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The Politics of Hate

My mother-in-law is quite probably the nicest person in the world. She takes the greatest joys in her friendships, can have deep and interesting conversations with perfect strangers as if they’d known each other for years, is capable of ignoring every flaw you might have and defending you even if you’ve done wrong, and inspires happiness in everyone around her. However, a few months ago, while reading the newspaper and coming across a large picture of President Bush, this gentle and kind woman spat out the following sentence with utmost seriousness and sincerity: “I just want to stab that cocksucker in the face!”

It's hard to argue with such a logical argument
It's hard to argue with such a logical argument
Here in Southern Maryland, a deeply right-leaning area, you can’t seem to keep a campaign sign for McCain/Palin for more than a day or two before some bandit comes along and burns it [1]. Not four blocks from where I live, a burning campaign sign almost started a large-scale fire. And in Prince George’s County, a more left-leaning segment of nearby Maryland, “pandemonium had broken loose” (according to the Washington Post) after a local hotel put a McCain/Palin sign on its front lawn [2].

Of course, it’s not exclusive to Maryland. In South Carolina—close to where my Democrat in-laws reside, by curious coincidence—somebody sprayed the words “Republican means slavery” on the doors to the York County GOP Headquarters [3]. In Portland, Oregon, two guys threw a Molotov cocktail at a McCain/Palin sign and were arrested [4]. In Seattle, Washington, it isn’t uncommon to come across scores of graffiti and bumper stickers suggesting that somebody “ABORT SARAH PALIN.” In New York City, a small but brave pro-McCain rally was met with hostile jeers, middle fingers, and the most vulgar of insults, all of which can now be seen on YouTube [5]. At Cornell University, the conservative newspaper Cornell Review has been the target of student assembly resolutions calling for it to remove the Cornell name because of its unpopular viewpoints [6].

All of this is nothing compared to the kinds of things being said and done against President Bush, the president with both the largest and smallest approval ratings in recent history [7]. It shouldn’t be necessary to include examples of this, as you can easily come across several examples if you ask your friendly neighborhood Democrat what he or she thinks about George W. Bush—I’ll bet you a billion dollars at least one of them will call for violence against the man. Many others will no doubt call him a moron or idiot, despite his degree from Yale or the amount of intelligence required to succeed in becoming president.

Another difficult argument to counter: 'OBOMA SMOKE CRACK!!'
Another difficult argument to counter: "OBOMA SMOKE CRACK!!"
Such virulence isn’t only directed at the right, either. Much publicized shouts of “Terrorist!” “Kill him!” and “Off with his head!” have been heard at Republican campaign rallies after the speaker—be it McCain, Palin, or whomever—mentions Barack Obama [8]. According to the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Paul Krugman, “as McCain’s chances fade, the crowds at his rallies are, by all accounts, increasingly gripped by insane rage” [9]. Vandals destroyed or stole Obama/Biden campaign signs in Parowan and Cedar City, Utah [10]; Obama/Biden signs in several cities—including Albuquerque, NM, Sacramento, CA, and Glendale, CA—were found with swastikas spray-painted on them [11]; and in Orlando, FL, at least sixty city vehicles parked across the street from Orlando City Hall were painted with racially offensive anti-Obama messages including “Obama smokes crack” [12]. By a curious coincidence, my parents—Republicans—live in Orlando.

This kind of rhetoric should be abhorrent to us all, and yet I strongly suspect that many Americans today harbor hatred for somebody else based solely on the basis of their politics. Anybody who attempts to write about politics in a blog, for example, knows how bad it can get. Luckily, though I have lost friends in the past over Internet debates about politics, I have yet to encounter much anger on this site. As my exposure and hit counter slowly grow, however, such an attack is probably inevitable.

