Alex Blaze

Rick Santorum, faux-outrage, and the tragic sitcomedy known as American politics

Filed By Alex Blaze | September 21, 2007 8:24 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: David Patraeus, Iraq War, MoveOn, Rick Santorum

The gym I go to has several dozen televisions throughout it, each turned to one of three channels: ESPN, NBC, and Fox News. Since the sound isn't turned on, you can't really tell what's going on, but imagine my surprise when I read on one of the Fox News TV's that they were discussing, on Hannity & Colmes last night, the terrible MoveOn.org ad, with none other than former Senator Rick Santorum.

If you haven't followed the faux-outrage that surrounded this ad by MoveOn.org coming out of all corners of the right, then I commend you. If we're going to have a conversation about weapons of mass distraction, this would have to be included right now. Just as the Republicans took a stand in solidarity against the Webb Amendment (which would have required that troops spend equal time at home as on the battlefield, already a compromise from the usual 2-1 ratio of time here versus time in war), they voted to censure MoveOn.org for running an ad that referred to David Patreaus as "General Betray Us".

Childish? Sure. Did it get people's attention? You bet. And the right-wing of this country hasn't pulled any stops in supporting their own brand of political correctness here. In fact, that was the whole point, to make it so that anyone who criticizes an inherently political act - someone testifying before Congress to support the president's escalation of the war in Iraq - seem unpatriotic because they look like they're criticizing soldiers.

So here I am, already a bit peeved that the US Senate has chosen to censure an organization for attempting to engage in debate of public policy (what is this, the Red Scare?), a quite a bit peeved that the Democrats, who were supposed to put an end to this when they took over Congress, but to see someone on television condemning MoveOn.org, someone who made a name for himself by making ridiculously offensive statements, well, that's just too much.

Rick Santorum, you may recall, discussed same-sex marriage with this:

Every society in the history of man has upheld the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. Why? Because society is based on one thing: that society is based on the future of the society. And that's what? Children. Monogamous relationships. In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing. And when you destroy that you have a dramatic impact on the quality --

And the Lawrence decision, you know, the one that said it wasn't OK to arrest us because we don't choose to be celibate, was described with this:

Because, again, I would argue, they undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family. And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does

And let's not forget when he compared Senate Democrats to Hitler in 2005 for threatening to filibuster judicial nominees (which, ironically, the Republicans did just today on the Webb Amendment. If they hadn't threatened, it would have passed with 54 votes):

I mean, imagine, the rule has been in place for 214 years that this is the way we confirm judged. Broken by the other side two years ago, and the audacity of some members to stand up and say, how dare you break this rule. It's the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942, "I'm in Paris. How dare you invade me. How dare you bomb my city? It's mine." This is no more the rule of the Senate than it was the rule of the Senate before not to filibuster. It was an understanding and agreement, and it has been abused.

And yet he still feels that he's in a position to say that MoveOn.org went too far.

Of course, we know what this is: a tool to distract us from one huge, glaring elephant in the room: the fact that they said they'd have results for the "surge" by September, and that those results would be that a space had been created for conflict to be resolved over the summer. Well, that's just the elephant in the room, there's the herd just outside, that an invasion of Iraq would stabilize and democratize the Middle East in a matter of months, starting in early 2003. Those haven't happened, so why not distract people a little?

It got even more maddening on Hannity & Colmes when Sean said, in response to Harold Ford's attempts to talk about the war:

I don't want to get off-track here because this is too important an issue.

"Off-track", of course, meaning talking about reality instead of this momentary distraction.

What makes this situation infuriating is that the Senate has now acted to censure a body not for the speech that they used (which would already be ridiculous), but to silence them for the content of that speech. They haven't censured anyone who's cast aspersions on anyone else's motives.

And that's scary. And the fact that 22 Senate Democrats voted with the Republicans makes this whole thing seem hopeless. How do you change 73% of the Senate? Is it that big of a percentage of the people around me who don't believe that the Senate should be discussing substantive issues? And where are these people who don't think that we should be able to speak about these substantive issues without having a Senate resolution passed condemning it?

It's ridiculous, really, the state that we've let ourselves get to when it comes to free speech. You can say this terribly offensive thing and still be one of the most powerful people in the country, say that silly thing and you're the spawn of the devil in the eyes of the Senate. And, no matter what happens, Rick Santorum will try to teach you a lesson about civil discourse.

I smell sitcom!


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How does the Senate censure a private organization anyhow? I know they can censure themselves and the President, but just any old Joe off the street? What's to stop them from censuring us when they don't like the content of our site?

Apparently freedom of speech only applies if you agree with right-wing extremists. Oops! I think the Senate is on its way to censure me now…

Hmmmm. So maybe we should also ask GLAD to think twice before condemning people for what they say? I think we (and I mean the queer community at large) all tend to jump on board when we hear "hate speech," (think Imus and Isaiah Washington) and are happy to call for widespread censorship. But, hey, this is what the world looks like when the powers that be feel free to condemn and pass resolutions on what's acceptable speech/writing.

