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Tilting at Windmills

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January 11, 2011

FALSE EQUIVALENCY WATCH, CONT'D.... Following up on an item from yesterday, the drive continues to insist that "both sides" are equally to blame for rhetorical excesses and the toxicity of our discourse. Ross Douthat offers the latest evidence, arguing, "If overheated rhetoric and martial imagery really led inexorably to murder, then both parties would belong in the dock."

This isn't surprising, given that the media establishment appears obligated to always blame "both sides" for everything at all times. But as Paul Krugman reminded folks, "Where's that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let's not make a false pretense of balance: it's coming, overwhelmingly, from the right."

George Packer makes a related point today.

[T]here is no balance -- none whatsoever. Only one side has made the rhetoric of armed revolt against an oppressive tyranny the guiding spirit of its grassroots movement and its midterm campaign. Only one side routinely invokes the Second Amendment as a form of swagger and intimidation, not-so-coyly conflating rights with threats. Only one side's activists bring guns to democratic political gatherings. Only one side has a popular national TV host who uses his platform to indoctrinate viewers in the conviction that the President is an alien, totalitarian menace to the country. Only one side fills the AM waves with rage and incendiary falsehoods. Only one side has an iconic leader, with a devoted grassroots following, who can't stop using violent imagery and dividing her countrymen into us and them, real and fake. Any sentient American knows which side that is; to argue otherwise is disingenuous.

I have a hard time understanding how and why anyone would disagree with this. If political observers are being grown-ups about the discourse, this is obviously true.

But what's especially interesting in the wake of Saturday's events in Tucson is that much of the right is implicitly acknowledging the problem within its ranks. As Kevin Drum explained, "I don't really blame conservatives for being upset at liberals trying pin the blame for the Giffords shooting on them, but the furious defensiveness of their counterattack says all that needs to be said about how uncomfortable they are with their own recent history."

Exactly. At a certain level, conservatives are aware of the fact that they've been going too far for too long, and they seem quite concerned this week that the light will shine on them in a very unflattering way. It's why they're not only making ridiculous efforts to paint Jared Lee Loughner as some kind of liberal, they're also hoping to avoid the entire conversation about rhetorical excesses in the political discourse altogether.

On Sunday, for example, when asked about Sarah Palin's crosshairs, Senate GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) concluded on CNN, "I think the way to get away from it is for you not to be talking about it." For her part, Palin has practically been in hiding the past few days.

It's as if a deliberate strategy that paid electoral dividends but hurt the country is catching up with the right, all at once. It's likely the right has a justifiable fear: that the public will pause to look at a bigger picture -- of the mainstreaming of Republican extremism, of violence-related campaign rhetoric, of hate-talk in GOP media -- and see just how ugly it is.

But if they're looking for a coherent defense, "both sides" isn't going to cut it. In Democratic circles, liberal extremists can't get any establishment attention at all. Members of Congress won't return their phone calls or even be seen in public with them. On the right, however, there's practically nothing a right-wing extremist can say or do to be exiled from polite company.*

There's a clear and impermeable line between the progressive mainstream and the left fringe. The line between the Republican Party/conservative movement and the far-right fringe barely exists. Whereas Dems kept the fringe at arm's length, Republicans embrace the fringe with both arms.

Both sides have nutjobs; only one side thinks their nutjobs are sane.

* edited for clarity

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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For the record, I count myself among the "Diebold folks."

That said, Steve nailed it.

Posted by: Chris on January 11, 2011 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

Yesterday I was arguing with a conservative friend of mine about this issue and he also said that liberals are more violent than conservatives with respect to their speech. I asked him to name some examples of a conservative politician or figure who has been personally attacked or had their property damaged as a result of this violent leftist speech and he could not name a single instance. And do you know why? Because the mainstream media doesn't report when conservatives are attacked, so he can't know about them. You can't debate these people because there are hiccups in their logic and an inability to accept basic foundations of rationality.

