Rhetoric and Perceived Status

by Victor Davis Hanson

The Left in the last 48 hours has tried to make the argument that the Tucson shootings were the result of Tea Party angst, health-care furor, talk radio, opposition to illegal immigration — almost any contemporary hot-button hoi polloi issue or any populist forum. And the more the public refuses to buy any of it, instead seeing Tucson as a madman’s evil attack on the innocent and noble, the more the liberal media seems weirdly intent on promulgating its absurd narrative.

Arguments that the liberal community is less prone to reckless speech, or has far less tolerance for those within it who use violent imagery and language than does the Right, are unconvincing. I don’t remember a Krugman column or a Sen. Patrick Leahy speech on the toxic Nicholson Baker novel, the Gabriel Range Bush assassination docudrama, the Chris Matthews CO2-pellet-in-the-face/blowing-up-of-the-“blimp” comments about Rush Limbaugh, the “I hate George Bush” embarrassment at The New Republic, Michael Moore’s preference for a red-state target on 9/11, or the Hitlerian/brownshirt accusations voiced by the likes of Al Gore, John Glenn, Robert Byrd, George Soros, and so on. So why the disconnect? Politics for sure, but I think also the double standard has something to do with style, venue, and perceived class.

If a progressive imagines killing George Bush in a tony Knopf novel or a Toronto film festival documentary, or rambles on about why he finds his president an object of hatred in a New Republic essay, or muses in the Guardian (cf. Charles Brooker: “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. — where are you now that we need you?”), then we must certainly contextualize that hatred in a way that we do not in the crasser genres of commercial-laden talk radio, or an open-air demonstration placard. The novelist, the film-maker, the high-brow columnist, the professor can all dabble in haute couture calumny (cf. Garrison Keeler’s “brownshirts in pinstripes”); the degree-less, up-from-the-bootstraps Beck, Hannity, or Limbaugh behind a mike cannot. What is at the most atypical, out of character, or in slightly bad taste for the former must be a window into the dark soul of the latter.

So when suave, sophisticated, and cool Barack Obama talks metaphorically of knives, guns, enemies, punishing, kicking ass, relegation to the back seat, get angry, getting in their face, hostage takers, trigger fingers, tearing up, etc. we are supposed to think of it quite differently than George Bush, the swaggering Texan, speaking of “dead or alive,” “smoke ’em out,” or “bring ’em on”— even if, empirically, one might find Obama’s confrontational expressions far more frequent and used far more in a domestic context against American political opponents than Bush’s Texanisms, which were spoken of radical Islamic terrorists.

In short, we are asked to believe that Sarah Palin’s use of crosshair symbols is confirmation that trigger-happy Alaskan yokels cling to their guns and incite violence, whereas sophisticated liberals, with their campaign maps replete with shooting targets on Republican districts are at most “edgy.” If a New England governor with perfect liberal credentials, like Howard Dean, M.D., blurts out, “I hate Republicans and everything they stand for,” we are supposed to see that as the slightly over the top exuberance of a progressive crusader; if a Southern counterpart from the RNC were to say the same thing of Democrats, it would be derided as confirmation of violent red-state hatred and Bull Connor–era venom.

The same relativism applies to comments on race (cf. the Biden/Reid Obama quips of 2008) and a host of other issues. In short, it is not so much what is said, but the assumed class, contextualized intent, and perceived status of the person who says it and the particular genre he employs in doing so.

In such a warped world as we are in, the suggestion that the unhinged Major Hasan drew on the ubiquitous hatred of radical Islamic imams is as irresponsible and scurrilous as it is certain that Sarah Palin fostered Jared Lee Loughner.