Civility, Hypocrisy, and the Rules of Political Debate

Glenn Greenwald argues that many of those now condemning MoveOn.org and/or demanding that Democrats condemn MoveOn.org for suggesting General David Petraeus would “betray us” are hypocrites, since many have used inflammatory rhetoric themselves.

He’s surely right in many particulars. Those on the Ann Coulter wing of the Right, who routinely throw around words like “traitors” and “treason” to describe mainstream Democrats for expressing honest disagreement, live in proverbial glass houses.

Many of us, though, have been rather consistent on this issue, decrying those on both sides of the aisle for going beyond the pale and creating a chilling effect on democratic debate. Still, I’ve argued since before the Iraq War started that there were plenty of honorable reasons to oppose it; I’ve defended John Kerry, John Murtha, John Edwards, and Joe Biden from unfair attacks; argued that Ward Churchill has a right to academic freedom (but not academic misconduct!); and I’ve repeatedly rebuffed the notion that Democrats are anti-victory, let alone anti-American.

The point of all this isn’t that I’ve been a bastion of civility in an otherwise harsh body politic. I’ve been at this since January 2003 and I’m sure that someone looking through my archives hard enough could find instances within the 15,958 posts I’ve written and find contrary examples. I’m occasionally snarky and infrequently angry but try to avoid painting with too broad a brush.

I’m hardly unique in this role. Most of the bloggers on my blogroll and certainly those in the recommended feeds in the top navigation bar have been mostly civil in their discussion of some incredibly divisive issues. That’s true of plenty of other non-blogging pundits, too (see this four-year-old George Will column, for example).

So, yes, condemn hypocrisy. But stand up and be counted when major spokesmen for your side go beyond the pale, too.

UPDATE: Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry and Jane Hamsher (and, presumably, others) argue that tactics like the “Betray Us” ad are not only brilliant but necessary to get one’s point noticed. But, surely, Ann Coulter, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and others despised by the Left could make the same claim.

It’s true on many levels, of course. Bomb throwing tactics are often quite successful. But at what cost to civil society?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Phil Smith says:

    But sissy called me names first, daddy.

  2. W says:

    Did this post

  3. W says:

    Let me try posting this again

    James

    You make several good points and I would agree that the much of the current political debate is too shrill. However, I would caution that civility at all cost would also be wrong.

  4. W says:

    Being against the war is one thing but actively doing all you can to sabotage the war even if it hurts the U.S. is something entirely different, especially if it is done for political reasons. There are times one should call a spade a spade. However, I would say that most of the name calling out there is for angry spiteful reasons born out of oppositions and not for factual reasons.

  5. jpe says:

    I think the notable difference between the MoveOn ad and those highlighted on the right is that Petreaus is being attacked for fudging stats; lefties were attacked for their policies. That’s not an unimportant difference: people should be blasted on misuse of facts, while demonizing policy differences is just lame.

  6. Tlaloc says:

    UPDATE: Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry and Jane Hamsher (and, presumably, others) argue that tactics like the “Betray Us” ad are not only brilliant but necessary to get one’s point noticed. But, surely, Ann Coulter, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and others despised by the Left could make the same claim.

    Agreed. The ad was in poor taste and I don’t defend it. Then again the right is addicted to outrage. When was the last time congress was asked to vote on condemning something COulter said?

  7. Tlaloc says:

    Being against the war is one thing but actively doing all you can to sabotage the war even if it hurts the U.S. is something entirely different

    What about people who actively support the war even if it hurts the US?

    Cause that seems to be the actual case here…

    Sabotaging a war that is bleeding america dry (in terms of military, money, and credibility) seems kind of patriotic, frankly.

  8. Andy Vance says:

    Those on the Ann Coulter wing of the Right, who routinely throw around words like “traitors” and “treason” to describe mainstream Democrats for expressing honest disagreement, live in proverbial glass houses.

    Why is Ann Coulter always thrown up as the parallel? The traitor trope has been used by many in the GOP, up to and including President Bush.

