Carefully Saying That What You Say Is Not What You’re Saying

In spite of our pride in our having codified free speech and a free press – we started with the rule that you can say what you want and print what you want – there is an American tradition of holding that words don’t matter a whole lot. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. It’s only words. He’s all hat, no cattle.

And the archetypical American hero is the strong, silent type – the cowboy who outdraws the bad guy and shoots him dead, and walks off without a word, explaining nothing, neither proud nor boastful. There’s nothing to say. There never was. You do what’s right. There’s no point in talking about it.

And you know that movie. The guys who chatter away about what must be done, or not done, or who talk about possible strategy and tactics, and about the likely or possible consequences of this course of action or that, are the comic relief, and turn out to be as bad as the bad guys, and thus are bad guys themselves. Words don’t matter. In fact, they’re dangerous. It’s little wonder than that we sort of elected George Bush president twice. He’d often end up laughing about how he mangled much of what he said – he seemed kind of proud of that. He got it. He wasn’t going to be the manically talkative utter fool in that cowboy movie. He was going to be John Wayne. It’s great that everyone can saw what they want, but why would they? Those who do that are not the ones who get anything done.

But people do say things that may matter, while leads Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick to note this – Liz Cheney says terrorists have no rights. Also, you’re a terrorist.

No, really:

It can be argued that when Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol accused nine lawyers in Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department of being the “al-Qaida Seven,” working in the “Department of Jihad,” they were simply exercising their First Amendment right to say anything that would get them on a talk show. This is, after all, America. The right to cynically accuse someone of being a terrorist is protected under the Constitution.

Of course that’s protected, and she is referring to their “Keep America Safe” Web ad – which many have argued is pure Joe McCarthy nonsense. That man was a nasty piece of work and people figured that out soon enough. So Lithwick says you’d think they would have been very, very careful with their words. But they weren’t:

In the ad they accuse seven Justice Department lawyers and two colleagues – all of whom had represented Guantanamo detainees – of being members of the Department of Jihad. A screen shot of Osama Bin Laden and a creepy voice-over asks of these attorneys, “Whose values do they share?” Thanks to people like Kristol and Cheney, people take accusations of this sort very seriously. The Justice Department reports being swamped with panicked phone calls since the ad started running this week. In 2010, calling someone a Bin Laden-loving jihadist isn’t just meaningless partisan hackery.

Read about all the panicked phone calls here – and here watch CNN’s Wolf Blitzer apologize on-air for a graphic on the screen that said “Department of Jihad?” followed by a question mark when his show covered the Cheney-Kristol assertions that the Department of Justice had, in effect, been taken over by al-Qaeda. That wasn’t the news. CNN wasn’t reporting any takeover of America by the bad guys – it was a story on Liz Cheney, on what she said, a story about words, not about the end of America as we know it.

And you can see what Blitzer was saying. If CNN reports that someone widely regarded by a large group of Americans says look at the sky – it’s obvious that the sun revolves around the earth – and look down the street – it’s obvious that the earth is flat – CNN will report that they said that, as ask them why they said that. CNN is not saying that either is true. They’re reporting that a big gun said that was true. CNN is doing its job.

And after all it’s just words. But Lithwick says ten years ago these were just words, but things have changed:

Ten years ago, someone accused of being a terrorist had recourse to the same panoply of rights as everyone else. Ten years ago, an accused terrorist still had the right to a trial, for instance. But thanks to people like Liz Cheney and her dad, the Sixth Amendment right to a “speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury” is gone, once you’ve been branded a terrorist. Just ask Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. After 9/11, once you’re branded an enemy combatant, you can be held for years without any of your constitutionally protected rights, including the right to be told of the charges against you or to confront the witnesses against you. Thanks to people like Cheney, those alleged to be members of al-Qaida are stripped of their Sixth Amendment right to prove they are not.

But that’s not all:

Ten years ago, if you labeled someone a terrorist, he had an Eighth Amendment right to be free from torture, since the very idea of “cruel and unusual punishment” was anathema, even for our enemies. But thanks to people like Liz Cheney and the brave souls at the Bush Office of Legal Counsel, it’s OK to torture terrorists these days. As long as you’re pretty sure they’re terrorists. This is good news for the Cheney way of thinking, because it means that you can abuse a possible terrorist into admitting that he actually is a terrorist without all that fact-finding necessitated by a criminal trial.

And there’s this:

Ten years ago, if some paranoid hysteric accused you of being an al-Qaida sympathizer or a jihadist, you could find a lawyer to help you make the case that you were not. But in the ever-expanding war on the Bill of Rights being waged by Liz Cheney, once you’re designated a terrorist, you lose your Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Because just by representing you – even if you’re acquitted – your lawyers become terrorists, too!

