In my previous entry I described the tactic of whining over perceived offenses as a means of suppressing political dissent — really a form of cyber-bullying. I’d like to continue along that vein, citing more examples. This is necessary because until and unless we fully understand how and why this tactic is so effective, we cannot adequately neutralize it.
Terry Michael of The Politico wrote in June that “[a]s Democrats prepare to do battle with John McCain this fall, we need to dispel two comforting but self-defeating myths about recent failed White House campaigns.” I couldn’t agree more. What are these myths? Mr. Michael explains:
The 1980s saw a bigger than usual glut of aggressive young males. Motivated by profits from the black market created by a brainless drug war, urban gangbangers were scaring aging children of the Depression known as Reagan Democrats.
So Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, aided by minions in the basement of the Republican National Committee, dredged up a resonant metaphor for everything Reagan Democrats loved to hate about crime-coddling liberals: Willie Horton, the murderer sentenced to life in prison, who pillaged his way through Maryland on a weekend prison pass.
Yet that’s not what really happened.
The Massachusetts program, a rehabilitation effort signed into law in 1972, was applied to convicted murderers by the commonwealth’s Supreme Court, and Dukakis, in his first term as Massachusetts governor, vetoed an attempt to overturn the court. After scores of Pulitzer Prize-winning stories by the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune, the law that allowed Horton his pass was overturned in a bill signed by Dukakis himself on April 28, 1988, after the issue was raised in presidential politics at a Democratic debate April 12 in New York by … Al Gore! Yes, the same Nobel laureate Hollywood liberals adore, not some fire-breathing, right-wing nut.
Mr. Michael thinks, apparently, that it was a mistake to ascribe evil motivations to what Atwater and Ailes did, but I respectfully disagree with him on that point; Atwater and Ailes, along with the Republican spinmeisters, had nothing but the basest, filthiest, most despicable motivations for using Horton as a political bludgeon against Democrat Mike Dukakis. Racism was exploited in order to portray the Massachusetts governor as soft on crime. Nevertheless, Mr. Michael does catch on to something, as he writes:
The Beltway Democratic geniuses who gave us Kerry were convinced they needed a military hero to carry an anti-war banner against a war-making weekend warrior.
The best and the brightest among the party elders did their best to push Howard Dean off the stage and nominate Lt. Kerry, who reported for duty in Boston with a speech performance that told the nation everything it needed to know: He was for the war in Vietnam. He was against the war in Vietnam. Just as he voted for the war in Iraq but now he was against the war in Iraq.
Or was he? Because, just weeks later, Kerry said he would have voted for authorizing the war, even if he’d known there were no weapons of mass destruction.
Snarky attitude aside, Mr. Michael does make a valid point: Kerry allowed himself to be defined by the opposition; that is, he was afraid to take a definitive stand on vital issues, and so the GOP was able to portray him as someone who is weak and indecisive, someone whose positions change with the political wind. It didn’t matter that Kerry didn’t actually flip-flop; he allowed the public perception of himself to be portrayed that way. When the Republicans rose their maniacal voices in fury, he backed down and tried to “clarify” his remarks. That simply opened him up to further attack.
Let’s go back a little further in examining the politics of bullying. In 2004 Paul Rogat Loeb wrote on CommonDreams.org:
A former Air Force Colonel I know described the Bush administration’s attitude toward dissent as “shut up and color,” as if we were unruly eight-year-olds. Whatever citizens may think of Bush’s particular policies, what may make him the most dangerous president ever is how much he’s promoted a culture that equates questioning with treason. This threatens the very dialogue that’s at the core of our republic.
Think of Dick Cheney saying a Kerry victory would invite a terrorist attack. Think of the eve of the Iraq war, and the contempt heaped on those generals who dared to suggest that the war might take far more troops and money than the administration was suggesting. Think of the attacks on the reputations and motives of long-time Republicans who’ve recently dared to question, like national security advisor Richard Clarke, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, weapons inspector Scott Ritter, and Bush’s own former Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill. Think of the Republican TV ads, the 2002 Georgia Senate race, which paired Democratic Senator Max Cleland with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein-asserting that because Cleland opposed President Bush’s Homeland Security bill, he lacked “the courage to lead.”
In this last case, it didn’t matter that Cleland had lost two legs and an arm in Vietnam, while the Republican who eventually defeated him had never worn a uniform. Nor that Republican strategists nearly defeated South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson in the same election, with similar ads, although Johnson was the only person in Congress whose child was actually serving with the U.S. military-and would see active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s hard to talk about such intimidation without sounding partisan or shrill, but we need to make it a central issue, because if it succeeds, it becomes impossible to discuss any other issues [emphasis mine].
Pay close attention to the bold type. As long as we on the left allow ourselves to be defined and bullied by the opposition and members of our own ideology, we cannot stand against it. George Lakoff, a professor from the University of Berkley, has spent the past few years trying to explain how far right-wingers frame the debate so that we on the left are forced to accept their terms for discussion. In a 2003 Berkley interview the author, Bonnie A. Powell, writes, “by dictating the terms of national debate, conservatives have put progressives firmly on the defensive.” Lakoff himself points out:
Language always comes with what is called “framing.” Every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework. If you have something like “revolt,” that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing. That’s a frame.