Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Old Gray Lady ain't what she used to be

On a Sunday evening, I gather my dogs, pour a glass of wine, fire up the grill and repair to the deck with the Sunday New York Times. For a conservative, this is a guilty pleasure, But this week, I am afraid, it caused me to lose my religion.

I like the Times because of the breadth of its news coverage. While, as someone who spends a fair amount of time in opinion journalism, I faithfully read the Op-Ed pages. What is published there is - I don't know how else to say it - increasingly embarassing.

I'm not talking about Maureen Dowd who seems to have retreated into an interior world that I, at least, find largely incomprehensible. I have a broader concern.

Recent columns by Paul Krugman and Frank Rich suggest that mainstream conservatives (not your odd nutters) and, in particular, Fox News fed (Krugman) or enabled (Rich) - not "directly" but certainly - recent murders committed by Scott Roeder (who shot abortionist George Tiller) and James von Brunn who killed a security guard at the Holocaust Museum. (von Brunn, an anti-semitic racist socialist and 9-11 truther is hard to characterize as left or right, but he is definitely crazy).

Krugman and Rich complain about harsh words (references to Tiller as a killer) or hyperbole. Rich complains of an former GOP official who, Rich (not quite accurately) implies wants to call Obama a fascist. Both complain of a Fox News host who demonstrated a silly credulity ("I can't debunk them") about rumors of government concentration camps before he actually did debunk them through analysis of aerial photographs.

A grip is called for. The notion that Roeder and von Brunn would have quelled their inner demons if only a few TV personalities had been more temperate or responsible is far from obvious. If we are to blame the pro-life movement for Roeder, then why not blame the left for Carlos Bledsoe whose wrath at the American military and our polices in the middle east lead him to kill a military recruiter the day after Roeder killed Tiller. In both cases, I would have hoped that some sense of intellectual responsibility and balance would caution restraint.
It would be one thing for Krugman and Rich to call upon participants in the public debate to act more responsibly or even to suggest that Fox News shouldn't give a forum to Glen Beck. There is nothing wrong - and much that is right - with calling for civility and intellectual integrity in public discourse. If it were possible to read the Krugman and Rich columns as simply calls for greater responsibility in public debate, I'd sign up. But that's not what's going on here.

First, the only incivility and extremism that seem to bother Krugman and Rich are on the right. There are no enemies on the left.

If you show me Bill O' Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Tom Tancredo, I'll see and raise you Howard Dean (who has said he "hates" Repuplicans because they are "evil" and who sat quietly on national television in the face of accustations that 9-11 was a false flag operation) and Al Gore ( who accused the President of treason and whose claims about the otherwise serious issue of global warming are embarrassing exaggerations). If you want media figures, I might offer the archly melodramatic and syntactically odd Keith Olberman ("you, sir, have - of all that is decent and holy - taken leave and are - truly, sir - the worst person in the world") and Michael Moore.
Rich cites what sure sounds like a tasteless joke about shooting Nancy Pelosi and Harry Ried. The joke, he says was told by a "radio host'" in, "of all places," Dallas (invoking an important bit of the JFK assassination mythos) and Rush Limbaugh "fill-in."* Certainly he knows former Air America host Randi Rhodes repeatedly joked about shooting President Bush. Certainly he knows that Wanda Sykes recently joked about wanting Limbaugh to die for his "treason" in the presence of a laughing (I hope from embarassment) Barack Obama.

There are a host of others who seem to believe that George W. Bush shredded the constitution, instituted a police state, lied so people could die, ushered in theocracy and rigged the 2004 election. I could go on. It seems no less vitriolic and no less pervasive.
I could, in fact, even include Paul Krugman and Frank Rich in the litany. To cite a few examples, Krugman recently referred to Bush as "evil" and earlier this year implied that opposition to government spending was racist. Rich associated the Bush administration's tactic in the war on terror with the Gestapo.

