Political hate speech has been all the rage in recent days. After the shocking attack at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC by a white supremacist, New York Times columnists Paul Krugman and Frank Rich have charged that the right-wing media are creating a dangerous climate of hate in America. Meanwhile, conservative outrage has focused on David Letterman's nasty jokes about former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her family's trip to New York—more proof, many commentators argue, that enlightened liberals condone hateful sexist slurs as long as the target is a conservative woman.
The charges on both sides are wildly overblown, but they also point to a real problem—one to which, unfortunately, both sides respond with stones thrown from its own glass house.
For starters: the actions of 88-year-old James von Brunn, who fatally shot a Holocaust Museum security guard, had exactly nothing to do with Krugman and Rich's chief villains: Rush Limbaugh, the king of right-wing talk radio, and Glenn Beck, the clown of Fox News. Neo-Nazis are not part of the following of mainstream or even far-right conservatives; they are people who see the United States government, under Republicans or Democrats, as a tool of Zionist puppet-masters. As conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg points out on website of National Review magazine, one could at least as convincingly link anti-Semitism to the animus toward Israel and its American Jewish supporters in certain quarters of the left. Indeed, Von Brunn's possible targets included The Weekly Standard, a leading conservative magazine.
While the right-wing pontificators are not responsible for von Brunn, that doesn't quite get them off the hook. Limbaugh, Beck, and quite a few other talk show hosts, journalists, and bloggers on the right have undoubtedly trafficked in political paranoia and hate. There has been much irresponsible, over-the-top scaremongering about looming fascism or (Soviet-style) socialism, the imminent loss of our freedoms and even federally run concentration camps. Barack Obama has been cast as Hitler, Stalin, and a radical Muslim mole. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the target of an assassination joke read over the air on the Rush Limbaugh show by substitute host Mark Davis.
Even if none of this ever leads to violence, it is toxic stuff. But the liberals who rightly deplore it rarely acknowledge the equally toxic stuff on the left—including, not long ago, Bush assassination jokes, Bush/Hitler comparisons, and hysterical claims that Bush's America was five minutes away from fascism if not already there. The left has its own Glenn Beck in writer Naomi Wolf, who published an essay titled "Fascist America in 10 Easy Steps" in 2007 and then a best-selling book called "The End of America." Wolf got to make her case on National Public Radio and the Colbert Report; later, The Huffington Post, a leading left-wing website, published her article calling Sarah Palin "the muse of the coming police state."
That brings us to Palin, a favorite target of left-wing hate, and the brouhaha over Letterman. The acerbic late-night TV host has been skewered for his humor about Palin's "slutty flight attendant look" and, especially, about her daughter getting "knocked up" by New York Yankees player Alex Rodriguez at a baseball game. That joke turned out to be especially unfortunate since the Palin daughter at the game was 14-year-old Willow. Letterman has apologized while claiming he was thinking of 18-year-old single mother Bristol. Palin was grudgingly appeased; some feminists have taken Palin's side, accusing Letterman of sexism.
While Letterman's explanation sounds plausible, his joke was undoubtedly coarse (though, as far as sexism goes, had one of Palin's sons gained notoriety as an unwed teenage father, he probably would have been an equal-opportunity target). But it's hardly the worst of anti-Palin invective. During the campaign, major left-of-center sites including Salon.com attacked her in blatantly sexual language: "Republican blow-up doll," "pornographic centerfold." Comedienne Sandra Bernhard railed against Palin in an unfunny foul-mouthed monologue that included a wish to see her raped. For some on the left, the usual taboos against misogyny clearly do not cover right-wing women.
But the conservative outrage, too, has an element of hypocrisy. Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity has vocally deplored the insults to Palin and leftist "hate speech" in general. But where was he in 2007 when right-wing rock star Ted Nugent called then-Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton a "worthless bitch" at his concert and suggested, while brandishing two assault rifles, that she "ride one of these into the sunset"? Actually, Hannity was actively defending Nugent as a "friend and frequent guest on the program" and brushing off complaints about his remarks with a dismissive, "If you don't like it, don't go to the concert, don't buy his new albums."
The stones keep flying from glass house to glass house, which may be why following much of today's political discourse is about as pleasant as wading through broken glass. Wouldn't it be nice if both the right and the left focused a little less on getting offended and a little more on curbing hate and hysteria in their own ranks? One can always dream.