February 22, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
When the Golden Rule is used to silence dissent and protect the politically powerful
Truth can't stop at the border of politeness.
On Sunday, NBC’s “Meet the Press” interviewed United States Senator Senator Ron Johnson. ABC’s “This Week” interviewed House Minority Whip Steve Scalise. CBS’s “Face the Nation” interviewed United States Senator Lindsey Graham. “Fox News Sunday” interviewed United States Senator Rand Paul. They’re Republicans and they had a message for a combined television audience of millions: Donald Trump won.
Not in those exact words, but that was the clear implication. This thing or that thing—it didn’t really matter what thing—meant in their “view” that the former president was robbed and the legitimacy of the current president, Joe Biden, is somehow suspect.1
I bring this up not because yesterday was a disaster for journalism and the integrity of the public square (though it was that). I bring this up because it seems to me an answer to the question that haunts democratic discourse: How does a republic deal with parties that lie so intensely, so voluminously and so shamelessly? Some say we should afford them the same respect we ourselves expect in return. If we call them liars, that might encourage them to lie more given the outrage of being called liars. Better to check their facts, state the truth and move on in hopes that they behave in kind.
How does a republic deal with people who lie nonstop? There’s never been an easy answer. Whatever it is, it’s not “civility and grace” alone, because they alone do not work.
This was certainly the thinking behind Frank Bruni’s latest, titled “Must We Dance on Rush Limbaugh’s Grave?” The Times columnist said Sunday that while the radio broadcaster, who died last week, was a white-power racist, sexist, fear-mongering, homophobic crank (not his words), it’s crude and rough and, worse of all, “screechy” to say as much about a man recently killed off by the cancer. It’s one thing to speak ill of the dead, Bruni wrote, “but the pitch of that ill-speak needn’t be screechy. The manner of it needn’t be savage. It has more credibility—and I think, more impact—when it’s neither of these things. And we preserve some crucial measure of civility and grace.”
For four decades, Rush Limbaugh had the biggest media megaphone through which he spit poison every day straight into the ears of 20 million Americans. He lied and lied, and he lied and lied. If there were no Limbaugh, there would be no President Trump, who himself told more than 30,500 lies, falsehoods and misleading claims during four years. Their canon of lies included lies about the covid pandemic, culminating in a death toll now exceeding half a million. Their repertoire of lies included lies about the election, culminating in the worst attack on our government since September 11, 2001. Their stockpile of lies included The Big One repeated Sunday by three GOP senators and one GOP House leader to the detriment of millions of television viewers. How does a republic deal with parties that lie nonstop? There’s never been an easy answer. Whatever it is, it’s not “civility and grace” alone, because they alone do not work.
It’s not that I think Bruni is wrong to remind people to follow the Golden Rule. He’s correct, in a purely abstract sense, to say that, “If you’re going to fling your opinions at the world, you must be braced for the world to fling its reaction back at you. Those are the terms of the contract.” But we are not talking about public morality in the abstract. We are talking about public morality in this place and in this time and in the spirit of defending our republic from ghouls conspiring, and still conspiring, to bring it down. Moreover, a Golden Rule even partially decontextualized and dehistoricized can be a gag preventing us from speaking the truth and silencing all but the most powerful.
You know who Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is. During last week’s deep freeze in Texas, she started a fundraiser that has raised, as of this writing, more than $4 million to alleviate hunger and suffering in the Lone Star State. She was doing for Texans what you’d think Texans would do for her (and other New Yorkers). But instead of gratitude, the Texas Republican Party answered generosity with slander: “The gesture is appreciated, but it doesn’t remove the fact that her Green New Deal philosophy failed Texans,” wrote Chairman Allen West. Fact No. 1: The Green New Deal is Ocasio-Cortez’s policy idea. It’s not yet anything more. Fact No. 2: Texas has nothing to do with her policy idea. Fact No. 3: Wind power accounts for 10 percent of energy use in Texas. Conclusion: West is smearing Ocasio-Cortez even as she’s trying to help.
This is clear later when he writes that Ocasio-Cortez’s charity is not charity. What appears to be the Golden Rule is actually something sinister. West wrote: “What Texans found out this week is that wind energy, and solar, are not reliable, dependable, and available energy resources. Therefore, ma’am [Ocasio-Cortez], you’re not going to buy off Texans for your green new deal energy pipe dream for $2 million” (my italics). Ocasio-Cortez did not blame Texas politicians for the straits they’re in. Her pitch has not been “screechy,” as Frank Bruni wrote. Her manner has not been “savage.” She has been living up to the Golden Rule according to Bruni’s advice. But what does she get in return? Lies, slander, contempt, and rancid accusations of trying to “buy off Texans.”
Ocasio-Cortez (as well as Beto O’Rourke, who’s also raised impressive sums) is modeling what Texans could expect from a government of, by and for the people. That’s a threat to corrupt parties like the Texas GOP.2 It’s therefore in the interest of people like West to run Ocasio-Cortez down, even if he comes off as gauche in the process. (Fact is, coming off as gauche might be a good thing, as a lack of manners and etiquette and decorum tends to look like authentic strength, and when that’s set side-by-side with kindness, authentic strength usually wins though it’s a lie.) The real problem, West might as well said, isn’t that Texas is corrupt. The real problem isn’t that the state government failed the people. The real problem is carpetbaggers and their “New York values” coming down here, making us look bad. That’s not nice.
As I said, Bruni isn’t wrong in terms of substance. He’s wrong in terms of engagement. He’s so aloof as to be extraterrestrial. This is the world we live in. This is the world we struggle to change. It’s not going to change if truth stops at the border of politeness.
I put “view” in quotes, because a lie is not an opinion.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.