Tuesday, August 18, 2009

IN Touch: Uncivil dissent (update)

A few days ago, I posted my most recent IN Touch blog entry, "Uncivil dissent". Along with my post, several other recent posts on IN Touch have dealt with the issue of the nature of the debate on healthcare reform. Perhaps more importantly, a review of the comments to those posts may serve to illustrate just how off-kilter the entire process of political debate and discourse has gotten.
One of the most troublesome lines being taken by those who I'm guessing are on the right (or at least oppose the efforts at healthcare reform) is to say, "Aha! But Democrats/liberals/the left engaged in uncivil debate in the past." Sure there may have been episodes of those on the left (or right) being uncivil, but whether it was of the nature and to the extent of the current healthcare debate disruptions, I'm not sure. From what I've seen and read, it appears that both the frequency and prevalence of disruptive behavior by "the left" and the nature and magnitude of that disruptive behavior was different. I don't recall MSNBC actively promoting tea bag parties or having its anchors stage faux poisonings of Republicans in Congress. I don't recall the left talking about "refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots". I don't recall "leaders" from the left (of the stature of Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich or Rush Limbaugh) advancing out-and-out falsehoods (e.g., "death panels") in order to scare people. Did Al Gore ever argue that President Bush intended to use the Patriot Act to kill grandpa?
But even if the left did engage in that kind of behavior in the past, it doesn't make it right now. And that is the next part of the current meme being advanced by those who appear to support the current spate of town hall disruptions. The argument being advanced is that people like me who advocate for civil discourse and debate and against mob behavior and disruption are hypocrites because we didn't do so when Republicans were allegedly being shouted down. For example, take a look at this comment thread to my "Uncivil dissent" post:

Boy...we sure are lucky none of this type of foolishness happened when the last
administration was in office.

I mean a faux poisoning on TV...what if they made a faux movie about assassination of the sitting President...oh wait, already been done.

And calling the President-to-be a terrorist, what if they printed up signs with his picture that said #1 Terrorist...oh wait, already been done.

What if they shouted down political speakers and even tried to make a citizens arrest for what they thought those politicians were breaking the law for...oh wait, already been done.

Man, I'm having a hard time coming up with something that hasn't already been done.

I hope you realize this happened for 8 years before you finally opened your eyes and acted like it was some sort of travesty.

Like I've said before, what's good for the goose ain't so good for the gander.

(from Kevin Schmidt, who wrote his own IN Touch post on the subject: "Selective amnesia"). My response:

Sorry, but a movie about an assassination is very, very different from the host of a "news" show staging a faux poisoning on his program. A movie is clearly fiction and I suspect that most Americans understand that. On the other hand, when members of the media who Republicans identify as "leaders" app[e]ar to advocate assassination... well that is a very different situation. If you can't recognize that difference, both in terms of magnitude and meaning, then perhaps we've identified part of the problem.

It is also worth noting that "Death of a President" was not made by Americans, but rather, by the British. And it was made in order to advance discussion of certain political issues. How does talking about poisoning Nancy Pelosi facilitate discussion of healthcare reform?

As to shouting down politicians, yes there was some of that during the Bush administration, but I would contend that it was neither to the extent or extreme that it has been taken now nor was it largely based on lies and falsehoods being intentionally repeated in order to sow fear and distrust.

Finally, you seem to suggest that I've endorsed violent political rhetoric in the past and only condemn the current wave of disruptive activity. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think that the lack of civility, from whatever quarter, is dangerous for our system. But I think that it is even more dangerous when it appears to be endorsed by so-called leaders.

And Kevin's response to me:

I think, after watching what Glenn Beck said, more as joke, than anything pales in comparison to the "kill Bush" rhetoric that existed during the Bush administration. If you want an example, take Chris Matthews who heaped praise on the Green Party candidate for NY Governor after he stated that he only supported capital punishment in the case of President Bush being tried for treason. And need only Google "kill Bush" to find numerous stories of people advocating either through art or otherwise the death of President Bush.

Does it make what Beck said any less stupid, no...but it does prove my point that none of this is new and as usual, Republicans are tared and feathered for doing something Democrats consider the norm.

I'm sure you don't think it's productive from either side of the aisle, as do I, but I'd find it more believable had you condemned the same actions when they happened to Republicans.

I don't know, perhaps you did, but I would highly doubt it.

On what basis does Mr. Schmidt "highly doubt" that I condemned disruptive behavior from the left? Or consider these other statements from Mr. Schmidt in responses to comments to his post (and I don't mean to pick on him in particular or suggest that he is unique in his view; it was simply expedient for me to use his words as an example of the rhetorical arguments being advanced):

[T]he left can't have it both ways and that's what they want.

When it was the Iraq war and Republican Congressmen being shouted down it was a-ok. Now that the shoe is on the other foot it's time for peaceful dissent?

Give me a break.

You are the face of hypocrisy.

I'll cut you some slack if you can show me where you denounced those shouting down Republicans. If you can't don't bother commenting.


I agree with you about civil protest and don't agree with what is being done at town hall meetings right now. And trust me, I've had my fair share of experiences being the unwelcome Republican.

