Emotions run high in politics. I get that. Politicians sometimes try to make their points with hyperbole. I get that too. And I understand that too great a devotion to political correctness can leave unsaid things that should, in fact, be said, or keep out of the discussion issues which really do merit an open debate. However, there are some things that our elected leaders (or those seeking elected office or their respective surrogates) say that are just so far beyond the pale, so irresponsible, and so dangerous to the civic discourse upon which our political system is based, that those comments must be called out and those who make such statements be held to account.
A few months ago I wrote about a statement by Mississippi’s Governor Phil Bryant (emphasis added):
Even if you believe in abortion, the hypocrisy of the left that now tried to kill this bill, that says that I should have never signed it, the true hypocrisy is that their one mission in life is to abort children, is to kill children in the womb. And it doesn’t really matter, they don’t care if the mother’s life is in jeopardy, that if something goes wrong that a doctor can’t admit them to a local hospital, that he’s not even board certified.
I don’t mind if Gov. Bryant expresses his view that abortion is wrong. I don’t even mind if he says that those who support women’s reproductive rights and choice have a different moral understanding of the nature of life. That’s fair. But when he claims that people, like me, who support a woman’s right to choose have, as our “one mission in life” the desire to “abort children … to kill children in the womb,” then he’s gone too far. Besides the fact that his statement is objectively false, the real problem is the danger that a statement like this presents because not everyone who hears it will understand hyperbole for what it is. How many abortion clinics have been attacked? How many abortion providers have been attacked or even killed? It’s bad enough if some idiot crackpot on the Internet makes a claim like “liberals want to kill children,” but in this case, the claim comes from an elected official, and not just any elected official, but rather, the governor of a state. And if the Governor says things like this, should we be surprised if some people believe him? Should we surprised if some people act on that belief?
And the totally irresponsible use of this sort of over-the-top rhetoric that portrays someone or something with which you disagree as not just a ideological opponent, but a murderer or something less than human is getting more and more frequent. Consider, for example, the recent statements by the Republican Governor of Maine Paul LePage. First, in his July 7, 2012, radio address Gov. LePage said:
You must buy health insurance or pay the new Gestapo – the I.R.S.
Yes, you read that correctly. Gov. LePage compared the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo. For those who don’t remember their history of World War II:
The Geheime Staatspolizei (German for Secret State Police, abbreviated “Gestapo”) was the secret police of Nazi Germany, and its main tool of oppression and destruction, which persecuted Germans, opponents of the regime, and Jews. It later played a central role in helping carry out the Nazi’s “Final Solution.”
(From Jewish Virtual Library’s article The Gestapo [internal links omitted]; see also this article on the Gestapo, also hosted by the Jewish Virtual Library.) Should you need any more context, here is a photo of German Einsatzgruppen soldiers under the command of the Gestapo killing Jews and dumping them into a ravine at Babi Yar.
I could have used much more shocking imagery. I chose not to.
I don’t care how aggressive the IRS may be at collecting taxes, a comparison to the Gestapo is beyond wrong. It is evil.
But Gov. LePage wasn’t done.
First, when questioned by a reporter about his statement, Gov. LePage first refused to answer the question and then went on the offensive:
Reporter: Will you apologize?
LePage: To who?
Reporter: The people who are upset.
LePage: Well, who’s upset?
Reporter: The Anti-Defamation League is Upset. There’s a group of Jewish people down in southern Maine…
LePage: It was never intended to offend anyone and if someone’s offended then they ought to be God damned mad at the federal government.
Reporter: Was that an apology?
LePage: [no response; he walks out a door]
It was not my intent to insult anyone, especially the Jewish Community, or minimize the fact that millions of people were murdered.
Clearly, what has happened is that the use of the word Gestapo has clouded my message. Obamacare is forcing the American people to buy health insurance or else pay a tax. Our health care system is moving toward one that rations care and negatively impact millions of Americans.
We no longer are a free people. With every step that Obamacare moves forward, our individual freedoms are being stripped away by the Federal Government. This should anger all Americans.
To me, this is yet another example of a politician that simply doesn’t know how to apologize. Gov. LePage should have said, “my reference to the Gestapo was wrong and I apologize”. Instead, his only apology is for not making his point well enough and for minimizing the fact that millions of people were murdered. But note that he does not say anything like, “no, the IRS is not like the Gestapo”.
One would think that after this, the issue would have died down. But guess what? Gov. LePage really isn’t actually sorry and he really does believe what he said originally. Just a few days after issuing his apology, while speaking at a fundraiser for the GOP candidate for Governor of Vermont, Gov. LePage addressed his Gestapo comment again:
[T]he Maine governor said, “What I am trying to say is the Holocaust was a horrific crime against humanity and, frankly, I would never want to see that repeated. Maybe the IRS is not quite as bad — yet.”
LePage then said, “They’re headed in that direction.”
Asked if he had a sense of what the Gestapo did during the second world war, LePage said, “Yeah, they killed a lot of people.” Asked whether the IRS “was headed in the direction of killing a lot of people,” LePage answered: “Yeah.”
So the sitting Governor of Maine believes that the IRS is headed in the direction of killing a lot of people. Really? Really? Oh, and Gov. LePage also offered yet another non-apology, apology:
Well, let’s put it this way. I apologize to Jewish Americans if they feel offended. But I also apologize to Japanese Americans that were put in prison during World War II, and I also apologize to those people that were accused of being communists during McCarthyism, because that’s not the American way.
Again, the “apology” is not for saying horrible, offensive things. Nope. The apology is to Jews “if they feel offended.” And what does that have to do with Japanese internment or McCarthyism?
I have all sorts of other examples of politicians (or their surrogates) making completely unjustifiable, horrible, irresponsible comments. Just this morning, for example, Romney surrogate (and former Republican Governor of New Hampshire) John Sununu said:
I wish this president would learn to be an American.
Seriously. “Learn to be an American.” Because, of course, we know that President Obama is really a Kenyan. Or an Indonesian. And a Muslim. Or whatever.
This continued demeaning of political discourse, of casting political opponents as enemies or now, with statements by Gov. Bryant and Gov. LePage, as murderers, is a true danger to our form of government. I mean let’s not forget that in addition to attacks on abortion providers, we’ve also seen attacks on the IRS and upon government institutions. Is that the society that Gov. Bryant and Gov. LePage are advocating for? Because that’s certainly the tenor of their remarks. If Gov. LePage doesn’t like the IRS or the Affordable Care Act, he’s free to say so and to make his argument. But rhetoric like his is just another step down the slippery slope toward political violence and anarchy.
We, as a people proud of our civil society, owe it to ourselves, to one another, and most importantly to our children and their children, to work to put a stop to this sort of irresponsible, thoughtless, dangerous trend in political discourse. We have to tell politicians, we have tell everyone, that this sort of rhetoric crosses a line that we, as a society, will not accept. And then we must shame or shun those who use that sort of rhetoric so that nobody will be swayed by it or led down the dangerous path it promotes.