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Liberals: Bullies or Whipping Boys?

By Sam Parry
April 11, 2005

Conservatives routinely make the case that liberals show disrespect for Americans who hold conservative religious or political views, that conservatives are the victims of liberal bias in a host of arenas, from media to culture to academia.

But this notion of liberal bullies picking on conservative victims doesn’t appear to have much basis in reality. Indeed, the opposite dynamic far more often seems to hold sway.

Not only do liberal organizations tend to tiptoe around the personal beliefs of conservatives, for fear of being accused of insensitivity, but conservative leaders often show no comparable restraint when heaping disdain and ridicule on liberals for their spiritual, moral and political beliefs.

In the 1980s, for instance, phrases like “secular humanist” or the word “liberal” itself were turned into epithets. As novelist Gore Vidal wryly noted in a recent interview, “liberal” was redefined to mean “a commie who’s also a pedophile.”

Many conservatives won’t even use the word “Democratic” as an adjective. It’s often replaced by the insulting substitute “Democrat,” as in Bob Dole’s famous formulation about “Democrat wars.”

‘Kooky’ Environmentalists

More recently, Richard Cizik, a leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, explained why he disdains the word “environmentalism” in favor of what he calls “creation care.”

“Environmentalists have a bad reputation among evangelical Christians,” Cizik said. “They [environmentalists] keep kooky religious company. … Some environmentalists are pantheists who believe creation itself is holy, not the Creator.” [New York Times Magazine, April 3, 2005]

If a leader of a major environmental organization had used similar language about “kooky” evangelicals, there would be, metaphorically speaking, hell to pay.

But in today’s political context, it isn’t even eyebrow-raising when a conservative leader belittles environmentalists for keeping “kooky religious company” or mocking liberal Americans who hold non-traditional religious views. It’s as if the liberals are expected to serve as the nation’s political whipping boys without complaint.

Another example of anti-environmentalist disdain came from Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who last January lashed out at environmentalists for seeking U.S. government action on global warming.

In a Senate floor speech, Inhofe called global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” and denounced environmentalists as “extremists,” “elitists” and “radical far-left alarmists.”

Other conservative grassroots activists and online bloggers throw around the phrase “eco-terrorists” against mainstream environmentalists, broadly associating members of large national environmental advocacy groups like the Sierra Club with small, fringe environmental groups with histories of property destruction and civil disobedience.

Though these attacks about “eco-terrorists” are inflammatory and could be construed as intimidating in today’s tense political climate, they pass virtually unnoticed. By contrast, it’s hard to imagine a leader of any national environmental organization feeling free to label polluting industries as “murderers,” even though health experts estimate that air pollution in America kills between 50,000 and 100,000 people every year.

Messaging Rules

One of the reasons for this is that many environmental groups have strict messaging rules about how to present their arguments, restrictions that anyone who has worked for one of these groups knows by heart. “Don’t be shrill.” “Discuss the policy, not the person.” “Don’t attack motives.”

Many Democratic candidates seem to operate under these same messaging guidelines. For instance, in preparation for the third presidential debate last fall, political adviser Bob Shrum nixed a response that John Kerry planned to deliver to an expected attack from George W. Bush. Shrum felt that the comeback, which referred to the president by his first name, wasn’t respectful enough, according to another Kerry adviser.

While Kerry mostly took the high road in Campaign 2004, the Bush team, led by political adviser Karl Rove, chose the low road as a far more direct route to victory.

For instance, Bush’s political allies spread the silly – but effective – notion that Kerry looked French. Meanwhile, the pro-Bush attack group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, made false and misleading accusations about Kerry’s Vietnam War record. Bush delegates at the Republican convention even distributed Purple Heart band-aids to mock Kerry's war wounds. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bushes Play the Traitor Card” and “Reality on the Ballot.”]

So, while Democrats, environmentalists and many other groups on the political Left discipline themselves to stick politely to the issues, Republicans and conservatives score political victory after political victory with sharp personal attacks.

Judicial Targets

Judges are another group that has been demonized by the Right. Dating back to the days of court-ordered desegregation in the 1950s, conservatives have complained about “liberal activist judges” reinterpreting the Constitution.

This tarring of the judiciary has escalated in the past several weeks after both federal and state courts refused to force a Florida hospice to reinsert a feeding tube for Terri Shiavo, a brain-damaged woman who had survived 15 years in what doctors termed a “persistent vegetative state.”

Right-wing political leaders including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senator John Cornyn – both Texas Republicans – have suggested that judges are inviting retribution from people who resent rulings, such as the ones that let Schiavo die. “The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior,” DeLay said.

In a Senate speech on April 4, Cornyn went even further, linking what he called “raw political or ideological decisions” to recent violent attacks on judges.

“I don’t know if there is a cause-and-effect connection, but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country,” Cornyn said. “I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters, on some occasions, where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in, engage in violence.”

By contrast to these incendiary comments, Al Gore and leading Democrats urged restraint by Gore voters in December 2000 after Bush got five conservative Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court to take the unprecedented action of stopping the vote count in Florida, thus ensuring Bush’s victory.

Democrats accepted that Supreme Court ruling although it would be difficult to identify any court decision in U.S. history that was more “raw political” than the Bush v. Gore case. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “W’s Coup d’Etat” and “So Bush Did Steal the White House.”]

Liberal Assassins?

To find comments comparable to Cornyn’s on the political Left, one would have to wander to the ideological fringes, to the likes of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who wrote an essay suggesting the Sept. 11 victims were not innocent victims.

Or the search could lead to the world of fiction and to novelist Nicholas Baker, whose book Checkpoint presents a two-person dialogue in which one character wants to assassinate Bush and the other objects.