As long as you can show me where you complained about the same tactics that were employed by those on the left when George W. Bush was President we'll get along just fine.

Otherwise you can join the rest of the partisan hack hypocrites in the corner.


[M]y point isn't that this kind of protest is civil or the right thing to be doing, it's that when the shoe was on the other foot, it was the "highest form of patriotism" and now it's Nazism and the Klan come home to roost. It's the hypocrisy that upsets me.
What are we to take away from those sorts of posts?
In other words, if I (or others concerned about the tone of civil discourse) didn't come out and criticize the left during the Bush administration, then I am being a hypocrite now. I've only been writing publicly since the end of 2007 (and only writing for IN Touch since earlier this year). I don't think that I've ever advocated violence and I don't think that I've ever given a "free pass" to bad conduct because I approve of the speaker or the issue. Those who know me and with whom I've discussed politics over the last few years (or even longer) can probably attest to my concerns with the decline in political civility; in fact, it is a recurring theme in my political discussions. I recall talking about the subject when Rush Limbaugh had harsh things to say about President Clinton and when Rep. Dan Burton made his crazy allegations regarding Vince Foster. But I also recall having similar discussions about the "9/11 truthers", Cindy Sheehan, and disruptions at events like the G8 summit in Seattle. I just wasn't writing about it back then.

It is also, of course, worth remembering the old adage that "two wrongs don't make a right". Even if some on the left did behave badly, does that mean that the right should behave badly now? Because a right-winger killed policemen in Pittsburgh, should a leftist kill bankers? Because a right-winger killed an abortion doctor, should a leftist kill an anti-abortion advocate? Because the Bush administration ignored the Constitution and imprisoned people without the right to counsel or trial, engaged in illegal wiretaps, and used torture, should the Obama administration confiscate guns or allow illegal aliens to vote? Of course not. And I'd be curious to know if people like Mr. Schmidt who were apparently upset at the level of discourse during the Bush administration spoke out during the Clinton administration (and of course that line of inquiry can be taken back ad infinitem to the point of ridiculousness).

Or consider this comment to "Uncivil dissent" from someone identified only as "dabs":

Seriously? An attorney that displays a blatant ignorance of both the First Amendment AND legal precedent? I suspect business is not very good for Mr. Wallack.

In addition to all the responses here that point out SCORES of examples of other "hate speech" demonstrations by "progressive groups" (which I suspect Mr. Wallack considers justified protests), he obviously misses the fact that these American citizens would not even have had the chance to exercise their RIGHT to free speech had the Congress gotten their way and hurriedly shoved this socialist tripe legislation down our throats before the August recess.

But alas, even patently partisan people like Mr. Wallack have the right to voice their opinions... a right that he seems to want to deny others who don't share his radical idealogy.


And my response:

"Radical ideology"? Sorry, but I don't understand how the belief that I system is better served by civil discourse than by yelling, screaming, pushing, and threats is a "radical ideology". Dabs, come down off of your holier-than-thou pedestal, go back and look at what I wrote, and stop trying to put words or ideas in my mouth. I did not advocate for or against the proposed healthcare reform legislation. Nor did I suggest that anyone be prevented from expressing their opinion. Nor have I ever condoned hate speech, whether from the right, left, middle, or otherwise. I think that if you look at what I've written, you'll find that I'm worried about the impact of hate speech in all of its incarnations. And I think that you'll find that I encourage people to take time and learn the facts so that they can be properly informed to participate in the political process.

My comments were about the tone of the debate and the fact that yelling and screaming and threatening are not debate at all. If you'd like to debate the healthcare reform proposals, please do so. And let others share their thoughts and opinions, too. Don't scream about "death panels" or yell about socialism. Instead, talk about whether a particular policy is good or bad and why. And take some time to listen to the other side, instead of just screaming. And that goes for most everything in our political process, not just healthcare reform.

Yes, an incitement to violence may be protected by the First Amendment, but that doesn't make it right. Nor does that mean that it is a productive form of discourse and debate.

Finally, I see distinct differences between protest, protest that disrupts others from engaging in core political speech and debate, protest that includes an incitement to violence, protest that includes actual or perceived threats of violence, the staging of violent acts, and the actual commission of violence. I advocate for civility from all sides on all issues. Please tell me where I've ever condoned anything that disrupts civil discourse or the political process.

The point that I thought that I'd made was that disruptive behavior that prevents or hinders civil discussion of important issues harms our democratic process. It just happens that the examples of this behavior that have manifested since I've been writing this blog (or for IN Touch) have involved behavior from those on the right (or those who oppose the healthcare reform proposals). Personally, I don't care who engages in the disruptive behavior or makes the threats of violence. It is wrong. But for anyone to suggest that I'm a hypocrite merely on the grounds that I'm speaking out now is simply ludicrous.

