New York Times writer Matt Bai’s article on the shooting of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others (“A Turning Point in the Discourse,” January 9, 2011) starts out as a sane and sober commentary on the relationship between the shootings and the recent political rhetoric suggesting that guns might be an appropriate response to perceived political differences. Just past its halfway point, however, Bai’s piece itself takes a staggering – and sickening turn.
Bai seemingly starts out on the mark in criticizing “Popular spokespeople like Ms. [Sarah] Palin [who] routinely drop words like ‘tyranny’ and ‘socialism’ when describing the president and his allies,” in that no serious analyst would conclude that the president is either a tyrant or a socialist. Unfortunately, Bai goes on to further take these spokespeople to task for seeming to be “blind to the idea that Americans legitimately faced with either enemy would almost certainly take up arms.” Legitimately take up arms against tyrants and socialists? Socialists are enemies of the American people against whom violence is justified? Did I just read that in the New York Times?
Now, despite the fact that it is considered this country’s “paper of record,” it may be a mistake to assume too great a level of worldly sophistication on the part of Times writers, so a quick review on this socialism thing may be in order. While the precise meaning of “socialism” is more a matter for debate than one of definition, we can say for sure that parties belonging to the Socialist International are currently in power in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Ecuador, Greece, Iceland, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Uruguay and a number of other countries. Nations where they have recently been in power include France, Germany, the United Kingdom and all parts of Scandinavia.
It seems fair to say, then, that most New York Times writers have at one time or another probably drunk coffee in a nation with a socialist government of some stripe. Unfortunately, the sheer ignorance of Bai’s remarks makes it obvious that not all of them have been able to wrap their minds around that fact. So even if Bai did not appear to be justifying violence against people with a point of view he apparently does not or cannot understand, it would still be sad to see something like this in the Times from a more mundane point of view – disappointment at the further dumbing down of American political discourse.
Not two years ago, on February 16, 2009, the cover of Newsweek magazine announced “We are all socialists now,’ above a picture of a red and a blue hand in a mutual grasp indicating that Democrats and Republicans were both grappling with “The perils and promise of the new era of big government.” Of course, it wasn’t quite true: Anyone who looked at the bank bailout that left the industry’s profit and salary structure relatively untouched, or even the subsequent health care bill that mandated individual purchase of private health insurance would tell you that these policies would more properly be called corporatist rather than socialist. But still, it seemed a good sign that whether they ultimately accepted it or rejected it, Americans might at last be able to examine a political philosophy that has obviously been taken seriously in much of the rest of the world.
We probably shouldn’t judge Bai too harshly, though, for seeming to justify violence against people with a point of view that he apparently considers a threat to America as he understands it. After all, he’s hardly alone: Presumed Republican presidential contender, Mike Huckabee has called for the execution of whomever leaked U.S. diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. And Vice President Joe Biden, number two man in an Administration that routinely launches drone-based missiles at targets in Pakistan and Yemen, in violation of international law, calls Julian Assange, a "hi-tech terrorist."
Still, even if common sense or civility can no longer be taken for granted among writers or politicians, we might at least ask how this article got past the copy desk at the paper that claims to run “All the News That’s Fit to Print” (and presumably not run what’s not fit to print.) We know that cutbacks in print journalism have been severe, but if the Times no longer employs a weekend editor, it needs to put someone on. And if there was actually someone in charge who let this article go through, that person needs to be replaced. Really folks, this is simply an outrage.