Occasionally, I make a dreadful life mistake and I read a pundit. I know, disgusting habit. I’m trying to quit, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. (Maybe pundits are lacing their columns with extra nicotine, like Brown and Williamson. Someone should look into that.) And so it was that I read Marc Theissen’s Washington Post column, “America Is On Its Way to Divorce Court“, calling for greater civility toward Republicans who are, at this moment, trying to shred my health insurance so rich people can have more money.
So if you can, disable your gag reflex, and we’ll dive right in.
There is a place for contempt in our public discourse. We should have contempt for a regime in North Korea that brutalized a young American student named Otto Warmbier. We should have contempt for a regime in Syria that uses poison gas to massacre innocent men, women and children. We should have contempt for Islamic State terrorists who behead Americans, burn people alive in cages and systematically rape Yazidi girls.
But we should not have contempt for each other.
Really, Marc? We shouldn’t have contempt for each other? Why not? Do all the others who do nasty things live outside our borders or follow religions that aren’t dominant here? Our current President, just for one, is a serial rapist and con man who ignores crimes committed by our local Nazis. And since those local Nazis are presumably also part of our geographically determined “each other”, we’re not allowed to have contempt for them either?
Yet, we do. Our politics today is descending into a bitter spiral of contempt. And we saw the consequences in the attempted assassination of Republican members of Congress on a baseball field in Alexandria, Va., last week. Back when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in 2011, many on the left were quick to blame conservative political rhetoric — falsely it turned out. But the attack on Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and his colleagues was politically motivated. The assassin volunteered for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), called President Trump a “traitor” on social media and, according to witnesses, asked if the players were Republicans before opening fire.
Well, I suppose it would be unfair to bring up the murder of George Tiller (egged on by the now disgraced and ever disgraceful Bill O’Reilly) or the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal building, both of which involved plenty of right-wing political motivation. But both-sideism is a boring game, so fine, if it makes you feel better, I don’t like politically motivated violence any more than you do, Marc. Not only is it ethically dubious at best, but on a purely practical level, it usually creates more problems than it solves. (See Marcus Brutus–including the version of him in the play that has the Trump people so pissed off.) Barack Obama expressed it well, “However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence.”
See, Marc, the last President covered the only halfway useful message of your column in 138 characters. The Post could have saved column inches by just printing that instead.
No one is responsible except the would-be assassin. But his actions should serve as a wake-up call that the demonization of our fellow Americans who disagree with us has gone too far. The culture of contempt permeating our politics has now had near-fatal consequences. We need to put on the brakes and learn how to distinguish once again between our opponents and our enemies.
Oh, Marc, you’ve only just now noticed that politics in this country can be a lethal business. Oh, diddums. You know who’s known this for a long time? Women and pretty much every ethnic, racial, and sexual minority in this country going back to those whom white people enslaved and those whose land white people stole. To take just one example, here’s how Americans expressed their politics just a grandfather ago.
Notice the guy near bottom left corner grinning. This picture of a lynching was taken in 1930. If you hurry and catch someone in a nursing home before the Senate kills their funding, you might find someone who remembers what this was like. My Dad, a black man in New Orleans during this period, lived with the threat every day, which was why he always made it a point to tell me to be careful every time I went outside.
Many of us have been aware of the difference between opponents and enemies for some time, long enough to know that the difference between them is often so fine as to become invisible.
Case in point: A few weeks before the Alexandria shooting, Hillary Clinton gave a commencement speech at Wellesley College where she declared that Trump’s budget is “an attack of unimaginable cruelty on the most vulnerable among us, the youngest, the oldest, the poorest” (emphasis added). No, it is not. Using nerve agent on the innocent is “an attack of unimaginable cruelty.” Putting a hapless college student into a coma is an “attack of unimaginable cruelty.” Reducing the growth of government spending is not.
I have a pretty dark imagination, so I consider both of these deeds attacks of perfectly imaginable cruelty. But whether you’re killed through government action or through deliberate government neglect (“Reducing the growth of government spending” is French for neglecting the vulnerable), you’re equally dead.
Think for a moment what Clinton was saying: It’s not simply that Democrats and Republicans have an honest disagreement about how best to help the most vulnerable among us. In Clinton’s telling, Republicans are waging war on the vulnerable. That is toxic.
No. We’re not having an honest disagreement at the moment. If we were, Republicans would own up to not really wanting to help the most vulnerable. That would be contemptible on its own, but would have virtue of honesty. Instead, Republicans pretend that $800 billion in Medicaid cuts aren’t cuts, and that health care access and affordable and worthwhile health insurance are the same things. Republicans have been lying about this issue, among others, for years, to promulgate plans that do the opposite of what they’re supposed to do. That’s what’s toxic, Marc. It’s exhausting to be lied to, especially when the lies are meant to cover deliberate harm.
No doubt, Trump has contributed mightily to our descent into the culture of contempt. (For example, the media is not the “enemy of the American people,” Mr. President). But since Trump’s election, the scope and scale of political contempt on the left have reached unprecedented heights. Just a few months ago, when President Barack Obama was in office, it would have been unimaginable for a comedian to proudly pose for a photo holding up the president’s bloody, severed head.
You keep using that word “unimaginable”, Marc. I don’t think it means what you think it means.