Posted by: Steve on January 11, 2011 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

How many times was Dr. Tiller the subject of Fox news/commentators before his death? I hold them responsible for the constant drumbeat of fear until something really bad happens.

Posted by: ML on January 11, 2011 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

The majority of examples of "liberal excess" that are cited are comments left anonymously at blog sites. The "conservative excess" comes from people with real influence and wide public platforms. This is hardly equivalent.

Posted by: Tired Liberal on January 11, 2011 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

Most people don't keep a running ledger of radical conservative talking points in their heads. If the public eventually holds conservatives accountable for their language it will only happen because the MSM abandons the artificial 'he-said, she-said' reporting so common at the moment.

Look at the results of our public debate on deficits. Despite their legislative history, most polls suggest the public trusts Republicans far more than Democrats to reduce the deficit. It is clear that, facts be damned, the MSM has no interest in making sure that public debate reflects objective reality.

Posted by: sven on January 11, 2011 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

Firstly, in response to this: "If political observers are being grown-ups about the discourse..." They're not. On to the next thing.

Why has the right's rhetoric gotten so overheated? Because it's all they have. The huge gap between their words and their actions has never been more obvious than in the current discussion of the deficit. They've got to shout loudly about how much they hate the deficit, so that it's harder to notice that their policies increase the deficit. They must keep their followers super-emotional, lest they start to think. They must make Liberals into demons because more Liberal policies make sense. Above all, they must attack every single non-right-wing idea, so that no one starts to believe that it's okay to make decisions on a non-idealogical basis.

Posted by: Qalice on January 11, 2011 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

Bringing guns to a public meeting in a "healthy" democracy is oxymoronic!

What side of the isle defended the bringing of guns to public meetings?

Hatefully shouting down a duly elected representative at a town hall meeting is undemocratic.

What side of the isle excused such behavior?

Rhetoric of death and destruction.

What side of the isle actively used such rhetoric?

Intimidating placards displayed in public equating our "healthy" democracy as teetering on the brink of communism and a hostile take-over of our beloved nation by a Kenyan born interloper.

What side of the isle did not stand couragously against such anti-democratic temperments?

There is no justifiable equivalency, and anyone who would call themselves "reporter" would do well to stay away from such falseness!

Could it be that the false equivalency is being promoted by members of the media who fear for their own lives should they begin the truthful national debate of where the imagery of hate and violence originate, and whether or not it is actually healthy for our nation's effort to solve problems as we move into our future?

Could be! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on January 11, 2011 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

The "both sides do it" justification is for children.

I learned in the second grade that that bullshit ain't cutting it.

The teabaggers need to grow up. It's the same fucked up behavior as them throwing a tantrum every time they lose an election.

Posted by: jharp on January 11, 2011 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

In the past couple of days I've run across right-wing commentors citing a DailyKOS piece from months ago that alledgedly depicted crosshairs on a representation of Giffords and a headline indicating that, according to the piece's author, "Giffords is dead to me" due to her vote on something.

Is this true? I certainly hope not. While I'd consider it another false equivalency, I've no doubt that Republicans would use it for ammunition. I know I should consider the source, but I'd just like a little more information so I can keep those comments at bay. Does anyone here know anything about this? Thank you.

Posted by: chrenson on January 11, 2011 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

"It's as if a deliberate strategy that paid electoral dividends but hurt the country is catching up with the right, all at once."

Many expected this would have been the description of reality in the wake of the financial meltdown - resulting from right wing policies that paid electoral dividends but destroyed the economy and the Federal government's fiscal well being- and that it would drive a full throttle return to the center left in national economic policy. We all know that necessary 'adjustment' was forshortened and made inadequate by the right's well funded counter-attack: 'the government made me do it'!

let's see what happens this time as deployment of the counter attack begins.

Posted by: robert on January 11, 2011 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

Why has the rhetoric gotten so overheated?

