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May 3, 2015

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Jon Ralston:

Extremes coarsen public discourse — again

In 2008, after I conducted a brief televised interview with Barack Obama in which he derided me as a “proxy for John McCain,” the excesses poured forth almost immediately.

Rush Limbaugh all but deified me on his radio program, congratulating me for challenging “The Messiah” and fretting I might end up unemployed, slumped over a slot machine. Oh, joy.

Obama supporters unleashed all manner of vitriol, from calling me a “conservative tool” to a “satanic hack” to a “racist punk.” Lovely, eh?

(Here’s the video and a column.)

I am reminded of this experience as partisans and Fourth Estaters are all atwitter (especially on Twitter) about Limbaugh’s astonishingly asinine and revoltingly clueless remarks about Sandra Fluke and his subsequent apology that dripped with all the sincerity of a child asking for forgiveness so he doesn’t lose car privileges.

The behavior in the wake of this display of crass hucksterism by the best huckster on the planet has been all too predictable and shows the more things change ...

The false moral equivalencies, the blind fingerpointing, the hyperventilating counterattacks. This is yet another manifestation of the let’s-watch-the-cable-network-that-validates-our-point-of-view culture, one that provides little illumination in the quest for partisan (or ratings) advantage, counts on the populace being ignorant and easy to manipulate, and is often rewarded by ... the populace being ignorant and easy to manipulate.

Thus, we spend more time bleating about imagined wars on women and religion and less on potential cataclysms involving potentially nuclear, bellicose nations. God bless America.

Alas, this is the second object lesson in a week or so, with the first coming with the sad death of Andrew Breitbart at the age of 43. The ugliness spewing forth from those on the left was all too emblematic of a movement that too often resorts to ad hominem contumely as opposed to reasoned debate. Yes, conservatives often do the same with their bête noirés, especially the president, but I find the right to be more haughty and condescending than relentlessly disgusting and classless.

I was no fan of Breitbart and was less than amused during the “Showdown in Searchlight” in 2010 when he made a sensation out of someone egging a Tea Party Express bus while across the way his peeps carried racist and birther placards.

But while I believe civility can be overrated, when a man dies, leaving a wife and four children behind, unless he was a serial killer, perhaps, it is a time to shut up if you have nothing but bile to vomit into the public discourse. When I saw people who despised Breitbart defending the posthumous pounding of him by raising the provocateur’s awful comments upon Ted Kennedy’s death, I wondered just how hypocritical they could be and how low into the muck they could sink.


What’s wrong with the body politic is not people seeing events through the prism of their own experiences, as we all do, but the surrender to the most base impulses and the refusal to even consider that the other side might have a point. Do some conservatives show insensitivity bordering on misogyny when it comes to women’s issues? Of course. But do some liberals look down on sincere people of faith who value their religion above almost everything? Absolutely.

I am not sure what bothers me more in the wake of Limbaugh’s offensive outburst — the cowardice of the GOP presidential contingent to call him out or the rush to exploit his comments by those on the other side.

Just as the left should not have raised what Breitbart said about Kennedy and others, so, too, should the right have not been so quick to list the myriad outrageous and sulfurous comments made by liberal commentators. So what? Sometimes a thing does speak for itself. Period.

This is why it is almost laughable that anyone who participates in a political world that is so frequently full of slime and dishonesty would even seek to claim the moral high ground. The reason nothing gets done, as Bill Raggio’s passing and Olympia Snowe’s retirement highlights, is not that nobody believes in anything anymore but that they believe in partisan advantage above all else.

Matt Lewis, a conservative blogger, wrote a short piece in the wake of the Limbaugh remarks calling for more civility. As if to make his case — and mine here — leftist policeman Media Matters immediately derided him for his “self-serving nonsense.”


As I have said before, I don’t necessarily think more civility is the answer to what ails the body politic. Fewer talking points, more talking to each other, maybe. But there have to be lines in public discourse, and there must be people willing to enforce them, whether it’s the right after Limbaugh’s comments or the left after Breitbart’s death.

Is that, really, too much to ask?

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  1. The importance of civility in discourse is that it doesn't get in the way of the argument being made. Limbaugh's point (without regard to it being valid or not) was completely lost in the aftermath the of words he chose to convey it.

    It is an old saw, but a good one; You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

  2. Breitbart knew what he was getting into when he joined the blogging scene. I watched him once on "Real Time with Bill Maher". I disagreed with some of his statements, but it really didn't change my thinking on most of the topics discussed. The blogs are filled with rancor and partisanship and you have to sift through the rhetoric to find the occasional pearl of wisdom. I don't comment on people's death notices. As you stated, he had a wife and kids, and they deserve privacy to grieve. Kicking a deceased person for his views after he's no longer able to respond accomplishes nothing. Much of the viral partisanship is a product of FEAR. The world is changing politically and economically. PAX AMERICANA is over, as unilateral war, started by us, is now the order of the day.

  3. Did Jon ever do an article on the ugly things Breitbart tweeted after the death of Senator Kennedy?

  4. Anyone here familiar with the false equivalence argument?

  5. Jon - Very good article.

  6. [[Thus, we spend more time bleating about imagined wars on women]]
    I enjoy your column even when I disagree with you and I disagree with you on the above quote. There very definately a war on women and I have been saying this long before the Blunt Amendment, the Virginia transvaginal bill battle or the Limbaugh bruhaha. The amount of bills introduced in Congress and in statehouses around the nation that limit women's access to health services have increased exponentially since the 2010 midterms. These latest controversies have only shed light on what is being done to women around the nation. I am glad there is finally a push back.

  7. I agree, extreme partisanship serves no good purpose! I'm a Very Independent Democrat and I'm reasonably partisan on the issues - but, this far left and far right extremism only divides America more - to the point, now, where we have become so polarized we are paralyzed, sadly!

    I'm of the mind that the vast majority of Americans are not just left, or right, in truth I think most of us our moderates on most issues - though we are liberal on social issues and very conservative about economics and preserving our natural resources!

    I know of no one that is FOR waste, fraud and abuse - and we can't even seem to agree on that! So, we waste countless millions, creating totally unnecessary bureacracies to ensure only the most needy get $60 in Food Assistance - while wasting BILLIONS on Corporate Welfare with a wink and a nod - this is just NUTS!

    America is angry - but, we have to convert that anger into positive, productive passion!

    Those that are so sure we need to return to the past, fine, let's return to the time when basic good manners, and etiquette was a bench-mark in discussion, debate and social change! Let's return to civility before we end up back in another civil war - PLEASE!

    As for going on Face To Face with Jon Ralston, all I can say, from experience, is that you had better fully understand the basics of journalism, know your subject matter and be prepared! I thought this interview with, then Senator Obama, was one of the best - both held their own, and with a good-spirited sense of humor!

    BTW: I love it when Jon Ralston takes Democrats to task with equal committment to holding them accountable to the facts as much as he does Republicans - that's demonstrating a NON-Partisan approach and how journalism is done professionally, and what the publc expects - and needs!

  8. BTW: As a Father of a Daughter, having seen the on-going inequality for American Women over the past 40 years - there IS a "War On Women" - and we need to fight it, again, and follow-through until the ERA is ratified, simply because it IS the right thing to do for ALL American Women (not just our Daughters)!