For well over a decade now, right-wingers and Republicans have heaped insult, lies and slander on liberals and Democrats, who responded for the most part by becoming starchy, self-doubting and depressed. To complain was to be labeled elitist and fuddy-duddy: Rush and Ann and Bill and Sean say liberals are traitors and hate America? They're populist entertainers! Jerry Falwell hawked a video accusing Bill Clinton of murder? Shut up and finish your latte. It took ages, not to mention a suspect election and a suspect war, but suddenly everywhere you look Democrats and liberals are fighting back.
The prissy and thin-lipped are cracking jokes, policy wonks are gabbing on Air America, voters once proud of being as unherdable as cats leap aboard the projects of MoveOn.org and write checks to long-shot red-state candidates because Howard Dean says it's a good idea. Do some of these newborn activists feel an intense personal dislike of Bush and all his works? Think he's a blithering idiot? Quiver with rage and loathing when they watch him flash that arrogant sneer and speak in that weird lurching way, as if he's on the edge of blanking out totally? Sure. Probably some of them even enjoy seeing his features merged with an ape's on smirkingchimp.com. But so what? This is America, where pundits have for years reassured us politics is a down-and-dirty contact sport with no room for girly men.
Bush hatred wasn't supposed to happen. Liberals were supposed to be lofty and wistful and clueless, even as their enemies slimed them into irrelevance; they were supposed to say things like "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"--not cram into movie theaters to laugh hysterically at the President sitting in that classroom reading "The Pet Goat." Something must be wrong with these Bush-haters, with their No More Years bumper stickers and their obsessional blogs--could they be insane? "Monomaniacal," as Tucker Carlson put it on Crossfire: "Their hatred has become the focus of their lives. It's actually a clinical description."
In The New York Times Book Review, Leon Wieseltier uses his review of Nicholson Baker's thin, sensationalistic novella Checkpoint, about a man holed up in a hotel with fantasies of assassinating the President, to deliver a long, sanctimonious lecture to the anti-Bush crowd: "The virulence that calls itself critical thinking, the merry diabolization of other opinions and the other people who hold them, the confusion of rightness with righteousness, the preference for aspersion to argument, the view that the strongest statement is the truest statement--these deformations of political discourse now thrive in the houses of liberalism too. The radicalism of the right has hectored into being a radicalism of the left. The Bush-loving mob is being met with a Bush-hating mob.... American liberalism, in sum, may be losing its head." Wieseltier sees "signs of the degradation...everywhere": Janet Malcolm wrote a letter to the Times in which she claimed the present moment is "as fearful as the period after Munich"; an anti-Bush anthology is decorated with anagrams like "The Republicans: Plan butcheries?"; MoveOn publishes an ad--a "huge" ad--that reads "The communists had Pravda. Republicans have Fox." Liberalism, it would seem, is supposed to consist of constantly reminding ourselves that we do not live in a murderous totalitarian regime. Things could be worse! This too shall pass!
Actually, I too bridle when people start talking about Hitler. It sounds naïve and overwrought. If the Republicans really were Nazis, you wouldn't be holding this magazine in your hands. And I don't like the endless theme of Bush's stupidity, either--it's mostly a way for the marginalized to feel culturally superior. I don't even believe that Bush is so dumb--he seems to have plenty of political cunning and skill, and that's a kind of intelligence, albeit not the kind that has much relation to making good policy decisions in a complex and dangerous world. On the Times op-ed page, Dahlia Lithwick made some good points about the impulse to portray Bush as a child: It insults people who voted for him in 2000 and whom we hope are persuadable this time, and it lets him off the hook, since children aren't responsible for the damage they cause.
And yet there is a schoolmasterish quality to all this finger-wagging. What are we talking about here? Some over-the-top e-mails? Whoopi Goldberg's off-color jokes? Nicholson Baker's novel has the obsessive-compulsive look-at-me creepiness of all his fiction, but surely it's LA Times book reviewer P.J. O'Rourke who has the problem when he compares its characters' dismay at suburban sprawl to the hatred of humanity that fuels Robespierre and Pol Pot. Is it anti-humanity to wish for more trees? Imagining characters named "Ann Coulter" and "Bill O'Reilly" up in that hotel room, he writes, "Hmmm, they don't appear to be discussing whether to kill Bill Clinton." Well, maybe not in the novel in O'Rourke's head--but in real life, Nicholson Baker's would-be assassin doesn't exist, while Ann Coulter has called for the murder of Islamic heads of state, the invasion of their countries, the forced conversion of their citizens to Christianity, the execution of liberals and a terrorist attack on the New York Times. Hilarious, I know.
It's really a stretch to suggest that the newly awakened anti-Bush advocates are just the lefty equivalent of the hard-right disinformation machine. Al Franken is no Bill O'Reilly. The New York Times editorial page equates MoveOn PAC's ads with those of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and it's true both are funded through gaps in campaign-finance laws, and both attack the enemy candidate on his war record. But the Swift Boat vets' charges are a mess of smears and lies with Karl Rove's fingerprints all over them, while MoveOn's ads raise genuine questions about Bush's service record that have never been answered.
One group protesting at the Republican convention is planning to hand out 3,000 fortune cookies with messages like "Do not change horses midstream unless horse lies to you and stream is on fire," and lists of ways Bush has mispronounced "Abu Ghraib." You can be sure the Republicans will portray these mild jabs as demonic howls of rage and fury.
Where's their sense of humor?