Some thoughts on Obama’s memorial service remarks

About halfway through Obama’s speech on Wednesday – I think it was just after he used the phrase “moral imagination” – I turned to my fiancé and said, “You think Palin is thinking, ‘wow, this is what I should have said.’”  In truth, probably not.  For such a thought to cross her mind, she would have to first hear what someone else said, something I’m not convinced she has ever done.  After her resignation as Governor, Peggy Noonan wrote that Palin “displayed the disadvantages of being born into a point of view (in her case a form of conservatism; elsewhere and in other circumstances, it could have been a form of liberalism) and swallowing it whole: She never learned how the other sides think, or why,” that she had “ambition, appetite and no sense of personal limits,” and that she was emblematic of an “entire generation with no proper sense of inadequacy.”  In the year and a half since that column, I’ve never seen anything from Palin that could refute that.

Speaking from the podium Wednesday was a President; even Glen Beck said it.  It was the message from his inaugural speech, when, quoting from scripture, he declared that “the time has come to set aside childish things.”  This time, he challenged us to live up to the democracy imagined in the mind of a martyred child.  With just a few changes in words, he could’ve gone wrong, sounding like a father scolding his squabbling children.  But it was clear that he wasn’t just challenging us, he was challenging himself.  And that inclusion eliminated any sense of preachiness from his comments.  He exceeded the moment, even in an awkward atmosphere of whooping college students.

The woman in the 8-minute video that had gone viral hours before was a narcissist, someone who clearly concerned herself more with her personal defense (to an admittedly unfair and ugly accusation) than she was with the victims of a tragedy.  She was smaller than life.

Unfortunately, much of the criticism has been centered on her completely beside-the-point choice of words.  Blood libel.  It’s inane; is there anyone who actually believes Palin believes she has been accused of drinking the blood of Christian children?  This is exactly the kind of silly debate that robs political speech of all authenticity and spontaneity.  As long as every gaffe, every poor joke, every unfortunate phrase leads news cycles, of course politicians will script every word.  Even Alan Dershowitz – no ally of Palin’s – dismissed the controversy, saying that blood libel has “taken on broad metaphorical meaning.”

The worst part of it is that the debate is not only narrowed in terms of acceptable vs. out of bounds language, but also in terms of acceptable vs. out of bounds ideas.  It’s easy (and true) to say, as in Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, that lessening the vitriol in politics has nothing to do with moderating positions.  Easy and true, but tough in practice.  At what point, for example, does opposition to immigration policies make the transition from legitimate debate to hate speech?  Is everyone who denies the President was born in the United States automatically contributing to the coarsening dialogue or can that be considered a rather extreme (and hard to justify) position that nevertheless has its place in politics?  Same goes for Truthers.  How broad can we make the debate, and does that breadth necessarily have anything to do with destructive politics?

So many people, both in and out of the media, casually say that the problem lies with “people on both extremes.”  This is actually an issue I’ve evolved on: last year, I wrote that one of my biggest issues with the Tea Party and the growing libertarian movement in this country was that “little” debate was paralyzed as “big” debate was entertained.  How could we talk about health care when the entire role and purpose of government was at issue?  In recent months, I’ve really regretted having ever made that argument.  I’ve become energized by having basic ideological assumptions challenged, and the national debate – while certainly not the level of debate – has been richer and fuller.  I haven’t been polarized or entrenched in “my camp.”  I’ve found ideological intersections that I’d never thought to explore before.  There is something to be said for moments of extremism.

Granted, I’ve mainly explored those ideological intersections on blogs such as this one, which is committed to respectful debate, even on issues that may be classified as out-of-bounds in more mainstream discussions.  I’m sure I’d have a different take on the merits of extremism if I’d spent the last years watching Glen Beck.

My own contribution to living up to the challenge Obama laid out is to continue to broaden my own boundaries of what I would consider acceptable/unacceptable debate and to listen to other people’s views without simply preparing my counter-argument.  Judgment is important; I don’t mean to suggest that all views and all ways of expressing those views (short of violence) are equally good.  But I’m going to be extra cautious to judge only actual hate – or narcissism or cynicism or just blatant ambition without a larger belief – as illegitimate.  If the messenger is sincere, I’ll listen to the message.

