Entry from February 19, 2014

In the forthcoming number of The New Criterion, I return to my theme in the magazine of last December and October of 2012, when I discussed the growing penchant in our political culture for each side to make frivolous, reckless and often quite unfounded accusations of bad faith against the other. This is true on both sides of the political divide, but more ingrained, perhaps, on the left after eight years of its remarkable fulminations against the last Bush administration. Now, in a mailing I have received from The Nation magazine, I see that such gratuitous belligerence — and I am old enough to remember when the question, “Are you calling me a liar?” was invariably the prelude either to a retraction or to a fist-fight — appears to have become part of what nowadays we call the left-wing “brand.”

The envelope is decorated with the motto: “Reading Between the Lies Since 1865” and features photos of Donald Trump, Bill O’Reilly, Paul Ryan, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, all of whom have been given long, Pinocchio-style noses. The accompanying letter, from Katrina vanden Heuvel, the magazine’s editor and publisher, opens with four “Facts” said to be “OUTRAGEOUS!” [sic] — only one of which is about one of the alleged liars on the envelope and none of which constitutes a lie, in the ordinary acceptance of the term. Paul Ryan is described as “duplicitous,” but where one might have expected to see an example of his duplicity there is only this: he “has been relentlessly calling for the repeal of Obamacare” while, at the same time, “he’s also been petitioning for Affordable Care Act funds for health clinics in his district.” You might, with a bit of a stretch, call that hypocritical, but duplicitous? In the old days, you’d have had to say that Ms vanden Heuvel was trying to pick a fight.

That can’t be the case here, however, as she is obviously not very serious about her outrage. Messrs. Trump and O’Reilly and Ms Coulter are not mentioned at all in the letter, nor is any example given of their “lies.” Mr Limbaugh gets a separate insert on the front of which he is quoted as saying, “I wouldn’t recommend The Nation. . .” When you open it up you find the rest of the quotation: “. . . that’ll just make you mad.” Underneath there appear the words of a few left-wing heroes — Gore Vidal, Robert Redford, Gloria Steinem, Paul Newman — who do [or did] recommend the magazine, together with a rather limp dismissal of El Rushbo: “Well, you know where Rush is coming from.” If they couldn’t find a lie, couldn’t they at least have found something more OUTRAGEOUS than a mere disrecommendation to show us where Rush is coming from?

Ms vandenHeuvel must suppose she can pretty much take it for granted that potential subscribers to The Nation already believe, or are only too ready to believe, in the routinely iterated falsehoods of those with whom they disagree. Like Gloria Steinem in the quotation on the insert, they already know that The Nation is “definitely on the side of the good guys. . . and they’re not always guys.” This assumption makes Rush and the others bad guys by definition. What need for any further demonstration of their guilt? Perhaps we have all come, to some extent, to identify the opposition to our views not through ideological difference but through the assumption of moral perfidy, but the self-described progressives seem to have taken this assumption to a new level. We can no longer expect to see politics as being about good faith differences between two rival political philosophies; now it must be about the difference between good and evil.

At any rate, The Nation’s subscribers presumably do see the world in this way, or its editor would not address them so. They have grown used to the many examples of similar rhetorical recklessness that pass unnoticed by the media. All the same, the Pinocchio-noses suggest that there is some question about what pollsters call the “intensity” of their belief in conservative bad faith. As in Glenn Kessler’s “Fact Checker” column in The Washington Post, the wooden boy from Carlo Collodi’s children’s story makes the accusation, once the most serious you could make about someone, seem not that big a deal anymore — which is odd given the venom with which it is hurled at other times. I think the idea must be to advertise that “we’re not talking to these people, but you can’t blame us for that, since nothing they say is to be trusted anyway.”

It may not be altogether a coincidence that this half-in-jest attempt to brand the left as the party of presumptive truth-tellers, standing firm against the party of established liars, is being undertaken just at the moment when a particularly public contradiction by one of their own heroes — “if you like your policy, you can keep it” — is being found by many very difficult to distinguish from a lie. But it must go back at least to the book that its author, TV funnyman Al Franken, called Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them in 2003. That was also meant to be seen as a joke, except where it wasn’t. Presumably Ms vanden Heuvel, like Paul Krugman and others who make promiscuous charges of mendacity without any obvious joking about them, can still rely on the cultural consensus, left over from the days before Mr Franken was a politician himself, by which any politician can be branded a liar without anyone on either side’s having to bother with taking the charge, or anything else, too seriously. That’s postmodern politics for you.

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