The Extreme Rhetoric about Extreme Rhetoric (With Bonus Fake Sinclair Lewis Fascism Quote!)


I've yet to see any of those pundits and bloggers that wished, hoped, prayed that they could wring political points out of the awful crime in Tucson concede that their immediate suggestions (because the smart ones always include a smattering of weasel words and phrases; "probably," "could be") that the gunman was a disgruntled Tea Partier were spectacularly wrong. Alas, no one has admitted that they jumped the gun, that political considerations dictated their response to the murder of six people, including a nine-year-old girl.

Instead, many of these contemptible creatures, who insist on blaming a half-witted reality television star for the actions of a deranged amateur grammarian, have shifted gears, arguing that while perhaps the assassin wasn't motivated by Glenn Beck, it's certainly possible that, in this overheated climate, such a person could be motivated by righty talkers. (For those with less partisan instincts, but are still interested in advancing a pet cause, the blame fell on everything from video games to that ubiquitous 1980s blame magnet, heavy metal music.) 

To veterans of the 1990s culture wars, such obfuscations recall campus debates on the postmodern perception of "truth" (always in quotes); that academic slip clause allowing one to evade discussions of factual inaccuracies by shifting discussion to tedious debates over the very meaning of truth. Indeed, The Economist is right to argue that Jared Loughner's rants about mind-control seem more Foucault than Bachmann.

When it was revealed by Middlebury College sociologist David Stoll that Nobel Prize-winning writer (and doyenne of university syllabi) Rigoberta Menchu had invented key parts of her harrowing memoir of the Guatemalan civil war, many who taught the book insisted that it would remain a part of their curriculum. Menchu might have been a first-class fabulist, it was argued, but her story represented a truth familiar to those affected by the Guatemalan civil war. So there I was, sitting in a television studio yesterday, debating a university professor who intoned gravely that while this particular shooter might not have been motivated by the Tea Party, that type of rhetoric could potentially provoke others to shoot members of Congress.

Crawling out from under an avalanche of doltish tragedy blogging and tweeting, there isn't much more one can say about the shootings in Tucson that hasn't already been said by the few sensible pundits left in the United States. But it is perhaps worth pointing out that many of those denouncing rhetorical extremism are themselves in danger of drifting into similar territory (I won't say "extremist" because dumb political rhetoric isn't always "extreme").

A sampling, focusing on one particular word that recently entered the pundit lexicon: The cartoonist Tom Tomorrow sarcastically thanked John McCain "for giving Sarah Palin and her eliminationist rhetoric a national stage." Former Hillary Clinton advisor Peter Daou told his Twitter followers that he was being attacked "for raising [the subject of] rightwing eliminationism…" Blogger and law professor Scott Lemieux was a hair softer, identifying the "quasi-eliminationist" rhetoric that didn't inspire Giffords' would-be assassin. Andrew Sullivan warned against the spread of "eliminationist rhetoric that can fuel disturbed individuals like Jared Loughner."  But it was New York Times columnist Paul Krugman who brought "eliminationism" to a mainstream audience:

The point is that there's room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isn't any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary. And it's the saturation of our political discourse — and especially our airwaves — with eliminationist rhetoric that lies behind the rising tide of violence

For a media so obsessed with the pernicious effects of radical political speech, it's odd that no one has asked the anti-"eliminationist" pundits to define their terms. As I pointed out on this website last year, the word "eliminationism" is a recent coinage, a word employed by writer Daniel Jonah Goldhagen to describe the particularly virulent strain of anti-Semitism that gripped Germany in the years leading up to the Holocaust (my undergraduate thesis focused on Goldhagen's book). Rather than repeat myself, here is what I wrote about the coopting of "eliminationism":

If your dictionary is unfamiliar with the word eliminationist, that's because of the term's recent vintage, coined in 1996 by Harvard political scientist Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. In his book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Goldhagen argued that far from being bullied and terrorized into allowing its government to commit genocide in their name, most Germans were imbued with an eliminationist hatred of Jews—i.e., a desire that Jews be eliminated from Aryan society—which transitioned smoothly into an exterminationist orgy of violence.

Of the 40 references to "eliminationism" in the Times archive, all but one refer to the destruction of European Jewry. The sole standout is Krugman, who, as we have seen, is referencing the Republican Party's opposition to health care legislation. (Though in fairness to Krugman, this is something of a requirement for those anointed by the Nobel Committee. Nobelist Harold Pinter said that the only comparison one could make to Bush-era America was to that of Nazi Germany.)

Make that 39 references to eliminationist Nazism and two Krugman columns on the "eliminationist" Tea Party. Much of this non-Nazi talk of "eliminationism" started, it would seem, with writer David Neiwert, who chimed in on the Arizona tragedy with a post on "eliminationist rhetoric and the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords" (and a bonus bit on "Sean Hannity's recent bit of eliminationist 'humor'").  In 2009, Neiwert brought Goldhagen's coinage to the lefty masses with his book The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right (discussed in Jesse Walker's terrific essay on the "paranoid center").

To give you a sense of Neiwert's unique brand of scholarship, The Eliminationists quotes novelist Sinclair Lewis's quip that fascism in the United States will come "wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross." In the days since the shootings in Arizona, an image of the Lewis quote superimposed on an photo of Palin has made the rounds on Facebook and a number of left-leaning blogs. An attack on Beck, Palin, and Limbaugh appeared in letters page of today's Seattle Times citing Sinclair Lewis's supposedly prescient observation, and warning Americans not to ignore the signs of a fascist takeover—as so many "middle class Germans" did.

Thankfully, Neiwert's book footnotes the quote, attributing it to Lewis's 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here, though he curiously fails to provide a page number. This is because Neiwert is bluffing, fudging the citation—the (rather unimpressive) line can't be found in It Can't Happen Here because Lewis never uttered or committed it to paper. It is, in fact, an Internet quotation; one spread far and wide by the dumb and partisan, despite an obviously murky provenance.

The phony Lewis quote also shows up in liberal journalist Joe Conason's book (titled, of course, It Can Happen Here) on the coming of fascism in the United States—a threat that vanished, apparently, after the peaceful transition from Bush to Obama. And for those keeping score at home, Chris Matthews, in a recent conversation about Sarah Palin on Hardball, told guest Richard Wolffe that "Huey Long wasn't the most sane guy in the world, Richard, but he said that when fascism comes to America, it will call itself anti-fascism." As you might have already guessed, the Long quote is also fake.

It is perhaps straining the obvious, but evidence of "rhetorical extremism" (in the Beckian sense) can't be found in the YouTube rants of Jared Loughner—it can only be classified as rhetorical incoherence—but exists in abundance on the blogs and Twitter feeds of America's ridiculous pundit class. I have written many columns and blog posts about the nonsense one can find on both the Rush Limbaugh show and Glenn Beck program, the heavy-breathing about the specter of Alinskyite communism inhabiting the White House, and the historical illiteracy of many in the Tea Party. And I have written about their analogues on the left—the MSNBC hosts shrieking about fascism, the New York Times columnists invoking the Holocaust and Kristallnacht when bemoaning the Tea Party.

But this debate about the "tone" of American politics is ideologically unidirectional, designed not to elevate debate but to vilify a political enemy. The call for calm—with its frequent invocations of Tea Party "fascism"—is stupid partisan politics dressed up as incoherent moral politics.