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105 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Obama’s memorial service remarks

  1. I don’t think anyone believes that using “blood libel” is problematic because Palin actually believes that she’s being accused of drinking the blood of Christian children, so I’m not sure how your comment proves that concern over the wording is not justified.

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  2. Of course Obama can afford to look gracious and presidential when you have the best speech writers money and choreographers money can buy for his memorial/political rally and wasn’t being blamed for the shooting by liberals. Wouldn’t you be a bit defensive as Palin clearly was? And then to top it off, Palin was attacked for her words choice when trying to defend herself in an unscripted moment. As much as I don’t care for Palin, I’m rather sick of hearing about how great Obama was and how petty she was.

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    • Scott,

      She had no reason to be unscripted. She released a video that she definitely had plenty of time to review. It was not live.

      Which means that there was no reason for her to contradict herself nor make it all about her. She easily could have mentioned the actual victims. Regrettably she did not.

      This brittleness about the memorial doesn’t suit conservatives who engage in it very well either.

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    • I think Scott has a point here. In this day, a good speech essentially means you’re good at hiring speech-writers and you’re telegenic. It has become simply a gauntlet that the speaker has to cross successfully.

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      • For a live speech this makes more sense than for a pre-recorded one. Palin released a recorded statement. This means than she had the chance to review it and if she had the good sense realize that it had gone wrong and should be less about her and how criticizing her rhetoric puts her at risk of violence.

        But alas she did not. She did not rise to the occasion which is a genuine shame. Releasing no statement would have been better for everyone, her especially.

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        • TPG:

          “Releasing no statement would have been better for everyone, her especially.”

          So Plain should just have let herself be slandered b/c that is more convenient for everyone but her? I’m sure that she will learn and next time will be sure to have everything totally scripted like Obama down to the teleprompter.

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          • I think Krauthammer had a good explanation of why she should have remained quiet, most notably the fact that the charges against her were so absurd and that others had already defended her so well that she had already won. Most in the media had retreated from the specific insinuations against her, even if various bloggers and fringe politicians had not.

            Beyond that, there were plenty of ways that she could have diffused the situation while still defending herself and without coming across as if she was trying to make herself the 21st victim of the shooting.

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          • Scott, did it escape your notice that her video was very much a scripted product? Palin was clearly reading a speech that had been prepared in advance. And she chose to release her video on the day of the memorial service. It’s pretty obvious that the timing of the release would invite comparisons with the real memorial service. The video was Mrs. Palin’s response to the tragedy, just as President Obama’s speech was his response.

            The reason that almost every observer (right, left and center) is characterizing her video as a major blunder is due to its calculated nature. Set aside the “blood libel” remark — the overall intent of the video was to attack her critics on the morning of a day of mourning. She could have waited to attack. She could have simply expressed her grief over the tragedy, and extended sympathies to those killed or injured. She chose to do none of those things. She needs to accept the political consequences of her actions.

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            • I wish more people would write things like this. So often, they come with a “… but” and mentions about how the other side does it and is worse. Maybe they are, but if you want to tackle undesirable behavior, you can’t scream bloody murder when the “other side” does it and then excuse it when “your side” does it because the other side does it worse.

              (Nobody take this as a “the left (except you) is excusing this!” This isn’t an observation about the left in particular or what this is specifically condemning. I am seeing this *everywhere* right now, from all sides, on all sorts of points. I wish more people could simply say “I agree. That’s wrong” without feeling like they’re “giving in” to the “bad guys” by stating what should be obvious.)

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            • I haven’t watched the video but if the screencap is any indication of the stuff in there…

              Well, I’m one of those folks who expected to see a lot more “434 to go!” jokes than I actually saw (even if I thought it too tacky to make such a joke myself).

              On the other end of the joke spectrum “why don’t bad things happen to opposing politicians?” is trite, sure… but beyond the pale?

