Friday, February 16, 2007

John Edwards, Bill Donohue and the bloggers -- revisited

(Length alert)

Forget conservative schadenfreude over the way that John Edwards got himself into a blog-jam. Enough has been said already by conservatives, and they should be quiet while Edwards self-destructs – with a little help from his friends. Anyone who thinks that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama haven’t already figured out how to use this to quietly stick a fork in John Edwards and call him done – well, there’s always that bridge in Brooklyn for sale.(Photo: Anders Brownworth)

That forlorn and slightly nauseous look that former Sen. Edwards has had on his face these past couple of days isn’t because of what he sees coming at him from the religious right. It has been said that the most dangerous place to stand is between Hillary and the White House, and right now Edwards is straddling the broken white line, frozen in place while the headlights bear down on him.

Montana Headlines is hardly familiar enough with the chaotic politics of the liberal blogosphere to analyze its finer points (of which there are many), and perhaps not even its cruder points (of which there are even more.) So no such attempt will be made. Suffice it to say that America is getting a glimpse into a world that it didn’t know existed, and certain pornographic verbal images of the Virgin Mary being visited by the Holy Spirit are becoming linked with the face and name of John Edwards.

To us, however, the aspect of this controversy most worthy of note is the behavior of
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

There was a time when the League, especially under its founder Virgil Blum, did a dirty job that someone probably had to do. That job was the tedious business of documenting what everyone already knew, namely that there are people who derail and even destroy the careers of public figures they don’t like by highlighting their failures to observe the conventions of politically correct speech and that those very same people casually say pretty vile things about non-protected groups like Catholics.

Donohue, however, has during his tenure brought an approach to the League that is fundamentally wrong and ultimately self-defeating. He is attempting to teach Catholics (and conservatives in general) to be just as thin-skinned as those on the left. Rather than transcending political correctness, he is joining it, and he often looks and sounds as though he has stood in front of a mirror, hair-brush microphone in hand, practicing how to imitate the posturing, peevishness, and pouting of his more accomplished counterparts on the other end of the political spectrum.

Or perhaps he has figured out that
The Rules are actually only rarely about hurt feelings and discrimination. Perhaps he realizes that loudly professed moral outrage is usually faux, and has learned how to mimic the mechanics of the process he has seen the left use with such effectiveness against the right.

Anyone who wishes to contest the propositions voiced in the previous paragraph needs to answer, honestly, this question: How often, really, does someone who publicly labels a given comment “offensive” actually look hurt and offended?

Donohue and some others on the right now seem willing to accept The Rules as long as they can retributively persecute the left with a set of rules that liberals will be likely to slip up on and break with some regularity. If they could manage to make it socially and politically unacceptable to ridicule Christian beliefs, mock distinctive Catholic doctrines, or dismiss “those people” (i.e. rednecks, rural Republicans, homeschoolers...) – why, there would be a fairly sizable subculture on the left that would be effectively silenced for lack of knowing how else to express themselves. One understands why the idea appeals to them from the standpoint of expediency.

Montana Headlines, however, rejects all of that, believing that the answer to the political correctness problem lies elsewhere.

When thinking about The Rules that conservatives and Republicans have to live by, it is perhaps useful to think of them as part of a public relations set piece that makes use of a sort of legal fiction. Legal fictions were traditionally used in law to accomplish a supposedly just end through a legal construct that wasn’t really true. There are modern remnants, such as
civil forfeiture cases today, in which the government files suit not against the drug dealer, but rather files suit against his money, house or vehicle (“The State of Montana v. the 2006 Cadillac Escalade.”)

Just as everyone in the courtroom where a legal fiction is being used knows good and well who the dramatis personae are, so too everyone knows what the real game is when it comes to the wars of political correctness. The goal is personal and political assassination, and the weapons used are definitions of what is and isn’t acceptable speech, combined with conventions that specify that code words are linked inextricably to more expansively defined pernicious thoughts – which are in turn linked to heinous actions that said person would commit if only he could get by with it.

It works like this: use of a word X is defined as offensive, knowing full well that it is a word that many people (especially amongst the opposition) use, often without any attempt to hurt or harm. Mining old speeches or writings, we find that Public Figure A used word X – or perhaps he is caught on tape using word X. The usual mechanisms of dissemination are used by Public Figure B to publicize that A used word X. Since the public is already conditioned to know that X is offensive, then the public knows that A is offensive, insensitive, ignorant, or all three. B capitalizes, and A goes on television to grovel – reinforcing the certainty that he must really have done something wrong, otherwise he wouldn’t act that way.

In this entire process, none of what would be relevant if the matter were truly about keeping indecent and cruel people out of public office ever appears to any meaningful degree. We know this to be true by making observations that should be obvious to all but the most rabidly partisan. Consider: most victims of political correctness have people who know them far better than do any reporter or political opponent. Amongst a victim’s co-workers, friends, employees, and family are invariably some people who disagree with him politically, but who know him to be honest, fair, kind, tolerant, and magnanimous. When those friends speak up in his defense, they are invariably brushed aside in favor of much deeper and more telling evidence – things like whether someone born in 1935 knows the vocabulary proscribed circa 2007.

Let’s be clear: no-one should advocate a name-calling free-for all. Montana Headlines would argue, though, that prescribed politically correct vocabulary has actually contributed to the coarseness of our public discourse, most graphically depicted on cable-TV shoutfests, rather than elevated it. It seems that combatants on both sides of the political spectrum have figured out that there are virtually no limits to how rude they can be, no limits to the shrillness of a blog-post, no depths of meanness to which they cannot sink – with perfect political and social safety – as long as certain words, topics, and opinions are avoided, or at least alluded to only with deceitful cunning.

Civility has never been about mere rules, and one is no more likely to teach good manners via verbal beatings than through physical ones. That Donohue and a like-minded group of conservatives have decided to take a low road surveyed and built by the left is disappointing. There is nothing wrong with turning a spotlight into dark corners to show what is scuttling about. Montana Headlines does so on a regular basis. But there is something unseemly about hearing supposedly conservative pundits angrily calling for Edwards to fire two of his employees. What business is it of theirs? This is the sort of things that nosy liberals do to conservative politicians, and it is embarrassing to see one’s co-partisans doing it.

John Edwards, like everyone else, should have freedom of association. Even though he is the populist in this race, he should still be free to decide who to hire, who to fire, who to invite to spend the weekend at his 28,000 sq. ft country home, and who to have dinner and drinks with. It is hardly out of line to publicize calmly the past public blog-entries of writers he has hired, amongst other things, to write blog- entries supporting him. Voters contemplating supporting him will be aided in those contemplations by reflecting on the kind of company he keeps. But one finds it difficult to understand why conservatives don’t know enough to stop right there.

Montana Headlines was recently reminded of the wealth to be found in the writings of the great 18th c. writer, Joseph Addison. In the process of rediscovery, one line from
Samuel Johnson’s account of the life of Addison stuck out: “When he showed (his readers) their defects, he showed them likewise that they might be easily supplied.” Much diligent searching is required to find anyone today playing these correct-speech games who is similarly interested in truly helping their adversaries become more courteous in manners, more obliging in action, or more noble in purpose. One must search even harder to find someone capable of inspiring a political opponent to want any such thing.

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