Abraham Lincoln: the first, but definitely not the last, president to be compared to a monkey
Abraham Lincoln: the first, but definitely not the last, president to be compared to a monkey
I should also note that this is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, political leaders have been the subject of more scorn and incitement than pretty much anybody, except maybe religious figures and Jews. In America, we have a long and sad legacy of trying to bully each other into a political viewpoint, and we even fought a civil war over such things. President Bush can take comfort in the fact that the great Abraham Lincoln was commonly referred to as “Illinois Ape,” along with being frequently called an “ignoramus,” “fiend,” “buffoon,” and “butcher” [13]. In his day, President Lincoln’s approval rating—had Gallup polls been around back in the mid-nineteenth century—would likely rival Bush’s for lowest ever.

This is not to say that candidates should be immune from personal attack. Every single election year, we are treated to a chorus of people whining about mudslinging, negative campaign tactics, and political bullying. Even I have been trying to avoid it in my “The Candidates 2008” series, because such attacks are seen as underhanded and dirty. They do, however, have a place, because only a fool would judge a person on the basis of what they say rather than what they do.

Take the Lewinsky scandal, for instance. While I firmly believe that President Clinton’s affair had nothing to do with how he was running the country, it definitely says something about the man’s character. I don’t think it’s unfair to judge a man based on the content of his character, and we should be incredibly picky about the characters of the men and women we put in power. This is why, when the McCain camp highlights Obama’s connection to Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers or when the Obama camp highlights McCain’s connections to President Bush, I don’t think either is being unreasonable, though there are certainly distortions that need to be picked through in all three instances.

Intolerance knows no bounds
Intolerance knows no bounds
But how can we consider ourselves civilized if we let ourselves get so carried away with our political opinions that we actually feel hatred towards our fellow man? If you tell me you don’t like Bush’s policy decisions, I have no problem with you, but if you tell me the only reason you’re a Democrat is because you hate President Bush, I think you’re bordering on the pathological. If I had the chance to shake the hand of any president—or even presidential nominee—I wouldn’t hesitate, regardless of the politics of the man (or woman). It wouldn’t matter if it were Richard Nixon (assuming he were still alive), Hillary Clinton, Bob Dole, or Jimmy Carter. When a politician gets that far, I want to believe that he or she truly believes that they are doing what’s right for the country, even if somebody disagrees or if the ultimate results of their actions are disastrous. I think we should all respect that, and not let ourselves devolve into blind hatred and prejudice.

This brings me to the concept of hate speech. Hate speech is a term used to define bad things said about any group of people who are different. In almost every country in the world—including the United States, despite the pretty clear language of the Bill of Rights—hate speech is a concept written into the law. Granted, few would argue that laws against defamation or an incitement to riot are unreasonable, but when you take it to the next level and argue that any words uttered in hatred should be illegal, you have crossed a line. This is why you will not find me arguing that any of the reprehensible rhetoric against the politicians above should be regulated in any way; I just think we can be better than all that.

If I call these guys douchebags, is that considered hate speech?
If I call these guys douchebags, is that considered hate speech?
In a related sense, I have sincere problems with anything resembling the unconstitutional Fairness Doctrine, which purports to force radio and television news outlets into offering a fair and balanced view of political discourse. Many top Democratic leaders—including Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, and John Kerry—support reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, and if the Democratic Party gets a supermajority in Congress along with a Democrat in the White House, nothing can stop them from trying to do it [14]. At the very least, they could successfully force local accountability and public-interest duties on all broadcasters, severely limiting the ease of political discourse. Even if John McCain wins the election, his infamous campaign finance reform bill that attempts to bridle political speech indicates where he stands on this subject.

My point is that objectivity is missing from much of the political debate in this country, and any attempt to force it into existence is foolish at best. Though I have been a bit harder on the Democrats here, I don’t blame them much more than I blame the Republicans or the American people in general. We need to calm down and act like adults, for crying out loud, something we seem incapable of doing as a society. We like to believe we have freedom of speech in this country and the rights to civilized discourse, but it’s sometimes hard to make a point when somebody else is shouting over the top of you, calling you unfair or pitiful for having a different opinion, or threatening to stab you in the face.


-e. magill, 10/20/2008








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