              I’m sure my offensitivity meter is not calibrated to the same degree as all y’all fine persons’ are but offensive jokes are part of how a lot of folks out there process.

              I don’t know that I’m ready to give a condemnation greater than “tacky and unfunny” for a lot of stuff out there that get “this sort of thing is coarsening our culture!” or whatever the politeness police think is the felony of the week.

              I’ve had enough of my jibes taken as serious attacks to wonder if the same isn’t happening to people dumb enough to think that 140 characters read on an SMS device allows the same semiotic nuance as a throwaway line given to a close friend.

              But I haven’t seen all of the tweets in question. Maybe some of them aren’t even close to funny or are obvious calls for revolution or whatever and I can’t condone those for any reason at all.

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  3. Lisa –

    Thank you for this post.

    I find “to listen to other people’s views without simply preparing my counter-argument” to be a standard worthy of endeavor, but admit it can be a challenge for me, especially when the snarkiness comes out.

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  4. This is really great. An excellent post.

    To give an example, last week I heard Diane Rehm on NPR talking with a panel of guests about the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. They were going through various provisions and discussing their history and interpretation. It was one of the most informative civics lessons I think I’ve ever heard on the radio.

    The panel had a range of different opinions and approaches, but the sheer fact that they were talking about it was clearly thanks to the so-called cheap publicity stunt of the Republicans in the House.

    Opposition is great when it’s civil.

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  5. Really wonderful post, Lisa. I agree with you especially in regards to extremism. Extremism isn’t the problem at all – it’s dishonesty and insincerity that’s the problem. And civility is only worthwhile if it’s bulwarked by some passion or truth. Great post.

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    • I wouldn’t go so far as to say that extremism isn’t the problem, but I think that may be due to how we might be defining extremism differently.

      It is completely legitimate to be extremely upset about things you see happening in the country or in the world – outrage is an honest emotion that is sometimes called for. That isn’t a problem, I agree.

      But there is another extremism, when you stake out a position (even an honestly and passionately held position) on an issue and then contend that all others who disagree with your position, no matter how close or far from you they lie on the continuum of possible positions, is either a liar or cheat or devil or fool. This kind of extremism is very much the problem.

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  6. “The worst part of it is that the debate is not only narrowed in terms of acceptable vs. out of bounds language, but also in terms of acceptable vs. out of bounds ideas.”

    I find it troubling how many reasonable ideas are now referred to as “political suicide” or “the third rail”, regardless of their actual merits as ideas. It’s disconcerting to see a politician propose an idea and be called, essentially, nuts because they said something that was reasonable and true, but unpopular.

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  7. “I’m going to be extra cautious to judge only actual hate – or narcissism or cynicism or just blatant ambition without a larger belief – as illegitimate. If the messenger is sincere, I’ll listen to the message. ”

    Sounds great. Are you going to declare that people like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh are “axiomatically insincere”, though?

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  8. Lisa, this is well written. The problem is that it really doesn’t say much, at least not in contemporary political terms.
    If I understand ‘whas happenin’ now’ (and there are those ne’er-do-wells who would say I don’t) our beloved leader’s epigones/goons spent a great deal of time and effort immediately following the assassination attempt in Tuscon accusing a number of figures on the right of responsibility for these murders and woundings because of their use of ‘hate’ and ‘uncivil’ and ‘vitriolic’ speech. You may recall the various and sundry political columns and the remarks of, say, for example, the Sheriff of Pima County.
    Now for four or five days our Kenyan-Marxist president n’er said a word about these nasty and on-going comments. Finally, when it’s determine that the shooter was NOT a conservative, but that he more closely resembled your typically confused, drug-addelpated librul, Barry got religion and called for an end to all this evil incivility and nasty discourse. The problem, of course, was that the American public were again turning away from those hurtling the invectives, the base and vulgar commie-dems, in disgust.

