Friday, April 16, 2010

For Once, I Agree With The New Republic

Jonathan Chait, senior editor at The New Republic is probably best-known to non-subscribers for his 2003 article in which he proudly declared "I hate President George W. Bush." Now, hold on. That's not what I agree with. Recently, Chait was called to account for his bluntness by Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.

Chait takes issue with Gerson because he thinks Gerson's article was another squishy defense of civility in politics. Now that's where I agree with Chait. Aside from the fact that Gerson was a complete sycophant for Bush as the size of government and the deficit grew by leaps and bounds, Gerson (then and now) acted as if liberal contempt for Bush were completely deranged. Well, it was often over-the-top and frequently downright nasty, but unlike Gerson's assertion, it was certainly not inexplicable. Bush quite clearly offended liberal and leftist Democrats in much the same way Barack Obama clearly offends conservative and rightist Republicans.

As someone once said, "politics isn't beanbag." And it isn't a meeting of The Society of Friends either. When that purplish dinosaur Barney starts writing a political blog, we can expect saccharine civility. Both Bush and Obama are polarizing political figures. Many a true word is said in jest, and many a nasty word is said in anger. Those of us on the blogs are usually writing about some very recent and very contentious issue, and when those issues revolve around major political figures, it's not to be unexpected that we are going to be very pointed in both our criticism and language concerning those same political figures. And unlike the cool and reserved atmosphere of textbooks discussing the issues years later, an occasional ad hominem attack on our perceived enemies is going to slip out.

Although I think the conservative camp has done a better job of holding down the obscenities and insubstantial personal attacks, our skirts are not entirely clean, nor would I expect them to be. Likewise, I think that Bush did a far better job of handling criticism than does Obama. But I expect that my liberal friends would strongly disagree with me, and probably not in the most polite of terms. So what? I'm very angry about where the Obama administration and the Democratic Party are leading us. And that occasionally leads me into some intemperate language. But how I was required to act toward my opposition in a courtroom is quite different from how I am free (and likely) to behave on a political blog.

Gerson attacked Harry Reid for calling Bush a loser and a liar. He attacked Al Gore for calling Bush a moral coward. He excoriated antiwar protesters for comparing Bush to Hitler. Chait probably agrees with them, but his comments are reserved for Gerson's finding anything unusual about that. Gerson is shocked, shocked, to hear such uncivil rhetoric from the other side. Well, the First Amendment was designed to protect offensive speech (all speech is offensive to someone). If the left becomes so civil that it ceases to use such exaggerated claims, that dampens my freedom to call Obama a loser, liar and moral coward (although I will usually back it up with a fact or two), or compare him to Stalin (which I have never done). Each time a bigtime politician makes a statement like that, are we expected to self-censor and follow the Marquis of Queensbury rules? So for entirely different reasons, I agree with Chait. Let it all hang out, and be ready to defend your position, only this time with facts and evidence, not simply more venom.

Gerson got very colorful about halfway through his pro-civility screed. "Questioning the legitimacy of a democratic outcome; abusing demeaning and attempting to silence one's opponents--is a sign of democratic decline. From the late Roman republic to Weimar Germany, these attitudes have been the prelude to thuggery. Thugs can come with clubs, with bullhorns, with Internet access." Chait challenges Gerson on this point saying: "And I simply don't know what to make of Gerson's conflation of attitudes expressed via bullhorn and the internet, on the one hand, with those expressed via 'clubs.'" Nor do I. Gerson misses the important fact that both sides use verbal "attitudes" to express their anger, but so far, the only clubs that have been used have been the bully boys of the SEIU against Obama opponents and Black Panther "poll-watchers" in Philadelphia. It also feeds into the left's faux indignation about anti-Obama words leading to violence (but only on the right, of course).

Chait has trouble with Gerson's columns for very logical reasons (even if I don't necessarily agree with them). Says Chait: "The problem--and this is the whole problem with the civility obsession--is that it's hard to formulate a coherent set of standards. Gerson thinks Al Franken belongs outside the realm of of acceptable discourse. On the other hand, he thinks Rush Limbaugh . . . belongs within that acceptable discourse." It's that classic question--quis custodiet ipsos custodes "who will guard the guardians?"

From an historical perspective, the past decade has been relatively mild. Check out what Adams and Jefferson supporters had to say about each other. Check out what Jackson and J. Q. Adams supporters had to say about each other. Take a close look at what Lincoln opponents had to say about him. Ditto FDR supporters versus every other candidate's supporters. More of the same for Reagan supporters and opponents. And just to get Gerson, a newspaper columnist, back into the world of reality, nearly all those attacks were printed in the newspapers and political tracts, without the benefit of bullhorns or the internet. Somehow, we survived it all.

To prove his point, Gerson very civilly includes in his latest column the following words: "I don't hate President Obama." Well, good for him. Let me conclude this article with my own take on the subject: I hate Barack Obama. Did I do good, Mr. Chait?


Joel Farnham said...

Dammit LawHawk,

I avoid The New Republic like the plague, common colds and dirty diapers!!! You just had to tweek my curiosity!! I read Chait's article. The only thing that I agree with the article is the title!! The rest of it is FULL of half-lies, distortions and smelly diapers!!!


CrisD said...

My Dear Mr. LawHawk...

Great Post and subject. Am heartily unoffended.

In my mind, calls for civility in discourse are generally heard from one side to the other ( or to a public who has just heard a some powerful hatin') but in this case it is interesting to examine why one side would admonish its own.

My beef with people on net who read an angry post and scream "Yeah, &^%%# him!" is that it does not advance the arguements of the day. It does not help those who do not quite understand to understand more fully. It may even make your side look tedious, intellectually limited and unattractive.

