Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Unhinged: The broken wheel

As I've already noted, while I've yet to see any response from Michelle Malkin regarding my six-part critique of her book Unhinged, at least Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young has posted a response to the series, as well as a followup post.

Young's posts are reasoned and thoughtful -- and they raise important issues that I really want to explore more fully. So I've been taking some time to respond because I want to make those points as succinctly and clearly as possible.

The main point is that I think Young misapprehends my actual argument, and looking back over the posts, I can see I didn't draw it out as clearly as I'd have liked. So her response offers an opportunity to do so.

Of course, the bulk of Young's response is that she agrees with my essential point regarding the inherent dishonesty of Malkin's thesis, particularly her claim that conservatives keep a short leash on the extremists within their own ranks. However, she also has some differences with my point of view:
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.

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.

Young also encapsulates her view in her comments:
What I take issue with is his assertion that (1) right-wing nastiness is substantially worse and (2) left-wing nastiness is primarily reactive.

But to rebut these assertions, she has to counter my point about the specifically eliminationist nature of so much right-wing rhetoric, which I believe is the source of so much reactive anger on the left. To do so, she tries to find equal counterexamples of left-wing rhetorical ugliness.

Look at the examples Young proffers:
-- Some Democratic Underground commenters who intentionally chose not to stop and help a Bush supporter with auto trouble by the roadside.

-- Markos' "screw them" comment regarding the four contractors killed at Fallujah.

-- Some Manichean "us and them" rhetoric from Howard Dean.

-- Some remarks from Michael Moore and Garrison Keillor that even Young admits are not really all that ugly.

Notice something missing? How about the fact that none of these people on the left come even close to having the kind of mass audience that Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh enjoy?

But the main element lacking in these examples is pretty self-evident: None of these remarks are eliminationist. None of them describes a desire to simply eliminate a significant bloc of one's opposition, let alone its entirety (though Keillor's, which wishes for the disenfranchisement of born-again Christians, comes close).

It might help, of course, if we made clear the terms of the debate, especially "eliminationism," whose meaning I've explored in previous discussions:
What, really, is eliminationism?

It's a fairly self-explanatory term: it describes a kind of politics and culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas for the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through complete suppression, exile and ejection, or extermination.

... Rhetorically, it takes on some distinctive shapes. It always depicts its opposition as simply beyond the pale, and in the end the embodiment of evil itself -- unfit for participation in their vision of society, and thus in need of elimination. It often depicts its designated "enemy" as vermin (especially rats and cockroaches) or diseases, and loves to incessantly suggest that its targets are themselves disease carriers. A close corollary -- but not as nakedly eliminationist -- are claims that the opponents are traitors or criminals, or gross liabilities for our national security, and thus inherently fit for elimination or at least incarceration.

And yes, it's often voiced as crude "jokes", the humor of which, when analyzed, is inevitably predicated on a venomous hatred.

But what we also know about this rhetoric is that, as surely as night follows day, this kind of talk eventually begets action, with inevitably tragic results.

I think the overriding problem is the inherent threat of violence latent within this kind of rhetoric. As I explained in the series, it's the equivalent of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Young clearly misses this point. After comparing the above left-wing remarks -- some ugly, some merely partisan, but none genuinely eliminationist (except, perhaps, Garrison Keillor's joke about disenfranchising right-wing Christians) -- to those on the right, she goes on to make an astonishing assertion:
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.

Perhaps Young finds this distance so short because her description elides the most significant component of this: the desire to inflict harm. If you go back and read the post that Young cites, you'll see that I describe the problem with eliminationism thus: "It's simply a declaration of enmity and the intent to cause harm."

Viewed this way -- that is, as reality -- there is a significant distance between deportation and secession. The former indeed wishes serious harm upon its victims, including deprivation of their rights, their livelihoods, and their property; while the latter wishes not to be politically obligated or connected to their opponents any longer -- it merely severs the relationship, instead of inflicting actual harm.

It's also worth remembering, of course, that secession talk not only surfaced on the right during the election too, it has been a staple of the extremist right for many years now, and continues to this day with neo-Confederate organizations like the League of the South. If you went to places like Idaho and Wyoming during the Clinton years, you heard a lot of talk about it then, too.