That aside, you don’t seem to get that these two things are not equivalent. Kathy Griffin did something in bad taste. (Not that we need taste lectures from the people who elected Donald Trump.) She got her share of shit for it. Done. Trump, by quite stark contrast, isn’t just in bad taste. He was a year ago, but he’s President now. When he declares the press an “enemy of the people”, he’s actually threatening freedom of the press. When he bombards the nation with daily and often hourly doses of lies, it corrodes the trust that citizens and allies have in every pronouncement of our government. The damage Trump can do with a single idiotic tweet is now catastrophic, and it’s hard to live in this country day by day knowing that. That you can live with it so easily says things about you that are less than flattering, Marc.
Worst of all, we are in the process of cementing these attitudes in the next generation. On college campuses, students are being taught that it is acceptable to treat with contempt those with different ideas. We saw this phenomenon on display when Charles Murray — a distinguished conservative scholar — was shouted down and assaulted at Middlebury College in a riot that sent a professor to the hospital. Not a single student suffered any real consequences. Similar incidents are taking place on campuses across the country. Young Americans are learning that people they disagree with are not to be listened to respectfully and debated; they are to be silenced and driven out of the public square.
Again, fine, it’s awful Charles Murray and the professor interviewing him were assaulted. Violence isn’t the answer to Murray. The answer to Murray is to note that his views have already been debunked, repeat the reasons why they’ve been debunked, point out that his “different ideas” function merely to give apparent verbal and statistical solidity to what is purely racist wind, and treat him henceforth the way we’d treat a creationist or a 9/11 truther.
That said, sadly, Charles Murray remains firmly in the public square, receiving far more respect than he deserves. The same is true of Ann Coulter and even Milo Y. As long as there are right-wing audiences who either enjoy what these figures say or love how they piss off liberals, they’ll never lack for a platform or a dinner invitation.
This is not to suggest that there is no role for righteous anger in political discourse. Conservatives felt anger about many of Obama’s policies, and liberals have every right to be angry about Trump’s policies they find objectionable. And they have every right to fight like hell to stop them.
But it wasn’t so long ago that, despite bitter differences over policies, Republicans and Democrats still found ways to work together. President Bill Clinton and Republicans in Congress worked together to pass NAFTA and welfare reform. George W. Bush and congressional Democrats cooperated to pass tax cuts and education reform. Today, that kind of cooperation is unimaginable.
Marc, I’m beginning to suspect you have no imagination at all. Russia sanctions recently passed the U.S. Senate 97-2, so I gather working together across the aisle on the Hill does occasionally happen.
As for the rest, oh, thank you. You’ll allow me to be angry then? That’s right neighborly of you. Are there any other emotions I’m allowed to have, Marc? I’ll be sure to wait until I get word from you before I feel any of them.
And the reason is simple: When anger transforms into contempt, permanent damage takes place. As American Enterprise Institute President Arthur C. Brooks points out, a marriage can recover from anger. But when couples become contemptuous of each other, they will almost certainly end up in divorce court. That is where our country is headed today.
At least we reach the absurd heart of Theissen’s column. Citizenship is not analogous to a marriage. Marriage requires a level of trust and intimacy far beyond that of any other social relationship. All I require of my fellow citizens is that they follow the same laws I do, signal before they change lanes, and refrain from farting in elevators (you fuckers know who you are). I don’t have to trust them beyond that–and don’t, or there’d be no need for laws. If they do shitty, stupid things, I can think they’re shitty, stupid people. If they do shitty things that hurt me, I can be intensely pissed at them. In this, citizenship of a nation less like marriage and more like having a college roommate in the days when colleges didn’t care much who they stuck you in a dorm room with. You try to get along, but in the end, you may be stuck with someone who teaches you, by puking all over your lab notes, the pleasures of solitude. Your goal is to make it through the year without killing each other, and you might make it, but contempt is definitely going to be felt.
Liberals need to understand: When they show contempt for Trump, they are expressing contempt for the millions of Americans who voted for him — including millions who twice voted for Obama. These Americans felt that the establishments of both parties were ignoring them and wanted to send Washington a message. The response they are receiving could not be clearer: We have contempt for the man you elected, and we have contempt for all of you who put him into office. They will never forget it.
We need to pull back from this spiral of contempt before it is too late. North Korea is our enemy. Our fellow Americans who disagree with us are not. It’s time we learn the difference — before someone gets killed.
I know I feel contempt for the millions of Americans who voted for Trump, including those who voted twice for Obama. You’ve got to be a special kind of dipshit to have been an Obama/Trump voter. “I know who I want next: someone who’ll crap on everything the guy I voted for twice did.”
And I won’t forget it either. There are things I consider unforgivable. Voting for Trump is one of them. If you did that, may your hair get cowlicks right before a big job interview. May every peach you eat from this day on be mealy. May you get run over by a Bentley purchased with money that could have gone to your health insurance, you shitty, racist fuck.
Oh, and Marc, not to belabor this, but people have been killed, just not the people you care enough to write columns about. By an extraordinary coincidence, they’re the people Trump, for whom I’m not allowed to feel contempt, declared open season on.
Well, fuck you, Marc. I feel contempt for Trump and for the perpetrators. I consider them my enemy, a deadlier enemy than North Korea is likely to be for me. You don’t, because you’re confident they’re not coming after you and yours. I get that. I have contempt for that too, but I don’t consider it unimaginable. I get it.