Shortly after Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao cast the sole GOP vote in the House of Representatives supporting President Barack Obama's health care bill, Quin Hillyer, a senior editorial writer for The Washington Times and a former Gambit editor, penned an opinion piece in The American Spectator laying out Cao's reasons for doing so. Hillyer, a respected conservative, concluded, "No, of course I don't like his vote. But give the man a break: He's an honorable, incredibly hard-working, inspirational young representative who is doing his darndest to do a good job in a district ordinarily incredibly hostile to conservatives and Republicans of all stripes."
The responses were fast, furious and disturbingly racist. An anonymous commenter affecting the name "True Patriot" referred to Cao as a "gook." Others dubbed him "Chairman Cao," "the Antichrist," or told him to "go back to Vietnam." (Cao, born in Vietnam, emigrated here at age 8.) Hillyer also was vilified by readers calling him a "traitor" and "appeaser." Here in Louisiana, influential Baton Rouge blogger Chad Rogers (www.thedeadpelican.com) featured a photo caricature of Cao from a reader who promised Cao would be "deep-fried and stir-fried in 2010." All this over one vote by a representative who has voted solidly Republican on most issues and refused to support the health care bill until it had strong anti-abortion language attached.
By week's end, the Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, an umbrella organization of smaller pan-Asian groups, sent a letter to House Minority Leader John Boehner saying, rightly, "This vile and racist language lowers the political discourse in our country and distracts our elected officials from solving the serious problems at hand. We call on you, your colleagues, and leaders of the Republican Party, to denounce this blatant racism that is increasingly coming from 'tea party' bloggers and conservative forums like Free Republic."
The political discourse was further lowered that week at a "tea party" in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Rep. Michelle Bachmann, an opponent of the health care bill. Prominent among the signs hoisted in front of the Capitol was one featuring a photo of the World War II death camp in Dachau, Germany, with naked corpses piled like cordwood. The caption: "National Socialist Health Care." This time, the Anti-Defamation League penned a letter to Boehner, Bachmann and other rally organizers, asking them to condemn the exploitation of Holocaust victims to protest a Congressional vote. (Bachmann eventually did).
This isn't smashmouth, all's-fair politics. It's hatred, pure and simple. It's poison poured in the reservoir of public discourse, and we're sick of it. Hatred is nothing new in American politics. What's remarkable about these incidents is their mainstreaming. It was once shocking to see the Westboro Baptist Church picketing the funerals of people with AIDS and fallen soldiers with signs that read, "God Hates Fags" and "God Hates Dead Soldiers." Today such vileness is amped up by cynical bloggers and pundits who have become the news equivalent of radio shock jocks. Paddy Chayevsky, author of the brilliant satire Network, could hardly have conceived a caricature like Glenn Beck, whose Fox News program recently presented a bizarre skit in which he served poisoned wine to a sidekick wearing a mask of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
As long as ratings, revenue and fundraising dollars are good, it seems, no one cares. They should. It was only 18 years ago that Louisiana found itself in the appalling position of having neo-Nazi David Duke in the runoff for governor. Duke ultimately was defeated not only by Democrats, but also by brave Republicans who crossed party lines to do what was right.
Politics will always be a bare-knuckle sport, but we hope this ugly season fades quickly. There was one encouraging sign last week, when Doug Lambert, host of Meet the New Press on New Hampshire radio station WEMJ-AM, called the head of the state Democratic party a "faggot" on a studio Web cam. After a bipartisan backlash, WEMJ fired Lambert.
No one is suggesting any voice in America should be silenced, no matter how offensive. But freedom of speech doesn't come with the guarantee of a microphone.