Do you think that we of the wealthy wing of the republican party are f*cking idiots? We know that emotional appeals are our best tools. We sure as hell don't want to allow any unemotional discussions about policy; if our low information voter based was allowed to think (if they could) about the effect of our policies we would be sunk.

Posted by: RepublicanPointOfView on January 11, 2011 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

"Both sides have nutjobs; only one side thinks their nutjobs are sane."

I think that I am sane. Sort of... See, both sides do it.

I would add... "Both sides have nutjobs; only one side calls their nutjobs leaders."

Posted by: SadOldVet on January 11, 2011 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

The other part of the story that hasn't been discussed is the violent language in blog comments. (Not talking about here.)

I live in Chicago and see too many comments advocating violence in the local papers. Just last week I saw a comment saying that a politician needed a bullet through the ears. The amazing thing is in the past, newspapers wouldn't print this type of "letter to the editor" but now they seldom do anything. In this case, it was in a feature that didn't even allow me to report it.

Posted by: Objective Dem on January 11, 2011 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

Never mind. Found it.

Posted by: chrenson on January 11, 2011 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

I think the point that the Righ's policies keep failing and that causes them to fall back on violent fearmongering is pretty on the point.

Posted by: Lance on January 11, 2011 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

The "she's dead to me guy" was actually a big fan of Giffords', worked on her campaign and was very disappointed in her voting against Nancy Pelosi for Minority leader. After the shooting he was horrified and distraught, and wrote a follow-up about how he'd never meant her any harm, he was just disappointed in her vote, and very much regretted an intemperate remark. And he didn't wish her dead, he meant it in the way a Jewish mother means "I'm not talking to her." And this is an anonymous blogger, not somebody with a cable show.
I think the telling thing in the right's response is that any time anyone says we need to dial down the rhetoric, the right complains about partisan criticism. If they really thought both sides were doing it, saying everyone needs to tone it down isn't partisan. It's only partisan because they know they are the only ones doing it.

Posted by: gretchen on January 11, 2011 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

That "Both sides do it!" meme will not go away.
They have to say that:

For the Republican politicians, if they admit to violent rhetoric, it's an admission of guilt, and the consequences rest on their shoulders. They should not be allowed to run for office again.

For the MSM, it means that they have not been doing their job's, not looking at the situation properly, and they look like fools at best, enablers at worst. Which means they do not deserve to keep their high-paying jobs.

So, the cry of "BOTH SIDES DO IT!!!" will continue.
There's too much at stake for them not to.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on January 11, 2011 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

There is an elephant in the room that I have not seen discussed: Does the Bush administration's rhetoric drumming up the Iraq war count as incitement to violence? Remember the "smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud" talking point? Not to mention the famous "sixteen words": "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." There are also the matters of the way the administration's message lead to the conflation of Saddam Hussein with 9-11, "Bring 'em on...", "This is a Crusade of good against evil." etc.

It seems to me that unless the issue of war propaganda based on hyperbole, mistruths -or outright lies- is at least discussed, this entire debate seems feckless and will be typically fruitless.

Posted by: Philip Heying on January 11, 2011 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

In addition to the false equivalence, I think it's important to point out Douthat's deliberate expansion of what he pretends people are saying is objectionable to create a straw man that encompasses "both sides," much like the "civility" arguments which attempt to remove the difference between someone cussing on a blog and a congressman heckling the president. We're likely to see a lot more of this as the right tries to dismiss any legitimate criticism.

Douthat talks about "overheated rhetoric and martial imagery," which is emphatically not what the complaints are about, and he probably knows it. Political rhetoric has always been "overheated" at times because people are passionate about politics, and no one honestly believes that "martial imagery" such as "campaign" and "troops" is a call to violence.

The criticisms are of violent imagery and language, directed at actual candidates and officials. They are of eliminationist rhetoric that describes political opponents as less than human, or as creatures to be hunted, and apocalyptic rhetoric declaring that a political party or elected official is bent on destroying or betraying the country.

