Bill Maher has been on something of a jihad against the growth of false equivalencies in the media narrative, and bless him for that. Friday night on HBO's Real Time, he laid into Irshad Manji and David Frum for playing that game, with an able assist from Michael Eric Dyson.
It started out when Manji tried to claim that vicious demonization is just part of the political game played nowadays:
MANJI: But that's politics, dude! That's politics.
DYSON: Yeah, but that's not politics. Your side is wrong, my side is right is politics. But when you get into demonizing other people and making them monsters, that's a different kind of thing. And don't forget --
MANJI: I agree, and I would have said that to Keith Olbermann, by the way, when he had his, you know, 'Worst Persons of the Day' or night or whatever it was. I mean, he was just as bad as --
MAHER: That was a joke.
MANJI: Oooh, it's just -- of course it was.
MAHER: Stop it.
MANJI: Demonizing? Caricatures?
MAHER: OK. first of all, 'Worst Persons' -- I think we know that that's a joke. That we don't really think that it's the worst person in the world. It's called hyperbole. Satire.
MANJI: But the point is, it's like sex -- everybody does it. Everybody does it. So why the double standard, and, you know, sort of pointing out that one sides does it, but when the other side does it, that just a joke?
DYSON: I don't think it's hyperbole on the side of the folk I would say are the right-wingers who I would say are demonizing people. That's not hyperbole. They actually believe it. With religious fervor, they believe it.
MANJI: My friend, I know so many people on the left who believe their own BS as well. They completely dehumanize people on the right.
MAHER: No one's even arguing that. That the Democrats or the progressives or the liberals are perfect -- they fall way short. But you are professing something that I think is even more dangerous: false equivalency. Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann are not the same thing.
Good for Maher. We've been saying the same thing at this site for a long time.
Then David Frum tried to theorize that the nastiness has just been getting progressively worse since the 1980s -- and bases it on the laughable claim that George W. Bush had it worse than Bill Clinton!
FRUM: I'll concede to you that it's true, that the kind of vitriol that President Obama encounters is worse than what President Bush encountered. That's true. It's also true that what President Bush encountered is worse than what President Clinton encountered. And what President Clinton encountered is worse than what President George H.W. Bush --
MAHER: Bush got worse than Clinton? He got impeached!
FRUM: In terms of the --
MAHER: No seriously.
Evidently, Frum has wiped from his memory cells the wild cottage industry in conspiracy theories that sprang up around Clinton: the he-and-Hillary-killed-Vince Foster theory, the Mena-drug-running-clan theory, the "Clinton Body Count" that was in everyone's e-mail, the "black love child" theory, and of course the many and voluminous "New World Order" theories in which military transport movements were circulated out of fear of an impending United Nations takeover of America. And those are just a few. More to the point, many of them were circulated and promoted by mainstream conservatives in the mainstream media. They weren't merely the work of fringe nutcases.
In contrast, Bush had to put up with relatively little conspiracism during his tenure -- the main example being the 9/11 Truthers, who started out as and have largely remained a symbiotic far-left/far-right conspiracy fringe, with the far right (think Alex Jones) playing by far the dominant role in recent years. But these theories largely remained on the fringe -- and the overwhelming majority of the people who opposed him did not believe them, either. Those people opposed him because they had real-world, rational issues with Bush: his conduct of the wars, his handling of the economy, his very real abuses of the Constitution.
Contrast that, if you will, with the people who hated Bill Clinton and now hate Barack Obama -- because, as Maher points out, they believed them at base to be illegitimate:
FRUM: I don't mean what is said on television, and the talkers and the ranters. But what I worry about is the normalization of paranoid theories in our politics. And that is worse in every cycle. It's true it's worse now than it was then.
MAHER: I fundamentally disagree with that. When Democrats get elected, Clinton and Obama the last two -- there was a view on a lot of people on the right that the election is just illegitimate from the get-go. And that whatever we do to remove this person, whether birth certificate bullshit, or finding him with Monica Lewinsky or Whitewater, is justified, because we know what's right for this country, and therefore any way we can get him out is the right thing. And I do not think that happens on the other side.
