Poisoning the Discourse

A racist “birther” opens hire at the Holocaust Museum, denying the legitimacy of President Obama and decrying the influence of the “Jews.” A radical anti-abortion activist guns down a doctor in church — and declares more violence is on the way.  Fox News’s Shepard Smith reports that he gets hundreds of very scary e-mails daily.   The extreme right wing is frothing mad, saying that Obama is a Muslim bent on destruction of the country, a movement socialist who wants to bring Soviet style government to the US.  Smith said he’s never seen this kind of anger before, it’s irrational and a frightening shift in the political discourse of the country.   When people are convinced there are conspiracies and evil doers betraying the country and it’s ideals, violence is easy to turn to.

Of course, the left can’t pretend they don’t have their share of kooks as well, foremost among them being Obama’s former Pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who complains that “them Jews” won’t let him see the President, and that the “Jewish vote” controls Obama.   So far the radical left, angry during the Bush Administration — though not as rabid and hateful as the radical right is now — is  subdued by the fact Obama is not right wing.  However, it takes only one nut case from any side of the spectrum to create a national tragedy, and traditionally the radical left has been more violent than the right.

Now and then I turn on talk radio en route to work or while running errands.   The only one tolerable is Glenn Beck, since he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously and he’s actually quite funny.   His criticisms are also more honest, he doesn’t play the obvious rhetorical games that Rush Limbaugh or Shawn Hannity do.   Jon Stewart outed Hannity’s strategy at a particularly dishonest moment when he showed Hannity rip Obama for giving voice to the terrorists by showing a line in a speech when Obama says “I know some would rationalize or even justify violence…” but not showing the next part of the sentence when Obama condemns and refudiates that position.   That’s why I call Hannity an American Goebbels — such an obvious lie is meant to anger and provoke, with a clear wilful intent to mislead.    Hannity isn’t a Nazi, he’s just a disingenuous propagandist.

Limbaugh and others on the right are rabid with their attacks on Obama, Sotomayor, and claims that America is being led to destruction by this Administration.   Perhaps a massive offensive against Obama is one way to try to distract from the question “why is Obama having to deal with this kind of mess?”   Or perhaps they can’t believe that the “left,” a perspective they’ve attacked, dismissed and felt was subdued suddenly is guiding the country.  Whatever the case, this is dangerous.

The stability of a country is based on its civil society.   Civil society refers to the shared norms, behaviors and understandings that bind a polity.  If you lack a strong civil society, democracy won’t work, and a country will drift to chaos or authoritarianism.  The main problems in Iraq since 2003 have not been caused primarily by US actions, but by the lack of an Iraqi civil society — underestimating the importance of civil society is one way the US erred in Iraq.

The stability of the United States democratic system rests on a strongly held shared belief that competition is good, the other side is not evil, and we can peacefully and reasonably work through differences.   Yes, the rhetoric at times is heated, there are scandals, and there are accusations and over the top rhetoric on the fringes.  But over all Americans generally believe in the system and accept that if they don’t like the government now, there will be another election in a couple years.

That civil society, based on shared values and a sense of tolerance of diverse opinions and a belief in democracy is by no means dead.   Most Republicans are not part of the “enraged right,” and most conservatives are appalled by the rhetoric the extremists are using.   Yet it’s murkier than it used to be.    When the Department of Homeland Security warned precisely about this kind of danger, there was an uproar from the right, claiming that the DHS was saying conservatives were dangerous.  That isn’t what they were saying at all — extremists left and right are dangerous, and there has been a rise, now proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, of radical right wing extremism.   By not condemning that and instead complaining about the report, many on the right give cover to the radicals, and risk further deteriorating American civil society.

There are real reasons to oppose Obama.  The massive amount of deficit spending is dangerous and deserves serious concern.   It is the duty of the opposition to bring this forth.  There are real differences in foreign policy, health care, and taxation.   The Republicans are right to criticize Obama’s plans, and try to put forth alternatives.  I may not agree with all or even much of what the GOP says, but without a counter to Obama and the Democrat’s plans, there is no check on or sober critique of actions being taken by the government — actions that in some cases are very expensive and will have a tremendous social impact.

But the right and left need to come together and stop poisoning the discourse.  Just as Republicans like Margaret Chase Smith stood up to McCarthy, there needs to be a stronger counter voice to Limbaugh and Hannity, saying the pundits do not speak for the right.  Talk radio is all about riling up the emotions of listeners to feed ratings, it is not based on reasoned discourse, evidence or logic.   Those emotions can be powerful, and many Republicans fear a backlash if they stand up and say “OK, let’s oppose these policies, but with reason and good will, not anger and emotion.”