And anyone who pretends that these objections are instead calling for a broad ban on anyone being mean in politics are in fact endorsing the continuation of that sort of rhetoric.

Posted by: Redshift on January 11, 2011 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK


1. a small island.
2. any island.


1. a walkway between or along sections of seats in a theater, classroom, or the like.

Posted by: emjayay on January 11, 2011 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

@chrenson, I read that yesterday also and don't know if it's true or not. I tried to find out more thru googling but couldn't. Does anyone have the facts on this one?
I do know that West Virginia's guv Joe Manchin used a tacky and ugly commercial firing a gun using the Cap & Trade bill as a target. To me that sent a very violent message too. But that is the only Dem example for which I could cite.

Posted by: whichwitch on January 11, 2011 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

Thank you, Gretchen. That was most helpful.

It's interesting to compare the remorse expressed by Slate's BlueBoy over his intemperate remark to the lurching "you people are crazy to think those were crosshairs" response form the Palin camp.

Posted by: chrenson on January 11, 2011 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

Chrenson, no, it's not true that DailyKos published a map with crosshairs on Giffords and others. There was a map, but no crosshairs. The crosshairs have been photoshopped in by conservatives since the Giffords shooting.

The "Giffords is dead to me" was a separate piece, a diary entry by an anonymous site member. The other key thing is that " 'So-and-so' is dead to me" is not something you say when you're threatening to kill someone. It's what you say when you're cutting someone out of your will, or disowning your children.

It's just more of the over-heated defensiveness and false equivalency that the the right wing has been indulging in since Saturday.

Posted by: Lis on January 11, 2011 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

The right isn't punching back on this because they have a guilty conscience. They just really like throwing punches,

Posted by: Anon on January 11, 2011 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

WhichWitch: I found Slate's response "Manufacturing false equivalencies in the wake of the Giffords assassination attempt right after my first post. It's a good read and explains what happened. Gretchen's comment above is also quite helpful.

Posted by: chrenson on January 11, 2011 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

Lis: Thank you. More good information!

Posted by: chrenson on January 11, 2011 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

It's called riding the tiger. Sooner or later, the extremists on the right will notice that their new congressmen have not stopped the sun in its path, much less reversed its course. They will notice that the gold they were exhorted to buy is worth a fraction of what they paid for it. They will see that they have been lied to repeatedly.
Now would be a good time for some people to start walking back the violent rhetoric. Or to start investing in personal security.

Posted by: Steve Paradis on January 11, 2011 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

Thank you all. That was a good read and what I thought was probably behind it.

Manchin's commercial irked me because, although not using a human target, he equated violence as a way of disapproval - to me anyway. But tis instance in no way deserves the "both sides do it equally" moniker.

Posted by: whichwitch on January 11, 2011 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

There's a reason why the Republicans did so well in November. The american public likes what they're selling.

Sad but true, and apparently, the majority does not think this violent poison had anything to do with Saturday's shootings.

The american people are getting exactly what they want.


Posted by: SaintZak on January 11, 2011 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

Which side of the political fence is continually threatening the other with violence?

It's the right-wingers. They use the rhetoric that guns are for defense, but that's only true for people working for the government. Anyone else who carries a gun does so because he he afraid, angry at someone else, or insane.

Why do I exempt people with the government? Because the first function of a government is always to maintain social stability and the government must maintain a monopoly on the legitimate right to use violence to maintain social stability.

Notice that social stability was NOT maintained in the parking lot of Safeway. There were people there with legal concealed weapons, but the shooting started and was over in less than 15 seconds. Untrained carriers of so-called defensive firearms got to show up in time to see the blood and bodies on the ground. The violence was ended by unarmed civilians before the gun-carriers even realized there was a problem.

