Grand Old Persecution Complex

This post really struck me. It mirrors a few others I’ve read lately, and also something I’d been thinking of myself, since the Governor of Alaska decided to do her swan song over the fourth of July weekend. Namely, the persecution complex that is rampant in the GOP generally, and the conservative movement in particular these days. It’s an odd phenomenon that has its roots in the “grumpy old man” syndrome that encompasses Archie Bunker, Rush Limbaugh and many others, including my own father; odd because there’s little else which strikes the active listener more oddly then hearing middle-to-upper-middle class, straight, white, Protestant men complain about how nobody knows de trouble dey’ve seen.

But that traditional expression of it seems to have expanded beyond the bounds of the traditional crusty (male) curmudgeons above, and broadened out to the entire conservative mindset. The post I’m referring to was from The Rude Pundit (warning: he’s not kidding about being “rude” – his blog subhead boasts: “proudly lowering the level of political discourse”), on the Sarah Palin resignation. It starts out with the obvious observation, one that should immediately have crossed the mind of anyone witnessing on TV or even reading the text of Governor Palin’s oddly rambling resignation last weekend: “Somewhere, you know the Clintons are laughing their asses off at Sarah Palin punking out of politics.” Like I said, pretty obvious. But not so obvious that it doesn’t bear mentioning. Because the conservative blogosphere, television and radio were virtually on fire from shortly after the resignation with tales of how badly Sarah Palin had been treated, when, in truth, she wasn’t treated any differently (and certainly not worse) if you look at the history and the facts, than many other politicians (most of them Democrats and/or liberals) in recent years. In fact – as in the case of the Clintons – especially Hillary Clinton – Palin’s treatment was quite noticeably not nearly as bad.

Was Palin treated badly/harshly/unfairly? You bet. But politics is now and always has been a hardball game, not for the thin-skinned or the faint of heart. Not much has changed in that regard. But what IS different between now and when the Clintons were the press’ favorite whipping-boy (and girl), going through their unprecedented firestorm of criticism and abuse, is that the technology has changed. Blogs weren’t around in any serious way at the time. Many fewer people had Internet access, let alone were using the Internet for political news or discussion. When the Sarah Palin resignation happens (or the Larry Craig scandal, or Tony Snow’s death), conservative researchers simply go to the comments section of reliably high-traffic liberal blogs like DailyKos or HuffingtonPost, and pore over the hundreds of comments, looking for the handful that have the most hateful thoughts. Then they publish these as “evidence” of not only a conspiracy on “the left” against whichever conservative politician they’re trying to defend, but as proof that lefties are all “hate-filled” and whatnot. This is what Bill O’Reilly does every time a conservative self-immolates (or is defeated by a liberal).

And, yes, there was some of that in the comments section of liberal blogs during the Palin resignation, just as there was on the news of Tony Snow’s death and any other event where a prominent conservative is laid low in one way or another. There will always be a small group of people in any movement who take inappropriate and cruel delight in the misfortunes of others, and liberal blogs’ comment sections are no exception. But there’s a distinct difference between what some anonymously-posting malcontent says, 200-odd posts deep into the comments on one post, and the posts written for publication on the front page of a blog. That’s what O’Reilly and Limbaugh and others never mention: that the “hate-speech” they’ve discovered “on the left” is not written by or sanctioned by the authors and editors of the blogs they appear on. Many times, the proprietors of these big-name blogs are not even aware of such comments. The truth is that high-traffic blogs on controversial subjects such as politics can easily get hundreds of comments per post on the front page. And the keep coming in for hours, sometimes even days, as new people read the post for the first time, or re-read what others have written and respond to that. Blog proprietors can’t possibly spend all their time patrolling their own comments sections and keeping up to date on all of it.

