Slavery, Katrina and Watergate: The right’s obsession with exaggerating

To unburden historical guilt, the right uses trumped-up charges against liberals. It's their form of blame-shifting

Published November 23, 2013 2:30PM (EST)

Rush Limbaugh                                                               (Jeff Malet,
Rush Limbaugh (Jeff Malet,

The week started off with news that former V.P. candidate Sarah Palin had compared the federal debt to slavery, and finished off with the New York Times and "Good Morning America" comparing problems with the rollout of Obamacare exchanges with Bush's catastrophic non-response to Hurricane Katrina.  Such comparisons are both ghastly and ludicrous — 1,833 people died in Katrina, while millions died due to slavery, not to mention the part where tens of millions lived their whole lives as slaves — yet  conservatives can't seem to stop themselves from glibly making them, equating slavery with anything they don't like (except when they're praising it), and Katrina with any problem President Obama might have. What's more, the so-called liberal media seems less likely to challenge them than to follow their lead, or at least give them a pass.

Last month MSNBC's Morgan Whittaker noted that Obamacare had joined a list of four other things that conservative politicians and media figures had compared to slavery just this year: abortion (Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and former Gov. Mike Huckabee); affirmative action (Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in Fisher v. University of Texas); welfare (Sen. Rand Paul [technically just “servitude”] and E.W. Jackson, GOP candidate for lieutenant governor in Virginia); and gun control (Glenn Beck and Fox News host Shepard Smith).  The slavery comparison is uniquely offensive, given the unfathomable evil that slavery was, but the way in which conservatives glibly treat it as a political plaything is anything but unique.

Case in point: As early as April 2010, Media Matters had counted eight different things that had been touted as “Obama's Katrina,” including the BP oil spill (Limbaugh, Drudge, Fox.etc. vs. facts here); the GM bankruptcy (Politico, June 8, 2009); the H1N1 flu (Rush Limbaugh, Nov. 3, 2009); the Fort Hood shootings (Human Events, Nov. 11, 2009);  the Christmas underwear bomber (Pajamas Media, Dec. 29, 2009); the Haiti earthquake (Wall Street Journal, Jan. 25, 2010); the Kentucky ice storms (Confederate Yankee, Feb. 1, 2010); and even housing policies in Chicago back when Obama was a state senator (Mickey Kaus, Slate,  June 30, 2008).

Of course the list has kept growing since then, with the IRS and Benghazi as two top favorite additions. Conservatives are especially fond of Benghazi, since it lets them tweet things like “You could call #Benghazi Obama’s Watergate, except no one died,” as Texas Rep. Steve Stockman did on May 8, 2013. This elides the entire history of Watergate: It began with the Plumbers, formed to plug leaks in the wake of the Pentagon Papers (burglarizing Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist looking for dirt to smear Ellsberg with), the release of which was necessary because Nixon's “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War was to continue the Vietnam War, in which tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers died. But it's damn hard to fit all that into 140 characters. Hence the usefulness of the “Watergate” accusation.

Nor are these two patterns isolated phenomena. They are but two parts of a larger pattern of unburdening historical conservative guilt with trumped-up charges against liberals. Of course, conservatives alone do not bear all the guilt or responsibility for slavery; that is a burden that weighs on America's conscience as a whole. Certainly, no living conservative today bears any personal responsibility for slavery. But as self-selected members of a tradition, the historical defense of slavery is inexorably part of the package they freely claim as their own, just as the battle to abolish slavery contributed substantially to shaping the liberal tradition in America.

For several decades now, conservatives have clung to abortion as their great moral equalizer, which they consequently just love to equate with slavery. Ever since its meteoric rise in the late 1970s, the religious right has clung to the abortion issue as the foundation of its claims to moral superiority — and for good reason, since their true, sordid origin story lies in fighting to preserve segregation, as Max Blumenthal explained in the Nation magazine at the time of Jerry Falwell's death ("Agent of Intolerance").  While Blumenthal touches on Falwell's early history of preaching against civil rights, the organizational turning point came in the early '70s, he explained:

While abortion clinics sprung up across the United States during the early 1970s, evangelicals did little. No pastors invoked the Dred Scott decision to undermine the legal justification for abortion. There were no clinic blockades, no passionate cries to liberate the "pre-born." For Falwell and his allies, the true impetus for political action came when the Supreme Court ruled in Green v. Connally to revoke the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory private schools in 1971. At about the same time, the Internal Revenue Service moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, which forbade interracial dating. (Blacks were denied entry until 1971.) Falwell was furious, complaining, "In some states it's easier to open a massage parlor than to open a Christian school."