The illegitimacy is the key to the puzzle: Because these people are right-wing authoritarians, they are systemically inclined to follow authority, and so literally cannot handle the prospect of a person they see as left wing in such a position. This leads inevitably to a worldview that the left-wing politician in question is a mere interloper, a pretender to authority who must be resisted, not obeyed, and it becomes vital to build a case against their legitimacy. At that point, logic, reason, and factuality become secondary if not entirely disposable altogether -- what matters is proving illegitimacy. So building such a case inevitably entails embracing falsehoods and conspiracy theories -- and these become untouchable truths, the fundaments of their realities, and no amount of reason can dent them.
It is, in other words, a recipe for mass insanity.
Frum and Manji aren't the only people in denial about this. There are all kinds of well-meaning conservatives who want to rescue their movement from the insane Tea Partying populists who have taken over the Right since Obama's election, including David Brooks, who in attacking the Limbaughs and the Becks nonetheless insisted that "everybody does it": "The White House understands, you've got 10 percent of the country over here on the wacky right, 10 percent on the wacky left, that's not what they can pay attention to. And they're not going to pay attention to it."
As we noted at the time:
Brooks' percentages are off -- it's more like about 5 percent on the left and 30 percent on the right side, and this latter fact is actually what he identifies as the problem; the right has been so overwhelmed by its wingnutty elements that they have largely taken over the GOP at this juncture in time. And there's no prospect of the David Brookses ever getting it back -- in no small part because they refuse to acknowledge the magnitude of what they're up against.
Mind you, this is also a major theme of our book, Over the Cliff: How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane:
As observed in the last chapter, describing the descent of conservatism into madness:
It’s particularly ominous for the state of our national discourse. As we have seen through the long and sordid history of right-wing populism in this country—particularly the way it has relied on scapegoating, smears, conspiracy theories, falsehoods, and unhinging rhetoric, all of which inevitably unleash violent, extremist rage—the foundations of democracy suffer at the hands of these movements.
As Democratic representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon observed to PolitiFact in the aftermath of Palin’s “death panels” lie: “It’s a sobering prospect that political discourse is going to resemble hand-to-hand combat for the foreseeable future.”
Blumenauer added that such a prospect bodes ill for involving average citizens in the democratic process: “I think they’re losing their appetite to wade through the vitriol, and I’m in the same boat. We are moving to a point where we drive normal people away, and everybody else gets their news and increasingly opinion prescreened, going for days never hearing an opposing viewpoint. That gives me pause.”
I also tackled the issues of false equivalencies in The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right:
Ironically, Malkin has also been a leader in the contingent of the conservative movement that insists that it is liberals, not conservatives, who have been “unhinged” in their rhetoric and driving the national discourse over a cliff. This retort is standard to any mention of the Right’s proclivity for eliminationist rhetoric. Malkin, in fact, wrote an entire book to support this thesis.
The increasingly nasty tone of liberal rhetoric in recent years, especially on an interpersonal level, is also important to note. Some of the examples Malkin cites are ugly, indeed, as are some of the examples of bile directed toward George W. Bush in recent years.
However, most of the examples Malkin and her fellow conservatives point to involve anger directed at a specific person—most typically, George Bush or Dick Cheney—and often for reasons related to the loss of American and civilian lives in Iraq. Few of them are eliminationist—that is, most do not call for the suppression and eradication of an entire class or bloc of people. Rather, the hatred is focused on a handful of individuals.
In contrast, right-wing rhetoric has been explicitly eliminationist, calling for the infliction of harm on entire blocs of American citizens: liberals, gays and lesbians, Latinos, blacks, Jews, feminists, or whatever target group is the victim du jour of right-wing ire. This vile form of “anti-discourse” has been coming from the most prominent figures of movement conservatism: its most popular pundits and its leading politicians. And the sheer volume and intensity of the rhetoric dwarf whatever ugliness is coming from the liberal side of the debate.