Wednesday, January 12, 2011

And Then Along Comes The Ever-Predictable Charles Krauthammer....

There's not much point in reading a Charles Krauthammer column. He's as repetitive as Richard Cohen and 99% of the time you know what he's going to say by the time you finish reading the headline. Today, of course, is no different. His column is entitled "Massacre, followed by libel" - which is, apparently, the closest he can come to echoing the theme presently being pushed by people like Sarah Palin that anybody who draws a connection between violent rhetoric and violent action is committing "blood libel". (I wonder if Krauthammer will write a column decrying that irresponsible, inflammatory use of language... Sorry, I'm kidding - it's a Republican speaking, so I actually don't.) And that's before you consider that Rep. Giffords is Jewish. Do these people think?

Which brings us back to Krauthammer who, for a smart person, does remarkably little thinking. Which is probably why he so frequently resorts to dishonest, logically flawed arguments. For example, he starts out with the accusation,
The charge: The Tucson massacre is a consequence of the "climate of hate" created by Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Obamacare opponents and sundry other liberal betes noires.
Except that's not the charge. You'll find few examples of anybody with any prominent making anything that resembles the charge. The closest actual example I've seen produced is a blog post to the Huffington Post by Gary Hart, somebody who long ago faded from the popular consciousness. And the criticism is not that people can't engage in free speech, but something that the vast majority of politicians and commentators on both sides of the aisle demonstrate through their conduct - that when you're a prominent leader of an American political party, you should choose your words carefully. You won't find Mitch McConnell bandying about phrases like "blood libel" or using campaign slogans such as "don't retreat, reload", because he knows it's beneath him, that it's bad for the party and that it's bad for the political culture. The debate is about a handful of people who presently are the unofficial opinion leaders or potential political leaders of the Republican Party who think it's really cool to use violent rhetoric, and to give unqualified support to candidates who echo or expand upon their rhetoric.

Let's keep in mind also that the criticism of Palin's rhetoric is anything but new. The angry response of people like Krauthammer and Pat Buchanan didn't emerge when, for example, Rep. Giffords was discussing the break-in at her office, the crosshairs imagery used by Palin, and violent rhetoric.


Where was Krauthammer's over-the-top anger at Giffords for daring to say "...for example we're on Sarah Palin's targeted list. But the thing is, the way she has it depicted has the cross-hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize that there are consequences to that action." If he truly believes that criticism of violent rhetoric merits his present umbrage and the hysterical "blood libel" accusation he appears to echo in more sanitized form, why not then?

Let's imagine that a political leader depicts a set of targeted political seats by depicting them on a map overlaid by rifle crosshairs and setting forth below the specific candidates who are targeted for defeat, accompanied by a "Don't Retreat, Reload!" campaign theme. Now let's imagine that a psychopath, whatever his motivation, goes to a campaign event featuring a politician and starts shooting people including that politician and, when he runs out of bullets he... attempts to reload. And now let's imagine that somebody says, "You know what? Whatever was going through that guy's mind, this is 100% consistent with the violent rhetoric the political leader was using." What part of that is inaccurate?

There are many honest responses to that observation - after all, correlation is not the same thing as causation. Throwing a temper tantrum because somebody made the observation? That not only isn't an honest response, it invokes "The lady doth protest too much."

It's not surprising that Krauthammer chooses to recharacterize the accusation, creating a hollow man that he can more easily refute. He accuses "Paul Krugman, Keith Olbermann, the New York Times, the Tucson sheriff and other rabid partisans" of drawing a direct causal link between the rhetoric of people like Palin and the shooting. Krugman?
It’s true that the shooter in Arizona appears to have been mentally troubled. But that doesn’t mean that his act can or should be treated as an isolated event, having nothing to do with the national climate.

