Political rhetoric

A really smart friend of mine asked, “For my liberal friends only: when we’re objecting to cross-hairs, should we maybe feel a little bit bad about ‘somewhere in Texas, a village….’?”   The question made me think, as all of her questions do.  So here are my thoughts on four kinds of political rhetoric.

Juvenile name-calling.  Somewhere in Texas . . .; Bu$h; Busshit; Nobama.  Calling Bush or Palin stupid or Obama an elitist, or candidly using the words “socialist” or “fascist” as epithets these days has precisely the substantive content and rhetorical impact as calling someone a poopyhead.  Yes, it cheapens the dialog, but it wasn’t very expensive to start with.  The key effect of language like this — at least on me — is to make me turn the page or click away from the site, confident that I’m not missing anything enlightening or even funny.

Gun-related words.  I’m in favor of generally giving people credit for metaphor.  Crosshairs over congressional districts was at worst bad taste, and probably pretty banal.  I’ve described an opponent’s brief full of silly arguments as a “target-rich environment” and plaintiffs’ lawyers who make silly arguments as “friendly fire” without the remotest connection to an actual firearm.*  Indeed, when Rand Paul came out against the ADA and enthusiastically in favor of the Second Amendment, I joked that he might have arrived at a more efficient remedial process:  access at the point of a gun.  “My friend Glock and I would like you to install a ramp.  Now.”   Again, no intent to replace my Westlaw subscription with a semi-automatic, but I thoroughly enjoyed the mental image.

Of course, actually calling for someone’s death crosses a very important line, and calling for “second amendment remedies” or  explicitly for political violence comes damn close.

De-legitimizing language.  Now, this sort of rhetoric really bugs me.  Throughout the Bush years, there were liberal bloggers who insisted on calling Bush the “Resident” rather than “President,” and  asserting that “he’s not my president.”  These days we have “birthers” — folks who think Obama was not born in the US and therefore not legitimately qualified to hold the office.  Assertions that a president from either party is a tyrant or a dictator may fall into the juvenile category, but they also suggest that he is trying to change our political system, rather than simply implementing policies the speaker disagrees with.  The country thrives when the loyal opposition is both loyal and opposed.  We need people in every administration who believe in the country and its system, but disagree with the current guy’s policies.   Rationally, reasonably, preferably civilly.  Arguing that the president isn’t legitimate is completely unhelpful, whether from the left or right.

Knee-slapping hypocrisy.  People from Alaska criticizing federal spending.  Anyone who supported the Patriot Act complaining about over-regulation.  This type of discourse may be the most pernicious, because it doesn’t go away once we’ve all had a good laugh.  But damn, I love it!  It’s an excellent reminder that, as human beings, we’re all about 97% full of shit, with the differences at the margins.

* However, when I propose to engage in kitchen remodeling using a flame-thrower, I intend to be taken very, very seriously.  I will be exonerated by a jury of my peers.

3 thoughts on “Political rhetoric

  1. Dan

    I like your parsing of political invective, but I’ll add one to-me-overarching idea: words do matter. Even the word “poopyhead” can be delivered with the intent to hurt, and can hit its mark. Likewise, symbols can matter. You can put cross-hairs over someone’s face and claim to be using silly crude symbolism, but these things do mean something. I am always astonished at the ease with which (here I’m leaving the realm of politics and entering my own realm: that of chamber music) people use incredibly insulting words, and because the insulter got these words for free, he or she doesn’t see the hurt that they cause. Politics being really just a worse-sounding version of chamber music, I’d say the same applies. Politicians, commentators, pundits, bloggers, whatever, should be held responsible for their language and their use of symbols.


  2. Jenny

    I understood jabs that Bush was resident rather than president to rest on a critique of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 2000 election. David and I traveled in Tunisia December 2001-January 2002 (in part a reaction to 9/11, in part an on-going obsession with Roman & Byzantine era mosaics–and yes, Tunisia’s been on my mind recently). Many Tunisians expressed understanding and sympathy about what it was like to to have an election stolen… Yes, that’s how the Bush election looked to much of the world. The Supreme Court ruling was part of a political process. In a democracy citizens get to offer critiques of such processes. Can we make a qualitative distinction between such critiques and birther rumors? Call me an academic, but I think so. More importantly, Amy, I’m disappointed that that fine posting was not crowned with a canine photo 🙂


  3. Amy Robertson Post author

    @ Dan – I agree that words matter, though I suspect I have a pretty thick skin from all the italicized crap we take in opposing briefs. I guess just personally I have to apportion my outrage or it takes over my brain. Saying things like “second amendment remedies” seems worthy of outrage; using generic shooting metaphors does not. Unless I’m more offensive than I think — a distinct possibility — with my access-at-the-point-of-a-semi-auto joke. And please tell me the asshole rate in chamber music is lower than in law!!

    @ Jenny – Totally agree that Bush v. Gore is substantive where the birther crap isn’t, that is, you can have a rational discussion about whether Bush in fact won the 2000 election but not about whether Obama was born in the US. That said, Bush was our president. Continuing to deny that in unrelated arguments (using stupid word games) was at the very least in the poopyhead category, and to me undermined the legitimacy of the guy who, like it or not, was leading our country for 8 years.

    Dog photo coming up!



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