Just for the record, here are a few things that I've said on the subject of political discourse in the year 19 months that I've been writing Me Me Me Me Me:

Unfortunately, two new types of lies seem to have entered the political process. (OK, I'll admit that they've both probably been around as long as elections have, but they seem to be becoming more prominent recently.) The first is the lie of destruction. That lie puts out disinformation about the opponent that has nothing to do with the issues in the election; rather, the lie attacks the opponent's character or fitness to serve. This year, we've seen lies about Sen. Obama's religion and lies about Sen. McCain's involvement in the fire aboard the USS Forrestal. We've seen lies about Sen. Obama's citizenship and lies about Sen. McCain cooperating with the enemy while a POW. These sorts of lies are very damaging to the candidates, and, more importantly, they are very damaging to our very electoral process (would you want to run for office knowing the kinds of things that might be said about you and your family?). Between mass communications and the Internet, these lies can spread faster than they can be rebutted; by the time a rebuttal can be issued, the lie has taken on a life of its own and, to many people, become "true". So, if people are basing their electoral decision on the basis of lies about a candidate's character and background, those electoral decisions will, almost by definition be flawed and the issues on which the election should turn are relegated to a position of lesser importance. This trend has me gravely concerned. If people don't want to vote for Sen. Obama because they don't like his economic policies, fine (although I'd like to talk to them...); but if they don't want to vote for him because "he's a Muslim" then we have a problem. If people don't want to vote for Sen. McCain because he opposes a woman's right to choose, fine; but if they don't want to vote for him because they think he is responsible for the deaths of 134 sailors on the USS Forrestal then we have a problem. And given the prominence of chain emails and websites with just these sorts of allegations, I think that we do have a problem.
(From "When a Lie Becomes an Insult", September 9, 2008.)
When politicians use hate and division as tools, some supporters will take their speech at face value. And when politicians don't listen to what their supporters are saying, they can't help either control those supporters or try to keep a lid on the actions those supporters may take. And should Sen. Obama win the election, then one can only wonder what disaffected McCain supporters will do, especially those supporters who have felt emboldened to shout "kill him" or "Bomb Obama".
One of the constant themes running through many of my posts since I started this blog has been my concern with the use of language in our political discourse that serves no purpose other than to demonize a political opponent (or, all to often the "enemy") without regard for the damage that such actions will have upon the nation as a whole, especially when the use of such language is devoid of constructive thought or ideas. That we're now hearing elected politicians even mentioning notions like secession is yet another aspect to this radicalization of political dialoge. [sic]
(In response to a comment to "A Sampling of Signs from the "Tea Bag" Parties That You Didn't See on the News", April 17, 2009.) And here is what I said in one of my earliest IN Touch posts ("Ties that bind us", January 20, 2009):

[O]ur nation has for too long been torn apart by infighting where our political opponent is our "enemy" and where we allow ourselves to be divided not just by political party, but by race, religion and so many other categories. We have allowed those divisions to be the basis for our national discussions, often forgetting that we are all Americans, united by the Constitution.

So let us hope that we can take this transitional inauguration as an opportunity to try to bridge those divisions. We may continue to disagree; that is what democracy is all about, after all. But let those disagreements remain civil and principled and let the name calling be replaced by honest debate. We must recognize that those on the other side of an issue are still Americans and that there is more that ties us together than tears us apart.

I haven't taken the time to re-read every post that I've written in nearly two years, but I suspect that I would find numerous examples of statements just like these, hoping for a more civil political discourse. So, I don't believe that any claim that I am a hypocrite on the issue of civil discourse will hold up to careful scrutiny.

But, when there is no defense to the actions of those being criticized, what other response is there to make but to cry hypocrisy and try to deflect attention from the real issue and onto the people calling attention to the issue. At its core, that is the Republican and right-wing mindset. Don't talk about issues, talk about people. Identify people by slogans or race or any other tactic that serves to divide people rather than bring them together ("ooh, socialist"). Take a moment and go back and look at the signs that people were holding up a the tea parties for another fine example of high-minded civil disc... oops, I meant the politics of division and destruction.

And then, when someone does want to talk about real issues, the next response is, of course, to lie.

Or consider another recent Republican talking point: The only reason that people are yelling at their Congressional representatives is because they're not getting answers to their questions. Of course this argument is self-debunking in that people can't get answers to questions if: (a) they don't actually pose questions, choosing instead to yell and scream, and preventing others from asking questions and/or (b) they don't listen to the answers being given. There is also a difference between not getting an answer to a question and not getting the answer that you want. Plus, this explanation doesn't really address the issue of incitements to violence, racist rhetoric, other forms of political demonization (e.g., Rush Limbaugh's comparison of President Obama to Hitler), or the lies being advanced.

I don't know everything that every opponent to every policy of the Bush administration or a Republican elected official did during the past eight years. Nor do I know what every opponent of Bill Clinton did during his term. But I do know that right now our nation is facing important decisions concerning healthcare reform, the state of the economy, and many other serious problems and issues. Yelling, screaming, and threats of political violence will not help us solve those problems or find resolutions for those issues. Disruptive behavior will not help America move forward as a powerful whole, but rather will further tear us apart and erode our sense of national unity. Sometimes you have to wonder whether Americans view the bigger threat to be nations and actors like Iran, North Korea, and al-Qaeda, issues like the economy, global warming, or healthcare, or other Americans (including elected representatives) who hold differing political views.


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