Of course, we could argue about which of these charges are "true." Maybe ( despite the conclusions - often very critical in other ways- of I don't know how many investigations), Bush was not merely mistaken about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and did not simply mishandle the available intelligence, but actually lied. It could be that George Tiller did kill babies One would expect that a substantial number of, for example, Roman Catholics think so, even if they don't think he should be shot for it. Perhaps Obama's policies have made us less safe or expanded the state in ways which threaten liberty. It might turn out that Bush's aggressive policies toward terrorism have no readily ascertainable stopping point and, for that reason, threaten liberty even as the administration did not, like the Gestapo, drag thousands of citizens off into the night, never to he heard from again.

We could assume the mantle of objectivity, tug on our chins and conclude - reluctantly, of course - that while both sides cross the line, our side crosses it less. We could suggest, as Krugman and Rich want to, that the short circuited on the right are more prominent than the faded on the left.
To that I invoke the old theological caution about being wary if you find the Christ you were looking for. I can't see that incivility and irresponsibility have any particular political cast. They are human and not ideological vices. Howard Dean was and is the chairman of the Democratic Party. While Rush Limbaugh is the left's designee as Head Republican, it is Al Franken who has actually (maybe) been elected to the Senate.

Of course, to say that there is a problem with incivility and irresponsibility on the left does not excuse the same things on the right - even if Krugman and Rich can't bring themselves to mention it. Flawed messengers don't necessarily trump the message.
But Krugman and Rich have not limited themselves to criticism of a few intemperate conservatives or even to a call for responsible conservative outlets to unburden themselves of a few bad apples.

Krugman says can see no difference (if there ever was one) between mainstream conservatism and what he calls "the black helicopter crowd." He elides the irresponsibly goofy (there are concentration camps in Indiana) with the strident (the Obama administration seeks to serve socialist ideals or is a false prophet.) The latter examples may be exaggerations or over the top, but they are hardly expressions of hate.

For Rich, conservatives are "irrationally fearful of the fast-moving generational, cultural and racial turnover Obama embodies indeed, of the 21st century." Of course, he may not mean to apply this hackneyed cliche to all conservatives. He's strategically ambiguous on that. Still the suggestion is that opposition to Obama (even as he allows opponents the right to express their ideological differences) is based in fear and irrationality and is even on the wrong side of history. (But I won't refer to Hegel because he might think I was calling him a communist.)

If there were any doubt about his intent to paint with a broad brush, Rich thinks it is beyond the pale for National Review and other conservative outlets to criticize Sonia Sotomayor for views that even the President thinks were poorly stated and that a majority of Americans find deeply problematic even if they ultimately conclude (and this remains to be seen) that they are not representative of her judicial philosophy. Citing an unflattering caricature on the cover of National Review ( Rich must not look at many political magazines), this criticism of Judge Sotomayor is, he says, "an aggrieved note of white victimization only a shade less explicit than that in von Brunn's white supremacist screeds."

Words fail. They really do. My own view (which I plan to address in a separate post) is that Sotomayor's remarks are not racist (even if her references to innate racial and ethnic differences make one rather uncomfortable). But neither are they innocuous. They should be taken seriously and, if they are, they raise some rather substantial questions about her perspective on the role of the courts. Reasonable people will differ on how those questions should be answered. Some may applaud her views while others may regard them as disqualifying. But raising these questions and criticizing the judge's views are hardly the equivalent of endorsing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Both Krugman and Rich seem to think that Scott Roeder has validated the Department of Homeland Security's unnuanced and nonspecific charge that "the right" might engage in violence. The report, because it offers no suggestion of who these extremists might be other than that they are "antigovernment" or "opposed to abortion" or to the administration's policies on "immigration and citizenship, the expansion of social programs to minorities, and restrictions on firearms ownership and use" - implies - with just enough wiggle room to back away - the same group libel indulged in by Krugman and Rich.

