Fighting Words

I am trying to figure out what would possess Erick Erickson to write something like this:

“You only thought leftists got excited when American soldiers got killed. As I’ve written before, leftists celebrate each and every death of each and every American solider because they view the loss of life as a vindication of their belief that they are right.”

“Some” leftists, perhaps: there are a lot of people on the left, as there are on the right, and thus I imagine you could find members of either group who do any number of loathsome things. But Erick Erickson didn’t write “some leftists.” He wrote that “leftists celebrate each and every death of each and every American solider” [sic]. All of us.

Even those of us who are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, or who have family or friends there. Even those of us whose family or friends have died. We all got excited. We celebrated. Each and every time a soldier died.

Duels have been fought for less.

I’m not interested in ‘explanations’ like: he’s on the right, so of course he says idiotic things. Treating his opponents as one big undifferentiated cartoonish mass is part of what makes what Erick wrote so objectionable, and I have no interest in following his example. Nor is hyperbole a good explanation: it’s not true that everyone on the left is happy when soldiers die, but that we don’t go so far as to celebrate.

I think we can rule out the possibility that he believes this in good faith: that he asked himself, before writing this, “Is this really true?”, thought about (for instance) the 44% of military voters who voted for Obama, liberals presently serving in combat, or the liberals on VetVoice, asked himself whether they actually celebrate when one of their own is killed in combat, and answered: “Yes.”

He might be a pure hack, like those expert witnesses that the tobacco companies used to trot out to testify that nicotine is not addictive. But I suspect he’s not.

The alternative is that he believes this in bad faith. Maybe, for him, writing blog posts has become a game: you score points when you can, and whether or not the things you write are actually true has ceased to be a concern. Or maybe hatred has got the better of him, like the person C. S. Lewis describes here:

“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.” (Mere Christianity)

If you give in to “the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible”, it’s easy to see how you could end up thinking things about them that it is implausible to think about any group of human beings: for instance, that when a nineteen year old who enlisted because he wanted to serve his country gets blown up by an IED, your enemies think that that’s cause for celebration. Your opponents become cartoons in your mind, and the normal duty to be charitable and generous, or even realistic, in your views about other people seem not to apply to them. You stop thinking of them as fellow human beings, and start thinking of them as enemies.

I suspect that this is the state of mind in which people laughed along with Rush Limbaugh when he said that Chelsea Clinton was “the family dog.” No one who laughed at that could have been thinking of Chelsea Clinton as an actual adolescent girl whose looks were being ridiculed by the biggest talk radio host in the country. Had they done so, Limbaugh’s sheer cruelty would have been obvious, and the only people who would have laughed are the kind of people who would laugh if they saw a dog being set on fire.

But Chelsea Clinton wasn’t a human being; she was an opponent. And Limbaugh was scoring points. And the thought that an actual girl, and one who had never asked to be in politics, was being made fun of on national radio probably never crossed their minds, any more than the thought of actual human beings who are liberals and who are, or care about, soldiers, crossed Erick’s.

No one — not liberals, not conservatives — should forget that their opponents are human beings. And no one can afford to start down the road Lewis describes, in which you allow yourself to be disappointed when your opponents aren’t as bad as you first thought, or want them to be as bad as possible. And no one should get so wrapped up in political fights that in focussing on the mote in someone else’s eye, they lose sight of the beam in their own.

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