Remarkably, Falwell and his ilk were so focused on defending segregation, that they rebuffed early Catholic attempts, spearheaded by Paul Weyrich, to turn their attention to abortion.  They only broadened their issue agenda to include abortion some years later, as they came to realize they needed allies who had little motivation in helping them preserve the separation of the races.

In retrospect, this isn't too surprising. Although silent directly on abortion, the Bible is clearly pro-choice, when all the relevant passages are considered. Anti-choice readings derive from imposing an extra-biblical framework — which is precisely the sort of thing that has long helped justify Southern Protestants' intensely anti-Catholic views.  Add to all this the nature of forcing a woman to undergo an unwanted pregnancy and it becomes strikingly clear how forced, fraught and ahistorical the “abortion is just like slavery” argument really is, and how much it depends on the need for shifting guilt and blame.

This broader pattern of blame-shifting historical conservative guilt onto liberals has other specific forms as well, which play themselves out in repeated patterns. There are countless instances in which conservatives hyperbolically accuse someone else of McCarthyism, for example. Another prolific, but more traceable pattern is the oft-repeated, always failed attempt to find a Democratic “Watergate." Indeed, at least seven different Watergates have been proposed for Obama so far (thanks to Whittaker, again):  Solyndra (“makes Watergate look like child’s play” -- Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., November 2011); Fast & Furious (“far worse than Watergate” -- Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, June 2012); the alleged Sestak “bribe” (“could be his Watergate” -- columinst Jeffrey Kuhner, May 2010); alleged national security leaks (“far more important than Watergate” -Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., June 2012); Obama’s birth certificate (“Is this another Watergate?” -- Donald Trump, May 2012); even Media Matters (“Is Media Matters Obama’s Watergate?” -- the American Spectator, February 2012); and work permits for undocumented immigrants under 30 (“Whatever Nixon did pales in comparison” -- Rush Limbaugh, June 2012).

To reiterate: What connects all these patterns is that they involve bad things that conservatives were responsible for in the past, things they still, apparently, feel appropriately guilty about. but cannot consciously admit to, and hence, keep on trying to find liberal versions of, in order to unburden themselves by pushing their guilt onto others.  It's an example of what psychologists and psychiatrists know as “projection,” and the rest of us know as “the pot calling the kettle black.”  But often it's actually even worse than that — it's not just the past bad behavior that's being projected, but ongoing bad behavior as well, in part because of this same refusal to come to terms with past mistakes.

MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry, a New Orleans resident, pointed this out quite specifically, as a guest on MSNBC's "Disrupt With Karen Finney" on Nov. 16. Unlike virtually all other national commentators, Harris-Perry has had to live with the aftermath of Katrina, and thus has a much more comprehensive grasp of all that it involved — including the Bush administration's multi-year failure to fix the levees in advance, despite repeated warnings of their inadequacy.  (Indeed, in early 2001, FEMA warned of three major catastrophic threats to the U.S.: a terrorist attack on New York City, a major hurricane hitting New Orleans, and a major earthquake striking San Francisco.) Hence, Harris-Perry said:

Basically, what we see here is a massive projection.  What is apt about that metaphor is that the response on the right to the Affordable Care Act is like the presidential response of George W. Bush to Hurricane Katrina.  And here is why. Think about what Katrina was. It was a natural thing that happens, but the disaster is caused by a structural failure of the federal levees. So a refusal of the federal government to shore up the structural realities then have a disproportionate impact on poor people, the elderly and people of color. Same thing is happening here. The federal government, which has power and capacity to create a new structural situation so that poor people, the elderly, and people of color can have health care, they are refusing to extend that. They are doing the same thing that the Bush Administration did, refusing to extend what is necessary in order to make it happen.