    Re: Barry’s speech at the ‘memorial’ I’ll have to take your word that he ‘sounded’ presidential, because I only heard bits and pieces. However, I can’t get to excited about that because I remember when LBJ, Bubba, and Jimmy Carter sounded presidential, and these were presidents in name only. My guess is you could get Jeff Bridges to ‘sound’ really, really presidential.
    Sounding presidential and being presidential are two very different things, and there’s nothing, I mean nothing, presidential about Barry.
    However, I did see Barry choke up with the mention of the murdered little nine year old girl and I agree that this is a good sign because it indicates that he really loves his children if not his country.
    The thing about the ‘memorial’ is that it reminded me of a heartless, dirtball, politican taking advantage of a ‘crisis.’ Maybe it was the ‘tone’ of the event, the tawdry cheering and such, maybe it was that he went on for so long….I’m not sure, but it looked staged, a venue for Barry to do his MLK inpersonation, a political pep-rally, and certainly not a religious service to remember the dead
    and wounded. It appears that in Barry’s world, it’s all about Barry.

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  9. This reminds me of a conversation I over at Darwin Central a few years ago:

    http://forum.darwincentral.org/viewtopic.php?f=48&t=25937&hilit=ppnl

    The thread is like six pages long but the most important part is between me and Gideon over his willingness to lie about being a creationist.

    A message that pretty much summed up my position on Gideon’s position:

    ” Look at this thread. In order to beat the “liberals” who you are afraid will line you up against a wall and shoot you you lie about being a creationist to get the vote of stupid people who are not educable.

    You must lie to get the votes of people you have nothing but contempt for because you fear the smart people on the other side. These people you have so much contempt for is called the party base.

    Religion becomes simply a means of controlling the masses. If there is no God that is knowledge the masses must never be allowed to have. Like in the movie “The 300″ you seem to have nothing but contempt for religion yet it is seen as necessary for public order. You are publicly pious while privately cheating on wives, sending dirty messages to underage boys or soliciting blow jobs in public restrooms.

    At what point does this whole thing collapse under the weight of its own lies and deceit? At what point does cynicism reach toxic levels?

    I begin to see the wingnuts as the victims. In a few decades you will have to pretend to believe in a flat earth to get elected. That’s the world you are creating.

    Lying about creationism is a far greater infidelity than anything Sanford did and in the long run creates far more of a public danger than Sanford’s disappearance.

    I will not be a part of that.”

    I have said it before, the problem republicans face isn’t with democrats or “liberals”. The problem is structural within the party. Gideon is wrong in saying he cannot win an election without lying about being a creationist. The real problem is that he cannot get past the republican primary without lying. His fellow republican would ambush him. The “Liberals” did not create that situation.

    This is what pushes me toward libertarian despite the fact that I simply do not believe that government can be reduced as much as they seem to think.

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    • Sarah haunts the waking hours and the dreams of commie-dems. The beautiful and vivacious lady drives ‘you people’ boinkers. Man, I love and admire the lady….”blood libel” YES!!!!!!
      And, she’s smarter then the Kenyan-Marxist!!!!!!

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        • North, try as you might, I’m not going there.
          I have seen in the past where certain of my people just turn ‘you people’ into frothing dogs, barking endlessly in the night.
          I like that…it tells me something of youns ideology and I enjoy the sound of dogs barking in the night.

          Chris,
          Again, who’s read..er, red, and who’s blue?
          Theoretically your side should be ‘red’ and mine blue? Yes/no?

          I find Sarah attractive but beyond that, I agree, she seems ‘limited.’
          She’s ‘limited’ in the same sense that JFK, LBJ, Carter, and Bubba were ‘limited.’ And, politically, she seems just as astute and capable as the gentlemen mentioned. Best case scenerio is she rallys the crowd from fly-over country to vote against the communists and in the manner of ‘true’ Americans they ‘throw the bums out!’
          I should note however, I do believe she is significantly smarter/more intelligent than our Kenyan-Marxist president, Barry.

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              • Well, maybe it would be fairer to use the term “educated” instead of “smart”. Obama is thoroughly grounded in all the hallowed methods of academia: logical analysis of policy issues; reasonableness; detached, emotionless discourse, etc. This is why he had to fend off accusations of “elitism” from the populist right during the 2008 campaign.

