One-sided rules of political debate

The "controversy" over the MoveOn ad is petty and vapid but nonetheless revealing of the double standards governing our political debates.

By Glenn Greenwald
September 12, 2007 5:27PM (UTC)
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(updated below - Update II)

Now that it is inescapably clear to everyone (rather than just bloggers) that we will remain in Iraq in full force through the end of the Bush presidency, and now that, according to a Fox News report this morning, "'everyone in town' is now participating in a broad discussion about the costs and benefits of military action against Iran, with the likely timeframe for any such course of action being over the next eight to 10 months," what has attracted the righteous fury of Time's leading "liberal" pundit Joe Klein, who helped sell the Iraq invasion to the country in the first place?


The supremely important advertisement, of course, which Klein, eager as always to show the Right what a Good Liberal he is, flamboyantly condemns:

Just back from today's hearings and just about Every Last Republican mentioned the idiotic MoveOn ad...also caught the beginning of Fox News, where -- surprise, surprise --it played big. . . .

This is going to put the Democrats on the defensive. . . . The ad was, on its face, morally and politically outrageous. . . . But the substance (or lack of it) will be subsumed by the slander: It is no small thing to accuse a military man of betraying his country. It is also palpably untrue in this case. Whoever cooked up this ad is guilty of a disgraceful act of malicious puerility. . . .

But for now, MoveOn has handed the Bush Administration a major victory -- at a moment when all attention should be focused on whether we should continue to commit U.S. troops to this disaster. Just nauseating.

Klein's fury over such rhetoric is extremely selective. Here is Joe Klein himself last year employing far more vicious accusations (against, among others, unnamed "many writers at The Nation") which, in far more mild form today, he so disdains:

In his recent account of a breakfast book party at the home of Tina Brown and Harry Evans, Eric Alterman misquoted me slightly but significantly. What I actually said was "the hate America tendency of the [Democratic Party's] left wing" had made it harder for Democrats to challenge Republicans on foreign policy. . . .

For those who think -- for some indiscernible reason -- that it is important enough to spend the energy developing an opinion on the MoveOn ad, there are, I suppose, reasonable arguments that can be made on both sides as to whether the "betray us" rhyme was rhetorically excessive, counter-productive, etc. But the shrill hand-wringing it has triggered is just bizarre in light of the fact that accusing Americans, including military veterans, of being unpatriotic, anti-American and betraying the country has, for decades, been a mainstream staple of the political rhetoric from our country's pro-war Right -- invoked most aggressively by those, such as Klein, now claiming such profound offense over the MoveOn ad.


Here is Joseph Farah of World Net Daily in an October, 2004 column entitled "Questioning Kerry's Patriotism":

Think of what I am saying: A man who came to prominence and notoriety in American life, and who is now on the threshold of winning the White House, was actively aiding and abetting the enemy just 33 years ago. He was a tool. He was an agent. He was working for the other side.

That's why I say it is time to stop playing rhetorical games with respect to Kerry.

There is only one word in the English language that adequately describes what he was in 1971 -- and what he remains today for capitalizing on the evil he perpetrated back then. That word is "traitor."

The right-wing site "American Thinker" -- proudly included on Fred Thompson's short blogroll, among most other places on the Right -- published an article in 2005 entitled "Is Jack Murtha a Coward and a Traitor?" (answer: "Any American who recommends retreat is injuring his own country and calling his own patriotism into question"). Here is John Hinderaker of Powerline -- Time's 2004 Blog of the Year -- on our country's 39th President (and, unlike the non-serving Hinderaker, a former Naval officer): "Jimmy Carter isn't just misguided or ill-informed. He's on the other side."

When Howard Dean pointed out (presciently) in December of 2005 that the Iraq War cannot be won, Michael Reagan called for Dean to "be arrested and hung for treason or put in a hole until the end of the Iraq war," and the next day, on Fox News, alongside an approving Sean Hannity, he said: "I have no problem at all, no problem at all, with what this guy is doing, taking him out and arresting him." And here is Giuliani campaign advisor Norm Podhoretz on the Hugh Hewitt Show yesterday, as they explained how deeply anti-American "Democrats" are:

HH: Norman Podhoretz, before the last break, we were talking about the intellectual class in America that is so deeply anti-American from the Vietnam years, and how it did not take them long to find in America the cause for 9/11, and to begin what has been a very poisonous attack on America over the last six years. How can they be that successful?

NP: Well, what I try to explain in my book is that a lot of these people were working out of the anti-war movement playbook of the Vietnam era. . . .

Well, what I think is that that is correct, and I think that the Democrats are committing political suicide, at least for the 2008 presidential election. I mean, you know, the Democrats suffered from the disability of the McGovern years, when they were rightly considered soft on national defense, not to be trusted to protect us against foreign threats. They worked very heard to overcome that reputation, especially under Clinton. And now what they've done is to resurrect it. And they've gone even further than they did under McGovern. I mean, embracing defeat, calling for American defeat, rooting for American defeat.

Insinuating that Democrats and/or other opponents of various American wars are "betraying" America -- and worse -- has been the central argumentative tactic on the Right for decades. So says no less of an expert on (and past purveyor of) such tactics than Pat Buchanan, in his column today explaining why Congressional Democrats will never end the war:

As Petraeus testifies, the antiwar movement appears broken. Reid has said his party will not try to de-fund the war or impose new deadlines. . . .

What happened to the party of Speaker Pelosi and Reid, which was going to end U.S. involvement in the war and not permit Bush to pursue victory the way Richard Nixon pursued it in Vietnam for four years?

Answer: Terrified of the possible consequences of the policies they recommend, Democrats lack the courage to impose those policies.