The only reason anyone other than a licensed peace officer carries a firearm in a crowd is as a symbolic threat to perform violence ("I'm a bad-ass! Fear me!" or "Better cater to my whims! "I'm armed!" or "You can't threaten me! I'm armed and dangerous!") or in preparation of a terrorist action. The weapon is always a symbol of violence and intimidation.

It is the right-wing that does the threatening. There is no equivalence on the left.

Posted by: Rick B on January 11, 2011 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

Check out Michelle Malkin's "list" of liberal violent rhetoric. It is classic conservative overkill. People begin reading it, their eyes glaze over and they are convinced by the sheer volume of "evidence". People are also convinced by the level of "research".


Posted by: vickijean on January 11, 2011 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

The almost hysterical effort by the far right to point out the uncivilized tenor of our political debate, and to search desperately for examples of this on the left while backing away from their own torch and pitchfork mob, speaks volumes. Just as in Iraq, they are discovering if they break it, they own it.

This sentence in the article defines their real problem: "There's a clear and impermeable line between the progressive mainstream and the left fringe. The line between the Republican Party/conservative movement and the far-right fringe barely exists."

Posted by: max on January 11, 2011 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

"Both sides have nutjobs; only one side thinks their nutjobs are sane."

And only one side routinely runs those same nutjobs for higher state or national office. I think that says a lot, myself.


Posted by: Ed Drone on January 11, 2011 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

Successful political tactics are copied. If something keeps working, pretty soon both sides do it. So, the equivalence argument is not true now, if we don't do something about the rights successful use of what is essentially domestic terrorism, real equivalence will emerge. Much of what is good about our nation will not survive it.

Posted by: Eric on January 11, 2011 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

Violent rhetoric is all the Right has got left. Eight horrendous economic years under Shrub, Iraq, torture - everything they have touched has turned to crap. The thread that connects all this togther is their generation of fear amongst the USA population in an effort to get their own way.

The RNC use of the Tea Party for political gain in the last elections is all they have left and is already starting to come back to bite them. I got used to watching the Dems tie themselves up in knots so its kind of nice to see the otherside do it for a change.

Posted by: just guessing on January 11, 2011 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know who these oxymoronic ''liberal extremists'' are. I've never met one. They just don't exist. My comrades and I are radical democratic socialists who are usually contemptuous of liberal Democrats, although we occasionally vote for them because their Republican opponents are just too vile or ignorant to be given power, and we do not have candidates of our own. We are indeed on the political ''fringe'', although it is no fault of our own; our proposals and programs are regularly rejected by the brainwashed American voters until such time that they are diluted and homogenized by the Democratic Party and presented as ''liberal.'' The history of the true American Left is that of co-option and compromise. The so-called liberal agenda rests on the foundations of the radical left, and people are either ignorant or forgetful of that truth. There is, I admit, a left and right wing of what could accurately be called the Capitalist Party; but you liberals call us ''lunatic'' at the risk of appearing foolish...

Look closely at whose shoulders you are standing on.

Posted by: buddy66 on January 11, 2011 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

Something occurred to me this morning that I'd like to throw out for discussion. One of the more sane, less crazy, Republicans said not too long ago that the republican party thought it owned Fox and then found that Fox owned them. Now Fox thinks it owns the unhinged branch (look at all the unhinged ones who are on the Fox payroll) of the political tree, but what happens when it becomes obvious that they own Fox?

I keep seeing references to pre WWII Germany, but what if we're looking at prerevolution France instead with the wealthy elite playing the part of the nobility? Remember what happened to the original leaders when they werén't deemed extreme enough by their followers. What happens when the people who started this whole business are on the receiving end of what they created?

Posted by: Texas Aggie on January 11, 2011 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

The 'he did it too' defense is one we all know from childhood. It's fun to watch it this time around. However, I think it has an air of desperation this time because the Right knows that if they don't pull it off, they will be branded in the public mind as purveyors of violence. They will get the wrap that the Democrats got back in the '60's as the party associated with race violence (cities burning every summer)and anti-war extremism (Bill Ayers) and they will suffer the same fate-driven from power for a generation. Sarah Palin will be their Jane Fonda.