Last spring Politico.com reported on a surge in threats against members of Congress, which were already up by 300 percent. A number of the people making those threats had a history of mental illness — but something about the current state of America has been causing far more disturbed people than before to act out their illness by threatening, or actually engaging in, political violence.
So Krugman believes that we need to look at the actions of Loughner in the context of our society, and consider the huge increase in violent threats against Members of Congress as perhaps the result of violent rhetoric? Krauthammer is free to disagree, but he did not make the accusation that Krauthammer is trying to put into his mouth. Olbermann? He said nothing about causation. The New York Times?
It is facile and mistaken to attribute this particular madman’s act directly to Republicans or Tea Party members. But it is legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats, setting the nation on edge. Many on the right have exploited the arguments of division, reaping political power by demonizing immigrants, or welfare recipients, or bureaucrats. They seem to have persuaded many Americans that the government is not just misguided, but the enemy of the people.
No claim of causation - in fact, the opposite. If Krauthammer wants to defend the described rhetoric of right-wing political leaders on its merits he has the column space to do it - but I'm not expecting he'll try. Hollow men are so much easier to fight. The Sheriff?
"I think it's time as a country that we need to do a little soul searching." Dupnik said. "Because I think it's the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business, and what we see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised. This has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in."
So the Sheriff makes a curmudgeonly statement about how the country has changed since he was a kid, and that the current culture plays a role in incidents of violence like the one at issue, and Krauthammer thinks it's fair to edit out everything but his statement about vitriolic rhetoric? Ah yes, it's Krauthammer. Of course he does.

Predictably, Krauthammer next digresses into the personal history of Loughner and, for a psychiatrist, does a remarkably poor job of discussing mental illness. Krauthammer knows that somebody who is the grips of paranoid psychosis is indiscriminate about where he picks up the elements that feed his beliefs. Assuming Krauthammer's armchair diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia to be correct, you don't have to try to find some form of correlation between Loughner's pre-psychosis political beliefs and his latching onto such notions as the gold standard or violent rhetoric from other sources, because they were consistent with his delusions.

Perhaps also, Krauthammer spends too much time in an echo chamber. Too much time tuning out anybody who dares to disagree with him and listening only to sources that reinforce his pre-existing beliefs. Humans, after all, have that tendency. Perhaps Krauthammer's columns are so banal because he's not trying to do anything but preach to the choir. I admit that I find some amusement in the notion being advanced by a range of right-wing commentators that Loughner could not possibly have been affected by right-wing political statements because he wasn't a right-winger. Believe it or not, if you take the time to listen to the arguments made by well-intentioned people on the other side you'll find that some of them not only have merit, but are persuasive. Yes, sometimes your reflexes kick in and your mind slams shut, but if you can make the effort to prise your mind back open just a little bit you may be surprised.

What's up next? What a surprise, the tu quoque. Take it, Scott Aiken. For all of the effort that Krauthammer and other right-wingers have invested in trying to find examples of left-wing violent rhetoric, they've come up with next to nothing. Nobody but Keith Olbermann has argued that the mention of guns should be drummed out of political discourse. Nobody has disputed that military or martial allegories are commonplace in politics. But as I previously mentioned, there is a line that about 99% of politicians won't cross. If we're honest about it, Palin's rhetoric would quickly exclude her as a potential leader of the Democratic Party. If we're honest about it, so would her lack of qualification. Yet despite some prominent Republicans who have expressed concern in the past about both her qualification and her public manner, she's raking in millions of dollars, is embraced by the Republican party, and is viewed as its possible if not probable presidential nominee. Ouch.

So no, a line about not bringing a knife to a gun fight, or using barely discernible crosshairs in a TV ad about how your opponent has been "targeted" by the Department of Justice for investigation - an ad few in the nation saw from a different election cycle? Not even in the same ballpark as the rhetoric of Palin, or her choice to stand behind Sharon Angle and her suggestion of "Second Amendment solutions" to losses at the ballot box, or the more colorful examples from this election. Shooting a legislative bill - a stack of paper - after talking about "targeting it"? I think it's quite a stretch to suggest that the bill was a stand-in for a person, particularly given that such an interpretation would have the candidate shooting at an allegorical member of his own party. But let's call it equal. Why isn't the left up in arms1 about the accusation? Why is the right so defensive of rhetoric so over-the-top that 99% of its political leaders won't use it - and, as previously mentioned, why take umbrage now when the criticism has been leveled for many months?

As for Krauthammer's closing line? Ad hominem abusive. A fitting way to end a poorly reasoned article.
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1. Sorry, Keith, if that's too much of an allusion to guns.

1 comment:

  1. "The origins of Loughner's delusions are clear: mental illness. What are the origins of Krugman's??"

    Perhaps, one day, Charles will acquaint himself with what it means to be part of the "reality-based community". Funny, how that description was originally offered as right-wing derision.

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