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Column: The Powerful Pull of False Equivalence



For the Valley News
Saturday, October 06, 2018

Political discourse these days feels like a game of tug-of-war, with progressives on one side and conservatives on the other, each group pulling with all their might.

The conservatives are winning, aided and abetted by the successful use of false equivalence and by serial bullying.

The results of this decades-long war can be seen easily enough. Any objective analysis shows that leaders like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon would be significantly left of center in today’s political environment, yet conservative media have convinced their supporters that the country has drifted inexorably to the left. It has not, with the limited exception of some affirmation of rights for LGTBQ folks. In nearly every other area, the country has not just drifted right, it has been pulled by a riptide of propaganda.

Eisenhower-era tax rates are now characterized as confiscatory socialism. Other pieces of progressive progress, like affirmative action and voting rights, have weathered broad assault, leading to what Michelle Alexander so thoroughly documents as The New Jim Crow.

A great deal of this regression has been accomplished by the conservative propaganda machine convincing society’s victors that they are the victims.

The GOP hired a prosecutor to “hear” professor Christine Blasey Ford, the victim of an alleged vicious sexual assault. That’s usually called cross-examination, not fairness. Shortly thereafter the real GOP strategy emerged, most offensively voiced by President Donald Trump at a Mississippi rally. He mocked Ford like a sneering adolescent, claiming that Kavanaugh is the real victim. Boys should be very worried, he claimed, because every man and boy can have a life ruined by false accusations.

So, despite significant research indicating that as many as 1 in 3 women have been sexually assaulted, we are to believe it is men who are the victims. The 11 white, male GOP senators on the Judiciary Committee cooed and clucked with sympathy in Ford’s presence and then climbed aboard the “men are the victims” train. The FBI investigation was an utter sham. The probable truth was just an inconvenient irritation to be scratched lightly and then covered up. Eleven entitled white men on the Judiciary Committee furrowed their collective brows at the horror of their entitled white male soul mate being the victim of a mixed-up woman. Ford endured a life-altering attack where she thought she might die. Kavanaugh had to answer questions in a committee hearing, yet his is the more acute pain.

In the affirmative action “debate,” it is white folks who are the victims. Despite centuries of racism and unequal opportunity, according to conservatives it is a minuscule number of white students who are really suffering. The poster child in two Supreme Court cases, Abigail Fisher, was cast as a victim despite suffering no harm. We are to believe that the “pain” she suffered is greater than the cumulative reality of poverty, racism and glaring underrepresentation of students of color in higher education.

The bedfellow of false equivalence is whataboutism.

As evidence grows that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to influence the election, Trump’s rallies continue to feature a reprise of the “lock her up!” chorus. We are to believe that Hillary Clinton’s emails — a red herring the size of a whale — are not just equivalent to Trump’s serial lying, alleged sexual assaults, money laundering and tax evasion. Hillary is the greater criminal in the fiery eyes of Trump’s rabid base.

Then there is the naive openness in journalism and higher education to including more conservative voices. To paraphrase a favorite quote from a physicist when discussing creationism: “Keeping an open mind doesn’t mean you have to let your brain fall out.”

Most real newspapers are not “liberal.” They are rational. An article about the rotation of the Earth does not require a sidebar acknowledging that some think the Earth is flat.

An article about the scientific consensus on climate change does not require a companion article sponsored by Exxon Mobil.

College campuses are governed by trustees of wealth and influence and are hardly bastions of progressive activism. Most can’t muster the moral resolve to divest of oil and weapons stocks or take a courageous stand on — well, anything. Most professors are indeed more to the left, at least today’s left, which is the historic middle. But they are to the left because they’re educated, not because they are partisans.

Rational thought needn’t apologize and scoot over to make room for irrational demagoguery.

The same is true when considering visitors. Hosting Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., does not create an obligation to invite conservative firebrand Ann Coulter. One may not like Bernie or his political positions, but to contort Lloyd Bentsen’s brilliant retort to Dan Quayle, “I know Ann Coulter, and believe me, she’s no Bernie Sanders.”

I’m sick to death of the current references to tribalism, asking that we stipulate to the idea of equivalence. Those who cling to democratic ideals and speak truth to power are not equivalent to the willfully ignorant people at Trump rallies. The New York Times and Valley News are not just the mirror image of Fox News and Breitbart.

We have surrendered too much by trying to be reasonable.

The way to deal with bullies is to stand ground, not give it.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at stevehutnelson@gmail.com.