                Sarah Palin has gained proficiency in very few of these things. Instead, she is a master of hucksterism, affected folk wisdom, and attention whoring. She is generally unqualified to hold political office of any kind, nevermind national political office. It seems like her popularity rests on the common people’s spite for the educated classes more than on any perceived leadership qualities.

                I don’t say this with any sort of normative in mind. This is just how I see the situation. I find myself generally disagreeing with Obama’s policy positions, but at least he plays baseball.

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                • Actually, I kinda agree.
                  But, I sense that Barry’s the beneficiary of Affirmative Actions since his advocates are not eager to release either his grades or his writings.
                  Barry has learned how to ‘talk,’ which of course does not make him intelligent, nor qualified to be dog catcher.
                  Palin seems to have run a city and a state, such as it is, without forcing it into bankruptcy. Barry appears to be driving the country into bankruptcy. Which do I prefer?
                  The one who isn’t so stupid or evil as to drive the country into bankruptcy.

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                  • Barry being the beneficiary of affirmative action is a pretty baseless and borderline offensive claim. Your equally baseless assertion that Obama is some kind of Manchurian Candidate or just a pretender, like Frank Abagnale or Don Draper, begs the response of Burt Cooper: so what?

                    I’ll agree with you that there is something to be said for the dying virtue of fiscal responsibility. But I really don’t think the U.S. is at all in danger of going bankrupt. Running a massive deficit is worse because it punishes the just while rewarding the profligate. But we shouldn’t forget that it was Palin’s party that got us here. Barry isn’t driving the country into bankruptcy. He’s far too busy using the most effective tools at the disposal of the reality-based community trying to undo all the mistakes of the last administration.

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                    • Actually, I think AA has had limited success since its inception, assuming you think that the federal gummint has the moral authority to force/require companies to hire minorities over whites, based simply on color. However, as a society we should be long past the idea that it continues to be a required program to achieve ‘social justice’ in America. One would think it’s become something of an industry for its beneficiaries.

                      While I do enjoy your excellent analysis I think you’re somewhat predjudiced by your political inclinations, which is fine. I don’t see Barry as “undo”…ing the mistakes of Bush II rather compounding those mistakes; given that Bush’s mistakes were acting like a high spending, war mongering, Democrat.
                      However, I do hope, indeed pray, that you’re right and the country isn’t going to go bankrupt.
                      I continue to see Barry as a radical, Kenyan-Marxist, very much reflecting the derailed ideals of his father, however, I do enjoy your defense of his administration and we’ll continue to shout across the barricades.

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                    • I’m definitely with you on affirmative action, Bob, though I think the “error rates” of affirmative action are probably lower than the “error rates” of university admissions as a whole, which is to say that pretty much everybody who gets into Harvard Law School is bright no matter what race they belong to and despite affirmative action.

                      I think a more interesting criticism is that affirmative action was designed to benefit the descendants of slaves and instead it winds up benefiting fresh-off-the-boat African immigrants.

                      What are my political inclinations, really? I have no idea at this point, although I generally read “libertarian” scholarship. Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich are bit too radical for me on some issues, but at least it seems like they’re decent human beings. I should probably take the political compass test again and get back to you.

                      I could agree with you that Obama is just continuing bad Bush policies, but it seems like his hands are tied on a lot of things and his administration seems to prefer gradual as opposed to sweeping radical change.

                      Both parties have been spending like we’re all dead in the long-run for quite some time. The Republican Party which you reference doesn’t really exist anymore. Even Reagan was a high-spending war-mongerer. I think the Tea Party is fundamentally kind of an emergent phenomenon in response to this.

                      I think for the most part David Brooks has been right on about Obama: he’s a pragmatist trying to balance the concerns of all involved with his own party platform, which is definitely not communism, but more of a robust form of wonkery.

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    • Many republicans support Sarah for the same reason Gideon in my post above support creationism. It is what you have to do to win. The bad tone of of debate on the republican side is not driven by hatred of liberals so much as the internal need to activate the base and get its enthusiastic support. Most republicans with sense know better the same way Gideon knows creationism is nonsense. They just can’t see any way out of the trap they have set for themselves.

