Saturday, January 15, 2011

Uncivil discourse

The smoke from Jared Lee Loughner’s weapon had hardly a chance to dissipate when liberal hate-mongers in the MSM started to accuse Sarah Palin and the Tea Party as accessories before the fact to mass murder. The grounds? One of the victims, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is a Democrat “targeted” by the Tea Party for unseating in her next re-election bid.

Never mind that Loughner is a paranoid schizophrenic with an established history of drug abuse. Never mind that the only demonstrable concern he had with politics was his alleged anger at being “snubbed” by Giffords at some public function. Had Paul Krugman, Keith Olbermann and the New York Times waited just a few days for these facts to come forward, they would not now look like idiots and hypocritical opportunists.

(I will give Olbermann his due: In the same commentary where he condemned the violent rhetoric of the Tea Party, he also confessed to having used violent metaphors … once. Since I’m not a regular follower, I’ll take him at his word unless and until other citations can be supplied. However, I frequently find his commentary over-the-top, as well as disrespectful to facts and to his opponents’ motives; he is often just as much a hate-monger as those he frequently damns.)

Faced with such cynical, don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts jeremiads, other journalists and writers, largely conservative but with a very healthy sprinkling of aghast liberals, have been writing in shock and outrage. Agnes Cross-White provided a fairly disgusting collection of hate speech from liberal political and cultural leaders, from Pres. Obama to Rob Reiner. James Taranto at the WSJ pulled no punches: “To describe the Tucson massacre as an act of ‘political violence’ is, quite simply, a lie. It is as if, two days after the Columbine massacre, a conservative newspaper of the Times’ stature had described that atrocious crime as an act of ‘educational violence’ and used it as an occasion to denounce teachers unions. Such an editorial would be shameful and indecent even if the arguments it made were meritorious.” WaPo’s Charles Krauthammer’s verdict on Krugman: “Rarely in American political discourse has there been a charge so reckless, so scurrilous and so unsupported by evidence.” And Susan Stamper Brown’s fulmination was a classic:

Certainly this is a time to stand against hate mongering, but knowingly casting false blame is a cold political maneuver that fails to consider the victims and their families, including a precious 9-year-old girl whose life was snuffed out. Slaughtered. Is it not time for the left to take a stand, Mr. Krugman? Palin haters have made statements like, “Let’s stone her, old school.” Madonna’s YouTube Palin-rant promised to “kick her ass,” and “comedian” Sandra Bernhard vowed Palin would be “gang-raped by my big black brothers.” [Joy Behar on The View: “You know where I’d like to see (Nevada Republican senatorial candidate Sharon Angle)? I’d like to see her do this in South Bronx. Come here, bitch. Come to do it in New York. … She’s going to hell, this bitch.” Yeah, she and Bernhard are real funny women.]
Where was the conscience of progressives, when people adorned themselves with “Kill Bush” t-shirts and donned “Bush the only dope worth shooting” signs? Why did they not stand against violence when the Obama supporter destroyed GOP signs while shouting “You f**cking house nigger white-black bitch?”

This kind of language goes beyond the whiny-brat ranting Andrew Sullivan and Joe Sudbury released when Maine Proposition 1 was defeated in November 2009, but only in degree, not substance.
Not that I’m holding conservative pundits blameless paragons of reason and temperance. Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity are just as apt to question the intelligence, the motives and the decency of liberals, and are just as often abusive of facts when they’re available. And what’s the substantive difference between Behar’s “bitch” and Limbaugh’s “femi-nazi”?

Let’s face it: civil discourse is dead. You can see it in the comboxes every day, even on Christian religious blogs (where you would think charity would be considered a greater virtue than wittiness). Opponents are never merely misled or mistaken; they’re enemies of the human race, to be destroyed, marginalized and confined to madhouses. Once they’re dead, their graves must be used as toilets, and everything they’ve built must be razed, the grounds sown with salt … uranium salt.

And why is civil discourse dead?

The whole idea of civil discourse is predicated on the belief that two opposing sides can and do share values in common. Given a discrete set of facts and a clear enough chain of reasoning, it can be demonstrated that a policy conforms better to the shared values than does the status quo. By conceding my opponents’ sharing my value system—or at least the core of it—I also concede their good will and good intentions; I take their decency for granted. Put differently, civil ethics precedes civil discourse.

This begs the question: Do conservatives and liberals share any values? Certainly there will be values they won’t hold in common. But it shouldn’t necessarily follow that they disagree on everything. The conservative may hold the death penalty the only admissible answer to murder, while the liberal may prefer life without parole; they must agree, however, that murder is wrong, else the discussion would be whether murder should be penalized at all, let alone by death. But that’s so basic that we no longer think of it; it’s like being so fascinated by the different colors and peculiarities of each others’ eyes that we no longer think of the fact that we have sight in common … at least until we meet someone who’s blind.

It’s often said that we must learn to respect and even celebrate our differences. But it’s as important—if not more important—to recognize and build upon the values we share in common, so we can build communities. But how can we build on shared values if we don’t first know what those values are? Especially since our political rhetoric now takes it for granted that we don’t share values, and that there’s something vaguely wrong with sharing values?

If the liberal hate-mongers are worse than the conservatives, it’s only due to their egregious hypocrisy: they pretend they’re the voices of love and tolerance, while spewing some of the most rabidly intolerant, gratuitously nasty vituperation seen since the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Conservatives know that the essence of lawmaking is deciding not only what should be mandated but also what shouldn’t be tolerated, and that moral outrage is a valid and even praiseworthy reason for legal restriction.

John Steele Gordon wrote, “I hope that Krugman’s column on Monday, when he shamelessly used a tragedy to smear his political opponents, will be his have-you-no-decency-sir moment. He deserves one. He is the Joe McCarthy of our times.” Gordon was referring to the moment in the Army-McCarthy hearings when Joseph Welch, the lead counsel for the Army, asked Sen. McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you lost your sense of decency?”

The fact is, no, Paul Krugman doesn’t have a sense of decency. And neither does Ann Coulter, Andrew Sullivan or Rush Limbaugh (feel free to complete the list yourself). That’s because decency depends on a shared idea of what “decent” means. That’s because a prior generation of neo-Marxist activists foolishly tied “decency” to sexual repression, male chauvinism, white supremacy, and First Amendment restrictions. That’s because “decency” was distorted into a code word for the supposed value system that kept women in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, that repressed minorities and ostracized homosexuals. (I don’t say “liberals” because some of the people responsible for this became neo-cons in the 1980s.)

Worse, the hate-mongers have highly-visible soapboxes from which they can spout their polarizing jeremiads because—according to the media outlets which pay them—that’s what we want. We no longer have a sense of decency; we no longer demand that our pundits stick to the facts and give said facts due respect; we cheer and rave for the media demagogue who feeds our fears and our self-righteousness. They tell us what we want to hear, not what we ought to hear. “They” don’t share values with “us”; “they” are trying to impose some sort of police state on “us”; “they” are trying to cram “their” values down “our” throats. (And indeed “we” are, ‘cause we gotta get “them” before “they” get “us”.)

The “memorial service” was merely the underscore to the farcical shenanigans. As UA undergrads—or, as Fr. John Zuhlsdorf ycleped them, “ululating rubes”—hooted and hollered in the background, a sitting President of the United States attempted to score points off his opponents by referencing the accusations in what was no less than a political rally propped up on the coffins of the victims … as if he himself had never said anything like “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”

“Have you no sense of decency, sir?” indeed.

But then, why should a nation that has no sense of decency expect decent conduct from its President?