While Media Matters pointed to the 1,833 people who died in Katrina as a key difference between “Obama's Katrina” and the real thing, Harris-Perry's point is worth extending even further. According to a study at Harvard Medical School, America's lack of universal healthcare — unlike any other advanced industrial nation — is responsible for 45,000 deaths per year.  Other studies have yielded lower figures — 26,000 in 2012 from Families USA, for example, but still well above the 10,000/year range. By attempting to achieve near-universal coverage, Obamacare actually represents an attempt to save tens of thousands of lives, not just once, but every year, while GOP obstructionism — which will block millions from getting coverage, just through thwarted Medicaid expansion alone — will surely result in far more preventable deaths than Katrina did, every year, for as long as it lasts.

While it's clearly Republicans and conservatives who have been pushing the “Obama's Katrina” meme repeatedly throughout his presidency, it's equally clear that the so-called liberal media has been repeatedly complicit in helping them out, for reasons of their own. After all, over-the-top accusations make for cheap and lively news coverage, much cheaper and more lively than coverage that focuses on boring old, liberally biased facts. Scandal narratives virtually write themselves — particularly when you don't let a lot of messy facts get in the way. (See, for example, Whitewater, as Gene Lyons documented so thoroughly in "Fools for Scandal," followed by his collaboration with Joe Conason, "The Hunting of the President.") What's more, airing such absurdities provides the illusion of “protection” against right-wing charges of “liberal bias.” (“How's that working out for you?” as one half-term governor famously asked.)

There is, in short, a dual dynamic at work — projection on the side of conservatives driving the blame-shifting patterns, matched by a bad faith form of “balanced” coverage by the so-called liberal media, which is almost defined by its built-in failure modes — bugs for the reality-based, features for the reality-averse — which have been repeatedly criticized by people like New York University's Jay Rosen, who has long critiqued this as the “view from nowhere” on his Pressthink blog. The fruits of these two dynamics are most clearly seen in the example of  repeated failed attempts to find a Democratic “Watergate.” Unlike the other two patterns referred to above, this pattern has a very clear and unique origin point: the former Nixon staffer William Safire.

Safire was hired by the New York Times in 1973, just as the Watergate scandal was starting to unfold. In short, he got out just in time. More than that, Safire essentially owed his prominence to Nixon. He had been working as a publicist for a homebuilder who exhibited a model home at a Moscow trade fair in 1959, the setting for the famous Richard Nixon/Nikita Khrushchev "Kitchen Debate." A photo Safire took of the event was widely circulated around the world, and the incident led to Safire joining Nixon's 1960 campaign for president. In the wake of Watergate — starting as early as 1974 — Safire took to applying the “gate” suffix wherever he could, in a transparent effort to deflate the unique depth, scope and significance of Watergate.

In February 1996, under the headline, "The Smoking Lexicon," New York magazine's Noam Choen took a look at this record, running a list of 20 "X-gate" scandal coinages from Safire's pen: Billygate, Briefingate, Contragate, Deavergate, Debategate, Doublebillingsgate, Frankiegate, Franklingate, Genschergate, Housegate, Iraqgate, Koreagate, Lancegate, Maggiegate, Nannygate, Raidergate, Scalpgate, Travelgate, Troopergate and Whitewatergate. Cohen suggested that Safire's aim had been "rehabilitating Nixon by relentlessly tarring his successors with the same rhetorical brush – diminished guilt by association." And, indeed, Safire himself essentially acknowledged as much around the same time. In "Sound and Fury: the Making of the Punditocracy," Eric Alterman reported that, “Safire today admits that psychologically, he may have been seeking to minimize the relative importance of the crimes committed by his former boss with this silliness."

On one level, Safire's silliness succeeded beyond his wildest imagination. Wikipedia's “List of scandals with '-gate' suffix” has roughly 80 entries in political scandals, plus another 50 more in sports, the media, arts and entertainment, technology and pop culture, including one from "The Simpsons." Clearly, others caught the bug from him long ago, and have been transmitting it for reasons of their own. And yet, in another sense Safire has come up with goose eggs.  On the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein outlined the main elements of the multifaceted crimes and scandals subsumed under the “Watergate” label in an article, “40 Years After Watergate, Nixon Was Far Worse Than We Thought.” In sharp contrast, 40 years later, Safire's biggest scandals look more trivial.

Most, but not all of Safire's “X-gate” scandals targeted alleged Democratic wrongdoing. Arguably the most serious of these, “Lancegate,” won Safire a Pulitzer Prize in 1978, but it does less to prove Safire's point and more to show how unlike Watergate all the other “X-gate” scandals are. Although it involved charges of mismanagement and corruption on behalf of Carter's close friend and adviser Bert Lance, then head of the Office of Management and Budget, there was no connection or involvement of President Carter himself, and Lance, who resigned as a result, was later acquitted on nine counts, with no decision on two others. Safire himself later had kind words for Lance, which hardly matched up with the imputation of great evil that Safire originally brought to bear.