Indeed, one has to wonder where Young was during most of the 1990s, when the right was frothing over with hatred of Bill Clinton and the mainstream left. Much of the eliminationist right-wing rhetoric that flourishes today, as well as the utter lack of civility and decorum on both sides, originated in those years.

For the bulk of my journalistic career, I probably saw the world in terms similar to Young's: the left and right, both for their virtues and their flaws, tended to balance each other out. For every bit of ugliness on the right, you could often find a counterpart on the left. This leaves those of us in the middle to balance things out. I think this view dominated in most of the newsrooms where I worked as well.

But I also studied logic and ethics back in the day (philosophy was a second major) and after awhile came to see that what many of us were doing in "balancing" our stories was in fact the antithesis of seeking out the truth, which is what journalism is supposed to be about. Specifically, many of us -- not just journalists -- were indulging in a classic logical fallacy, namely, the "false middle," or the argumentum ad temperantiam: "If two groups are locked in argument, one maintaining that 2+2=4, and the other claiming that 2+2=6, sure enough, an Englishman will walk in and settle on 2+2=5, denouncing both groups as extremists."

I don't know if the balance that I used to see ever existed. But in the 1990s, when it became clear that a lot of people on the right were declaring that 2+2=6, and a lot of people in the media were reporting their claims without batting an eye, any balance I had seen before began to vanish -- and it has not returned.

For Young to suggest that the vicious rhetoric that sprung from the right during those years had any kind of counterpart on the left is simply absurd. While we were being regularly regaled with Vince Foster and Mena Airport and Black Love Child conspiracy theories from mainstream right-wing pundits ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Rush Limbaugh to Fox News, as well as assassination talk from the likes of Ann Coulter, there simply was no counterpart for this kind of talk on the left during those years. The left, indeed, remained remarkably subdued during the Clinton years, except for those more liberal than Clinton who criticized him for being too conservative.

This silence has both positive and negative aspects. The problem with this silence is that the left has done little to actually counter right-wing hatemongers like Limbaugh and Michael Savage and their thousand little imitators, giving them an open field in which to demonize mainstream liberalism -- which, if you listen to them at all, is what they do. As I've remarked previously, the effect of this sustained attack is most pronounced in rural America, where these radio talkers simply assail urban liberals on the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Much of this, as I've also explained, is deeply personal stuff. Liberals, over the past 15 years, have been regularly portrayed as being out to lunch, uncaring and hostile to mainstream and rural values, and unpatriotic traitors. Deeply patriotic, hard-working, family-oriented liberals have been having their characters assaulted relentlessly before their neighbors and friends. It affects family relationships, old friendships, and our deeper ties to our communities in profoundly harmful ways. And it has been creating a real reservoir of anger among those mainstream liberals who have been subjected to it.

This ugly rhetoric, in contrast to that on the left, has in fact been of much greater duration, as well as more sustained, and substantially eliminationist in nature. It's also clear that this kind of demonization and nasty rhetoric indeed played a significant role in Republicans' consolidation of the reins of power since 2000. Not only did it make the so-called rural "red states" even redder, it became a tool in the actual seizure of power that occurred in the November election and its aftermath. The old rules of fair play, it was clear, were now defunct.

On the other hand, considering that ugliness of this kind is precisely what needs ending, the relative rhetorical silence of liberals in the 1990s was probably a good thing, since responding in kind would have simply meant more sewage for us all to wade in. But it wasn't going to last forever, and when it became clear in November and December of 2000 that this kind of ugly rhetoric and open demonization was not only going to be a permanent part of Republican hardball politics, but that it was successful, then it was only a matter of time before you started hearing similarly ugly talk from the left.

To their credit, most liberals have understood that fighting back is more a matter of backbone than bitching, and that ugly rhetoric is sometimes best confronted not with more ugliness but with good humor. But that hasn't been true of everyone, either, and the result has been a predictable flow of fodder for books like Malkin's.

But to pretend that much of it is not reactive is missing reality, I think. Read, for instance, the "Fuck the South" essay that both Young and I found execrable, and you'll see that what inspired the authors was not simply the failure of their politics electorally, but the ugliness of the winners in their victories, and the sustained demonization of "blue state" voters and liberal politics by those on the right that led to their victory.

