2004-05-14 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

Right Vs. Left

Right Vs. Left

Since I began writing this column for The Wave (I actually used to write it for another paper back in the early nineties), I’ve been interested in what seems to be driving the current level of political animosity. Anyone following my comments will note that I return, again and again, to the amazingly harsh level of rhetoric so often leveled against President Bush, his administration and Republicans in general.

In fact I’m perplexed by the way this debate has gone. It isn’t enough for opponents of this administration to disagree with its policies, to argue for a different approach to governing. Instead they have repeatedly invoked claims of illegitimacy (the Florida vote in 2000, Bush’s family connections) and castigated this president for his apparent lack of intellectual heft (since he frequently gets tongue-tied in public and is certainly no policy wonk a la Bill Clinton or Al Gore). Nor does it stop there. Bush is routinely accused of being a shirker, AWOL from his military obligations, unengaged, a liar, a fraud, a substance abuser, a religious fanatic, a dictator wannabe seeking to abrogate our civil liberties, etc., etc. Why is this happening and is there anything that justifies such claims?

I’ve offered a number of explanations in these pages, including what I take to be an anti-conservative bias within certain groups and the sense that many liberals have that they’ve somehow been cheated out of their "right" to govern in Washingon by those dastardly, underhanded Republicans. Some of my comments have prompted reader responses and, as if in answer, The Wave recently introduced a new column, The Progressive, to give voice to the other side in the current political debate. Now I think this is a good thing since debate is what democracy is all about and I want to welcome John Paul Culotta to these pages. However, after reading his first column and some recent letters-to-the-editor, I’m convinced more and more that this debate is not about facts and never was, i.e., no amount of facts presented will serve to resolve the differences that now seem to divide us.

Mr. Culotta began his inaugural column by taking me to task for an earlier piece I’d written, called Politics and Discourse, in which I argued that current political charges against President Bush have fallen off the curb and into the gutter. My fellow columnist correctly pointed out that criticism of sitting presidents, even during wartime, has a long (if not necessarily glorious) history in this country and said I was wrong in thinking I could shut down debate. But, of course, that was not what I’d said in my column at all. I was not arguing that people should not be free to criticize the president or that there might not be merit in some of the criticisms. I was saying, rather, that the current criticism has literally curdled, like old milk, and that Democrats now seem to spend all their time trying to besmirch the president via various and sundry forms of character assassination. My claim was, and is, that this criticism is not about the facts but about tearing Bush down in order to restore the White House to Democratic control. I suppose in a competitive political environment we must expect some of this. But my point is that this has gotten way out of hand.

As if on cue, along come two recent letters-to-the-editor from readers of The Wave (Messers Jesse Plutzer and Norman Silverman), letters which make my case better than I ever could myself. If Democratic opposition to Bush is mainly about taking back power . . . and resentment at having lost it . . . it will often manifest as anger rather than reasoned argument. And that’s exactly what we get in these letters. Here’s Mr. Plutzer on my recent article concerning John Kerry’s war record: "Behold a smear job," he writes indignantly, "under the guise of pseudo-scholarship, with much hearsay, unworthy evidence and a lot of irrelevant personal musings . . . A more inept, unprofessional piece of words without meaning is hard to imagine." Of course, Mr. Plutzer didn’t bother to reply to my points in a targeted, itemized way, but went, instead, right for the verbal jugular.

But isn’t Mr. Plutzer here doing exactly the same thing to me that Bush’s critics habitually do to him, i.e., resorting to verbal tar-and-feathering? In relation to Kerry’s role in Vietnam, Mr. Plutzer goes on to note that "Mr. Kerry actually enlisted which again," he claims, "makes Mirsky angry." But where in my article did I suggest that I was either angry at Kerry or at the fact he enlisted? On the other hand, what better bespeaks anger than Mr. Plutzer’s own somewhat overheated locutions?

I won’t go into the full litany of Mr. Plutzer’s charges. Suffice it to note that he accuses me of "inordinate guile and chutzpah," as though my criticisms of the presumptive Democratic candidate for president are somehow unacceptable, even while the Republican incumbent remains, in his mind, fair game. For Mr. Plutzer, his own point of view seems perfectly reasonable and acceptable. But those disagreeing with him must be "seeing events through the filter of (their) own fervid imagination," guilty, as he proclaims, of "convoluted rhetorical flourishes, indicative of a bankrupt political agenda, pushing (our) great country into chaos and despair."

And what about his fellow letter writer, Mr. Silverman? He, too, fails to deal directly with my points though he is not quite so furious in his denunciations. "Mirsky questions Kerry’s diverse ethnic background," Silverman asserts, despite the fact that I didn’t "question" it at all but, rather, merely noted its failure to match what Kerry, himself, is reported to have said about it at a political meeting he attended. Silverman goes on to re-run the usual anti-Bush charges (Clarke said this, Joe Wilson said that) and concludes by allowing that "there is a role for conservatives in this election. They can," he tells us, "remind us of the need for a balanced budget," and that government should be truthful and constrained. But, he seems to be saying, how dare they presume to defend a sitting president or argue against a liberal challenge to that presidency? His message is that conservatives should just keep their mouths shut unless they have something as nasty to say about the president as the president’s recent critics in the Democratic Party have.

Well thanks, but no thanks. We conservatives (and there are many different kinds of conservative, by the way), can decide quite nicely what we should be talking about and advocating. We don’t need help from those whose idea of debate is to muzzle the opposition by resorting to rhetorical indignation. What more need I say than to offer more of their own words as evidence that political debate in the current election cycle has taken a harshly wrong turn . . . and that it is those on the left who are leading this charge?

"As for Mirsky," Mr. Plutzer breathlessly asserts, "his vituperation abounds right off in his diatribe." And again, says Plutzer: ". . . is it reasonable to dignify such tripe with an answer? Or perhaps to leave its distortions to rot in its own overheated rhetorical nonsense?" Is this what my new colleague, Mr. Culotta, had in mind when he wrongly suggested that I was somehow trying to muzzle dissent? rockirreg@aol.com.

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