26 July 2015

The Republicans' uncivil war

You reap what you sow. In a contentious pre-campaign season, Senator Cruz arguably has topped all of Donald Trump's invective by calling the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, the leader of his own party in that body, a liar on the Senate floor itself. Some observers have noted ironically that Cruz was one of the few Republicans to refrain from criticizing Trump this summer. Maybe if Senator McConnell were running for President too Cruz would have been more courteous. But we'd be missing the point if we were to assume that Trump's rhetoric and his freedom with insults, to which some rivals have responded in kind, e.g. Senator Graham calling him a "jackass" before Trump made Graham's personal cell-phone number public, has emboldened Cruz. It's more likely that Trump and Cruz represent the same impulse, and if some Republicans find that impulse deplorable they have only themselves to blame. For the past thirty years or so Republicans have led the rhetorical charge against "political correctness" while characterizing it as the suppression of honest debate on the ground of hurt feelings. We see where such talk has led when we hear idiots complaining that the Confederate flag was lowered in South Carolina only because it hurt certain people's feelings. Right-wingers are as much believers in slippery slopes as liberals are, so a coarsening of discourse in reaction to perceived political correctness should not have surprised them. Respect for people's feelings has become virtually synonymous with political correctness to many people, so that for them straight talk proves itself by its disrespect for feelings. They know someone has made a point when it hits a nerve. As I've written before, this idea isn't entirely wrong. Sometimes the truth does hurt -- but the hurt itself doesn't prove anything. It's been easy for Republicans to assume that liberals and minorities flaunt their hurt feelings to avoid hearing hard truths. It will be less easy for individual Republicans to dodge the same assumption when their own feelings are hurt by fellow Republicans. On top of that, does anyone doubt that there are truths to be told that will hurt Republicans or their constituents generally? They may answer that they can prove those untruths, but when others have done the same to their arguments the same Republicans have sneered about hurt feelings. To the extent that people's feelings have been hurt by current political discourse, much of the time those feelings are merely a poor substitute for what we used to call honor. Our ancestors may have had thicker skins than we and could stand sharper criticism, they also made a distinction between invective and insult that is lost in our current concern about "straight talk" and indifferent to hurt feelings or political correctness. In their day McConnell might have summoned Cruz to the field of honor and, Trump's wealth notwithstanding, any number of people may have horsewhipped him in the street. Such responses remain politically incorrect today, and today's Republicans don't seem to have a problem with that limit on accountability for what they say. They're going to want to draw a line somewhere, though, but how do they do that without looking hypocritically politically correct? It should be fun watching them try to figure that out.

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