Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Rally for Sanity, False Equivalency and the Affronted Left

I loved the Daily Show's Rally to Restore Sanity (my girlfriend and I went to it on the Huffington buses, although unfortunately the bus took so long we were only there for the last 45 minutes and couldn't get anywhere close to the rally itself). The concept was simple: public debate has become nothing but name calling, insults and lies, and we should all stop it. We should make nice.

In a world where everyone is accused of being Hitler, that seemed like a good idea.

Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann disagreed, at least in part. They both objected to lumping left-wing pundits with right wing ones.

Maher said:

“The message of the rally, as I heard it, was that, if the media stopped giving voice to the crazies on both sides, then maybe we could restore sanity. It was all nonpartisan and urged cooperation with the moderates on the other side forgetting that Obama tried that and found out…there are no moderates on the other side. When Jon announced his rally, he said the national conversation was dominated by people on the Right who believe Obama’s a Socialist and people on the Left who believe 9/11’s an inside job, but I can’t name any Democratic leaders who think 9/11’s an inside job. But Republican leaders who think Obama’s a Socialist…all of them.”
I couldn't find a transcript of Olbermann's discussion of the Rally, which you can find on youtube, but he and his guest Jonathon Alter discussed the fact that MSNBC prioritizes facts and journalism over opinion and political agenda, whereas FOX "News" does exactly the opposite, and functions more as a propaganda tool than as a news station. He also said the hard right is not going to start acting more reasonable just because the hard left lowers its rhetoric.

Those are good points, and if Jon Stewart really does have, as he mockingly promised on The Daily Show, a "Rally To Determine Precisely The Percentage Of Blame To Be Doled Out To The Left And The Right For Our Problems Because We All Know That The Only Thing That Matters Is That The Other Guys Are Worse Than We Are And/Or Fear," well, the right, particularly in the case of FOX, will be apportioned more of the blame.

It's true. In a tit-for-tat comparison, James O'Keefe (the miscreant who took down ACORN) plays with the truth more egregiously than Michael Moore, and Sarah Palin makes up more absurd lies than anyone on the left outside of 9/11 conspiracy nuts, who, as Maher points out, are not a part of the left-wing mainstream in the way birthers are a substantial part of the right. On FactCheck.org you will find flat-out lies come more from the right, while the left's attacks are more likely to be just misleading or unproven (although the worst campaign ads of the season were the inexcusably sleazy commercials of Alan Grayson).

Yet, I don't think it's good enough to say, "why are you bitching us out, the other side is way worse."

"We're better than them" is a common excuse. In the 20th century, Communists throughout the world excused the bad behavior of Russia and China's because they claimed America was worse. Meanwhile, American's would answer any accusation of U.S. governmental oppression by saying, we're much better than Russia. You can always say, "I won't let gay people marry, but I least I don't want them executed" or, "I don't think women are as capable of men, but I wouldn't prevent them from voting," and point at the people who would do those worse things, but that doesn't mean you're right. It just means you're less wrong.

The truth is, both sides are full of hypocrites. I expect it from the right, because they lie so casually that it is just who they are at this point, but I don't want it on the left, because I want the left to take the moral high ground.

Olbermann, alas, often wallows in the same hypocritical mud as the Republicans (I can't speak too much to Maher, because I never watch him - I always found him facile and annoying). I remember a few years ago when the right wingers were complaining about some inflammatory comment on a left-wing site, and Olbermann made the very reasonable point that the site had no control over what people chose to post on their forums. Then, a year or two later, a right winger posted something inflammatory on a right-wing site, and Olbermann immediately jumped on that site, seemingly oblivious to the role reversal.

I am often bothered by the left. It bothers me the way Nancy Pelosi relies on meaningless talking points as much as anyone on the right (I think Joe Biden has the reputation of putting his foot in his mouth primarily because he is not afraid to say what he thinks, unlike most politicians). It bothers me when the left attacks free speech. As I pointed out before, you can't laud Lenny Bruce and then damn Don Imus, because they both said equally provocative and inappropriate things. It really bugged me when the left mercilessly went after beauty pageant contestant Carrie Prejean for saying she disapproved of gay marriage, both because people do have a right to their opinions and because, well, she was a really insignificant celebrity whose opinion was not remotely influential. It didn't matter what she thought, but she was attacked for months for what had been a fairly mild statement.

Yes, it's terrible when people are racist, sexist, homophobic or anything like that, but it's actually their right. People are entitled to believe what they believe. If you insist other people cannot express their opinions, you give other people the right to insist you keep your opinions to yourself.