Posted by: Seould on January 11, 2011 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

The United States was big lied into unleashing war upon Iraq in 2003. Both parties remain complicit in that atrocity; for purposes of public consumption, both reached agreement that "bad intelligence and faulty judgement" lay at the root of the treason.

The chickens are coming home to roost. American sowed the wind, and have just begun to reap the whirlwind.

Posted by: JW on January 11, 2011 at 5:17 PM | PERMALINK

There's a bit of irony about the crosshairs that I haven't seen any comments on. Maybe the slogan ought to be changed from "Don't retreat, reload", to "make any remotely plausible excuse".

Posted by: yeoman on January 11, 2011 at 5:25 PM | PERMALINK

The irony is that Ross is one of the good ones in that he rarely engages in the kind of character assassination routinely employed by far too many mainstream conservatives. He's not going to be writing about liberal fascism or Obama's Kenyan anti-colonialism or radical secular socialism.

But, despite being one of the very few good ones, he still feels the need to defend his extremist fellow-travelers. He seems to believe that he could have no credibility with conservatives if said what he really thinks - or, more accurately, what any decent person would think - and drew a bright line between himself and the Limbaughs, Becks and Palins. He may be right, but if so, it makes me wonder why he allies himself with a movement he knows is full of indecent, hateful people.

Posted by: Geoff G on January 11, 2011 at 5:36 PM | PERMALINK

There is an easy way to end this type of overheated violent inducing rhetoric. The perpetrator of the crime, if his/her writings refer to certain sources, the publishers of those manifestos and comments should be put on trial for inciting violence. If some on the left get caught up in something (as the right so often tries to create a false equivalence) then so be it.

Right now the debate should be on why this crazy man, even though known to be crazy, told to seek professional help, kicked out of school because of his mental health issues, did not get the help he needed. I found it prescient that Boehner postponed the repeal of the healthcare law this week. He is scared spitless that this issue will shine a light on why the bill is needed. We need to hammer that nail at every chance.

Posted by: Always Hopeful on January 11, 2011 at 6:33 PM | PERMALINK

As if the very symbolism of the name "Tea Party" isn't the genesis of an armed revolution against government!

The strategy of projection (accusing the other side of whatever you're doing) works splendidly as long as you're on the offense, and are first to make the accusation. But, it fails as a defensive strategy. It comes out exactly as the childish, "He did it too!"

Obviously, projection is the only strategy they've got. It's exactly what they're still doing. And they'll keep doing it. As long as they keep at projecting the hate and incitement of violence on to the left long enough, it will re-emerge as a successful strategy.

I'd like to remind everyone that Loughner is still alive. He will be brought to court. A lot of things will come out. The details of his life, whether he perks up more hearing Beck or Olbermann while behind bars, will eventually come out. You know darned well they've tested him for drugs; if he was smoking pot, that would likely already have been leaked, but it will eventually get leaked either way. I think his trial will come down almost exactly like McVeigh's did, with him, in the end, presenting his "evidence." This will happen during the presidential election campaign. Be prepared.

I think the best thing the left could do is say, "Yeah, you're right, we're jumping to conclusions. Let's wait until Loughner's trial and see what really comes out."

Then, fall silent on the 'Loughner trigger' issue, and go back to focusing on financial and social welfare issues. But silently and meticulously keep score of the "He's a liberal" accusations, and more importantly keeping track of all the verbal, textual, and image-based incitement they do. It won't be easy, for the very reason we've let Rush/Beck/Palin blather just float by already: There's so much of it, it just gets really tiring trying to track it all, let alone debunk it all.

Now, there's a good reason to at least keep count, even if there's little effort at debunking. Yeah, it'll take effort and a really big database, but... having the "scorebox" data to present later will likely be well worth it.

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