Because there’s so much fighting about what we can and can’t talk about that no one ever gets around to talking.
The Cory Booker situation is just the latest example. As you may have heard, Booker, the mayor of Newark and until now beloved icon amongst Democrats, went on “Meet the Press” and put his foot in his mouth.*
“This kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides,” Booker said. “It’s nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity.”
He was immediately and rightly denounced for false equivalence. His insistence that entire sectors of the American economy are off-limits for discourse in American politics led reporters to find out exactly how much money Booker had received from Bain. Booker ate some crow, but did so ineptly, embodying the slippery politician on “Maddow” and basically saying out loud that Obama had silenced him. So, a C level shit storm, in other words. But oh so indicative of the most tiresome part of our politics these days, the constant refereeing that’s almost completely eclipsed any actual discussion of the issues.
I mean, I’ve done it, I’m sure. It’s hard not to get caught up in it. And it is true that some people, in their eagerness to score political points, say stuff that’s genuinely offensive. But by and large, the issue of “what you’re allowed to say” and trawling around, looking for offense at every little thing in hopes of silencing people, has become the dominant form of political discourse. What makes it tiresome is the vast majority of it is disingenuous. Booker was just the most obvious example of this, because claiming that a presidential candidate’s actual resume was irrelevant to the campaign was so nakedly greedy that even the most Beltway-intoxicated could see what was going on.
But can you blame him? The process of feigning outrage that someone might bring up all sorts of issues has been successfully deployed to silence a diverse array of important but uncomfortable questions. Consider, for instance, how Mitt Romney has been touting his wife as his actual advisor on the vague category of “women’s concerns”. Since she’s an advisor, her resume is relevant, of course, but actually pointing that out created a five alarm fire, because suddenly there was a new rule saying if you’re a married mother, that should shield you from any examination of how your work experience affects your supposed expertise. That’s just the most recent example, but by and large, taking umbrage that anyone would dare mention X is most of what goes on in politics now. Take, for instance, the way that any investigation into a religious ideology that a candidate openly claims influences him is now being treated like it’s dirty politics. And we wonder why voter turnout is so low. If campaigns were being conducted in a court, the only word you’d hear would be “Objection!” That’s exhausting.
What’s interesting in all this is that it seems that people attacking Booker seem to believe that his comments about Jeremiah Wright were just fine, in other words, they agree that the problem with Republicans making a fuss over Wright was that Wright was “off-limits”, no doubt on some vague belief that religion is off-limits. Of course they’d think that, since pretty much all political discourse now is about what is and isn’t off-limits. In reality, the problem with the Republican attacks was that they were pure race-baiting. If we look at it from that angle and not from trawling around, looking for what’s off-limits, then the response is more interesting and actually gets discourse going about stuff that matters. If you’ll recall correctly, that’s exactly what Obama wisely did. He could have run around clutching his pearls and demanding that religious faith be put in the ever-growing box labeled Off Limits. Instead, he actually decided to talk about the issues being raised, about being black and about the role of racism in this country. It caused a wave of awe in the political press, in no small part because a candidate actually talking about the issues instead of running around taking umbrage is a rare thing indeed. Needless to say, it was a more effective response than umbrage-taking as well, because it worked as a reminder that people who race bait do it because they’re fucking racist. They’ve been spending the years since in a state of umbrage over this perception, of course, trying to make it off-limits to observe that someone’s obviously in a racist snit.
The most irritating thing about umbrage-trawling is that people who do it invariably say, “We should be talking about the issues instead!”, with “the issues” always being something other than the discourse they’re trying to silence. Booker was again a comically outrageous version of that, suggesting as he did that a presidential candidate’s resume was irrelevant to the campaign.
Personally, I think we’d all be better off erring on the side of “go ahead and say it”. It seems to me that actually dealing with the issues works out pretty well, especially if you’re in the right. Ceding territory to the Umbrage Police is far more beneficial to Republicans, because they don’t want to talk about things like their fundamentalist faith, their ugly political histories, their devotion to outdated gender norms. Meanwhile, having someone say something vile and dishonest often says more about them than about you, especially if your response—as Obama has demonstrated before—is to actually deal with the content of the political attacks, instead of crying foul. A little more fearlessness would, I believe, make politics more attractive to more citizens, and help increase turnout at the polls. Which again is something we know helps the Democrats.
*Marc and I shotgunned all five episodes of “Veep” last night, making this sort of shit even funnier.