I constantly have to watch out for my own hypocritical tendencies. For example, a while back someone created a dumb joke group on Facebook that basically encouraged God to kill Barack Obama. I learned about it when I got an invite to sign a petition demanding the group be deleted. And at first I thought, I should sign that. And then I thought, what would I think if this "kill Obama group" was a "kill Sarah Palin" group or a "kill George W. Bush" group? Would I sign a petition insisting Facebook delete the offending group? Hell no. I might not go so far as to join it, but I certainly wouldn't mind it.

In fact, in the 1980s, I wrote a song about how, if it weren't illegal, I would write a song encouraging people to kill Ronald Reagan. It was one of my most popular songs in the left-wing folk circuit I was a part of. I thought it was terrible to make a joke about killing Obama not because I had a problem with people making jokes about killing presidents but because I had a problem with people making that joke about a president I liked. But even though I think the people who joined that Facebook group (who vastly outnumbered all those who had joined any group suggesting we harm George W. Bush - the right is really far more savage than the left) are probably all idiots who believed Obama is a socialist Muslim ready to institute death panels, they have a right to believe that. People should use their free speech rights to counter these beliefs and educate people as best they can, but they should not criticize behavior on the right that they wouldn't think twice about were it coming from the left.

And that is why I like Jon Stewart; he believes in non-partisan civility. I often compared Bush Jr. with Hitler, and yet, he didn't gas a single Jew. I have tossed out words like "fascist" far too casually, and I think it's great that there is a national figure who is pointing out that "only Hitler is Hitler."

Is MSNBC as bad as FOX? Of course not. And even though Olbermann objected to being compared with Glen Beck, he did, in honor of being less provocative, suspend his Worst Person in the World segment. Olbermann also once apologized for an over-the-top attack on a Republican after being called on it by Stewart, even playing Stewart's entire Olbermann parody on Countdown. Would Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly do that? I don't think so. And if all Olbermann wants is to be a better person than Glenn Beck, he has easily cleared that hurdle.

But the point of the Rally to Restore Sanity was not, I believe, to encourage people to be slightly less of an asshole than the other guy. So while Maher and Olbermann are correct in saying the right is worse, they would be better occupied in thinking about how they can work to shed more light and less heat.

Friday, November 05, 2010

intolerance marches on

The 2010 election results were depressing but not remotely surprising. Once again, the Democrats did a terrible job of selling themselves because of timidity and stupidity, and if they keep this up Sarah Palin could be president in a couple of years. Pretty scary.

But for me, the scariest election result was Oklahoma's passage of an anti-Sharia law measure.

The law itself isn't important; there are barely any Muslims in Oklahoma and no one is using Sharia (Islamic) law there anyway. What is important is that, like the recent controversy over the Muslim center a few blocks from ground zero (as well as controversies over Mosques hundreds of miles from ground zero), this is a straightforward slap in the face of Muslims and a clear statement that they are considered, as a group, criminals with no rights.

The increasing oppression of Muslims terrifies me, because it could mean we are entering a dark phase in American history along the lines of putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps or blacklisting suspected communists and communist "sympathizers." There are people in this country who are devoting themselves to crushing Muslims, and I will not be surprised if we soon start seeing the passage of laws prohibiting Muslims from teaching in public schools and joining the army.

This cannot end well. If you tell a group of Americans that they are not American and that they do not have the rights of Americans, they tend to object. The Watts and Stonewall riots were both cases of disenfranchised groups expressing their outrage.

But while American Muslims may riot at some future point, if this oppression continues, they're not the ones I'm scared of. I am afraid rather of what happens when anti-Muslim attitudes reach that tipping point where it becomes dangerous to speak out against them.

I recently read a book on the 1950 Communist blacklist. What I found interesting was that, when the witch hunts first started, there were many people who spoke out forcefully against them. There were newspaper editorials and political speeches saying, this is wrong, this is un-American. But after a few years, few people were no longer speaking out, because it had become too dangerous; defending constitutional rights made you as much of a criminal as reading Marx. Right now, someone like Michael Bloomberg can take a principled stand in favor of sanity and tolerance, but if anti-Muslim hatred in this country keeps getting stronger and stronger, eventually everyone will be afraid to speak out. And once that happens, American Muslims are fucked.

Right now anti-Muslim sentiment is mainly coming from hardcore red state nut jobs, the same people who blathered on about Obama being a Muslim, but the idea that Muslims are dangerous lunatics is becoming a part of the philosophy of this country that extends beyond midwest Republicans.

So right now, I'm scared for American Muslims, and scared for this country, and, if we really entering yet another dark age of extreme intolerance, scared for people like me who speak out about it.