Liberals aren't allowed to hate. If conservatives hate, it's called strong leadership. If liberals hate, it's poisonous hysteria. A slew of recent op-ed pieces and reviews are attacking the supposed coarse discourse of the left on the subject of George W. Bush. Just as liberals are told they can't use the language of "class war" to openly call attention to the inequities in our economy, liberals are now being told that expressing Bush hatred is a no-no because it is divisive, illiberal, and might conceal even darker ideas.
Consider a few recent pieces.
In The Washington Post Friday, Aug. 6, Gary Alan Fine, a sociology professor at Northwestern University, examined Bush hatred, which he characterized as both "troubling" and "surprising." Democrats, he wonders, might disagree with Bush, but how could they hate him? Fine believes the Bush administration is "free of scandals" and that most of its tinkering with federal programs has been "strategic and slight." So, the only reasonable explanation, he concludes, is class resentment. Democrats loathe the "frat boy who never grew up" rather than the man who actually occupies the White House. He says our despised presidents—like Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton—are hated not so much for their policies or politics but for how they were emblematic of past cultural divisions: Nixon never outgrew his reputation as a McCarthyite thug, and Clinton is forever a hippie draft dodger. Message: Bush is a well-meaning incrementalist who is hated unfairly not for what he's done but for who he is.
The subject of Bush hatred is also explored in a lengthy book review of Nicholson Baker's new novel, Checkpoint, by Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, in the Sunday, Aug. 8, New York Times Book Review. The book features a loser who contemplates assassinating Bush. The reviewer describes Baker's book as "scummy" even while acknowledging that Baker himself is promoting no such action. Nevertheless, the book apparently offers a window into the minds of Bush haters, and Wieseltier turns his review into a tut-tutting lecture against the sin of "demagoguery." Bush-bashing represents the politics of the "sewer," a potentially "disastrous" dumbing down of political discourse. While he lauds John Kerry and John Edwards for taking the high road, he worries that the spirit of their supporters is "dark." Message: Hatred of Bush is possibly more damaging than his presidency.
What is in that dark place? Perhaps it's anti-Semitism. So worries University of Washington English professor Edward Alexander in a Seattle Times commentary Monday, Aug. 9. While noting some past and present examples of anti-Jewish rhetoric by several, mostly African-American, Democratic figures, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Georgia Congresswoman (and again candidate) Cynthia McKinney, Alexander worries about a supposed upsurge in Jew-bashing that "is mainly a left-wing phenomenon." His column offers no supporting evidence that this is either a growing trend or unique to the left, but he does manage to smear the most passionate, anti-Bush wing of the party: "Democrats have a growing 'problem' at the grass-roots or Michael Moore level of the party that they know not how to deal with." Message: The Bush haters mask—or are motivated by—anti-Semitism. Michael Moore, meet David Duke.
I'm not going to argue that hate isn't a terrible thing. Political hate can turn the ugliest shade of ugly. But are the rhetorical flourishes and intense determination of liberals in this election year really hate? Is Michael Moore organizing goon squads to assault Republicans? Is Nicholson Baker hatching plans to "disappear" conservatives? Since when did American discourse have to be puritanically drained of its emotions? Our nation's founders invented a durable political system that they could wring with both hands without killing it. And it has survived the venom that dripped from their pens and the vitriol that fuels our punditocracy. Not all political passion is unwarranted. Certainly, opposing tyranny with all one's heart is not.
I think of this because Sunday, Aug. 8, was the 30th anniversary of Nixon's resignation from the presidency. From early in his career, liberals swore that Tricky Dick was a ruthless, corrupt threat to country and Constitution. Vietnam caused some of his enemies—and the list was long—to add "war criminal" to the charges. Nixon insisted that he was not a "crook," but as Watergate and its attendant scandals unfolded, it was clear that he was one. Big time, as Dick Cheney might say. Did Nixon do some good things? Yes. But he did far more damage and was deservedly chased from office. It took many years for the media, the political power structure, and indeed the American public to come around and finally see in Nixon what many liberals had seen from Day One.
The liberals who "hated" Nixon have no apologies to make. Indeed, they were utterly vindicated by Watergate. Maybe the rest of "nonhating" America owes them an apology—especially the "silent majority" who elected Nixon again and again. Today, many liberals feel the same way about Bush, not because of his class, but because of what his administration is doing to the country we love.
History will tell us if our passions are misplaced.