  9. It is simple really, everyone should display the same level of respect for people who disagree with them as Mr. Greenwald does to avoid any charge of hypocrisy, or are such lofty levels of civil discourse reserved only for people who share Mr. Greenwald’s politics?

  10. not the senator says:

    Can we get over this, “I demand that you denounce…” garbage?

    All this phony posturing and make believe outrage is just ridiculous. You think MoveOn are idiots, I think Freepers are idiots but what right do either of us have to demand that people denounce them?

    It’s all just trying to score points. It will accomplish nothing and only signifies to the world that that the person calling for the denunciation is a blowhard too.

  11. Wayne says:

    Traloc
    If someone who supports the war does everything they can continue the war even if they know it hurts the U.S. then they would be wrong. If they support the war solely to gain ratings for the GOP then they are wrong.

    “Sabotaging a war that is bleeding America dry (in terms of military, money, and credibility) seems kind of patriotic, frankly.”

    Then you would consider Benedict Arnold and anyone who sabotage the US during any war to include WWII as a patriot. Many traitors in piece time could claim they were patriots using that logic. They are traitors by definition.

  12. Andy says:

    The point of all this isn’t that I’ve been a bastion of civility in an otherwise harsh body politic.

    Maybe not, but you’re a rarity on the right.

  13. Wayne,

    There is a radical difference between actually directly aiding the enemy (i.e,. Arnold) and arguing in public that policy ought to be changed/actively working within one’s own political system to change that policy.

    Some seem to think, and your post infers, that once we are on the field of battle that it is wrong to seek to end the fighting.

    And in re: the “Betray Us” thing–while I won’t defend the ad, I will say I am way past weary of all the outrage these things generate, but to me it is mostly outrage for outrage’s sake. It isn’t like Petraeus isn’t a big boy who can’t handle a little heat from Moveon.org.

  14. Grewgills says:

    Being against the war is one thing but actively doing all you can to sabotage the war even if it hurts the U.S. is something entirely different, especially if it is done for political reasons.

    What and who are you talking about?

  15. spencer says:

    I still waiting for anyone to show where the ad was wrong.

    Did they misquote him?

    They did not call him a traitor or disloyal.

    Yes the headline was extreme. But the ad simply made the point that everything this man has said about Iraq turned out in retrospect to have been hopelessly overoptimistic.

    All they did was use his own words.

    Can anyone show that this was incorrect.

  16. Hal says:

    But, surely, Ann Coulter, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and others despised by the Left could make the same claim.

    I think I’m going to start calling this the “Joyner Gambit”. Basically, you’re equating MoveOn’s attack on a individual for a particular action to Coulter’s class based attacks referencing no actions what so ever. Perhaps in the Swift Boat case you can make some comparison, as that was directed at an individual, but in the Swift Boat case, the attack was directed at dismissing Kerry’s accomplishments and thus by Ad Hominem attack, cast aspersions on this candidacy.

    This really doesn’t compare to what MoveOn did. They factually attacked the record and used an incendiary term as the hook. They never attacked Petraus qua Petraus.

    In the Swiftboat case, all they did was attack the man and try to cover him with mud. In Coulter’s case there’s even less there – there is no substance merely pure invective and hate.

    So, the “Joyner Gambit” it is.

  17. James Joyner says:

    This really doesn’t compare to what MoveOn did. They factually attacked the record and used an incendiary term as the hook. They never attacked Petraus qua Petraus.

    From the ad text:

      “General Petraeus is a military man constantly at war with the facts.”

      “General Petraeus is likely to become General Betray Us.”

    At least Kerry was a politician able to fight back in kind; Petraeus is a uniformed soldier obliged to appear apolitical (impossible though it may be for someone in his position).

  18. Hal says:

    Um, they said he was at war with the *facts* – i.e. they’re attacking his use of data. Where, pray tell, did they attack his millitary record? Where did they attack the *man*? If I say that you have a record of manipulating data, it does imply something about your character, but it’s not the same thing as attacking your character to imply you are manipulating data. See the difference?