As the history of secession talk suggests, though, it is perhaps significant as a precursor to more violent, eliminationist rhetoric, and in that sense, its appearance among liberals is disturbing as well. It may indicate that we are reaching a point of no return when it comes to the boiling levels of political division in America.

What can we do about that?

I think this is where Young and I have some real common ground. Young also posted a follow-up to her original post in which she says this:
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.

I think we're both concerned about the state of political discourse in America, and I agree, in fact, that so much water has already gone under the bridge that it now is almost pointless to point out who's been worse, or who's been doing it longer. When both sides are doing it, the starting point -- or the question of who holds moral superiority in the equation -- becomes rather moot. What matters is how we stop it.

Yet this is precisely where the reality of how we got to this point in the first place -- that is, that the right-wing demonization of the left, including substantial eliminationism, has been a sustained and pronounced feature of mainstream conservatism for over a decade now -- becomes relevant.

Let's just suppose, for a moment, what would happen if liberals decided to start policing their own? That is, if significant blocs, particularly those in power, started denouncing the "Michael Moore wing" of their party, and trying to limit the influence of these supposed "fringe" players? What if they denounced Howard Dean's rhetorical excesses, and relegated Ted Rall to the actual fringes?

How, exactly, would that be different from what they do today?

Now, suppose there were even more: That liberal bloggers, for instance, started watching and denouncing the rhetorical excesses of their commenters, as well as "unhinged" behavior within their own ranks. What would happen then?

The right would smirk, chalk it up to liberal weakness, and proceed to take no prisoners, just as they have been doing for a decade now. Because that has been what's worked for them all this time. Why stop now?

The stark reality on the ground is that, as much as we all might deplore ugly rhetoric in theory regardless which side of the aisle it comes from, the right in particular has become not merely wedded to it but absolutely dependent upon it.

Thus, there will be no change in the state of political discourse in America until genuine conservatives on the right -- as well as any centrists out there, including those in the media -- decide to police the behavior of the conservative movement and to reel in its excesses.

This, of course, is what Malkin claims the right already does -- and this is what I demonstrated, beyond any serious doubt, that it simply does not do. Malkin herself is the embodiment of the source of the problem: she is herself so deeply beholden to real far-right extremists that she is incapable of seeing their extremism, let alone evincing any concern about it.

Unhinged in its way is an open declaration that the right has no intention whatsoever of reeling in its extremists, because, like Malkin, they will simply pretend that there's nothing extraordinary about their behavior.

Indeed, books like Unhinged actually serve a specific purpose: to provide epistemological cover for conservatives' own behavior. If those wackos on the left are wrecking America with their unhinged bombast, well, a little return fire is well earned, isn't it?

This is why, in the weeks after her book's release, we were subjected to so many instances of truly unhinged rhetoric from the right, Bill O'Reilly in particular. Within a week of Malkin's appearance on his show, O'Reilly was suggesting that San Francisco deserved to be attacked by terrorists, compared anti-Iraq war protesters to Hitler sympathizers, called all Europeans cowards, and promised to "bring horror" to his ephemeral foes in the "war on Christmas."

Did anyone on the right utter a peep? Well, no. Not even Michelle Malkin.

I have to say that I have seen at least one encouraging sign: Dan Borchers' CoulterWatch project, which will soon include a documentary and book on the subject of the harm that Ann Coulter is inflicting not just on the body politic but among conservatives as well. Borchers is himself a conservative with sterling credentials.

But then, as the MoJo story notes, Borchers' reward has been to be shunned by all those mainstream Republicans who have been feasting at Coulter's table these many years. It's not exactly a promising start, on the right-wing side at least.

But then, we're talking about an ideological cult that can't even see fit to extract Michael "The tsunami wasn't a tragedy" Savage from their ranks. What, exactly, should we expect?

If we want to change the state of our discourse, it is the right, above all, that has to change. And if Malkin and her cohorts are any indicator, that's never going to happen.

I agree that people on the left should work harder to encourage greater civility in discourse, and to discourage ugliness within their own ranks. But I don't think for a moment that it will do a damned bit of good, other than for their own souls.

[See Mahablog for more.]

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