Saturday, January 15, 2011

McCain hearts Palin as victim-in-chief

John McCain's purported graciousness is disingenuous.

In an op-ed in today's Washington Post, McCain praises Obama's speech in Tucson -- then twists it to second Sarah Palin's depraved implication that she is the nation's chief victim of overheated political rhetoric.

According to McCain, "The president appropriately disputed the injurious suggestion that some participants in our political debates were responsible for a depraved man's inhumanity."  That's true, insofar as Obama suggested that we don't know "what thoughts lurked in the dark recesses of a violent mind." It's also true that  Obama upheld the value of "debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future" and recommended that we "challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future," but McCain's pullout is accurate as far as it goes.

McCain moves on to inveigh against character assassination and affirm his own belief in the President's patriotism and fitness to govern. He admits that he has been part of the problem in the past (remember: "he'd rather lose a war than a campaign"?). Then comes the sleight of hand:

Public life has many more privileges than hardships. First among them is the satisfying purpose it gives our lives to make a contribution to the progress of a nation that was conceived to defend the rights and dignity of human beings. It can be a bruising business at times, but in the end its rewards are greater than the injuries sustained to earn them.

That doesn't mean, however, that those injuries are always easy to slough off and bear with perfect equanimity. Political leaders are not and cannot reasonably be expected to be indifferent to the cruelest calumnies aimed at their character. Imagine how it must feel to have watched one week ago the incomprehensible massacre of innocents committed by someone who had lost some essential part of his humanity, to have shared in the heartache for its victims and in the admiration for those who acted heroically to save the lives of others - and to have heard in the coverage of that tragedy voices accusing you of complicity in it.

It does not ask too much of human nature to have the empathy to understand how wrong an injury that is or appreciate how strong a need someone would feel to defend him or herself against such a slur.
So. The primary victim of polarized political discourse is Sarah Palin.  The chief evil caused by "calumnies" is that they make politicians feel bad.

I don't care too much how they feel. Obama can take the heat and the hurt, and so can Palin. What's at issue is the effect that unabashed lying, smears, delegitimization of opponents, and glorification of violence have on our public discourse and on our government's ability to function. One such effect has been to foreclose on possibility of compromise in many cases. Obama pointed this out when he addressed the House Republican retreat in January 2010: "You've given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you've been telling your constituents is, "This guy's doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America." (My apologies to whoever recently cited this; I can't recall where I read it.)

Moreover, by fixating on the imagined injury to Palin, McCain  uses Obama's implicit acknowledgment that it's an overreach to assert that political hate speech caused Loughner's assault to deflect considering the possibility that a rising chorus of hateful rhetoric increases the likelihood of such attacks generally. John Sides, while insisting rightly that such a link has not been proven, points to one recent well-designed study (by Nathan Kalmoe) that indicates such a link. More anecdotally, David Neiwert tallies 18 violent assaults or planned assaults by right-wing and white supremacist vigilantes since July 2008 (he counts 19, but I think he's wrong to include Loughner's). Jonathan Chait, limiting himself to tighter criteria, recounts four recent instances of violence and intimidation directly tied to conservative rhetoric.

These articles and studies are not proof. But most people feel intuitively that when elected officials are habitually cast as traitors, interlopers, enemies of the Constitution, and bent on destroying America, and when a party's leadership refuses to repudiate what McCain calls character assassination, the likelihood of political violence increases

Why does McCain continue to pander to Palin? Perhaps it's to deflect the disgrace of having sicced her on the nation.  It was Palin who accused Obama late in the 2008 campaign of. "palling around with terrorists"--  and never demurred when the crowds she whipped into a frenzy bayed for Obama's blood; Palin who detonated the "death panel" lie  in the healthcare reform debate; Palin who triggered a wave of xenophobia against Muslim Americans with her denunciation of the planned Islamic Center in lower Manhattan.  In two of those cases, her rhetoric was as loaded as in her latest (backfiring) charge of "blood libel" against herself: "death panels" evoke Nazi-like atrocities, and "stab to the heart," the Nazi "stab in the back" libel against citizens of a different religion.

Palin has degraded our discourse, distorted our policy deliberations,and, by refusing to subject herself to interviews or questioning by any journalists who are not unabashedly in her corner, weakened norms that hold politicians to account. We have McCain to thank for her presence on the national stage. This "gracious" op-ed compounds the disservice.

See also
Jared Lee Loughner, "fallenasleep" (1/8)
Loughner, cont.  (1/9)
With malice toward none (1/12)


  1. I find myself both agreeing with every word and wondering how this harsh appraisal of McCain’s op-ed can possibly respect what Obama was asking us to improve and forswear in political discourse. (Also, no mention here that Palin’s name doesn’t actually appear in McCain’s piece.) A more charitable interpretation is that despite the self-pity and the invocation of intolerable insults, perhaps McCain’s heart and mind were actually changed at the Tucson memorial (he was there with Cindy), and that he recognizes that his own vicious, sclerotic, intemperate rhetoric (about DADT and other issues) has been degraded and self-degrading. I’m not holding my breath, but it’s at least possible.

  2. Hal, when I first read your comment, I was going to say that I agree with you about the uncharitableness, because I had the same thought, pushed back several times, while I was writing (and certainly it was sloppy not to acknowledge that McCain never mentioned Palin). Reading the piece cold now, though, I don't regret putting it up. Journalists I really respect were smitten with McCain's "graciousness," and I don't think the response should be left at that. Should we fall down in gratitude because McCain condescends to allow that Obama is a patriot? McCain needs to be called on his bait-and-switch, as the GOP does generally on its asymmetric demonizing of the opposition. And McCain should in any case be forever discredited for inflicting Sarah Palin on us -- particularly when he's moving again to prop her up.

    Am I just rationalizing my rancor? Maybe. But I don't think the critique is exactly uncivil.

  3. In my opinion the critique is not uncivil at all. It is an accurate analysis. For some behaviors there are no charitable descriptions.
    And I believe McCain owes the nation a sincere apology for inflicting Palin on us.