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      • I would love either if some popular politician came along who firmly insisted that religion belongs outside of the political sphere and/or the people themselves adopted that position. Despite all the separation of church and state ethic, perhaps religion – and to tie this into Mr. Wall’s latest post – Christianity is perhaps the strongest external force driving our politics. I think it’d be a real toss-up between religion and economics were such a thing quantifiable. And the worst thing about it is that the Godless Democrats pontificate and wax religious just as much as the Republicans. It’s like Kafka’s “Conversation with the Supplicant”

        http://www.herzogbr.net/kafka/supplicant.htm

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        • Mr. Carr, read George Washington’s Farewell Address and get back on this.

          It’s not so much religion but respect for other people’s religion. Obama plays the religion card more than Dubya did, and Reagan played it so seldom that nobody can tell you jack about his religious beliefs.

          I don’t think you get it, sir.

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            • Mikie,
              Thanks for this: “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”!
              Indeed, there’s a judgement day a-comin’…and it will be fearful to behold. Jaybird, a comment, pleazzzze! A little appropriate scripture for these non-believing, barbarians!

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              • I’ve forgotten the Greek I’ve learned, Bob. I am little more than barbarian myself these days.

                How about “The Prayer of Saint Ephrem”?

                O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust for power and idle talk.

                But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love.

                Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother. For blessed art Thou unto the ages. Amen.

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            • Chris, I hope my constant “commie-Dem” isn’t offending anyone’s sensibilities. I do try to keep it very, very simple for my friends on the Left who are constantly yearning to ‘move forward.’
              However, “Godless Democrats” not only has a decided ring to it, but is singularly descriptive as well.

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              • It doesn’t really roll off the tongue like Commie-Dem does, and the commiedom is really more strictly located in the D column than godlessness is. Libertarians, Neocons, and Young Movement Conservatives are just crawling with godless heathens, while Dems fill the pews at those boring mainline protestant outfits, the Methodists, Unitarians, and UCC, not to mention the Jews and Muslims.

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                • Bo, excellent analysis. You don’t suppose Chris is trying to deflect my impertinent criticisms?
                  I think I’ll hang with ‘commie-dems’ for the forseeable future with a ‘Godless’ dem thrown in when I’m really fired up.

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              • I personally don’t mind. But, to conflate progress with communism necessarily entails a Marxist worldview, which, I’m afraid makes you a Marxist, Bob.

                On the other hand, “Godless” seems like a more accurate hate-epithet. Atheists generally vote Democrat, and if there are any essential policy differences between the two parties, these tend to be allied with religious issues: prayer in schools, creationism, even abortion (although abortion shouldn’t be a religious issue). In other words, there is little room for God in the Democrat platform. “Godless” in a non-pejorative sense wouldn’t be an unfair description.

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                • Chris, I like the above very much.
                  However, if I use ‘Godless’ in relation to ‘dems’ there’s going to be a whole lotta dems who really don’t care. While, if I use ‘commie’ in relation to dems they almost all seem to get their panties in a twist and eventually I end up kicked off the site.
                  What to do, what to do?

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                  • Chris, also on the ‘conflating’ Marxism and ‘progress’ thing; I’m not sure I do, but if you say so I’ll agree. I’m figurin’ you’re getting that from the ‘commie-dem’ line.
                    There’s something historical to be said re: economic determinism the past century or so. However, it’s been decades since I read Marx and my own feeling is that he’s the culmination of a derailed line-of-meaning that goes Boehme-Hegel-Marx that’s grounded on a preverse gnostic/demonic ideology that simply stated places man above God.
                    We can work through this line-of-meaning and clearly see that, even though Barry’s a rather dull witted epigone, he’s the living spirit of an incredible evil that threatens the very foundation of the republic.

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        • “I would love either if some popular politician came along who firmly insisted that religion belongs outside of the political sphere and/or the people themselves adopted that position. ”

          See, that’s great to say, but it still comes down to interpretation.

          Let’s say that the manager of a DMV office declares that employees at that office may not wear religious symbols at work, because open display of religious symbols implies organizational acceptance and “religion is outside of the public sphere”.