Though Baker’s novel was certainly no mega-bestseller (ranking 198,366 in Amazon book sales), Washington Post writer Richard Cohen seized on the anti-Bush anger of the fictional would-be assassin as the lead argument for a column condemning “Bush haters.” Cohen asserted that “Bush haters” must have egged the novelist on.

“Lots of people must have told Baker he had a capital idea,” Cohen wrote, without citing any evidence that this speculation – which effectively accused liberals of advocating the assassination of a president – had any basis in fact. [Washington Post, Sept. 16, 2004] Cohen seemed to understand that when it comes to hanging heinous charges around the necks of liberals, no evidence is needed.

Conservatives have complained that some anti-war protesters have uttered harsh anti-Bush slogans, such as “no blood for oil” or “Bush lied, who died?”

But the far more striking fact about the anti-war protests, dating back to fall 2002, is how generally peaceful they have been, especially in the face of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq without a genuine threat against U.S. national security and without authorization from the United Nations Security Council.

Plus, if harsh rhetoric were measured on a one-to-ten scale, Republican leaders and conservative pundits would have topped even the anti-war slogans with their denunciations of Americans who opposed Bush’s policies.

For instance, when Al Gore questioned Bush’s preemptive-war strategy, Republican spokesman Jim Dyke called Gore “a political hack.” The former vice president also was raked over the coals on the TV chat shows and in newspaper columns. When former arms inspector Scott Ritter questioned the “group think” about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, he was portrayed as a traitor. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Politics of Preemption” and “Bush & Democracy Hypocrisy.”]

Bush himself got into the act. On the campaign trail in 2002, Bush slammed the Democratic-led Senate as “not interested in the security of the American people” because the Democrats favored a slightly different version of the Homeland Security bill.

Even after the U.S.-led invasion failed to turn up Iraq’s alleged WMD stockpiles, Bush supporters continued to attack war critics. After former Ambassador Joseph Wilson penned a New York Times Op-Ed challenging a nuclear-weapons-related claim in Bush’s State of the Union speech, the White House leaked the fact that Wilson’s wife was an undercover agent for the CIA.

Beyond Government

Attack messaging against “liberals” also extends beyond government.

Conservatives have conducted a half-century-long campaign – also dating back to the civil rights struggles – to discredit professional journalists as “liberal” and unfair to conservative causes. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

The “liberal media” epithet continues to be hurled at reporters even as media outlets have veered so far to the right that it’s hard to distinguish between Fox News and its supposedly less conservative rivals, CNN and MSNBC.

Hollywood is another target of right-wing complaints about liberal bias.

While many actors, directors and producers are self-avowed liberals who support progressive causes, the overriding truth about their industry is that most big-studio movies don’t have a political slant. Their goal is to make money.

If anything, the major movie studios shy away from political controversy. Remember, for instance, that Disney refused to distribute Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” out of fear that pro-Bush customers would boycott other Disney products.

Mostly, the movie industry produces fast-paced action thrillers with car chases and explosions. There’s also a smattering of movies that celebrate war or glorify the American soldier. Others tell warm-hearted spiritual stories about average people overcoming adversity.

But this reality about the apolitical nature of most movies never tamps down the fire of conservative attacks on “liberal” Hollywood.

Before this year’s Academy Awards, conservative pundits vied over how much they hated the show. Neoconservative commentator Charles Krauthammer predicted on the day of the awards that the most liberal movie would win because the most liberal movie always wins.

But Krauthammer’s observation was largely mythical. Over the last quarter century, only a handful of Best Picture winners could reasonably be deemed “liberal” movies: “Ghandi” in 1982, “Platoon” in 1986, and “Dances with Wolves” in 1990. Yet even those movies, while touching on “liberal” themes, told stories that transcended a right-left political dichotomy.

The other Best Picture winners since 1980 either lacked a political bent or might even have been considered conservative for putting aristocratic lifestyles in a favorable light, such as “The Last Emperor” in 1987 and “Shakespeare in Love” in 1998.

In this year’s Oscar competition, the nominating committee even snubbed Moore’s bid to have “Fahrenheit 9/11” considered in the Best Picture category.

Of the five movies that were nominated, none was particularly “liberal” or even that “political.” The winner, Clint Eastwood's “Million-Dollar Baby,” had a euthanasia scene that offended some social conservatives, but the movie also presented harsh portrayals of welfare recipients.

Perhaps the most political of the five was “The Aviator,” a movie about the life of eccentric conservative billionaire Howard Hughes which included a sympathetic account of his battles against Washington corruption.

Attacks Go On

But the conservative attacks on “liberal” Hollywood continue, as do the attacks on “liberal activist” judges, the “liberal” news media, “socialist” academics, and “kooky” environmentalists.

Despite the conservative dominance of all three branches of the U.S. government – not to mention the Right’s own powerful and influential news media – the complaints also continue about how conservatives are the victims of some diffused but all-powerful liberal conspiracy.

That conspiracy now seems to have spread to include even judicial appointees of Ronald Reagan, such as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. On April 8, right-wing leaders sponsored a conference on “Remedies to Judicial Tyranny,” which included calls for impeaching judges who don’t comply with conservative demands.

One of these supposedly tyrannical judges deserving impeachment – in part for his ruling against execution of juveniles – was Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion that installed George W. Bush as president.

Though some observers might conclude that seeking Justice Kennedy’s impeachment indicates how radical the conservative movement has become, the endless repetition of the conservative “victimization” theme still feeds the fury of the Right’s rank-and-file.

Some Americans may yearn for a more civil time in U.S. politics, but that won’t happen as long as the Right finds political profit in these strategies of “victimization” and revenge. Until then, civility will remain a well-intentioned objective found only in dusty old high school civics books.

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