The Magazine

A Climate of Slander

From the Scrapbook

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Liberal pundits suffered a psychotic break last week, metaphorically speaking, of course. When a gunman opened fire on Representative -Gabrielle Giffords and a crowd that had gathered to hear her speak in Tucson, they were certain that conservatives must, somehow, be to blame. So the liberal intelligentsia rushed to erect a gallows in the public square (metaphorically speaking, again) and lined up Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, talk radio hosts, and conservatives collectively for summary execution on grounds that they had created a climate of political hatred and rhetorical excess that had incited murder—not to mention conservatives’ general lack of civility and poor manners in debate.

A Climate of Slander

All of this might have been chalked up to hysterical overreaction at a moment of national trauma. But if that were the case, there should have been some sheepish backtracking and apologizing as the week went by. Because the more we learned about the shooter, the more clear it became that he was mentally deranged, with no recognizable ideological grievance, no affiliation with any political organization, and no history of being influenced by any faction except his own inner demons. Instead he had a schizophrenic’s obsession with Giffords that dated back to 2007 (pre-Obama, pre-Palin, pre-Tea Party), when the congresswoman had been unable to answer to his satisfaction an incomprehensible question that he had put to her at a public forum.

Far from provoking second thoughts among the leftist let’s-have-more-civility-dammit lynch mob, these facts on the ground simply caused their logic for blaming the right to become more tortured. Being a card-carrying member of the American right, The Scrapbook was irked and began doing what irked right-wingers do—compiling a list of offenders for purposes of public flogging and keel-hauling (figuratively speaking, it should be needless to add). But here’s the thing. The list got unwieldy. It grew to the length of a Neal Stephenson novel. So we have whittled it down to a trio of award-winning demagogues, all intelligent enough to be held fully responsible for their own twisted prose.

The bronze medal goes to the New Yorker’s George Packer, who offers a variation on the “fake but accurate” theme. (“Fake but accurate” was a New York Times headline describing CBS’s phony 2004 memos about George W. Bush’s service in the Texas National Guard.) Packer begins promisingly: “Judging from his Internet postings, Jared Lee Loughner is a delusional young man.” Indeed, Packer continues, “It would be a kind of relief if Loughner operated not out of any coherent political context but just his own fevered brain.”

“But”—and you knew there was a but coming—“even so, the tragedy wouldn’t change this basic fact: 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. .  .  . The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point. Whatever drove Jared Lee Loughner, America’s political frequencies are full of violent static.”

There is a perverse honesty underlying Packer’s argument, seen in his admission that the facts are irrelevant to the point he intends to pursue. For this concession to reality, he merits only the bronze.

Our silver medal goes to the Atlantic’s James Fallows, Mr. Civic Journalism himself, for his shameless analogizing of Sarah Palin to the JFK-haters of Dallas in 1963—as if 47 years of liberal fantasies about Texas conservatism causing a Castro-sympathizer to kill JFK justified today’s unhinged liberal attacks on Palin!

The political tone of an era can have some bearing on violent events. The Jonestown/Ryan and Fromme/Ford shootings had no detectable source in deeper political disagreements of that era. But the anti-JFK hate-rhetoric in Dallas before his visit was so intense that for decades people debated whether the city was somehow “responsible” for the killing. (Even given that Lee Harvey Oswald was an outlier in all ways.)

That’s the further political ramification here. We don’t know why the Tucson killer did what he did. .  .  . But we know that it has been a time of extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery, including SarahPac’s famous bulls-eye map of 20 Congressional targets to be removed—including Rep. Giffords. It is legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between that tone and actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be.

Thank you, Mr. Fallows, for that dispatch from the Slanderers ’R’ Us wing of American liberalism.

The undisputed gold-medal winner, however, as you may have guessed from the illustration on the previous page, is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. As you can tell by the cover art from the British edition of his book, Krugman is an authority of sorts on what he calls a “climate of hate.” He thinks there was an “upsurge in political hatred after Bill Clinton’s election” that “culminated in the Oklahoma City bombing.” (Oddly, he skips in silence over the years covered by his 2003 book The Great Unravelling.) Then in 2008, he writes, “you could see, just by watching the crowds at McCain-Palin rallies, that it was ready to happen again.” It meaning political murder.

Speaking of 2008, a New Yorker profile of Krugman last March described the party he threw on Election Night that fall for his Princeton colleagues:

“The econ department, the finance department, the Woodrow Wilson school,” [Krugman’s wife Robin] Wells says. “They were all very nervous, so they were grateful we were having the party, because they didn’t want to be alone. We had two or three TVs set up and we had a little portable outside fire pit and we let people throw in an effigy or whatever they wanted to get rid of for the past eight years. One of our Italian colleagues threw in an effigy of Berlusconi. I put out some coloring paper and markers so that people could write stuff on it and throw it into the fire. People really felt like there was stuff they wanted to shed!”