          Why can’t you argue that this declaration is itself an example of bringing religion into the public sphere?

          The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. That means no law, either good or bad, pro or con, favoring or disfavoring. I agree that religion shouldn’t be part of the public sphere, but you seem to believe that means all members of government should be atheists…

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  10. Fine. Erik and Bo. 180 degrees from the Barney the Dinosaur crap that was sold around here.

    “If you can’t gracefully handle being slimed a hundred times a day, then politics is probably not your life’s calling.”

    Just let us know what the rules are, as you perform your ballet around the elephant in the room, that [certain folks on] the left used this tragedy to slime their opponents.

    Lighten up, Sarah. Toughen up, Sarah. You have blood on your hands, BTW.

    We got you coming and going, you poor hapless fuck.

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  11. It’s easy (and true) to say, as in Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, that lessening the vitriol in politics has nothing to do with moderating positions. Easy and true, but tough in practice. At what point, for example, does opposition to immigration policies make the transition from legitimate debate to hate speech? Is everyone who denies the President was born in the United States automatically contributing to the coarsening dialogue or can that be considered a rather extreme (and hard to justify) position that nevertheless has its place in politics?

    I think its less about vitriolic speech as much as it is about speech the speaker does not mean and the audience has been trained to not hold them to mean. For example, in response to Angle’s ‘2nd amendment remedies’ speech, people have said to me things like “come on, you don’t think she really wanted someone to shoot Harry Reid”. To me that’s the problem, she doesn’t but that is the plain meaning of what she said.

    And let’s not even say its wrong. I’m perfectly comfortable with people who honestly advocate violence or armed revolution. For example, consider radical anti-abortion protestors who put up ‘wanted dead or alive’ posters with abortionists. These people have a point. They honestly believe abortionists are committing murder. They honestly believe force can be legitimately used to stop murder. They see this as a justification for the use of force elsewhere (such as for invading Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein) and they get angry that when the subject of abortion turns up suddenly they are given the Christian pacifism lines about love the sinner and turn the other cheek. So they advocate killing abortionists.

    Vitriolic yes. Hateful yes. Probably not illegal unless its uttered inside an actual conspiracy or its uttered in a condition of imminent action (such as yelling “Kill that abortionist” to a lynch mob poised for action). But it’s honest speech confering a point of view. And they take the consquences of their speech. The mainstream writes them off. Republicans will not let them speak at their conventions, mainstream pro-life groups will expel them from membership.

    “2nd amendment remedies” is not honest political speech, though. The speaker does not really believe shooting Harry Reid is an acceptable ‘plan B’ to failing to win the Senate or failing to repeal the health bill or whatever. This is the problem with much of the Tea Party. It’s a lot of tough talk about watering the ‘tree of liberty’ with blood and revolution against tyranny but at the end of the day almost everyone expects to return home to the status quo….like college kids who protest for communist revolution during the school year, then return to the country club in the summer. The rhetoric of violence coarsens debate because it ceases to be about violence and begins to be a game to simply signal “I’m more conservative than that guy”.

    So I don’t think the ‘rule’ should be no vitriolic speech. The shooting will generate that as a norm briefly but then we will go back to being opposed to each other. I also think its silly to imagine that we should never use the metaphors of guns or war in political speech. I do, though, think that speakers should be held to their words. I think people who casually drop ‘2nd amendment remedies’ should be treated like, say, an American Muslim who casually suggests shooting Senators who support giving aid to Israel may be required if Obama can’t get a ‘2 state solution’ working down there. I think the appeasers should also cease. Don’t rush in to say ‘2nd amendment remedies’ doesn’t really mean she wanted Reid shot. If she doesn’t mean that then she shouldn’t say it.

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    • Which is, in fact, a problem, because if you make a joke about bombs near an airport checkpoint, you are taken seriously. As in, the “big bullet-nosed flashlights in your orifices” kind of serious.

      But, of course, “violent metaphors” in political speech are just jokes and we shouldn’t take them seriously, right?

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