If political rhetoric—on subjects about which elected officials know little or nothing—is discovered to somehow exacerbate global warming, then our weary planet is indeed in deep trouble. Or perhaps not. Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison’s comments that compared Hitler to Bush, which he delivered before a group called Atheists for Human Rights, have become such a staple of left-wing opinion that they have lost at least some of their polluting power. Ellison stated that the 9/11 attack is "… almost like the Reichstag fire, kind of reminds me of that," but directly accusing President Bush of planning the atrocity might result in him being consigned to the “nut-ball box.” Well, yes, it would, but at least he would have plenty of company, like Senator Durbin, who once compared American troops to Nazi Einsatzgruppen. Prudence nudged Ellison’s proclamations, as well as those of Durbin, back into the political comfort zone of “that’s not really what I meant,” or “I apologize to those whom I offended.” Such backpedaling among politicians who make ludicrous statements is quite common.
All of which brings up the question of what constitutes responsible political criticism and what does not. Political criticism comes in at least three flavors: one, against the policies of one’s opponent; two, against adversaries’ motives; and, three, against the political system that is presumably at the foundation of the policies you oppose. Obviously, the first kind of criticism is fair game—the fairest, in fact—and a democracy cannot thrive without it. Thus, one may accuse the President of being mistaken in his policies on Iraq, stem cells, social security, or whatever else is on the policy agenda. Comments like those made by Ellison about Bush, Durbin about our troops at Gitmo, and The New Republic’s mysterious writer in Iraq about Americans serving there (see Franklin Foer’s 7/20/07 comments in that publication), fall into the second category. They neither enlighten nor inform; their purpose is defamatory, to de-legitimize others’ intentions; indeed, to demonize and destroy one’s opponent. Regrettably, more and more contemporary public discourse is filled with this kind of “criticism,” and, judging by public opinion polls on elected officials and the performance of Congress, most Americans are thoroughly disgusted by it.
The third kind of political criticism doesn’t enter common discourse nearly as much—for which we may all be thankful—but because of its source, like political correctness, its effects eventually find their way into public policy. The best example is found in a widely discussed essay by noted political philosopher, Alan Wolfe, in a review he wrote for The New Republic in 2003. In explaining the “difference between criticism and hatred,” Wolfe discusses three books in the field of American Studies; the title of his review is “Anti-American Studies.” Now Wolfe is hardly a conservative; quite the contrary, he has been a political liberal his whole life and takes serious issue with those who, in his words, “not only reject the writers who gave life to the discipline [American Studies], they have also developed a hatred for America so visceral that it makes one wonder why they bother studying America at all.” One of the passages he culls to illustrate this point brings attention to "America's tenacious historical privileging of the imperial metaphysic perspective as the agent of knowledge production, that perspective, synchronous with the founding of the idea and practices of Europe, which, in perceiving time from after or above its disseminations, enables the spatialization of being and subjugation or accommodation of the differences it disseminates to the identical, self-present, and plenary (global/planetary) whole."
So, what is this supposed to mean? On one level, nothing; it is simply gibberish, the sort of twaddle that saturates too much writing in higher education. But it is more than that, too. It is a kind of academic hate speech that at once gains professors tenure and poisons the thoughts of those who have to sit through classes where this stuff is shoveled out. Professor Wolfe goes through passages like this without blinking; probably because he’s used to such writing. But for the republic, it is the worst kind of political criticism.
The best is saved for last. The writer applies a “moral microscope” to his subject, and finds “these cities, crowded with petty grotesques, malformations, phantoms, playing meaningless antics.” He finds that “everywhere, in shop, street, church, theatre, barroom, official chair, … pervading flippancy and vulgarity, low cunning, infidelity …” Pejoratives continue to rumble across the page like cars on a train, ending with animadversions about contemporary manners that are “probably the meanest to be seen in the world.” It’s pretty hard to get harsher than that. But here’s the difference; the remainder of the critique contains pleas for improvement, for regeneration, and ends on a note of hope.
The writer? Walt Whitman, in Democratic Vistas, which appeared in 1871. Whitman loved America, with all its flaws and troubles, he never gave up hope for its future, and he provided his countrymen, then and now, with a stirring example about how best to engage in political criticism. We shall most likely never match his eloquence. But we certainly may strive to approach his ideal, which—in its honesty, hope, and yes, severity—is the highest and noblest form of political criticism our country has seen throughout its history.