Quoting Bigots

In the comment thread to my post yesterday on Alan Keyes’ “no retreat” comments on same-sex marriage, NealB made this passionate plea:

If Ed Kilgore believes what he portends in support of gays and lesbians and universal, unalienable rights, he would not quote the bigotry of the psychotic leaders of the dwindling few that continue, unashamedly, to testify and confirm their bigotry. It’s not bad enough that such voices are heard in the world at all, but that we must hear Ed Kilgore echo their violence here?….

Thoughts, words, and deeds. Thoughts are up to each of us individually. Deeds cannot be taken back. But words are your business; and you, Mr. Kilgore, use them to bully. You always have. Enough.

Dear Ed: If you sincerely support us, stop quoting the bigots. You’re a reasonable man. Think about it. If you really cared, would you echo-chamber the very violence you descry? Think about it. Surely it’s hard for you to comprehend, but a lot of us have suffered indignities our whole lives. Too many have had our lives diminished to emptiness, or shattered. Why repeat the speech that causes such suffering?

It’s a little unclear whether NealB thinks I’m “bullying” Alan Keyes, or somehow “bullying” Keyes’ targets by repeating his words. But since this is a frequent, albeit a minority, objection to progressive bloggers who quote “the enemy,” I think it deserves a response.

If the idea here is the Lackoffian (not that I think Lakoff himself ever said this) hypothesis that political debate is just words and “frames,” and the “side” that gets its words and frames repeated most often and most loudly “wins,” then I just have to disagree. No one who read the post about Keyes is likely to say, “you know, old Alan has a point.”

A similar if more credible objection you often hear is that by quoting right-wing smears in order to criticize them, progressives are “legitimizing” the opposition or their smears. I don’t much get that one, either. This stuff is out there on the airwaves and the internet and the speeches and dog-whistles of elected officials and candidates. It already has a sizable audience. I’m generally trying to “de-legitimize” it if anything, but in any event, witholding notice of it has zero effect on its scope and its power.

The most compelling argument against quoting people like Keyes is that they are marginal people craving attention (“These men are nothing,” says NealB), who if denied it by all concerned, will soon go away. That’s certainly worth thinking about, and I did before writing the post in question. I chose to write about it for three reasons:

(1) Keyes’ views, however unusual they sound today, were very, very common in conservative (and even some non-conservative) circles quite recently. The guy who came within a few thousand votes in Michigan and Ohio of becoming the front-runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination said this sort of thing all the time.

(2) The point of the whole post is that marginalized cultural reactionaries may become dangerously radicalized by their loss of power in the GOP and the country generally. It’s the same reason I worry about the antichoice movement, full of people who believe (or at least say they believe) we are living in Nazi Germany. And more generally, the quasi-revolutionary spirit that has suffused much of the Tea Party Movement has been based in no small part on a “Hell, No!” resistance to changes in conventionally acceptable points of view that they find offensive.

(3) Even more generally, reactionary cultural and political movements depend a great deal on stealth and deception–or if you prefer, “strategic repositioning.” When a relatively radical operation like today’s conservative movement “adjusts” on a topic like marriage equality, that may represent enlightenment, or it may represent a strategic retreat. It is rather significant to figure out which it is, and citing views like Keyes’ can be useful in separating sheep from goats. But there are many other areas where this exercise is even more useful: are Republican pols who have suddenly and recently become enamored of nineteenth-century rhetoric about the Tenth Amendment and “states’ rights” and even nullification and secession serious about it, or at least pandering to a significant element of their party’s base that is serious about it? That is worth knowing, and I don’t think you can find that out by refusing to quote or mention extremists.

I don’t know if any of this would be convincing to NealB, and it may be that he simply finds the repetition of bigoted words at a progressive website personally painful, whether it’s justifiable or not. I apologize if that’s the case, and I struggle every day (as does virtually every progressive blogger, though some don’t struggle much at all) not to fall into the easy habit of paying too much attention to isolated wingnuts. But we all have to follow and talk about politics in a way we find useful. And that’s what I’m trying to do throughout each long day.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.