by Bruce S. Thornton
You know liberals are edging toward a full Jonestown-style meltdown when someone as smart as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman starts losing it. Last week Friedman worked himself up into a paranoiac frenzy over the tone of some of the criticism Obama and the Democrats have been facing recently.
Riffing off an analogy with the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a nationalist extremist, Friedman links  that crime to the “poisonous political environment that was interpreted by one right-wing Jewish nationalist as a license to kill Rabin — he must have heard, ‘God will be on your side’— and so he did.”
Friedman then notes the parallels with America today, similarities that “turn my stomach: I have no problem with any of the substantive criticism of President Obama from the right or left. But something very dangerous is happening. Criticism from the far right has begun tipping over into delegitimation and creating the same kind of climate here that existed in Israel on the eve of the Rabin assassination.”
The hypocrisy of this complaint, leaving aside the complete falseness of the analogy with Israel, is breathtaking even for the New York Times. First, though, consider the reductive psychological analysis typical of liberals, who see all behavior as the consequence of environmental factors outside the individual, rather than being the result of choice. Like those who see jihadist terrorists as mere reactors to Western crimes against Muslims, Friedman seems to think that Rabin’s assassin was programmed and triggered by heated political rhetoric. It does not occur to him that he could have been a free-agent choosing to act on his fanatical beliefs.
But Friedman’s point has nothing to do with this useless analogy. Rather, he wants the drama of Rabin’s assassination to serve as an emotionally lurid smokescreen for his partisan attempt to “delegitimize” Obama’s critics.
This is where the hypocrisy comes in. Little that we’ve heard so far from Obama’s conservative critics comes close to the vicious slanders and rhetorical violence aimed at George Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and the Republican Party for eight years, the aim of which was precisely the “delegitimation” that’s now got Friedman in a fit. If Friedman needs some reminders of Bush hatred, he can see the recent article in National Review by Jay Nordlinger. Here are some highlights:
- Howard Dean, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee: “I hate the Republican and everything they stand for.” Politics, Dean said, “is a struggle of good and evil. And we’re the good.”
- A New Republic editor wrote an article called, “The Case for Bush Hatred,” which started, “I hate President George. W. Bush.”
- The premier of Michael Moore’s 2004 cinematic agitprop, Fahrenheit 9/11, which accused George Bush of attacking Afghanistan to profit his business friends, was attended by almost the whole Democratic Party establishment.
- The Nazi analogy that these days so troubles the Democrats was a standard trope during Bush’s presidency (remember “Bushitler”?): Democratic Senator John Glen called the Republican campaign rhetoric “the old Hitler business.” Al Gore spoke of “squadrons of digital brownshirts.” Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, said that the Republicans’ “idea of equal rights is the American flag and the Confederate swastika flying side by side.”
Notice, too, that as Nordlinger points out, these comments come from “political and intellectual leaders, not the ordinary rabble, who were far worse.”
I wonder, did Friedman back then fret about whether this “poisonous political environment” could lead to violence against President Bush or further polarize the electorate? After all, many liberals were explicit about their desire to see the President dead:
- CBS talk-show host Craig Kilborn showed Bush on screen with the caption “SNIPERS WANTED.”
- In 2006, in an interview with Bill Maher John Kerry, responding to Maher’s suggestion that he could have gone to New Hampshire and found a gift for his wife and politicked for the primary and so “killed two birds with one stone,” retorted, “Or I could have gone to 1600 Pennsylvania and killed the real bird with one stone.”
- The same year, at the Queens College graduation ceremony, New York comptroller Alan Hevesi said that Democratic Senator Charles Schumer would “put a bullet between the president’s eyes if he could get away with it.”
- In England, novelist Nicholas Baker wrote a novel about killing the President, and a TV movie, Death of a President, was broadcast.
Nordlinger recommends the zombietime.com blog for even more graphic visual evidence of the “poisonous political environment” of the Bush years, one that most liberal commentators either ignored or defended as “robust political speech” or humorous exaggeration.
The problem isn’t the rudeness or vulgarity or even violence of political speech, all of which are typical of democracies with freedom of speech. It’s the rank hypocrisy of liberals like Friedman who attempt to silence speech they don’t like by invoking scary scenarios of assassination. And let’s not forget the racial dimension of this newfound liberal sensitivity. From the beginning of Obama’s campaign, his supporters have attempted to short-circuit robust criticism by raising the specter of assassination by frothing racist, a trick akin to Jimmy Carter’s recent charge that criticism of Obama reflects inveterate American racism.
The truth is, political speech in democracies has been notoriously vicious going all the way back to ancient Rome and Athens, where orators and comic poets alike charged their political enemies with everything from homosexual prostitution and incest, to plundering the treasury and selling out their country to the enemy.
Give ordinary people the power of free speech, and most of the time they will use it without the delicacy or civility affected by elites. A politician who complains about the tone of his fellow citizens’ exercise of their First Amendment right is like a celebrity whining about paparazzi: If you don’t like it, get a different job. But don’t try to impose a double standard the purpose of which is to silence the political speech you don’t like.
©2009 Bruce S. Thornton