The point is that what you can occasionally find in the comments at Kos or HuffPo (or for that matter, on, or is more akin to what you might hear around the water-cooler at work from that lunatic in the mailroom (and no one else), or overhear from some caller to a late-night radio show, than it is to the published, formal opinions of news organizations or other media. The difference is that now, due to the magic of the Internet, it’s as if anyone can – if they’re willing to spend the time – remotely stick their ear into every kitchen table discussion of a given issue. Do that enough times, on any issue, from any political perspective, and you’ll turn over a few hateful nuts

Also, everyone in the modern age is familiar with the TV station boilerplate that says “the views expressed in this program are solely those of their authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of this station, its management or parent companies.” TV stations run this any time they air a program with controversial statements in it, as a way to both inform the clueless, and provide pro-forma cover against any lawsuits by said clueless. It shouldn’t be hard to realize that the same disclaimer should be extended – perhaps even more so – to blogs where anyone with an Internet connection and an email address can register and post a comment, without revealing their real name or having to stand behind their words (and any possible consequences of those words). Just because some reprehensible anonymous jerk says he’s glad Tony Snow is dead, that doesn’t mean that’s the unified view of “the left,” or even the view of anyone else but himself at the blog on which he posted such an atrocious comment.

However, of course, that doesn’t stop the O’Reillys and the Becks and the Limbaughs from crying “foul!” in defense of the latest disgraced Republican, using such anonymous blog comments as “proof.” But as it? Seems to me that a couple of despicable but anonymous comments on the Internet somewhere are far less representative of what a political party, or a movement, or even “the media” think than views which are sanctioned specifically by for-profit news outlets. And, as I said, when the Clintons’ went through their own firestorm, there were no blogs. Back then, we (individuals) lacked the technological ability to broadcast our thoughts so widely. The closest analogue was probably talk radio, because ordinary citizens got to speak their mind on the air…but even that wasn’t as instantaneous or as oversight-free as the web. You had to pick up the phone, try a million times to get through, then (if you were lucky enough to get through) wait 20 or 30 minutes until your call was taken, all before you could spout off on a topic. Mostly, before the Internet, the opinions were those of the station, or at least its paid opinion-mongers. And what did the opinion-shapers of that not-long-ago era have to say about Hillary Clinton, et. al.? And how does that compare to what the Palins endured? As the Rude Pundit, in his inimitable style, put it:

Whether or not Bill and Hillary Clinton had Vince Foster murdered was discussed on mainstream news channels, not just dismissed as sheer madness. Elected Republicans made jokes about Chelsea Clinton’s awkward adolescent looks. And when someone investigates Sarah Palin and talks about the shape of her vagina and how she s***s a d**k, then we can even begin to talk about who is treated unfairly. It wasn’t just some cranky-ass blogger. It was the way the national media functioned: as a nonstop Clinton attack machine. The Clintons f***ing took it all, like Rocky against Apollo Creed, man, in Rocky II.

And all this s**t was even before blogs existed. What kind of f****** shitstorm would have cycloned through the nutzoid right and the 24-hour news networks, desperately trying to fill time until the world ends, if blogs had been around? Oh, right, ask Barack and Michelle Obama about birth certificates, Bill Ayers, and secret Muslim terrorist agendas.

Exactly. Maybe some people weren’t paying attention during the Clinton impeachment years (this seems to be a favorite excuse of rank-and-file Republicans today, who claim that they “weren’t into politics” then, and so yes, they would have objected at the time if they had heard such scurrilous charges and smears being leveled). And it’s been ten years now…and let’s face it: those impeachment hearings are a period in our country that even many of the principals involved in the prosecution would like to forget, so it’s not surprising that memory may fade a bit. But I’m pretty sure Hillary’s and Bill’s memory hasn’t faded. She was called a bitch, fat, a “vaginal-American” unfeminine, a lesbian…virtually every sexist cliché you’ve ever heard. And that’s in the media, by media figures. If we’d had the ability at the time to each broadcast our spur-of-the-moment thoughts to the entire world via the Internet, who KNOWS what the backpages or comment sections of right-wing blogs would have revealed? I certainly think it would have been worse than David Letterman’s joke about Palin at the Yankee’s game, or any of the other taunting (unfair and mean-spirited as it may have been) that Palin went through.

