Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ellison on trial

Keith Ellison (D-MN), for not the fist time, is the scourge of the conservative blogosphere. That's a title that is quite difficult to hold for any extended period of time, so props to him for even intermittently triumphing over such bogeymen as trans people who want to pee in our bathrooms, reds who want Castro to be America's health provider, and the always-popular Hilary Clinton, who, even while on hiatus from doing something that conservatives will find scandalous (read: anything), can at least be counted on to be Hilary Clinton. Which, for many bloggers, is enough.

But Ellison has incensed everyone from the reliably hateful JawaReport (Ellison is inexplicably asked to answer for the actions of a Muslim cleric who supported Hitler in WWII), to the predictably insane Michelle Malkin (who is still to convinced that Ellison is out to impose sharia law despite his having civil libertarian credentials that look especially convincing next to her own fascist bluster), and even harsh criticisms from conservative commentators who teeter precipitously on the edge of the mainstream at Power Line and Fox News. Ladies and gentleman, we may have the makings of a genuine controversy.The reason: KEITH ELLISON COMPARED GEORGE BUSH TO HITLER.

Kind of.

Ellison actually compared 9/11 to the burning of the Reichstag.

"It's almost like the Reichstag fire, kind of reminds me of that," Mr Ellison said. "After the Reichstag was burned, they blamed the Communists for it, and it put the leader of that country in a position where he could basically have authority to do whatever he wanted."

Which, if we limit the analogy to just what Ellison said, is not particularly extreme. And why shouldn't we? The purpose of an analogy, after all, is not to say that two things are homologous (the same), but, of course, analogous (that they bear comparison in at least one attribute). Keith Ellison is saying that 9/11 was a national tragedy which was quickly politicized and resulted in the extension of executive power to a level that would be easily abused and incredibly difficult to check. Yes, this means the analogy set Bush opposite Hitler, insofar as both were the recipient of enlarged, and subsequently misused, executive power. Given the Bush administrations use of torture, warrant-less wire-tapping, and continued invocation of executive privilege to dodge oversight, that comparison is not particularly extreme. Certainly, Ellison could have avoided the controversy altogether had he picked any other example of a leader who exploited nationalism and fear after a major tragedy to increase his power. Personally, I would have come out of left-field by dropping in an Emperor Palpatine reference (with the separatist menace to the Republic replacing 9/11 as the rhetorical cudgel). But I see nothing particularly offensive about the comparison Ellison chose to make. Politically unwise, perhaps, but not historically inaccurate or arguably unethical.

The reactions of conservatives are hard to understand.

Mark Drake, of the Republican party in Minnesota, said: "To compare the democratically elected leader of the United States of America to Hitler is an absolute moral outrage which trivialises the horrors of Nazi Germany."

Hitler too, was democratically elected. And it would be a moral outrage to say, for example, that United States use of violence in the war on terror surpasses or rivals the brutality of the Nazi regime. But that is not what Ellison said, nor is it implied by his comment. Ultimately, Ellison is making the oft-heard point that Bush, like so many ascendant authoritarians, is a masterful manipulator of fear. Research in political psychology bears this critique out. The linked study shows that reminders of death and terrorism don't substantially increase a subject's propensity to support George W. Bush. But when one group was made to reflect on the process of dying and death, while the other focused on less weighty concerns, it was found the first group was significantly more likely to support Bush. Sustaining support for his own counter-terrorism policies depends on Bush's ability to cultivate the fear of death amongst citizens. The political weaponization of fear has always been a reliable tool in the arsenal of despots. Fear silences dissent and breeds mistrust - both of which have been linked to stronger support for conservative policies.

The conservative blogopshere is certainly aware of this fact. Their menace-of-the-week approach to politics seeks to do at the grassroots what Bush does from the bully pulpit - to make American suspicious of their neighbors, mistrustful of immigrants, skeptical of the motives of reformers and leaders of communities unlike their own. Their spin on the Ellison story is a calculated move within that game. Their insistence on associating Ellison with terrorists, oppressive regimes culminating with some phantasmic clutch for the heart and soul of Middle America is demagoguery at its worst.

One commenter on Malkin's blog shouts down a level-headed defense of Ellison with this:

Why do I have the feeling that MikeB can’t wait to don the burqua and pay the jizya as a good, subservient dhimmi? (You do realize that your beloved 9/10-era Bill of Rights won’t be observed under the coming Sharia-based regime, don’t you?)

It’s amusing (in a sad and terrifying way) how hand-wringing useful idiots like you can’t stand the idea that you aren’t extending undeserved rights to forces who solely seek your conversion, subjugation or death. I’m sure the jihadis lay awake at night worrying about your rights as well.

A climate in which such a threat is even passingly entertained as probable has clearly collapsed into its own rhetorical constructs, utterly separated from reality by fear. But the real shockers is the bitter conclusion of the second paragraph. "Don't worry about their rights, they aren't worried about yours." The corrosive effects of fear on human solidarity could not be demonstrated more clearly.


Nisha said...

I like Keith Ellison. I think he does a good job, and while his analogy might have been a little out there, he doesn't deserve all the attacks he is getting from the right.

What I find most interesting is how ridiculous the radical right is in their efforts to associate Ellison with terrorism just because he's Muslim. Let's think for a second here: Ellison is an American through and through - born and raised here. His family has been in America since 1742 - could you get any more American than that? He was raised Roman Catholic and made a personal decision to convert to Islam in college. He has absolutely zero ties to any militant Islamic groups. yet simply because of his religion, radical conservatives are calling him a terrorist? It's despicable. They are no better than the KKK members in the 1920s who thought that blacks would ruin America.

Matthew Cole said...

I completely agree, Nisha.

Ellison is the rep for the district over from mine. I volunteered with his primary campaign because I was struck by his potential to be a strong progressive leader. In office, he hasn't been perfect (which politicians are?) but he has been very good.

The amount of ignorance and hostility the man faces for his faith is truly baffling. I was once at a town hall meeting on Darfur where he was asked by an audience member to answer for the genocide being committed by Muslims in their "war against infidels." Ellison calmly replied that Islam is a religion of peace, and that while the aggressors in Darfur are Muslim their victims are as well, so there is no way to explain the conflict in religious terms. It was a great answer, but it should never have been needed. Ellison does not need to answer for other Muslims any more than George Bush needs to answer for the Klan, the Crusades, or Salem Witch Trials.