So maybe Krugman isn’t delusional about a “climate of hate.” As they used to say in the non-Prince-tonian precincts where The Scrapbook was reared, “a fox smells its own hole.” ♦

The Weakest Linc

Rhode Island is a small state—-indeed, it’s the smallest in the nation—but when it comes to “colorful” public officials, it holds its own against the giants. There’s ex-Providence mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, fresh out of federal prison. And there’s ex-Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D), Teddy’s son, whose personal demons, comic malapropisms, well-publicized meltdowns, and all-purpose unfitness for public office lent him a certain renown until his recent retirement. The late Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) used to insert funding for extrasensory perception research into defense appropriations—he sought the advice of Uri Geller on Cold War strategy—and then-Senator Lincoln Chafee (R) was so estranged from his party that he wrote in the name of George H.W. Bush, instead of voting for George W. Bush, for president in 2004. 

Alas, The Scrapbook notes with a pang of regret, Chafee—appointed to his seat on the death of his father, veteran senator John Chafee, in 1999—was defeated for reelection in 2006; and his successor, Sheldon Whitehouse (D), while a reliable partisan hack, is decidedly dull by comparison. But there’s good news: Chafee was elected governor of Rhode Island this past fall, running as an independent, and by the standards of historic eccentricity, he’s off to a flying start.

This past week, for example, he announced a blanket ban on state employees and department heads appearing on radio talk shows, the first time any governor of any party in America had issued such a wide-ranging gag order on public officials. 

Talk radio shows, Chafee complained through a spokesman, are “ratings-driven, for-profit” enterprises, and talking to them is a waste of state resources during economic hard times. But of course, what he failed to mention is that radio talk shows, even in Rhode Island, are predominantly (although not exclusively) conservative in tone, and that Chafee has a well-advertised contempt for them. Nor, for that matter, did he forbid state employees to talk to Rhode Island’s dominant newspaper, the Providence Journal, which could accurately be described as a circulation-driven, for-profit enterprise. 

All in all, a curious gesture: an obvious double standard at play, and counterproductive as well. Chafee’s predecessor appeared regularly on local talk shows to publicize his initiatives and answer questions from listeners, and the practice seems to have done him (and the state) no harm. No one would expect Lincoln Chafee to subject himself to everyone in the Ocean State with a microphone, or appear with talk show hosts (such as the aforementioned ex-Mayor Cianci) who are especially antagonistic. But by bumptiously expressing an all-purpose disdain for a popular segment of the media and restricting freedom of speech for thousands of his constituents, Governor Chafee’s tenure shows promise of an entertainment value way out of proportion to Rhode Island’s size. ♦

Anderson Cooper’s Oil Spill

The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, established last May by President Obama, released its final report on January 11. The Scrapbook was pleased to see that tow-headed CNN anchorperson Anderson Cooper, who spent hour after lachrymose hour broadcasting grim news from the Gulf Shore last summer, received special recognition for his efforts. According to the commission:

Journalists encouraged state and local officials and residents to display their anger at the federal response, and offered coverage when they did. Anderson Cooper reportedly asked a Parish President to bring an angry, unemployed offshore oil worker on his show. When the Parish President could not promise the worker would be “angry,” both were disinvited.

A Cooper spokesperson told the New York Post: The claim that journalists “were encouraging residents and state and local leaders to ‘display their anger at the federal response’ is offensive.” Deeply, no doubt. ♦

The Budget’s Too Much with You

With apologies to Wordsworth, a well-known conservative emailed the following sonnet to The Scrapbook “Expressing Concern with Republicans’ Tendency to Revert to a Green-Eyeshade Obsession with Trivial Spending Cuts.” Here’s hoping this will stiffen congressional spines for going after larger game, like entitlement reform.

The budget’s too much with you; late and soon,

Obsessed with spending, you lay waste your powers:

Little we see in ideas that are ours;

You risk squandering your broad mandate, a sordid boon!

Defense cuts that bare our bosom to the moon;

The bold reforms that should be pushed at all hours,

But are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

In this, it worries me, you may be out of tune;

This moves you not.—Great God! I’d rather be

A supply-sider suckled in a creed outworn;

Then might I, sipping my fresh-brewed tea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Jack Kemp rising from the sea;

Or hear old Reagan blow his wreathed horn.

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