Parsing Patriotism

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

National Journal
Ron Fournier
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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.

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