Even as the war in Iraq goes on and the war with a global terror network shows no signs of abating, our domestic political scene seems to have become a war zone as well.
It's happening on political websites, where "debate" often consists of trading invective and where opponents are ridiculed with slurs like "libs" and "repugs." It's happening in mainstream politics, too. Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean slams Republicans as "brain-dead" people, many of whom "have never made an honest living in their lives." Republican master strategist and senior Bush adviser Karl Rove slams liberals as wimps whose reaction to Sept. 11 was to "offer therapy and understanding for our attackers."
Everyone seems to agree that there is far too much nastiness in American political discourse today. And everyone seems eager to blame the other side for it.
For instance, conservative columnist and author Michelle Malkin has a new book called Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild. The book chronicles a lot of nasty and/or nutty talk on the left: Dean's anti-Republican gibes, Bush assassination humor, "Bush = Hitler" rhetoric, the rants of radical academics excusing terrorism as retaliation for our imperialist sins, and racist and sexist slurs directed at Malkin herself as a female Asian conservative. Malkin also records cases of nastiness turning to action, from vandalism against Republican posters and campaign signs to one truly unhinged Democrat trying to run a car with a Bush bumper sticker off the road.
While one may quibble with Malkin's interpretation of some incidents, most of what she describes is accurate and disturbing. But what about unhinged conservatives?
If Malkin wants to preach to the choir and focus only on nastiness from the left, that's her prerogative. But she claims that such behavior has no serious counterpart on the right. Unlike liberals, Malkin writes, "conservatives zealously police their own ranks to exclude extremists and conspiracy theories."
I guess radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh doesn't count as a "bad boy" for Malkin, who calls him a "conservative radio giant." This is the same Limbaugh who, a few years ago, referred to then-Senate minority leader Tom Daschle as "Hanoi Tom" and literally compared him to the devil. This is also the same Limbaugh who has hawked paranoid conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton, including murder allegations.
Likewise, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, known for such witticisms as, "My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building," appears in "Unhinged" only as a victim of rude lefties.
Dave Neiwert, a Seattle-based author and award-winning freelance journalist, has posted a rebuttal to Malkin on his website. Neiwert documents a lot of nastiness on the right, including physical as well as verbal assaults. For every left-wing "Kill Bush" T-shirt, he notes, there's a right-wing "Liberal hunting permit" bumper sticker. Neiwert makes a lot of excellent points, but unfortunately he can't resist the temptation of arguing that right-wing nastiness is worse than the left-wing kind.
For instance, Neiwert argues that a number of leading conservative figures have employed rhetoric about rounding up the opposition. (Here's Limbaugh again: "Wouldn't it be great if anybody who speaks out against this country, to kick them out of the country? . . . We'd get rid of Michael Moore, we'd get rid of half the Democratic Party. . .") Such talk, Neiwert claims, has no real counterpart on the left. But was it much better when Garrison Keillor, who has an audience of nearly 4 million on National Public Radio, suggested taking the vote away from born-again Christians shortly after the 2004 election? Yes, it's all in jest, but this is joking of a very poisonous kind.
Arguing who started it and who's worse is pointless. Each sides tends to see the speck in the other's eye, and not the log in its own. Hate is far too common a mode of relating to the opposition on both the left and the right. Too many liberals see conservatives as not just people with different ideas about what's right for America, but as people who want to destroy America in pursuit of nefarious goals. And vice versa.
Imagine political leaders from both sides of the aisle teaming up to issue a forceful statement condemning extreme, hate-filled rhetoric in both conservative and liberal ranks. Unlikely, I know, but one can always dream. This is, after all, the season of peace on earth and goodwill toward men.