“On Extreme Right And Left”

Yes, I used those words to delineate the corrosively caustic and eliminationist rhetoric that can fuel disturbed individuals like Jared Loughner. I did so because it is stupid to deny the vitriol that swamped George W. Bush during and after the recount and then the Iraq war. And there is a defense of heated rhetoric here: what language are you going to use when a president institutes torture or goes to war on empirically false pretenses?

But – and here I return to my recent blog-debate with Pejman – I do believe that the delegitimization and demonization of Barack Obama are in a different league and define the right in ways in which Bush hatred never fully defined the left. George Packer makes an interesting distinction here:

For the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words “treason” and “traitor.” The President isn’t a big-government liberal—he’s a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He’s also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor. Even the reading of the Constitution on the first day of the 112th Congress was conceived as an assault on the legitimacy of the Democratic Administration and Congress.

This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.)

I think that’s right. There are exceptions – congressman Alan Grayson comes instantly to mind; even irony didn’t quite undermine the totality of Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person In The World”; the “Bushitler” stuff was vile, and I said so at the time. But the level of animus toward the new president and anyone supporting him reached preposterous proportions at the beginning of this presidency; the gracelessness from the Congressional leadership on down, from “You lie!” to “death panels” and “palling around with terrorists” … this is a real problem in a country with its fair share of disturbed individuals and much more than its fair share of guns.

The Palin forces, who have fomented this dynamic more viciously and recklessly than any other group, are reacting today with incandescent rage that they could even be mentioned in the same breath as this act of political terrorism. That’s called denial. When you put a politician in literal cross-hairs, when you call her a target, when you celebrate how many targets you have hit, when you go on national television and shoot guns, when you use the language of “lock and load” to describe disagreements over healthcare provision … you are part of the problem.

What we need now is a presidential speech that can affirm the positive aspects of robust debate while drawing a line under the nihilist elements of personal and ideological hatred. But it is clear to me at least that if American politics is to regain its composure, the forces of Palin and what she represents must be defeated. Not appeased or excused for, but defeated in the derelict public square of what’s left of our common discourse.