Hunter S. Thompson’s novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was a best seller, and it was made into a popular movie. I am using the words for a topic that I hope is as interesting, but I know is a lot less amusing. Of course, I could have used other words − hatred and contempt, for example.
What I’m referring to is the degeneration of politics into name-calling, slander, invective, and insults of the vilest sort. What I’m complaining about is the abuse of the right of free speech. What I’m distressed by is the lack of awareness that this right, like all rights, comes with responsibilities firmly attached.
I have a right − perhaps a duty − to criticize those with whom I disagree. In fact, I do it often. No one except a totalitarian denies this right.
But does free speech include the right to use cruel humor and make fun of people’s disabilities? Does it include the right to compare political opponents to mass murderers or practitioners of genocide? Does it include the right to imply, or to state plainly, that those with whom we disagree ought to be silenced or even exterminated?
No, I’m not referring to a legalistic interpretation of the First Amendment. I leave that to professors of law. I’m referring not to what is legal to say, but to what is moral to say. I realize that for many Americans today, this distinction is difficult, because they were never taught to think in moral terms. Nevertheless, it is a vital distinction.
Perhaps some examples will clarify what I mean:
● Liberals talk incessantly about “freedom” and “rights,” but they want to regulate the Internet and talk radio. Liberal icons Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem want the Federal Communications Commission to kick Rush Limbaugh off the air, calling him “Goebbels.” They forget that Goebbels was Hitler’s propaganda minister who controlled the media. That is, the FCC, not Limbaugh, is similar in function to Goebbels − and they want to make it more powerful.
● Liberals condemn Limbaugh for calling a liberal woman a “slut,” but they say nothing when Bill Maher and others call conservative women “female impersonator,” “slut,” “c**t,” “tw*t,” “whore,” “prostitute,” and last but not least, “lyin’ ass bitch” and “dumb bitch with half a brain.” And they have the gall to complain about Rush.
● Actor Alec Baldwin used the Conan O’Brien Show to urge his listeners to “stone to death” a conservative member of Congress, then go to his home and murder his wife and family. The audience cheered.
● National Public Radio guru Nina Totenberg remarked that conservative Senator Jesse Helms or his grandchildren should get AIDS − then giggled.
● Director Spike Lee announced that actor Charlton Heston, then president of the National Rifle Association, should be “shot with a .44 caliber Bulldog,” a snub-nosed revolver used by serial murderer “Son of Sam.”
● Actor George Clooney made a “joke” about Heston by claiming that he announced he has Alzheimer’s disease − again.
● New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd referred to “extra-chromosome conservatives,” a reference to Down’s syndrome. The same slur was used by Al Gore.
● Law professor Alan Dershowitz called conservative Republicans “mad dogs.” That is, he compared them to diseased animals that must be destroyed.
● Actress Julia Roberts claimed that “Republican” is between “reptile” and “repulsive” in the dictionary.
● Many liberals refer to those who disagree with their agenda as “fascists” or “Nazis.”
● Rick Santorum has been called a “weird, pious wackadoo” whose opinions are “rabid,” “nonsensical,” and “incendiary.” There we go with “rabid” again.
● The Los Angeles Times published letters referring to President Bush as “Satan” and “Hitler.”
● “Civil-liberties” advocates referred to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as a “serial murderer,” “Hitler,” and the “Antichrist.” But if Clarence Thomas is the Antichrist, then who is Elena Kagan − Mary Magdalene? Those who insist on the “wall of separation” should stop using religious terminology in politics.
Nor are Republicans blameless here. Some criticism of President Obama is over the top. And the candidates’ name-calling of one another has been compared to a circular firing squad. Liberals attack Mitt Romney for being conservative, while conservatives attack him for being liberal, and both attack him for being Mormon (“Mormons hate Christians;” “Mormons believe their magic underwear protects them from bullets”).
Attacking your political opponents with nasty insults is offensive. Attacking your political allies with nasty insults is self-destructive. Republicans seem to be doing a good job of self-destruction, while Democrats watch, trying to hide their smirks.
What are we to make of all this? Is it legitimate political discourse? Is it permissible criticism? Is it to be expected in the rough-and-tumble of politics? Is it just a little “over the top”?
Or is it hate speech?
Is it heartless “fun” at the expense of those struck down by illness or disability? Is it dehumanizing political opponents by comparing them to rabid animals or practitioners of genocide? Is it justifying the murder of those with whom we disagree?
We can attempt to have a dialogue with those we consider mistaken. We can try to talk things over with those we believe are misinformed. We can try to reach an understanding with those we regard as ignorant.
But how are we to act toward those we think are evil? How should we behave with those we believe to be racists plotting genocide? How can we compromise with those we regard as fit to be exterminated? How can we tolerate people who voted for Satan? How can we respect the law if the Antichrist is on the Supreme Court?
But here’s something odd. The same people who insist on removing all mention of God from our public life now insert mention of Satan and the Antichrist. When I was a kid, you could mention God in public, but “devil” was a cuss word. Now you can mention the devil in political discourse, but many people mention God only when cursing. This is called progress.
The above examples, and many others I could list, are the symptoms. The underlying disease is an absolute certainty that we are right, and everyone else is wrong. The disease is a narcissistic conviction that we are good, and everyone who disagrees is evil. The disease is a fervent zeal to push the agenda we find appealing down everyone’s throat, and to crush opposing ideas.
The disease, in other words, is fanaticism. Like cancer, fanaticism is curable if it is recognized in its early stages. But once it has progressed beyond a certain point, which is recognizable only in retrospect, it’s too late. Cure is then impossible, and the best one can hope for is to prolong things for a while.
Like cancer, fanaticism invades stealthily, creeping into journalism, law, academia, and even lunchtime conversation, until eventually all aspects of society are affected. The disintegration starts slowly, then accelerates. So far we appear to be at a reversible stage. But let’s not press our luck.
We are operating under the optimistic assumption that our nation, and our civilization, are held together by a powerful glue. So we think we can employ as much force as we like in an effort to achieve our aims. We assume that we can be as divisive as we wish, and nothing bad will happen.
But what if we’re wrong?
What if the glue that holds us together isn’t epoxy, but merely library paste? What if the glue is soluble in the acid of hatred? What if it isn’t strong enough to withstand the stress of contempt? What if it can’t hold up against the divisive power of class hatred, race hatred, religious hatred, and ideological hatred?
What if our system of government, limited by a Constitution, can’t withstand the centrifugal forces of white power, black power, brown power, class envy, radical environmentalism, radical animal rights, radical anti-tobacco, extreme pro-abortion, extreme anti-abortion, extreme pro-immigration, extreme anti-immigration, single-issue fanaticism, and all the other pressures to empower one group at the expense of others? What then?
We will discover − when it’s too late − that the beautiful structure the founders designed, and past generations built, is coming apart at the seams. But then there won’t be anything to do about it. We will be left sitting in the ruins, bemoaning our fate.
Then our only choices will be anarchy or tyranny. Freedom is viable when most citizens respect one another. But only a jungle or a dictatorship can tolerate hatred and contempt.
So let’s put a lid on it for a while. Let’s restrain our immoderate rhetoric. Let’s try to disagree without hating, and to express opposition without contempt. Who knows? We might even get used to it.
Fear and loathing make an entertaining novel, but an unhappy and unstable nation.
Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.