Democratic Underground  

Just Kidding...
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 as evil.

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 the enemy.

It doesn't really matter that accusations of treason against liberals are "sarcasm" or "hyperbole" if conservatives behave as though they believe it.

Printer-friendly version
Tell a friend about this article Tell a friend about this article
Discuss this article
Democratic Underground Homepage