Just three weeks ago, I was writing in this space against niceness. I have pursued the theme recently with praise (sometimes backhanded) not only for the politics, but for the tone, of such as Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin in the United States. They are by no means the only practitioners of what we’ll call the “not nice” style in contemporary politics. Newt Gingrich is usually mentioned in such dispatches; and I could list a selection of Barack Obama’s “policy czars” with demonstrated shoot-from-the-lip propensities. But I would like to preserve a “nice” (in the logical sense) distinction between candour and thuggery.
Candour is when you tell a truth that is disturbing, in language so unambiguous that persons in polite company will not want to hear you. It is a way to lose the respect of the genteel—of those who are “respectable” in the shallowest sense. Rude language is quite unnecessary to this end: the hard truth itself, spoken plainly and publicly, will give sufficient offence.
Thuggery is unrelated to this. It consists not of candid argument but of naked intimidation. It may be done crassly—for instance, by the union thugs who have begun to appear at U.S. townhall meetings, to confront opponents of the Democrats’ health-care agenda. Or it may be done smoothly, with the politically correct gesture, that conveys the threat of later reprisal against anyone who utters the contrary, “incorrect” thought. A good example would be the “[email protected]” e-mail address that was set up on the official White House website, to which Obama supporters across the country were invited to report “fishy” opposition to that health-care agenda.
And “niceness” is something else again, usually allied with hypocrisy. For one can be very selectively nice—outraged, scandalized, breathtaken with surprise, when Richard Nixon was caught compiling an “enemies list.” Yet perfectly indifferent when Barack Obama advertises for input to compile his.
How many “nice” people I know, who casually asserted that a certain George W. Bush was mentally retarded, resembled a monkey, and was guilty of war crimes. Suddenly the same people have “had it up to here” with squalid personal attacks on his successor.
Tell you the candid truth, I don’t like “nice” people. Conversely, I have a sneaking regard for real political enemies who are prepared to state candidly what they are about. Which is why I mentioned Obama’s long list of policy czars, above—people like John Holdren (1970s advocate of forced abortions and mass sterilization) the new science czar, Van Jones (declared Communist) the new green jobs czar, Vivek Kundra (convicted shoplifter) the new infotech czar, Adolfo Carrion (pay-for-play scandals) the new urban subsidies czar, Nancy DePerle (lobbyist-to-regulator) the new health czar, Cass Sunstein (behaviourist and animal rights wacko) the new regulatory czar, and so on.
There are dozens of these, altogether. They are Obama’s “shadow cabinet,” with the advantage over his more presentable official cabinet that they can avoid congressional scrutiny in almost everything they do. They didn’t need to face the Senate confirmation revelations that lost Obama so many of his earliest cabinet appointments. A mere Internet search for quotes reveals that many of them are capable of great candour, at least in the radical leftist environments from which most of them came.
The mainstream media focus is nevertheless not on them—rich and easy pickings had they been Republican appointments—but instead on Sarah Palin’s appalling characterization of Obama’s health-care agenda as not merely “socialist” but “evil”; and on her use of the term “death panels” to describe proposed bureaucratic arrangements for deciding who should be entitled to medical treatment, and how to advise the old, seriously handicapped, and ill on euthanasia options.
Needless to say the proposals themselves had been couched in “feelgood” language, with public relations campaigns at the ready in case someone like Palin called a spade a spade. She did so in full knowledge of how that publicity machine would respond.
It is assumed she will be running for president on the redneck ticket. But as we saw last week, she does not need any office to get results. For after many nice legislators had condemned her for her “unreasonable” criticisms, the U.S. Senate finance committee this week dropped a key provision to which she had referred, from the House health-care bill before them. According to the ranking Republican member, it was dropped “because it could be misinterpreted or implemented incorrectly.”
That’s a very nice way of saying that Sarah Palin had a point. And it is a point that would have passed unnoticed, had she confined herself to “nice” language.