July 2, 2002
By Pamela Troy
"It is certainly the case that the 'progressive left' is
an anti-American left that is ready to aid and abet virtually
any enemy of the United States, including Saddam Hussein"
David Horowitz, 6/6/01 National Review Online
"We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically
intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can
be killed too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright
traitors." Ann Coulter 2/6/02, speech at Conservative
Political Action Conference
"For there is, in truth, much to be angry about in the positions
some of these critics espouse; much that is meretricious,
much that is inspired less by reason or evidence than by simple
ideology and, yes, moral perversity. They have caused damage
and they need to be held to account." William Bennett,
on critics of the war on terrorism, from the introduction
to his recent book Why We Fight
Every now and then a rash of articles appears on various
liberal web sites which predict that the Far Right will shortly
"implode" or "self-destruct." This often takes place after
some spectacularly insane statement from the right, like a
Bush administration spokesman claiming that toxic sludge is
good for the environment or a right-wing pundit suggesting
that we invade France.
It's never really clear what is meant by the right wing "imploding."
Perhaps David Horowitz, Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham will
simultaneously burst into flames or the entire Bush administration
will, with a pop and a long whistling hiss, slowly deflate
into warm puddles of bile. In any event, the promised collapse
never takes place and right wing rhetoric serenely continues
its march into the far frontiers of the irrational. A few
weeks later Peggy Noonan will swear in the Wall Street Journal
that she saw Hillary Clinton spin her head 180 degrees and
vomit pea soup, and there will be another outbreak of hopeful
predictions from the left.
I think the problem is that many liberals mistakenly believe
that the right wing has an emotional investment in the logic
of its own claims and, as a result, is due any day now to
simply die of embarrassment. Much has been made of the decline
in American political debate, with the left often expressing
bafflement at the increasingly senseless and inconsistent
arguments offered by the right. In fact, it all makes sense
if we take seriously some of the statements that have so far
been dismissed as outrageous flights of rhetoric.
One of the rarely discussed aspects of the influence of the
religious right on modern conservatism is its rejection of
the concept of the loyal opposition. The religious right rejects
the notion that someone who disagrees politically and/or religiously
with them is not evil or treasonous, but simply an American
who disagrees. In the eyes of many modern conservatives, the
battle between Republicans and Democrats is a battle between
the Godly and the Satanic. To call this mindset a rejection
of civility is to seriously underestimate the danger it poses.
It's a rejection not merely of civility, but of the assumptions
about tolerance and equal access that drive our political
process. Evil, in the eyes of many conservatives, has no rights.
And there is little question that many of them see the opposition
Modern right-wing rhetoric becomes much less irrational if
it's seen as the last gasp of the right's pretense of commitment
to political freedom. Rather than self-destructing or imploding,
it's quite possible that many conservatives are on the verge
of moving from the covert to the overt rejection of this ideal.
I've been told many times that it is foolish to take the
rhetoric of the far right seriously, that they don't really
mean it, that it's all part of the game. Ann Coulter complained
recently on "Crossfire" that "it is a liberal tactic to pretend
not to understand irony, hyperbole, sarcasm." It would have
been interesting if James Carville, instead of continuing
to focus on Coulter's silly comparison of Katie Couric to
Eva Braun, had thought to ask Coulter if her earlier statement
about the need to "physically intimidate liberals" qualified
as irony, hyperbole or sarcasm.
It is beyond hyperbolic or sarcastic or ironic to denounce
liberal dissent as treasonous. The problem with assuming that
they're all "just kidding" when they say such things is that
recent actions on the part of the right are consistent with
what they say. William Bennett has not only written a book
in which the act of even mildly dissenting from Bush's War
on Terror is treated as a moral failure, he has formed AVOT,
an organization intent on "taking to task" those who dissent.
The Bush administration has not merely complained loudly about
leaks or critical coverage; it has succeeded in barring critics
in the press and even Congress from access to information
that would provide some measure of accountability. It has
treated the media and any critical Americans as if we were
It doesn't really matter that accusations of treason against
liberals are "sarcasm" or "hyperbole" if conservatives behave
as though they believe it.