    WRT Patreus’ inability to defend himself, again, against what charges? That he manipulated data? He simply has to release the data. The fact that they won’t is rather telling, isn’t it? So, to claim that he can’t defend himself against the scurrilous charge that he manipulated data because … what? he can’t release the data to defend himself?

    Seriously, James, you’re conflating to very different issues. There is no personal attack here. There’s an attack on actions and it’s a factually based attack he can easily counter.

  19. Wayne says:

    Steven and Grewgills
    My post above and many in the past has said that is o.k. for someone to want us out of a particular war. However it is one thing to try to get the government to sue for peace or leave a particular area of the world. It is another thing to give out current operation details that could harm the troops or to give aid that hurt the military operations.

    Examples were the media saying we were tracking UBL by him using his cell phone. When they show the Rangers leaving a base to go on a raid operation therefore giving the enemy a heads up.

    On a personal belief nature, I believe many of the Dems are undermining the war for political reasons. It is one thing to want to leave Iraq. The Dems seem to want to leave but to stay at same time. The problem is that the Dems shrill rhetoric is hurting the efforts of the troops conducting the war. It is possible to be against the war while having a minimum negative impact on the war efforts.

  20. Hal says:

    Examples were the media saying we were tracking UBL by him using his cell phone. When they show the Rangers leaving a base to go on a raid operation therefore giving the enemy a heads up.

    My lord, will such myths never die?

    I believe many of the Dems are undermining the war for political reasons.

    That’s a pretty damn serious charge to throw out there. Too bad you haven’t an ounce of proof and this is purely conjecture on your part.

  21. Wayne says:

    Hal
    I saw the Ranger video live so don’t call that a myth. Also using information from your own link, it stated that UBL shut off his satellite phone in August 1998 and report that the US was intercepting UBL phone calls was Sept 07 1998. All the smoke that everyone knew UBL was using a satellite phone before that is B.S. He didn’t know they could intercept it and listen in. He felt safe enough to continue to use it. It was very possible that after the close call that the U.S. had assets in the area that was able to track any communication signal. We can do that. He may have planned to relocate and use the phone afterwards. Maybe not but now we will never know. The vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission said it was a very serious leak.

    I have heard many examples of Media coverage that compromise security under the guise of “the people have a right to know”.

    “That’s a pretty damn serious charge to throw out there. Too bad you haven’t an ounce of proof and this is purely conjecture on your part.”

    It is serious charge and one that many are afraid to say because it is not PC. As for proof, it is always hard to get ironclad proof on someone intentions. However for many that watch the news on a regular bases, it is becoming apparent that it is in fact true. A dem congressman even wrote that a successful war would be bad for the Dems.

  22. Grewgills says:

    When they show the Rangers leaving a base to go on a raid operation therefore giving the enemy a heads up.

    So your contention is that live video was shown of Rangers leaving their base to go on a raid with relevant info given as to when they were leaving, where they were leaving from and where they were going to in time for the targets of that raid to respond. Can you provide any proof of this? Was the raid successful or were the Rangers caught of guard by the already prepared targets? Was there no delay in the satellite feed or delay in broadcast?

    Also using information from your own link, it stated that UBL shut off his satellite phone in August 1998 and report that the US was intercepting UBL phone calls was Sept 07 1998.

    September is after August. Hal’s WaPo link pretty effectively refutes your assertion.

    The problem is that the Dems shrill rhetoric is hurting the efforts of the troops conducting the war. It is possible to be against the war while having a minimum negative impact on the war efforts.

    So its ok to oppose the war as long as you stay quiet about it?

  23. Grewgills says:

    McCain speaks on Move On ad:
    “It’s disgraceful, it’s got to be retracted and condemned by the Democrats and MoveOn.org ought to be thrown out of this country, my friends.”
    Should McCain be forced to retract his statement that anyone who questions the credibility of Gen. Petraeus should be deported?