Nor were Safire's efforts limited to spreading the “X-gate” meme. In 1979, for example, Safire wrote a column, "Waterquiddick," on the 10th Anniversary of Chappaquiddick, drawing attention to alleged similarities between Chappaquiddick and Watergate, as Michael Shudson described in "Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget and Reconstruct the Past." Three days later, Shudson wrote, fellow New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis responded, calling it a "calculated effort ... to obscure the meaning of Watergate" by treating any suspect actions of political figures as "another Watergate," trying to make Watergate "our common political denominator," which, Lewis argued, "is to trivialize a profound event."

Shudson agreed with this conclusion, but said, "Safire was unimpressed; his use of Watergate as a reference point is some kind of itch he cannot stop scratching."  In this respect, Safire's obsession is emblematic of the broader pattern of conservative projection — it cannot be stopped, because it cannot possibly do what needs to be done: resolve the essential psychic contradiction.  According to the general psychological theory — originated by Sigmund Freud, developed further by Anna Freud ("The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence") and elaborated by many others since then — ego defense mechanisms like projection serve to defend the ego against anxiety and unacceptable impulses — life contradictions that cannot be consciously resolved. Such defense mechanisms are primarily products of the unconscious mind, which deny, distort or manipulate reality. However, more recent theorists, most notably George Eman Vaillant ("Ego Mechanisms of Defense"), a Harvard professor of psychiatry, have elaborated a hierarchy of maturation, from pathological to immature to neurotic to mature defenses. The first two categories include different forms of projection, while the fourth includes defenses such as humor, anticipation and sublimation, which indicate, at least potentially, a degree of conscious as well as unconscious activity.  It's telling, I think, that while Limbaugh and Beck are walking clinical examples of pathological defense mechanisms on parade, the most popular political media figures on the left are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — both with shows on Comedy Central.

On the individual level, there may be no reason to presuppose significant differences between liberals and conservatives in terms of defense mechanisms, but things are rather different in terms of organized politics and political identity, for reasons that range from the cultural and historical roots of liberalism (the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment) and conservatism (primarily opposed to all three), to the forms of activity most attractive to each (science vs. religion, etc.), to the institutions they create and then are shaped by, and to matters of individual psychology (comprehensively summarized 10 years ago in the meta-study “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition”).

Sorting through all these factors as they relate to projection could easily fill a whole book.  But a few key well-established points should suffice to explain why conservatives have their observed greater need for projection specifically and blame-shifting in general.  The first such reason has to do with attitudes toward change. Conservatives are more reluctant to change, more identified with the past, with tradition, and the status quo.  This makes it more difficult for them to square existing values, which have evolved beyond past positions, with positions that conservatives have held in the past — support for slavery and segregation are classic examples of this.

Of course, if one goes back far enough, liberals in the past held disreputable views as well — there were few staunch abolitionists in the 18thcentury, and even fewer advocates of equal rights for women. Yet, those who did hold such positions were on the liberal side of things, and their influence grew over time as their arguments took hold in the liberal mainstream. More important, because liberalism values exploration, critical thinking, open-mindedness and progress, it requires no mental gymnastics for liberals today to identify with the pioneering liberals and radicals of past eras, rather than their more conventional, time-bound brethren. Because it's easier for liberals to find liberal figures to identify with in the past, they have less need to feel guilt or embarrassment, less need to repress, deny or manipulate feelings in the political realm.

At a most fundamental level, conservatives as a whole today simply cannot help themselves — despite the best efforts of individual conservatives like John Dean, Bruce Bartlett and a handful of others.  Conservatives like these have repeatedly been ostracized, expelled from the club, rather than being listened to. If conservatives and America are to be saved, the so-called liberal media is going to have to stop enabling them, stop supporting them, stop echoing them. Journalists are going to have to learn once and for all: slavery is slavery, Katrina is Katrina, Watergate is Watergate.  Pretending otherwise is not just “partisan spin” or “politics as usual.” It's a direct attack on our nation's capacity to recognize its mistakes and, most important, to learn from them.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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