P.S. My understanding from the times of Washington and Jefferson was that politics was conducted in back rooms and saloons and all kinds of things were said. Scurillious (and true!) damaging gossip was spread in pamphlets out of the ears of ladies, etc. By the time Lincoln was President, his enemies- including some Republicans- openly printed that he was a monkey/gorilla (to do with slavery) in newspaper drawings. Things have changed in lots of ways except one! Politics
is a passionate and powerful subject and thats why we are advised that in polite company "Do not discus money, politics or religion."

Writer X said...

I can't really believe any writer/columnist who believes that attacks against conservatives and Republicans are brave and just while attacks against Democrats are mean-spirited and uncivilized. The reverse is true as well. Those writers generally lose their relevance (and readers) over time.

StanH said...

Great read Lawhawk! Political discourse has always been rough and tumble, and I think it was James Baker who coined the phrase, “politics ain’t beanbag,” and it shouldn’t be. The thing that has the press in a twist about is the normally reserved conservatives, you know…the ones that pay for the Washington/government boondoggles, are speaking out. We are supposed to sit down, shut up, and keep our money flowing for their wonderful “programs,” …no more!

Many of us who remember the ‘60s and the ‘70s understand what we’re up against, and these radical leftist will not respond to decorum, and reasoned debate…image trying to debate Abbie Hoffman. Even the great William F. Buckley couldn’t pull that off with any coherence.

BevfromNYC said...

Excellent comments everyone.

StanH - The "press" are fighting for their relevence now. With rapidly declining sales for the print media and the rise of internet "citizen journalists", they are trying very hard to maintain a tight grip on gathering and dissemination information. They are losing and they know it.

Tennessee Jed said...

I have always followed what some have referred to as Woodward's law of partisan bashing. "In order to have credibility, one must only call for civility when one's party is out of power."

AndrewPrice said...

I agree with Writer X and CrisD. I find amazing how the vilest attacks by liberals are courageous, but the mildest attacks by conservatives are "hate filled."

I think that history and human nature have shown over and over again that true invective does nothing but turn off the people you are trying to convince. So it's counter productive just as violence is counter productive.

What you really need is a sharp wit -- that's where the devastating blows come from. Think about everything you remember in the way of quotes from people like Churchill and Reagan and even Mark Twain. No one remembers "you're a jerk," but they do remember the witty cut downs.

StanH said...

I agree Bev, the press is gasping for air and do not have the capacity to alter their behavior. With the blogosphere no one will throw them a line, but will certainly hasten their demise.

Unknown said...

Joel: That's pretty much par for the course for Chait. But it's always important to know what the enemy is up to. And even Satan tells the truth occasionally when it suits his purpose. Chait's defense of vigorous political debate is right, even if everything he concludes about us conservatives is usually totally wrong.

Unknown said...

CrisD: Although I used my closing line about "hating Obama" largely for literary emphasis, I honestly cannot say that in my entire lifetime I have felt this negative about any president. Some I really liked, some I didn't much care for. Some made me really angry. But only Barack Obama has managed to cause my thin veneer of civilization to peel off with some regularity.

I try to follow that old psychobabble advice and say "It's not you I hate, it's what you did." But sometimes, as with Obama, I simply can't separate the two. I guess I should add that nobody ever described me as being "polite company." LOL

Unknown said...

WriterX: Though I can't remember ever agreeing with Chait on a point about politics (at least in the past twenty-five years), his point that divisive political times explain angry political rhetoric is well-taken. Gerson himself has used some pretty strong language in his time. The point of Chait's article, and I agree with him, is that we should try to be as civil as possible, but sometimes it's just not possible. Short of death-threats and calls to violence, we should be as forceful as possible when dealing with radical politicians on either side of the debate. And for that matter, our Founders weren't above calls to violence (the Revolution wasn't exactly a gentleman's game).

Unknown said...

StanH: That's exactly right. Chait has said some pretty nasty things about Republicans and conservatives, but he has never been so hypocritical as to feign surprise when the opposition resorts to the same thing. And that was his entire point. Gerson went way off the tracks and Chait called him on it. Unlike most liberals, Chait doesn't expect us to act like sheep while the leftist wolves surround us. That is commendable. By the way, did I mention that I hate Jonathan Chait? LOL

Unknown said...

Bev: The MSM has lost all credibility with its insane search for proof of conservative straight-talk leading to violence and leftist rhetoric leading only to correct-thinking. The SEIU attacks, the Black Panthers in Philadelphia, and now, it appears, the violent attack on a Bobby Jindal political aide after a GOP rally in Louisiana prove that nearly all the physical violence being produced is coming from one side--and it's not our side.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: You always seem to able to find just the right quote to fit the situation.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I agree on all points. What has really brought the left's talking-points to an all-time low is the constant reach for making every criticism of Obama into a racist rant. The recent example of calling Newt Gingrich a racist because he made an athletic reference about Obama that "indicates" black men are superior athletes was so ridiculous that even the liberals laughed at it.

We were getting the crap beaten out of us in the deep South during the Civil Rights movement when Barack Obama was just old enough to stop soiling his diapers. So I've earned my license to despise this s.o.b. and I do so on the basis of his color--pinkish red.

HamiltonsGhost said...

Lawhawk--I find some good old-fashioned anger, decently expressed, to be far more compelling than lengthy analysis of political figures. Issues can be kept simple, but also can be very effective at length. But identifying the far-out individuals requires stronger language and pointed commentary. As one of the liberals said, "all politics is personal."

Unknown said...

HamiltonsGhost: I always try to keep my temper under control when I write about Obama, but it just keeps getting more difficult by the day. His anti-Tea Party crack about "they should thank him" drove my blood pressure right back up. He's a liar, and he's arrogant about it. He still thinks he can say anything he damned well pleases, and everybody will just believe it, no matter how outrageous.

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