Re: censuring: I thought they could only censure public officials, so I'm not sure how moveon.org can get censured. Eventually, censuring (censureship?) doesn't really mean anything. You can censure a President, but that has no effect - unlike impeachment. But there are some real-world effects, unfortunately, like creating a huge fuss about organisations being unpatriotic and such. All of which can have a deleterious effect on public discourse.

I wasn't using the policy definition of "censure", rather the more generic one to mean "to call out". They passed a resolution saying how awful the ad was. It won't do anything substantive, but I'm sure that the next time MoveOn.org tried to donate to a candidate, there'll be a brouhaha over it.

i think you meant GLAAD with two A's, as I don't know what GLAD with one A has done recently. Are they still around?

But not speaking of specifics (because that Washington debacle was about so much more than a word), I'm still going to say that it's OK to get mad when other people attack people with words. I don't think that we have to accept that people on television sometimes say awful things. And if not having a several-hour-a-day national television show is a form of censOrship, then I'm constantly being silenced, along with most people in the world, and so I don't know why we'd start a discussion of who is censored under that broad definition of the term with Don Imus.

And I'm not thinking that the Rutgers women's basketball team, or, by extension, black women, necessarily count as a power-that-is in the same way that the Senate or the GOP does.

I did mean GLAAD, yes. GLAD is apparently still around:
www.glad.org/

Re: the Washington issue - I thought there were all kinds of complicated issues going on there, including the rhetoric about beating him up that came out of the mouth of at least one of his co-stars, which hugely complicated the matter given the racial dynamics which, oddly and interestingly, slipped around a bit. The question isn't about whether or not we accept that people on tv say awful things, the question is how do we allow the media and media figures to manipulate the discourse to make these moments seem like they're only about people saying awful things.

But regarding the issue of censorship: I'm with Stanley Fish and others who've pointed out that there isn't, strictly speaking, such a thing as freedom of speech given that we're all tied to some form of legal constraint when we take on a job, for instance. But that's one aspect. The other is the question of how we determine, culturally and socially, about whom we'd like to hold up as victims of "hate speech/offensive speech." And I could have done without the infantilisation of young, successful, black women that came along with the whole Rutgers issue. Which is not to unproblematically position them on the same axis of power as a bunch of senators.

You can't dismiss the issue of having Imus's show taken away by saying, "And if not having a several-hour-a-day national television show is a form of censOrship, then I'm constantly being silenced, along with most people in the world." That just evades any real discussion about, well, the possibility that you could actually have your own show one day and face having that taken away because of a furore over something you say.

None of this excuses what people may have said, but I do think we ought to recognise that the question of offense is primarily, today, a deeply political issue and only secondarily one that gets any kind of real and sustained public discussion.

I agree with a lot of what you're saying, but I don't see how it translates into "Don Imus should have kept his radio show" or that he was being censored. I don't think it's dismissive to point out that there are lots of people who haven't even had a fraction of the opportunities to speak to as many people as Imus did. I was going to say something along the lines of how I just don't see freedom of speech as being a possibility when it comes to the complexity of private influences that float around and simultaneously silence some and aggrandize others, but that doesn't make them somehow out of control, as they are quite obviously mostly in the control of a small group of people.

I'm troubled by the idea that I should somehow sympathize with Imus because:

That just evades any real discussion about, well, the possibility that you could actually have your own show one day and face having that taken away because of a furore over something you say.

That statement, and I don't know if you intended it that way, seems to sound like those people who argue that you should still be again the estate tax, even if you don't have $650K to leave to your kids, but someday you too could be insanely rich and then you wouldn't like to be taxed. Sure, it's a remote possibility that I'd have a show like Imus did, and that I'd spend the better part of a two decade career there saying racist and sexist things until I say one that just breaks the camel's back, but I don't think that asking people to build bridges of compassion that only lead to the upper elite of American society is a good idea.

I agree that we could have done some better discussion of the whole debacle, but I don't see how that translates into him keeping his radio show, or how that's a form of censorship at all. Very few people are ever going to get the kind of attention he did, and we are already put in a position where we have to decide who gets that attention and who doesn't, so I think that he has to affirmatively prove that he's deserving of that position, that he has something to add to a national discussion.

OK, I've been talking about Imus a lot here, but I'm referring to all sorts of people who say all sorts of offensive things on television, etc., not just him, but also not Washington, since that case was very different from Don Imus's, or Tucker Carlson's, or others, in ways that you've pointed out and others.

But all of this, I don't think, equates to the Senate taking a day off to distract us from the fact that they couldn't get the Webb Amendment passed by passing a resolution to distance themselves from a PAC because they ran an ad that actually said something substantive on an issue that's on a lot of people's minds, a resolution that they will probably use to materially disempower that group and its 3 million constituents.

You know what pisses me off the most about the MoveOn debacle?

More Senators voted in FAVOR of censuring MoveOn than voted to end the filibuster on the Webb amendment which would have compromised currently policy to allow troops to have just as much home time as they have in battle. Shame on them for misplaced priorities! They can bluster and blow all they want about how MoveOn attacked the troops, but their actions are a much bigger blow to troop morale than a newspaper ad.