I’m not sure, but I think the first time I wrote about political rhetoric per se in a blog essay was nearly nine years ago in a piece called “The Rhetoric of Gitmo.” It’s actually pretty well-written (what happened?). There are a number of points I made at the time, but here’s what seems particularly relevant today.
Back then, in 2005, Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan described the detention center as Guantánamo Bay as “the Gulag of our time.” I cited an article by Pavel Litvonov, who was imprisoned at the real Gulag. He argues that:
By any standard, Guantanamo and similar American-run prisons elsewhere do not resemble, in their conditions of detention or their scale, the concentration camp system that was at the core of a totalitarian communist system….
There is ample reason for Amnesty to be critical of certain U.S. actions. But by using hyperbole and muddling the difference between repressive regimes and the imperfections of democracy, Amnesty's spokesmen put its authority at risk. U.S. human rights violations seem almost trifling in comparison with those committed by Cuba, South Korea, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia….
Words are important. When Amnesty spokesmen use the word “gulag” to describe U.S. human rights violations, they allow the Bush administration to dismiss justified criticism and undermine Amnesty’s credibility. Amnesty International is too valuable to let it be hijacked by politically biased leaders.
Similarly, Senator Dick Durbin described, objectively, the allegations regarding Guantánamo, then added:
If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime—Pol Pot or others—that had no concern for human beings.
He then backtracked on his description, not because it was inaccurate but because he was catching all manner of political flak. Here’s what I wrote in 2005:
Durbin is a seasoned politician. He knows that you don’t mention Nazis. You just don't. Even if you’re not really making a comparison, even (no, make that especially) if the point you make is legitimate, you’ve got to understand that all people are going to hear is a slur. What Durbin had to say was important, but even speaking the truth in the wrong way can lose you credibility. He should also certainly know by now that the Bush administration might not be very good at much, but they are masters of the political counter-attack. If you say something dumb, they’re going to eat your lunch.
If you get stopped for speeding and the cop writes down your driver’s license number wrong, the law says you go free. The Bush administration has been blazing through the small towns of Truth and Accountability, spending very little time there. But until Sheriff Journalism or Officer Democrat get all their facts right, they’ll continue to get away with it.
Times have changed, and not for the better. The level of vitriol has been ratcheted up several steps. Not that long ago, there were some things that were just off limits in political discourse. They just were. You didn’t compare any American politician or political decision to Hitler, Stalin, or any other despotic or tyrannous regime. There have been corrupt and incompetent Presidents of both parties—virtually all of them could reasonably be accused of advocating policies that didn’t work, of playing to their base rather than enhancing the common weal, of appointing political allies over better-qualified contenders for positions in government. But they didn’t systematically target millions of people for torture and death based on race or religion or heritage. They didn’t have their political adversaries assassinated. They weren’t, in fact, tyrants. Bush wasn’t Hitler; neither is Obama.
Since incendiary rhetoric was the only attribute Sarah Palin brought to the GOP ticket in 2008, however, such defamatory flights of fancy have become absolutely de rigeur in Republican circles, not least among those who bellowed the loudest when Senator Durbin—who actually had a point—made his rhetorical gaffe. Plug “Obama Hitler” into the Google Machine and you get over 52 million hits. That’s right, 52 million. (“Obama Stalin” yields “only” 11.4 million hits. You’d think it would be higher, given the whole being-a-communist thing and all…) And it’s not all from crackpots like Matt Drudge. Well, actually, it is all from crackpots, but some of them somehow avoid being viewed as such: a Catholic bishop, the billionaire founder of a Fortune 500 company, a leading venture capitalist, a top Republican donor.
More appallingly still, it’s almost a rite of passage in Republican circles among candidates and office-holders, a sort of perverse “no true Scotsman” riff in which you’re not a real American—and certainly not a real Republican candidate—if you don’t think Barack Obama is exactly like Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin (gotta have an African on the list after all: and you thought the GOP wasn’t interested in inclusion), Pol Pot (well, maybe not him, since the average Republican pol has no idea who he was), and Professor Moriarty all rolled into one. California gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly invokes both Hitler and Stalin, Arizona State Representative Brenda Barton has settled on “Der Führer” as her preferred appellation for the POTUS; Curmie’s own Congresscritter, Loony Louie Gohmert decided the BP escrow account was reminiscent of the Reichstag.
Quick: name the Republicans who seem to be jockeying for position for a 2016 Presidential run. What’s your list? Michelle Bachmann? Ted Cruz? Rand Paul? Rick Perry? Each has linked President Obama to at least one of the following: Hitler (or Nazis, the Reichstag, etc.), Stalin, communism, socialism, Sharia law. Bachmann leads the field, as far as I can tell, by scoring in four of the five categories (I can’t find a Stalin reference from her, but I trust it’s forthcoming). I won’t supply all the links, but trust me, they’re there. The only exception among the current front-runners is Marco Rubio, who always seems to stop just short of an actual allegation. But remember that it was Rubio who brayed the loudest when President Obama chose not to disrupt Nelson Mandela’s funeral and therefore shook Raul Castro’s hand; asked if Obama is a socialist, Rubio can muster nothing more than “he is not Hugo Chávez.”