When it comes to issues of war, Democrats are an intimidated lot. Sens. Clinton, Edwards, Biden, Dodd and Reid were all stampeded by Bush into voting him a blank check for war in October 2002. Why? Because they feared Bush would declare them weak or unpatriotic if they denied him the authority to go to war, at a time of his choosing, until he had made a more compelling case for war.

Now they regret what they did. But, in a showdown, they will do it again. For Democrats have been psychologically damaged by 60 years of GOP attacks on them as the party of retreat and surrender.

It really is the height of strangeness to witness the shrieking and self-righteous rage over the MoveOn ad as though such insinuations are prohibited in American political debates, the Line that Cannot be Crossed. That line is crossed routinely, and has been for decades, including when directed at a whole array of American combat veterans. Ask George McGovern about that. The only difference this time -- the sole difference that has so upset Joe Klein and his fellow media mavens -- is that it is being directed at the side that typically wields such accusatory rhetoric, rather than by them.


Indeed, just a few months ago, Gen. Petraeus himself toyed with exactly such rhetoric at the prompting of the incomparably odious Joe Lieberman, whose entire political career is now devoted (ironically) to impugning the patriotism of any Americans who oppose Lieberman's desire to wage one war after the next against Israel's enemies. As The Washington Post's Thomas Ricks reported regarding a Senate hearing in May:

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) asked Army Lt. Gen. David H . Petraeus during his confirmation hearing yesterday if Senate resolutions condemning White House Iraq policy "would give the enemy some comfort."

Petraeus agreed they would, saying, "That's correct, sir."

Though subsequent reports suggested that Lieberman used the phrase "give the enemy some encouragement" (rather than the treasonous term of art "comfort"), the point was the same: those who condemned the President's war policy were, pursuant to Petraeus' toxic accusations, helping America's Terrorist Enemies. Petraeus' comments were so disturbing, and obviously inappropriate (though hardly uncommon), that it led GOP Sen. John Warner to admonish him as follows:

I hope that this colloquy has not entrapped you into some responses that you might later regret. I wonder if you would just give me the assurance that you'll go back and examine the transcript as to what you replied with respect to certain of these questions and review it, because we want you to succeed.

What all of this really reflects is the underlying and pervasive premise that those who advocate American wars are inherently patriotic and "pro-American," while it is always appropriate to impugn the patriotism and allegiances of those who oppose such wars (even when such war opponents are life-long civil servants or even military veterans).


It also is reflective of this completely backward notion that our highest government and military officials ought to be free to use the most scurrilous smears of their political opponents, but should never be the target of that same rhetoric, because their High Positions of Importance entitle them to Great Respect, which should shield them from such attacks (hence, it is fine to smear unnamed Nation writers and other all-powerful members of the "Left," but not our Supreme Generals or our Commander-in-Chief).

The whole MoveOn "controversy" is, of course, nothing more than a petty and worthless distraction. We're going to occupy Iraq indefinitely; Israel just bombed Syria, to the delight of Liebermans' comrades seeking full-scale U.S./Israel regional war; and very influential factions in the Bush administration are planting stories with Fox News that we are planning for an attack on Iran. And yet all one hears from the Joe Kleins and Chris Matthews is deep concern over whether an ad from MoveOn was a naughty thing. In one sense, it's just the John Edwards Haircut Story of this week from our vapid chattering class.

But as petty as the story is, it is also revealing. It has been perfectly fine for decades to impugn the patriotism of those who think the U.S. should stop invading and bombing other countries (how could anyone possibly think such a thing unless they hate America?), while it is strictly forbidden to do anything other than pay homage to the Seriousness and Patriotism of those who advocate wars. Hence, the very people who routinely traffic in "unpatriotic" and even "treason" rhetoric towards the likes of Jack Murtha, John Kerry and war opponents generally feign such pious objection to the MoveOn ad without anyone noticing any contradiction at all.

UPDATE: John Cole points to the lengthy Enemies List compiled by the always-vigilant Michelle Malkin, who exploits photographs of the 9/11 victims to urge "resistance" against America's Terrorist Enemies and their domestic allies:

But remembrance without resistance to jihad and its enablers is a recipe for another 9/11. This is what fueled my first two books, on immigration enforcement and profiling. This is what fuels much of the work on this blog and at Hot Air.

Not every American wears a military uniform. But every American has a role to play in protecting our homeland -- not just from Muslim terrorists, but from their financiers, their public relations machine, their sharia-pimping activists, the anti-war goons, the civil liberties absolutists, and the academic apologists for our enemies.

Depending on how one defines "anti-war goons" and "civil liberties absolutists," it sounds like Michelle's Enemies List is composed of roughly 65% of the American population. Those are some rather large internment camps Michelle and her Homeland-Protecting Comrades will need to build. MoveOn crossed a terrible rhetorical line this week with its ad.

UPDATE II: As I tried to make explicitly clear, this post actually has nothing to do with whether the "Betray Us" rhyme in the MoveOn ad was smartly worded, counter-productive, etc. As I indicated, there are probably reasonable arguments to make on both sides of that issue if one actually thinks (for reasons I cannot discern) that debating the phraseology of a single MoveOn ad merits such contemplation. Here, for instance, is criticism of the ad from Klein's colleague, Jay Carney, which I find perfectly sober and reasonable (whether I agree with it or not).

The issue here is the depiction of this ad as some sort of unique transgression and the intensity of the condemnation it has received, particularly from those who themselves are enthusiastic and frequent purveyors of similar though far worse rhetorical tactics. Whether one thinks the MoveOn ad was well-done or not -- and, again, who really cares? -- has little or nothing to do with that issue.

Glenn Greenwald

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