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Down-and-Dirty Rhetoric Cheapens Civil Discourse

December 28, 2003

Bush-is-a-Nazi rhetoric, the subject of a recent column here, brought a lot of mail on a common theme: Isn’t today’s over-the-top, non-Nazi-related rhetoric often just as bad? Oh, yes. We are awash in charges of “institutional terrorism” as well as “institutional racism,” not to mention “scientific McCarthyism” and similar cringe-making attempts to produce terrific sound bites. Nobody is simply criticized or opposed. They are “lynched.” Orrin Hatch, Zell Miller and several other politicians recently claimed that they or their allies have been “lynching” victims. (Miller apologized.)

Veteran PBS star Bill Moyers, once a judicious man, recently said that Republicans are planning “the deliberate intentional destruction of the United States of America.”

A week or so ago, Sen. Hillary Clinton came down with a similar case of rhetorical fever. She said the Bush administration is out to undo the accomplishments of seven presidents — Clinton, Carter, Johnson, Kennedy, Truman and both Roosevelts, Franklin and Teddy. What? Nothing in there about undoing Lincoln?

Ann Coulter has taken partisan commentary about as far as it can go. She is smart and funny, but calling opponents traitors is way over the line. So is suggesting that Timothy McVeigh’s mistake was not blowing up The New York Times building. This is the rhetorical equivalent of throwing chairs on the “Jerry Springer Show.” It increases the odds that our political combat will get worse.

NAACP chairman Julian Bond, perhaps the rhetorical offender of the year, said the Republican Party’s idea of equal rights “is the American flag and Confederate swastika flying side by side.” He also compared conservatives to KKK members, announced that Republican nominees for judgeships come from “the Taliban wing of American politics,” and said that Bush Cabinet members have a devotion to the Confederacy “nearly canine in its uncritical affection.”

Even Democratic presidential candidates get rhetorically linked to the Confederacy by NAACP officials. After Richard Gephardt, Joe Lieberman and Dennis Kucinich had the temerity to skip the NAACP convention, Kweisi Mfume, president of the civil rights group, said to the three: “Your political capital is the equivalent of Confederate dollars.”

In the old days, the fund-raising letters of the American Civil Liberties Union usually said something like, “Help us defend the civil liberties of all.” Now the letters are hair-raisingly vehement and partisan. In a recent one, ACLU president Nadine Strossen says John Ashcroft is “waging a relentless campaign to undermine our freedom” while the whole Bush administration is engaged in “subversion of our highest national ideals.” This was standard ACLU rhetoric even before 9/11. A July 2001 letter associated Bush and Ashcroft with racism, sexism and a police state., the nonpartisan and extremely valuable Web site, called the letter “rhetoric bordering on propaganda. … The ACLU should be ashamed of itself.”

Teddy Kennedy said he would continue to oppose any Neanderthal named to the bench by the Bush administration. Some Republicans responded by trying to turn Kennedy’s primitive reference into a racial insult aimed at a black woman (Janice Brown) and a Hispanic man (Miguel Estrada).

Some rhetoric is simply intended to create the impression that an opponent is the equivalent of a world-class villain. Calling for “regime change” in the White House (John Kerry) is a not-so-subliminal way of saying that Bush and Saddam Hussein are equal problems. Saying that Republican court nominees will “turn back the clock” (a Democratic mantra, used almost daily by People for the American Way) blinks to blacks the message that conservative judges will bring back segregation, Jim Crow and Bull Connor.

Or take the attempt to discredit concerns about the environmental impact of large-scale immigration. To some defenders of open immigration, these concerns aren’t legitimate. No, they represent “the greening of hate” (feminist Betsy Hartman).

It’s obvious that rhetorical excess reflects our political polarization. But the democratization of the media is playing a large role too. There are no longer many gatekeepers who work to maintain a civil tone in publications and broadcasting. On the Internet and talk radio, and increasingly in the old media, people can say whatever they like, no matter how crude. Alas, many people now speaking out believe they contribute to the political discussion by simply announcing their feelings, usually the feelings of irritation and anger.

Inarticulate people, many of them new to the political stage, are finding it hard to make their case without lapsing into invective. Janeane Garofalo, for instance, appeared in Manhattan on a recent panel discussion about Iraq. Unable to cope with defenders of the war, she suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, I give up!” and sat down. The inability to argue helps explain why she tends to rely on insults to make her points. Recently she referred to the Bush administration as “the 43rd Reich.”

This is a terrible style that the country’s remaining grown-ups ought to confront. During 2004, I promise not to call anyone a Klan member, a Nazi, a traitor, a Saddam Hussein clone or a closet cannibal out to subvert America. OK, that’s not much. But it’s a start.

From → Free Speech, Language

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