But since Obama took office, one would be hard-pressed to find national Republicans saying even, “I disagree with President Obama on a wide range of policy issues, and I’m not sure he’s entirely honest, but he’s not a socialist, not a communist, not a Nazi, and he doesn’t want to impose Sharia law.” The best we can do comes from the ’08 campaign: John McCain’s response to the dingbat in Minnesota who declared Obama an “Arab”: “He’s a decent, family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” (We’ll leave aside the casual assumption that what makes Obama not an Arab is that he’s a decent family man.) That incident happened on October 10. Barely a week later, he was calling then-Senator Obama a socialist.
|Mike Huckabee: not the sharpest knife in the drawer|
So now Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor, current Fox News talking head, and also-ran candidate in the ’12 Presidential race, wants to join the party. But however much he tries, he doesn’t quite fit. He’s not a mainstream corporatist like Romney or Ryan, not a “maverick” who doesn’t actually act like one like McCain, not batshit bonkers like Cruz or Bachmann. He needs something different, something that will attract the attention of the carefully selected Koch addicts in the audience. Nazi Germany, the former Soviet Union: old news. What to do, what to do? Eureka! North Korea! Axis of Evil! Bad guys on M*A*S*H! That guy with the funny haircut!
|Kim Jong-Un: his regime is worse than his haircut|
And so, presto change-o, we get one of the stupidest comments of recent years: “My gosh, I’m beginning to think that there’s more freedom in North Korea sometimes than there is in the United States.” Genius! Because nothing says “freedom” quite like a “Supreme Leader” who not only kills his mentor (and uncle), but everyone in that immediate family, including women, children, the country’s ambassadors to Malaysia and Cuba—he’s a piece of work, this guy. Governor, if you’d like evidence that it’s a hell of a lot worse in North Korea than here, try this on for size: you’re still alive after your critique of the President, you disgusting piece of crap. [Note: there was not the slightest hint of irony or snarky exaggeration in the delivery, so don’t try the “he was kidding” crap.]
Of course, Huckabee had other commentary, too. From the beginning of the embedded video in the Raw Story piece:
• “We hold these truths to be self-evident… that all of us are created equal…” [Pssst… we know what it says, gender specificity and all.]
• It’s the federal agents who shouldn’t have rifles in the showdown with serial deadbeat Cliven Bundy. I’m not taking sides, mind you, but you know, it’s only a few “blades of grass,” (not, you know, a million dollars worth of unpaid fees and a string of court decisions as long as your arm). Besides, Fast and Furious, because that’s relevant.
• Benghazi, because it’s the only incident of its kind, ever. Except for (for example) the twelve separate incidents leaving 60 people dead that happened during the Bush43 administration… none of which seem to bothered me in the slightest. Oh, and 9/11. Seems like that might have been preventable, too… but I digress.
• Brandeis reversed field on an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali: clearly Obama’s fault.
• Freedom of speech = anyone (I agree with) can get paid to speak, anywhere and under whatever circumstances they choose, even if the sponsors think better of it.
• Condoleezza Rice’s position on the Dropbox board is being challenged, and that’s awful… because freedom of speech is only for people I agree with.
• The CEO of Mozilla was “pushed out of his position” because
the board members are gutless idiotsof a political stance. And I repeat, he has the right to contribute to whatever cause he wants, and nobody is allowed to be upset by that because Freedom of Speech exists for people I like and not for those who criticize them.
• Those nasty left-wingers want to “shut [your voices] down,” because challenging those in power is the sole preserve of the right (unless, of course, free speech for those on the left is completely ineffectual, in which case it’s OK), and I have no fucking clue what “freedom of speech” really means and BY GOD, I’m going to prove it.
• Now comes the North Korea analogy, which surprisingly nobody, even in an audience of Koch whores, thought was ever so clever.
• OMG, those airport security regulations put in place as an absurd over-reaction by the Bush administration haven’t all been lifted by Obama. I’m oppressed. And “people put hands all over me.” [The screening is annoying, officious, and useless, but I’ve gone through airport security dozens of times since 9/11; no one has ever asked for a second ID, and no one has ever touched me. Must be they just like you, Mike. Go with it—you could make new friends.]
• There’s no need to show any ID at all to vote… except for the ID you do have to provide, which doesn’t count because… uh… ACORN. [OK, he didn’t invoke ACORN, but only because he didn’t think of it.] And the President says “there’s no voter fraud,” which of course he didn’t say, but I’m not setting up a straw man, here. That’s somebody who looks like me. And I’ll make a clever little quip about “looking around” in the White House without an appointment or a photo ID. [Gotta give him that one: good line.]
The bottom line is that beneath the folksy pseudo-charm is… well… nothing. Mike Huckabee is either stupider than skunk shit or utterly devoid of any ethical center. I’m betting the latter: that, having seen the last GOP nomination taken by someone with no core beliefs, Huckabee figures he’d better jump on that train, because pretending to believe in something didn’t work out so well. Of course, to be willing to appear to be nothing more than an insincere opportunist, you actually have to be an insincere opportunist. Interesting philosophical case study…
As I wrote years ago, the real problem with saying remarkably stupid things is that they become the only thing people remember. The more valid your point, the more imperative it is to stay away from the stupid stuff. There remain too many unanswered questions about Benghazi. Brandeis should either have done their homework before offering an honorary degree and a speaking platform or stuck to their guns, having made the offer. The Mozilla thing is a fiasco, especially given that principal anatagonist Sam Yagan of OkCupid doesn’t exactly have clean hands on the whole gay rights thing, either. (He responded to the article in Mother Jones that pointed out this inconsistency by explaining that his contribution to a virulently anti-gay candidate was purely mercenary, and shouldn’t be perceived as endorsing a position. Well, those weren’t his exact words, but that’s what he said.) Airport security is a farce, as I’ve been saying for years. Voter ID laws, per se, aren’t the least bit repressive.
And, if we’re not a True Believer, what do we remember? The inane North Korea line. I take it back. Huckabee is stupider than skunk shit. And he’s welcome to open the Pyongyang bureau of Fox News whenever he wants.