Rich wonders why conservative leaders don't denounce "the hate" apparently forgetting that everyone to the right of oncoming traffic fell over themselves to denounce these crimes. But let me catch up on the denouncing. Beck's temporary agnosticism about concentration camps was ridiculous. Speculation about whether Obama is "really" a Muslim and demands for his birth certificate are loopy (as I have heard many conservative commentators say). Those people in the audience at campaign rallies who called Obama a traitor and terrorist were wrong to do so. While I disagree with him about many things, he loves his country and is a man of peace (or whatever else you call someone who is not a terrorist.) Many conservatives have been too promiscuous with charged labels just as many progressives were when Bush was in office.

The former GOP official referred to by Rich, Saul Azusis, is a good if somewhat extreme example. He actually said that Obama was not a fascist (give him points for that!) but that certain of his policies were "economic fascism." I understand (as Rich apparently does not) that fascist economic policy was corporatist and statist . I appreciate that Obama, after a jump start in the last months of the Bush administration, has aggressively moved in that direction. But the f word connotes a lot more than command economics and centralized economic planning. Beyond that, these were far more comprehensive in 1939 Berlin than what we have seen - or are ever likely to see - in 2009 Washington. Godwin's Law remains good counsel.

But here's what I wonder. I wonder why people of good will on the left don't disassociate themselves from the attempt by Krugman and Rich to define their political opponents as the Other - indeed to do just what Krugman and Rich accuse the right of doing.
But these columns were just published. Perhaps they will.

*The joke, told by someone named David Feherty (actually a CBS golf analyst who has also called for the death penalty for pro-lifers.) It was apparently meant to demonstrate the hostility to Ried and Pelosi among military personnel that Feherty claimed to observe when touring in Iraq. Connecting the joke to Limbaugh's show furthers Rich's argument that extremism is part of mainstream conservatism. While he creates the impression that the joke was told on Limbaugh's air, it was actually published in D Magazine.

** The cover poked fun at Judge Sotomayor for calling herself "a wise Latina" portraying her as a Buddha figure. It was mocking. Depending on how we feel judges should be portrayed, it may have been in bad taste. It was not racist.

Cross posted at the Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog


gnarlytrombone said...

I've got to give mad props to our own Pat Mc on this score. He decided to take the high road early on, declaring "Obama apparently isn’t an Islamic radical" and people shouldn't go around sayin' stuff like that without proof.

What's more, he added, this hirabi talk "burnishes him in the eyes of people who want a little whiff of that in a candidate."

If only we could inject a little Midwestern class and restraint into those damn Yankees.

Clutch said...

I wonder why people of good will on the left don't disassociate themselves from the attempt by Krugman and Rich to define their political opponents as the Other - indeed to do just what Krugman and Rich accuse the right of doing.

Is that what they're criticizing? Viz., the very same thing you do simply by designating "the Other" as "the left"?

To paraphrase Wittgenstein: if you wrap different articles of furniture in enough paper, you can't tell them apart.

You give a pass to demonization rhetoric like O'Reilly's relentless use of the word "killer" for George Tiller, characterizing this merely as "harsh words... or hyperbole", while trying to depict Gore's environmentalism as a worse offense. I think these interpretations are beyond strained, to the point of being ludicrous. It's simply not credible, and has partisanship written all over it, rather than politico-legal analysis.

Dad29 said...

...fascist economic policy was corporatist and statist . I appreciate that Obama, after a jump start in the last months of the Bush administration, has aggressively moved in that direction. But the f word connotes a lot more than command economics and centralized economic planning.

So what are you trying to say? That using the term 'fascism' is verboten because it has Politically Incorrect associations?

It would be a LOT easier to stop using that term IF Obama & Co. would make one single move to (e.g.) divest parts of AIG.

Instead, we read that Obama will come up with new "siezure" rules to allow even more of the same. Admittedly, the reports are vaguely worded--but my bet is that the rules will be vague, too.

One can use the term "Fascist" without calling up Hitler, I would hope.