October 28, 2003

Angry liberals are the only ones conducting meaningful dialogue

Over the past few months, you may have noticed the right wing's long, pointed finger (which finger is unclear), aimed at "angry liberals"—Howard Dean, Paul Krugman, Al Franken, Joe Conason, Molly Ivins, and others. These liberals seem to have pretty good grounds for being mad about the way things have been going over the past few years.

But the reasons for "liberal anger" are really not all that important. First, it should be obvious why they are mad, and second, because "liberals" are not the only ones angry about Bush Co.'s America.

So what is significant here? It is the fact that the right wing believes there is a story at all in "liberal anger"—that a contingent of the American population could possibly be dissatisfied with rampant unemployment, a disastrous imperialist foreign policy, and social policies seemingly borrowed from the Puritans. Of course, there are other problems, but I wouldn't want to sound like an angry liberal, so I'll just get to the point.

The printed, sometimes published, right wing doesn't think that criticism of the Bush Administration is valid on policy grounds. No, they have a series of different interpretations for making sense of angry liberals. Each explanation, as we shall see, is as disingenuous as it is pernicious, as dirty as it is cynical. And in the end, the message comes across very clearly: the right doesn't want to debate issues anymore because it doesn't think there should be public, political debate. Perhaps the prominent conservative Pat Robertson is the most recent exemplar of this conservative desire to stamp out dissent. Believing that the State Department under President Bush had overstepped its bounds with repeated "anti-American" criticism, Robertson saw a solution in sneaking "a nuclear device inside Foggy Bottom," the D.C. neighborhood housing the State Department.

But Robertson is just the tip of the iceberg. Another criticism of angry liberals comes from the likes of Ann Coulter, herself quite angry. For Coulter, liberal criticism, ill-tempered or not, is actually "treason." And just in case any righties out there think I am taking that word out of context, I refer them to Coulter's latest, and some say greatest, Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism. Other commentators with similar views are Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh.

Other rightist critics believe the left not to be treasonous—that would imply they have accomplished something—but simply mentally unsound. For critics like William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and consultant for Fox News Network, angry liberals like Ted Kennedy are not treasonous but perversely "anti-American." His friend at the Standard, more recently of The New York Times, David Brooks believes, vociferous liberals have "fallen off the cliff" by criticizing President Bush's policies at home and abroad.

All of this does not add up to a "vast right-wing conspiracy," and pace, I have been reductionist in using the terms "right" and "rightist." Yet these various attackers of the left indulge the same logic in their criticism: while avoiding the issues, they use ad hominem tactics to de-legitimize the Krugmans and Deans of American politics. Bandying about critiques of their opponents sanity and morality, these critics on the right attempt to move politics into the very realm that they claim to hate—slander and irrational hatred. Even worse, their hate reaches wide audiences: Coulter's recent book is something of a bestseller, Savage has a popular radio show, and the Kristol/Brooks neo-conservative worldview appears to have a stranglehold on the editors of The Washington Post.

Are there crazies on the left? Surely. Traitors? Maybe. I don't know any, but then again, I don't know that many people. The fact is, the critics on the right are not talking about these yet-unidentified, unstable, "anti-American" leftists.

Nor do they want to do so, and that is the point. These right-wing critics have portrayed legitimate liberal political criticism as a mentally imbalanced, irrational, immoral, "angry liberal" pathogen. Even worse, at the heart of this tactic is the notion that political satire and critical political commentary could only be the result of personal deficiency.

I wish we had legitimate debates about things like fiscal policy, geo-politics, and social issues. Instead, criticism is dismissed as anti-American, unpatriotic, insane, or underhanded. Luckily it isn't all that way, of course—we do not live in Berlusconi's Italy or Putin's Russia. Yet it is telling that the public intellectuals that support the Bush Administration have yet to respond meaningfully to the specific criticisms emanating from their opponents.

At the very least, these rightists have to start realizing that "angry liberals" are, for the most part, the only ones conducting any meaningful dialogue. Then again, maybe these rightist politicos and the officials they support are not used to being on the defensive. Or maybe its recent smear, slander, and vituperation qualifies the right the true "angry" partisans.