But given that the “Bill of Rights pretty much evaporates once you’ve been deemed a jihadi lover of Bin Laden” Lithwick say you might think Liz Cheney would be “super-careful tossing around such words” – after all, have very serious legal implications. And she points out that Alberto Gonzales and Ted Olson scolded the then-top Pentagon official for detainees, Charles “Cully” Stimson for suggesting on a talk radio show that American corporations should boycott law firms that provided pro bono assistance to detainees. Those two buddies of Liz’s father won that one – Stimson was forced to apologize and resign for his comments. Liz was only ridiculed by Bill O’Reilly, oddly enough. And that’s a problem:

Liz Cheney isn’t careful about the words she throws around. She uses terrorist and killer the way normal people use words like salt and pepper. To her, they are just words. That’s probably the scariest part of all.

And everyone seems to agree that when the “al-Qaida Seven” and their two Department of Justice colleagues defended alleged terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, they weren’t fighting to protect jihadist murderers:

They were defending the U.S. Constitution – the great whomping chunks of the Bill of Rights that Cheney and her friends are so eager to write out of existence. They did it because that’s what lawyers are ethically obligated to do. They did it because – as Spencer Ackerman points out – the Military Commissions Act of 2006 expressly provided that detainees get defense lawyers. And they did it, as Jay Bookman notes, for the same reason John Adams agreed to represent British soldiers charged with killing civilians during the Boston Massacre in 1770. Because long before Liz Cheney was born and long after she’s gone, the Bill of Rights requires serious people to take it seriously.

But now Liz Cheney, feeling the heat, is backing off and saying, oddly enough, that it was all just words, and words don’t matter that much:

She’s already trying to parse her way out of the embarrassing fact that the Bush Department of Justice and Rudy Giuliani’s law firm also housed traitorous Gitmo lawyers. Now, Keep America Safe says its problem is only with pro bono Gitmo lawyers. Yesterday, Cheney told Washington Times radio she “doesn’t question anybody’s loyalty.” She just objects to the criminal justice model of dealing with terror. Those words jihad and al-Qaida? Having helped make them the foulest words in America, she wants you to think they’re mere words.

Lithwick says it’s too late for that.

But the whole business raises some questions about those on the hard right. When are we supposed to take them seriously – their words mean exactly way they say – and when are we to assume they are speaking somewhat metaphorically, or fancifully – and when are they just kidding around, just trying to rattle a few cages?

When is it just words? Ann Coulter has famously called for the assassination of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and then said she was just kidding around. The same goes for calling for someone to blow up the New Times Building in Manhattan and so forth. CNN probably knows how to handle her – in 2004 their corporate partner, Time magazine, did a cover story on Ann Coulter and characterized her as a provocative deep thinker, speaking metaphorically. It seems that they’re still working on how to deal with Liz Cheney. Liz Cheney seems to mean exactly what she says, and then says she doesn’t, exactly – she’s really a nice person who would never call anyone disloyal. She was just trying to make a point about the philosophic underpinnings of a particular set of policy decisions, and she decided to add a little drama to it.

At least that’s her story now. And, obviously, Wolf Blitzer’s job isn’t easy these days.

But the same thing applies to what to make of the whole Tea Party movement, as Digby explains here:

I’m getting a few lectures about how wrong it is for me to be so hard on the tea partiers because they are mostly good-hearted folks who hate the bailouts/outsourcing/corporatism just like the rest of us. But that argument makes me feel the same way I felt when people told me that Bush wasn’t really that bad or that Rush is just an entertainer or that the rush to war with Iraq made sense. It’s an awful lot like being told you can believe me or you can believe your lying eyes. I know what I see.

What I see of the tea partiers are a group that used to be called John Birchers or Buchanan Brigades or Perot voters (or when the Republicans are fully empowered, “the GOP base”.) When they say they hate the Republicans it’s because they are embarrassed by them for being losers, not because of any ideological differences they have with them. They aren’t interested in ideology. They are interested in keeping the country from being destroyed by … us. The details are irrelevant.

That’s they’re really nice moderate people who just want the best for everyone, but sometimes inadvertently say something a tad intemperate, just doesn’t wash – and Digby notes that her friend Amanda Marcotte says it very well:

Their complaints about the federal government need to be understood in terms of right-wing speak, where very few beliefs are stated straightforwardly, but usually bundled up in a bad faith argument designed to give the intended audience a belief that the person is speaking from principle instead of prejudice. In other words, they flit around from one right wing argument about the feds and spending to another, because that’s not really what’s motivating them. That’s just the cover story.

I honestly think what’s going on is a big time identity politics temper tantrum, and unlike all but the worst kinds of identity politics on the left, it’s got very little attachment to policy outside of those policies that reinforce their identity politics argument. And that argument is that they are the Real Americans®, and the rest of us need to submit.

