|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
We having a conversation about civility and honest discourse because a mad man went on a shooting rampage, but the measure of our discourse is not the effect it has on a madman; the measure is what effect it should have on a rational person. So let’s take you at your word. If you literally believe that the Republicans are using tactics that, unchecked, could lead to the Holocaust, where does it leave a rational person? You can’t compromise with them- THEY’RE NAZIS! That would make us Neville Chamberlain, and if I’ve got to be a Chamberlain, I’d like to be Richard.
- Jon Stewart
In the wake of the tragedy in Tucson a scant two weeks ago today, much has been said about the need for a new tone in our public discourse. We must, many pundits have opined, lose the rage and the vitriol that we toss about so casually. I’d been thinking along these lines even in the days prior to the massacre, and I’d even been naive enough to think that maybe, just maybe, things might change.
Well, not even two weeks later, and it looks as if we’re barreling headlong towards business as usual. Today’s example comes to us courtesy of Rep. Steve Cohen, (D-TN), who, after initially offering some conciliatory words a few days prior, decided that the time is right to trot out the Nazi imagery for our listening and dancing pleasure.
I understand that faux debate in the House over repealing health care reform was so much legislative masturbation. Yes, it was an offensive and dishonest waste of time and taxpayer money. Yes, Republicans in this case demonstrated themselves to be willing to traffic in lies, prevarication, and propaganda in order to score political points. Still, as Jon Stewart said, there is a perfect serviceable word available to describe those you feeling are lying- “LIARS”. Never mind the irony of a Jewish Democrat trotting out Nazi imagery to support his outrage at what he felt were liars on the other side of the aisle. If you can blithely cloak your ideological adversaries in the mantle of Nazism, what language is available to you to describe those who really ARE unspeakably evil? Indeed, what does that leave a rational person?
Of course, Cohen realized the error of his tone and quickly walked his words back to a more civil place…except that he didn’t. Given the opportunity by Anderson Cooper to recant (and perhaps even repent) his ugly words, Cohen doubled down:
I won’t say it again…but I was right.
I’ve said it before, and it still holds true: the lion’s share of hate speech emanates from the Far Right. That said, this hardly means that those on the left side of the spectrum aren’t just as capable of being hateful and ignorant given the opportunity. One might think that Cohen, given his Jewish heritage, might be sensitive to the meaning and emotional baggage associated with invoking Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Or perhaps he just thinks he has a greater claim to such imagery BECAUSE of his heritage. Whatever the reason, you have to know that you haven’t exactly hit the sweet spot when Jon Stewart devotes 4:43 to holding you up to (some richly deserved) ridicule.
People in Auschwitz weren’t upset because they were lied to. You said there’d be a pool….You know, I shouldn’t have to explain this, but sharing one attribute with Nazis doesn’t make you one.
- Jon Stewart
The truly sad thing about this episode is that it took a comedian, albeit a supremely gifted and articulate one, to raise a red flag in a way that actually stands a chance of resonating with Americans. Yes, Stewart’s skewering of Rep. Cohen was hilarious and spot on, and there is something to be said for the power of satire. Still, the fact that Stewart felt the need to devote 4:43 of The Daily Show to take down Cohen speaks to the reality that if civility is a legitimate goal, we’ve got a long ways to go before we cross the finish line. That’s as true on the Left as it has been on the Right. Whatever happened to claiming the high ground?
The reality is that the majority of hate speech emanates from the Far Right (not that they would ever own up to it)…but that certainly doesn’t excuse Cohen, who happens to be a Democrat. There may not be as many on the Left who indulge their inner hater to the degree and with the openness that the Far Right does, but neither does that mean those on the Left are justified in employing hateful, ignorant hyperbole to demonize their opponents. If you believe Republicans to be lying, call them out on it. Being a liar and having a tenuous relationship with facts doesn’t make one a Nazi. Lying didn’t kill six million Jews and decimate most of Europe. Monstrous inhumanity and Evil did. Regardless of what Cohen and those of us on the Left might think of the Far Right, no one’s engaging in genocide.
After Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1999, there was a good deal of talk about the need for a return to civility and honest discourse. It didn’t take long for us to return to form…and arguably exceed the degree of bile and anger that existed prior to the bombing. I hope that this time things will be different. Nonetheless, if a Congressman can, with no sign of remorse, blithely refer to his ideological adversaries as Nazis…well, the truce may not have lasted for anywhere near as long as we might have hoped.
In reality, the tone and tenor of our public conversation will only change when two things happen: 1) when we model that behavior in our own lives, and 2) when we demand the same of our elected representatives. You may disagree with me, but that doesn’t make me evil, ignorant, OR a Nazi. It just means we disagree. I’ve not always done a particularly good job modeling tolerance and understanding in my own life, but I’m trying…and yes, old habits DO die hard. The good news, though, is that you CAN unlearn those habits with enough time, effort, and awareness. Now if we could just manage to hold those in public life to the same standard….