Archive - Jan 24, 2011

Wrong Kind Of Referee

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The problem with modern politics is that there is no referee. The press used to be the semi-official referee, determining the veracity and accuracy of politicians' statements. Not perfectly, obviously - politicians have always lied and always will - but they kept the most egregious behavior in check, or at least saw it as their job to do so.

The fracturing of news, and the conversion of news to only profit-making entertainment, left the playing field in complete anarchy. This has led to nearly every political lie becoming an unkillable "zombie lie", which rises from the dead no matter how many times you try to put it down. Various organizations have tried to rise up to fill the void, but without the historical power and authority of the legendary Fourth Estate behind them, groups like are simply seen as another source to be cited in the endless, arbitrary, he-said-she-said fights that make up our discourse.

Now, back in mid-December, when the usual bunch of corporate centrists launched their latest branding campaign for a point of view that pulls too many strings as it is, I marked it for mockery, but didn't prioritize it. Sure, "No Labels" was the funniest attempt by the mushy middle to date - bipartisan fetishism marketed like a Benetton ad full of rich white middle-aged dudes who are nominally socially liberal. But they weren't a priority, because these groups never DO ANYTHING.

They form, they get some press, they raise some money, they spend that money on circle-jerk conferences where they give each other worldview-reinforcing pats on the back and act like they're Doing Something. A largely harmless activity, in other words, or at least no MORE harmless than the same bunch of assholes having lunch together and writing columns about each other.

But then the Arizona shooting happened, and No Labels decided it had a role to play in modern politics. As a referee. But not a referee of truth, no. A referee of...civility. ACTUAL QUOTE TIME!

"No Labels today is throwing a yellow flag, repudiating a statement made by Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN) on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives during the heat of the debate to repeal the health care reform law. On Tuesday night, Rep. Cohen used an incendiary Nazi analogy to criticize opponents of health care reform legislation passed in the 111th Congress."The No Labels blog, taking the referee metaphor a bit too literally.

So much subtext in a single paragraph. First, there's the fact that the first, and ONLY, person No Labels has decided to penalize and single out in this way is a Democrat. Then there's the phrase "incendiary Nazi analogy". What was this incendiary Nazi analogy? Well, what Cohen said is that the phrase "government takeover of health care" was repeated over and over again, even though it was demonstrably false. And that the technique of repeating a lie over and over again so that it would persist despite being a lie was a Nazi propaganda technique.

So, Nazi analogy? Maybe. Also maybe a comparison, or a historical example. Incendiary? Well, yes, but only because people like No Labels have their thinning hair catch on fire anytime anyone drops the Nazi. Is it untrue? No Labels doesn't say, either in its intro, or their conclusion:

At No Labels, our members have remarkably divergent views on what to do about America’s health care challenges, but we are united in our belief that this kind of language is part of the problem, not the solution. We urge Congressman Cohen, a dedicated public servant, to choose his words more carefully in the future."

First of all, if the members of No Labels have remarkably divergent views on health care, what fucking good are they? Second, this kind of language is neither the problem NOR the solution. The fact that No Labels not only doesn't weigh in on the ACCURACY of the analogy, but also refuses to weigh in, repudiate, or say anything at all about the claim that the reform bill is a "government takeover of health care", proves that No Labels is definitely the problem, and definitely not the solution.

Now, everyone agrees that people shouldn't do the things the Nazis did, right? We can all agree on that? Stuff the Nazis did is bad stuff, and therefore wrong? OK. But everyone, even Jon Stewart, appears to think that pointing out that someone is doing what Nazis did is ALSO a universally wrong action, regardless of whether it's accurate. So if someone invades Poland, and we point out that's what Hitler did, that's bad, even though Hitler invaded Poland. And that cat with the little moustache can't possibly be Hitler cat, even though Hitler had a little moustache.

It's wrong to call Obama "Hitler", because the charge is based on two complete falsehoods. That Hitler was a liberal, and that Obama is a liberal. Dubya invaded other countries, tortured prisoners, and spied on his own people, which is a bit Hitlery, but was more generally fascist, which is why I've never even compared Bush to Hitler in this space.

But Cohen didn't even call out specific people and call them Nazis. He said that "government health care takeover" is being said by people over and over again, people who know it's not true. And that is in fact happening. And he said that's a propaganda technique the Nazis used. And he's right, they did. So No Labels is going to referee people saying mean things about each other, and not touch the truth or falsehood of those things.

But we already have those referees. The media, the pundits, the columnists... they all LOVE being those referees. Real referees of truth would get five, maybe ten minutes out of Joe Wilson's "YOU LIE" outburst. Joe Wilson said Obama lied, Obama didn't lie, Joe Wilson is an idiot, BOOM. Done. But no, we talked about that shit for weeks. We still talk about it. But we never talk about whether it was true, we talk about whether it was nice. Whether it was appropriate. Whether it was civil. And since one man's incivility is the next man's speaking truth to power, there's nothing objective to referee.

Which means that No Labels is wasting its time, and all our collective time while they're at it. It's not a surprising conclusion, but since it's not a civil one, it's important that I show my work.