Washington Post Columnist Colbert King is right on when he says in today’s column that so much of the current political discourse has crossed the line between disagreeing with a political opponent to attacking the opponent as the enemy. This is, in the words of his headline, “A Dangerous Kind of Hate” that can lead to the kind of violence perpetrated not by groups but by isolated individuals motivated by incoherent feelings of rage.
A story on cnn.com today illustrates this problem through interviews with people on board the “TEA Party Express” who say things like, “We’ve got some domestic enemies in the White House” and refer to President Obama as “a communist in the White House.” A nearby photograph shows an protester holding up a sign on which Obama’s name is festooned with a swastika inside the “O” suggesting he is a Nazi — in stories just today about demonstrations in Washington I’ve read the words “Nazi,” “Hitler,” “Communist,” “Socialist,” “Czar” and other such labels associated with President Obama. A Washington Post photograph of a protester wearing a shirt apparently made from the U.S. Flag (time was when that would have been illegal!) carrying a placard with a large photograph of Nancy Pelosi over which the word “NAZI” appears. (I’m itching to enroll them in a Political Theory course so that we can discuss the difference between Nazis and Communists and Fascists and Socialists and Russians and Republicans and Democrats, but I digress…)
Yes, it’s true that raucous, nasty, mean-spirited, highly personal political attacks and defamatory tactics are as American as…. well, the Boston Tea Party. True, the party in power always complains about the tactics of the opposition, and “dirty tricks” are a hallowed form of political mud-slinging. Just watch Frost/Nixon to recall the good old days when the president kept an enemies list and third-rate burglars on his party payroll.
I did my share of protesting ‘back in the day’ like the time a few classmates and I joined others in the Student Movement chasing Nixon’s motorcade down Pennsylvania Avenue after his second inauguration. We probably shouted out a few things that I might not reprint on this blog today. Protest is surely a great symbol of this or any democracy, and it’s often more mud-slinging than formal Debate Style.
And yet, and yet…. as King points out in his column today, and as pundits and others have ruminated all week, there’s something especially worrisome about the current state of American political discourse. It’s not just Congressman Joe Wilson’s pathetic shout out (“You Lie!”) during President Obama’s address to Congress. Disrespect in public discourse is, unfortunately, normative these days — just check the “comments” section on most news stories.
But the rage, the undifferentiated anger, the underlying climate of threat, the brandishing of weapons at presidential events, the hair-trigger responses to any difference of opinion — all of these are symptoms of sickness in the body politic. Colbert King worries today that these expressions of hostility will spill over into tragedy. Even short of that, the nation that is still the most powerful, wealthiest and most well-educated place on earth should be able to carry on robust public disagreements without demonization. Comparing President Obama to Hitler because he wanted to talk to school children about the importance of doing their homework is beyond hysterical, it’s offensive to America’s fundamental values of respect and integrity. Surely, we can go jaw-to-jaw with competing facts & figures over health care reform without accusing the opposition of wanting to kill grandma. And most certainly, people who claim to be acting in the name of religion and the defense of life should treat everyone with the respect and dignity they say they are working to uphold.
Surely, we can debate our opponents without demonizing them as our enemies.
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