And Marcotte watches Rachel Maddow and the New Times’ Frank Rich kick around whether, given the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, to take them seriously, or how to judge what they mean from what is said, loudly, just to rattle some cages (the video is at the link), and adds this:

Maddow and Rich kick around this idea of libertarianism, but that’s not really what’s going on. That gay marriage wasn’t a major issue with the CPAC voters says more about priorities than beliefs, so I hardly think it’s an endorsement of gay rights, for instance. It’s just that it seems small in the grand scheme of things, which is that they feel “their” country is sliding away from them and turning into something they don’t understand, and they’re pissed. They’re either weeping or sneering, but it’s not that they’re trying to advance arguments about what’s good for the country. They’re mostly screaming, “Me first!”

And this seems to be a key to all this:

Right wing populists shut up and get behind Republicans when they’re in office. They only do this shit when Democrats have power, especially if the sitting President isn’t a member of their perceived tribe. What that says to me is that even as they preen around about how they’re not loyalists to the Republican Party that is in fact what they are. And the reason is that Republicans do the work of telling the right wing populists that they’re the only real Americans. And that’s what matters to them more than anything else.

Digby adds this:

I’m not going to second guess myself about these people. I know who they are. I’ve known them my whole life. This is not something new; it’s something very, very old. I give them the respect of taking them seriously because they are organized around nothing more than the destruction of liberalism and their political vehicle is the Republican Party. They can be very powerful. All the rest is a smoke screen.

And much of this was generated by this column from Frank Rich:

No one knows what history will make of the present – least of all journalists, who can at best write history’s sloppy first draft. But if I were to place an incautious bet on which political event will prove the most significant of February 2010, I wouldn’t choose the kabuki health care summit that generated all the ink and 24/7 cable chatter in Washington. I’d put my money instead on the murder-suicide of Andrew Joseph Stack III, the tax protester who flew a plane into an office building housing Internal Revenue Service employees in Austin, Tex., on Feb. 18. It was a flare with the dark afterlife of an omen.

And the problem there was whether this was serious, or whether to take this seriously:

What made that kamikaze mission eventful was less the deranged act itself than the curious reaction of politicians on the right who gave it a pass – or, worse, flirted with condoning it. Stack was a lone madman, and it would be both glib and inaccurate to call him a card-carrying Tea Partier or a “Tea Party terrorist.” But he did leave behind a manifesto whose frothing anti-government, anti-tax rage overlaps with some of those marching under the Tea Party banner. That rant inspired like-minded Americans to create instant Facebook shrines to his martyrdom. Soon enough, some cowed politicians, including the newly minted Tea Party hero Scott Brown, were publicly empathizing with Stack’s credo – rather than risk crossing the most unforgiving brigade in their base.

Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, even rationalized Stack’s crime. “It’s sad the incident in Texas happened,” he said, “but by the same token, it’s an agency that is unnecessary. And when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the IRS, it’s going to be a happy day for America.” No one in King’s caucus condemned these remarks. Then again, what King euphemized as “the incident” took out just 1 of the 200 workers in the Austin building: Vernon Hunter, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran nearing his IRS retirement. Had Stack the devastating weaponry and timing to match the death toll of 168 inflicted by Timothy McVeigh on a federal building in Oklahoma in 1995, maybe a few of the congressman’s peers would have cried foul.

The problem is that what you say with a flourish, to make a point – wild words – can cause someone, whose anger has overwhelmed his impulse control, to do something rather awful – and then you have to decide what you meant, literally, and what was mere rhetorical embellishment. You see what was happing here, as the IRS bombing had just occurred – I meant every word of everything I said, sort of:

But in truth, most of the CPAC speakers, including presidential aspirants, were so eager to ingratiate themselves with this claque that they endorsed the Beck-Paul vision rather than, say, defend Bush, McCain or the party’s Congressional leadership. (It surely didn’t help Romney’s straw poll showing that he was the rare Bush defender.) And so – just one day after Stack crashed his plane into the Austin IRS office – the heretofore milquetoast Minnesota governor, Tim Pawlenty, told the audience to emulate Tiger Woods’s wife and “take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government in this country.”

What was that supposed to mean?

Marcotte hits on the dilemma here:

I know that teabaggers consider the federal government “the enemy” – but I think they think of it in the same way Christians do “the devil” – it’s effectively symbolic, even if the amount of rage they muster makes it seem literal to them, at least some of the time. What they consider the federal government and its evildoing changes minute to minute, and based on pure emotion. There’s not a lot of intellectual consistency with people who worship the military but don’t think they should have to pay taxes.

Well, that is curious.

But all this only makes sense in a world where words don’t really matter – you know, our world, America today, where you can say anything at all, because it’s only words, it’s only words.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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