Parsing Patriotism

Defining the bounds of acceptable political rhetoric is child’s play.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
Add to Briefcase
Ron Fournier
Feb. 21, 2015, 9:57 a.m.

Child-de­vel­op­ment ex­perts cau­tion par­ents to choose their words care­fully when ad­mon­ish­ing their kids. Say your teen­ager is mis­be­hav­ing in school and bul­ly­ing class­mates. You could say, “You’re an ass” or “You’re act­ing like an ass.” Both in­sults are hurt­ful, but the lat­ter will do less harm.

Vil­i­fy the be­ha­vi­or, ex­perts say, not the child.

Now let’s ex­tend that ana­logy to an­oth­er group of kids — Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic politi­cians and the pun­dits who feed off them (yes, in­clud­ing me).

In 2008, Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Barack Obama cri­ti­cized Pres­id­ent George W. Bush for adding $4 tril­lion to the U.S. debt. “That’s ir­re­spons­ible,” he said. “That’s un­pat­ri­ot­ic.”

By fo­cus­ing on the ac­tion rather than Bush as a per­son, Obama’s for­mu­la­tion is the rough equi­val­ent to a moth­er telling her child, “You’re act­ing like an ass.”

Sim­il­arly, I cri­ti­cized Re­pub­lic­ans in late 2013 for root­ing for the Af­ford­able Care Act to fail, adding on MS­N­BC’S “Daily Run­down”: “And I frankly find that un­pat­ri­ot­ic. The law’s been passed. We should all be do­ing what we can to make it work.”

I called the act of un­der­min­ing a law passed by Con­gress and signed by the pres­id­ent un­pat­ri­ot­ic. I did not call Re­pub­lic­ans un­pat­ri­ot­ic.

Still, that’s not what many con­ser­vat­ives heard. My dis­tinc­tion made no dif­fer­ence to people who now think I ques­tioned their pat­ri­ot­ism.

I re­gret that. I need to be more care­ful with my words.

Go back to our par­ent­ing ana­logy. “Over time, chil­dren be­come who we tell them they are, so we have to be very care­ful with our words,” says Steph­en Gray Wal­lace, au­thor and school psy­cho­lo­gist who runs the Cen­ter for Ad­oles­cent Re­search and Edu­ca­tion (CARE). “It’s one thing to identi­fy the be­ha­vi­or. It’s an­oth­er to then ascribe your dis­pleas­ure to a per­son.”

“So you might say to a kid, ‘I don’t think you’re work­ing as hard as you could.’ That’s very dif­fer­ent than, ‘You’re lazy.’”

Wal­lace says the polit­ic­al ana­logue on Obama­care would be for me to ar­gue that Amer­ica is at its best when we share re­spons­ib­il­ity for mak­ing laws work, even when we dis­agree with them. Obama might have spoken to the cross-gen­er­a­tion­al value of fisc­al san­ity rather than call Bush’s ac­tions un­pat­ri­ot­ic.

In polit­ics and life, cer­tain words in­flame and should be avoided. Like “lazy” and “ass” for a par­ent — and “un­pat­ri­ot­ic” for a pres­id­ent or pun­dit.

An­oth­er loaded word is “lie.” I’ve used it on oc­ca­sion to de­scribe what I be­lieve to be a know­ing de­cep­tion by mem­bers of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion to jus­ti­fy war in Ir­aq. I don’t think Bush him­self lied, but Judge Laurence H. Sil­ber­man re­cently quoted me mak­ing that ac­cus­a­tion on FOX News.

I could quibble with the quote. I could say I mis­s­poke. I could make the dis­tinc­tion between the Bush and his ad­min­is­tra­tion. But, again, I ask my­self: Can I choose my words more care­fully? Yes.

Which brings me to Rudy Gi­uliani. The former New York may­or and hero of 9/11 has nu­mer­ous con­cerns about the dir­ec­tion Obama has taken the coun­try. Wheth­er you agree with Gi­uliani or not, no fair-minded per­son would deny him the right to strongly cri­ti­cize Obama’s stance to­ward Is­lam­ic ex­trem­ism and his policies to fight IS­IS.

Gi­uliani could have said Obama’s ac­tions and policies are en­dan­ger­ing Amer­ica or, step­ping it up a notch, “The pres­id­ent’s policies to­ward IS­IS are un­pat­ri­ot­ic.”

In­stead, he made it harshly per­son­al. He jumped the rails: “I do not be­lieve the pres­id­ent loves Amer­ica.”

Nobody knows what’s in an­oth­er per­son’s heart. The pre­sump­tion is that every Amer­ic­an loves this coun­try un­less it can be proved oth­er­wise — and there is a high bar for es­tab­lish­ing treas­on.

The worst you can say about Obama is he’s a bad pres­id­ent. Go ahead, say it. But don’t say he’s a bad Amer­ic­an un­less you’re will­ing to be judged just as shal­lowly, even dan­ger­ously, by people who don’t share your ideo­logy.

Ask any par­ent: Our cul­ture is coarsen­ing. Ci­vil­ity is erod­ing. The In­ter­net eas­ily re­in­forces and amp­li­fies hate­ful lan­guage. Nobody wants to live in a coun­try where the sin­gu­lar meas­ure of pat­ri­ot­ism is that you agree with me.

Gi­uliani isn’t a de­plor­able man. His words were.

What We're Following See More »
DISCUSSES "IMPORTANCE OF THE PARTNERSHIP"
Mnuchin Meets with MBS
16 hours ago
THE LATEST
SAYS HIS DEATH STEMMED FROM A FISTFIGHT
Saudis Admit Khashoggi Killed in Embassy
3 days ago
THE LATEST

"Saudi Arabia said Saturday that Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist who disappeared more than two weeks ago, had died after an argument and fistfight with unidentified men inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Eighteen men have been arrested and are being investigated in the case, Saudi state-run media reported without identifying any of them. State media also reported that Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, and other high-ranking intelligence officials had been dismissed."

Source:
ROGER STONE IN THE CROSSHAIRS?
Mueller Looking into Ties Between WikiLeaks, Conservative Groups
3 days ago
THE LATEST

"Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is scrutinizing how a collection of activists and pundits intersected with WikiLeaks, the website that U.S. officials say was the primary conduit for publishing materials stolen by Russia, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Mueller’s team has recently questioned witnesses about the activities of longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone, including his contacts with WikiLeaks, and has obtained telephone records, according to the people familiar with the matter."

Source:
PROBING COLLUSION AND OBSTRUCTION
Mueller To Release Key Findings After Midterms
3 days ago
THE LATEST

"Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to issue findings on core aspects of his Russia probe soon after the November midterm elections ... Specifically, Mueller is close to rendering judgment on two of the most explosive aspects of his inquiry: whether there were clear incidents of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, and whether the president took any actions that constitute obstruction of justice." Mueller has faced pressure to wrap up the investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, said an official, who would receive the results of the investigation and have "some discretion in deciding what is relayed to Congress and what is publicly released," if he remains at his post.

Source:
PASSED ON SO-CALLED "SAR" REPORTS
FinCen Official Charged with Leaking Info on Manafort, Gates
3 days ago
THE DETAILS
"A senior official working for the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has been charged with leaking confidential financial reports on former Trump campaign advisers Paul Manafort, Richard Gates and others to a media outlet. Prosecutors say that Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a senior adviser to FinCEN, photographed what are called suspicious activity reports, or SARs, and other sensitive government files and sent them to an unnamed reporter, in violation of U.S. law."
Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login