Heck, in the same election, Barack Obama was called a Muslim terrorist, Hitler, and various other insults, many about his family (especially his wife). I’m not saying – not at all – that it’s OK because everybody who runs for office at that level comes in for that sort of abuse. It isn’t. But in a country of 300 million-plus, where at least half of them are at least somewhat interested in politics, you’re bound to have a few loathsome people making thoughtless or outright despicable comments. It may not be acceptable (to me), but I at least can see clearly enough to realize that it’s certainly endemic. In fact, that’s why many people choose not to run for office at that level; because they simply aren’t willing to subject themselves (or, often, their families, especially if they have young children) to that level of scrutiny and unfair public abuse. It isn’t new, it isn’t unprecedented, and it certainly wasn’t unfairly concentrated on Sarah Palin. Though you’d never know it, to hear either Palin or her boosters in the regular conservative media (Limbaugh, FOX, etc.) – never mind the right-wing Internet – talk about it. In their view, there has never been anyone in the history of politics who has been treated so unfairly, so cruelly.

They argue that Palin was unfairly judged based on her looks. She was. She also quite knowingly capitalized on her above-average attractiveness for political gain (wink, wink). They claim her children came in for unfair treatment. They did. But Palin herself (or possibly the McCain campaign, though I doubt that) intentionally pushed her “mother of a down syndrome baby” and “family coping with teenage pregnancy” issues to the fore in her campaign for the political capital they could provide. Previous (and current) high-office candidates who have small children have had the good sense to try to keep them away from the meat-grinder of media-saturated electoral politics. Chelsea Clinton is now an accomplished young woman in her own right, but during the 1990s when she lived in the White House and her father was President, she went from 12 years old to 20 – perhaps the most formative and awkward stage for any growing young person…and Bill and Hillary had the good sense to make her life mostly off-limits. But that didn’t stop Rush Limbaugh (among others), when he had a TV show, from putting up a picture of a teenage-awkward-looking Chelsea on the screen and joking over it that it was a picture of “the White House dog.” Nor did it stop John McCain himself from joking in front of numerous witness (though sadly no cameras or tape recorders, though multiple first-hand accounts confirm the story is true): “why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father.”

Palin got worse than that? Hardly. At worst, she got the same. And – in my opinion – she got nowhere near the sustained level of both scrutiny and abuse that the Clintons endured without complaining publicly – and constantly – in the way that Palin has done repeatedly. The one time that Hillary Clinton mentioned the existence of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” (which, given the forces which were at that time arrayed against her husband and her, was totally accurate), it became yet another joke with which to bash the Clintons. Hillary never mentioned it again…but it lives on to this day, thanks in large part to the efforts of some of the very same weepy media figures and right-wing fixtures who are today decrying the horrible treatment Sarah Palin and her family received at the hands of the “mainstream media” and the “Nazi-like left.” And it is – as are many if not most right-wing attempts at creating a wave of public sentiment around a confected issue – pure bunk. The reason it gets me hot under the collar is not just that they’re intentionally trying to gin up outrage on Palin’s behalf. It’s not even that they almost certainly understand that the treatment she received isn’t in reality any worse than any politician at that level receives. It’s that not only do they know that, but the reason they know it is because they were the ones who were dishing out the despicable treatment of many of those recent-past Democratic figures, instead of some anonymous hatemonger on the Internet. They should be ashamed…but anyone who’s been paying attention knows that shame isn’t in the dictionary of guys like Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly or a host of other vitriolic liars on the right.

Then again, perhaps they truly are just that deluded. These are the same people, by and large, who also say things like “Conservatism is an oppressed minority today. The Republican Party is an oppressed minority….” (Limbaugh), and “Christians are being persecuted in America today” – a whole book by David Limbaugh, Rush’s less-famous brother. Or any of literally of hundreds of other “poor oppressed me” quotes from virtually every major right-wing figure in the media today…