (such as Bush's war crimes). I don't think anyone disputes that our discourse would benefit if it were more substantive and rational, but it's usually the ideas themselves -- not the tone used to express them -- that are the culprits.
But I don't expect there to be a change. We're far more likely to see more assaults on civil liberties in the name of civility, than to see people work at learning how to debate important issues. Disagreeing sensibly is hard. It takes practice. It's so much easier to prattle about "a climate of hate," about "political correctness," "civility," and similar empty verbiage.