All other things being equal, I’d chalk this up to a sudden shock at losing power, and fear of the future.  It happened during the McCarthy era after all.   But as we risk heading into depression and terrorism concerns remain real, the danger that civil society could break down and the country go to a very dark place is real.  If oil costs rise, energy shortages ensue, dangers from global warming become real, and the economy does not rebound, we’ll be in unexplored territory as a country, our very values could be put to the test.   Violent radicalism could bring down this stable and long running democracy.   It’s important  that everyone, left and right, recognize that despite our differences, almost all of us want what is best for the country and our fellow citizens, and hateful, angry radicalism is un-American.   We can be intense and at times angry in our debates, but we need to oppose those who would poison the discourse completely.

  1. #1 by Josh on June 12, 2009 - 15:45

    I totally agree that Hannity and Limbaugh have been unfair in their criticisms. I like Glenn Beck, but some of his arguments against Obama have been unfair, too.

    I don’t believe, however, that folks like Limbaugh and Hannity are dangerous. Just as many people on the left said just as many angry, unfair things about Bush when he was president. Every minority party will be like this. Also, most folks who believe that Obama is a “dangerous socialist” really just believe that Obama’s policies are dangerous for the country. Many Democrats believed Bush’s policies were dangerous.

    Folks like Von Brunn ARE the dangerous ones, but they don’t represent the “extreme right” (unless you define the “extreme right” as only those who WILL use violence). Same with Bill Ayers. He certainly doesn’t represent the average radical left-winger.
    People who use violence are not “left” or “right”…they are simply “crazy”.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on June 13, 2009 - 05:20

    I see your point, Josh, but in political science views like Von Brunn’s are considered extreme right wing, and Bill Ayers, at least when he was a radical bomber, was extreme left. It has to do with the reasons for violence, and their core beliefs.

    To be sure, a two dimensional axis is a poor measure; Von Brunn is as far from a normal conservative as a radical leftist Marxist revolutionary group is from your typical liberal. I do worry that civil society is built on some core values and that talk radio is pushing the discourse in a negative them vs. us mentality. There was a book written about that recently (I think called “The Exclusionists” or something like that). Overall, I think it’s harmless, but I do worry about trends, especially since I’m worried that current deficit spending could lead to worse economic problems and potential domestic instability. I hope not.

  3. #3 by Josh on June 13, 2009 - 13:43

    I guess I just need a definition of “extreme right” and “extreme left”. Many people believe that Limbaugh is extreme right, but if that’s the case, shouldn’t Von Brunn be considered “extreme extreme right”? I just can’t associate the talk radio crowd with those who would use violence.

    Also, if talk radio is dividing the country (and I think you have a legitimate reason to think this), then I believe one must include cable news channels, newspapers, universities, etc. as helping to widen the divide, too.

  4. #4 by henitsirk on June 14, 2009 - 02:32

    “All other things being equal, I’d chalk this up to a sudden shock at losing power, and fear of the future.”

    I think fear is the root of violence. Whether it’s fear of losing one’s social status, one’s job, or even some deep-seated psychological fear of abandonment that comes out later in life — these fears seem to often manifest in anger at the “other”.

    I think part of the problem in our society today is that while most people (I think) are moderate, we seem to find the extremes to be more entertaining, hence most talk radio. And since so much of our society revolves around entertainment and its financial underpinnings, the extremes end up having undue influence. That and I don’t think many people are able or willing to really be educated on the issues. I’m an educated person, and it’s hard for me to stay informed or even understand many political issues today. How must it be for those who have less leisure time and, frankly, less ability to understand complexities, to really keep up without being given the simple answers of Limbaugh and others? (I hope I don’t sound elitist; I really do think it’s very difficult.)

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on June 14, 2009 - 03:57

    I think you’re right, Henitsirk. I teach political science, and I find it hard to keep up with all the news and complexities, how can average people with daily work responsibilities and other events in their life be expected to do so? It’s not elitist, it’s realist — the world is too complex for people to be able to really keep up with it and understand it. But…that in some ways calls into question participatory democracy. Perhaps representative democracy (we vote for people we trust) is best, but if that question of trust is turned into emotional tugs of war based on inflammatory speech, what does that mean for our polity?

  6. #6 by renaissanceguy on June 21, 2009 - 02:38

    Scott, I question the category of “extreme right” for Von Brunn.

    Many prominent neoconservatives are Jewish and very pro-Israel. Most evangelical Chrsitian conservatives are very pro-Israel too.

    Von Brunn was an anti-Semite. He would have no love for most conservatives, nor would most conservatives accept him as one of their own or identify with him in any way.


    Your points concerning discourse are valid, and worthy of much consideration. I am probably not as worried about it as you are. Exaggeration is a part of rhetoric, and the proper response is to call it out.

    I resist the urge to blame groups of people for the actions of an individual. If there were some organized group of abortion opponents who were staging clinic bombings and murders every month, then it would make sense to blame that group. It would make sense for law enforcement to target them. As it is, every legitimate pro-life group has a stated policy of opposing violence against abortion providers. These acts are committed by isolated individuals who appear to be unhinged. These individuals simply cannot say, “They told me to do it,” because every prominent pro-lifer is tellin people NOT to do it.

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