Sandra Fluke doesn’t deserve to be called a slut. Andrew Breitbart does deserve to be called a douche—but saying it when his family is grieving his untimely death is impolite, to say the least.
Having said that, it was easy to survey American politics last week—particularly the headlines generated by Fluke and Breitbart—and conclude that we’ve entered a truly stupid epoch in our country’s discourse: Call it the Era of Martyrdom Politics.
This is not a lament about the loss of bipartisanship or the absence of civility in our politics. You’ve read those columns entirely too many times, and nothing has changed: Politics, as they say, ain’t beanbag. If you want to play, prepare to play rough. Nobody is going to let you score a point without bloodying your nose a bit.
The problem, though, is that our politics have become about the bloody nose—about deeply tedious, high-volume whining about taking the hit. We’re no longer trying to solve problems; we’re not even really weighing values anymore. Mostly, we’re talking about how the other guy is really really mean—and how that hurts our feelings!
As an old sports editor friend of mine once said: Boo-frickin’-hoo.
Here’s part of the problem: People really do have good reason for getting their feelings hurt. Fluke, of course, is the Georgetown law student who had the temerity to advocate that health insurance plans cover contraception—and for her efforts was branded a “slut” by Rush Limbaugh. It was a sexist comment by the biggest, loudest jerk in American politics. (Rush ended up half-apologizing over the weekend.)
If Rush is the biggest jerk in politics, Breitbart might’ve been the second. He’ll probably best be remembered as the provocateur who openly celebrated when Ted Kennedy died and who falsely accused an old lady of racism—and never really backed down even after the claim was proved false. His career was built on a disregard for truth and decency, so when he unexpectedly died last week, it was no surprise that Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi offered a blog post titled “Death of a Douche.” (Taibbi, ahem, would know whereof he speaks.)
What was remarkable, thanks to those insults, was how quickly the stories became about something other than the stories. Suddenly we weren’t talking about contraceptive policy anymore, but about how a man who made his career two decades ago by coining the term “feminazi” and crossing numerous other lines is, no kidding, really, a very obnoxious sexist and this time we mean it. Suddenly we weren’t talking about Breitbart’s flair for obnoxiousness, half-truths and selective editing, but the left’s so-called “hate” for remembering the man as he lived.
We stopped talking about the issues. And we focused very deeply on our own hurt feelings.
Don’t get me wrong: The two incidents are not morally equivalent. Breitbart, it can be fairly argued, reaped what he sowed—even if it can also be fairly argued that it’s not all that cool to do the reaping when four young children are left behind. Fluke didn’t do anything wrong except enter the public arena and take a stand that Rush Limbaugh didn’t like.
Then again: Boo-frickin’-hoo.
Even if you think the other guy is a jerk, that your own guy has been unfairly slagged, there’s something unseemly—and ultimately, counterproductive—about wallowing in the victimization, about pursuing it as a political strategy. Every encounter becomes about how the other guy isn’t just wrong, he’s big meanie who is trying to oppress you. And every encounter becomes a chance to increase your own martyrdom, your own sense of self-righteousness. In politics, we are all the Rebel Alliance and the other guy is always the Death Star.
Of course, the other guy usually sees it the exact opposite.
I’m not thrilled about a political scene where the response to getting punched in the (metaphorical) nose is to lie on the ground, sobbing and screaming at passerby: “Did you see what he DID to me!?!?!” I’d rather folks get off the ground and punch back. Hard.
I can’t think of many battles—political or otherwise—that have been won through a strategy of aggressively feeling sorry for oneself. You want to win your fight? Stiffen your spine a little bit and go fight. You can’t whine your way to a win, and you can’t solve the country’s challenges by being a crybaby. It’s time to end the Era of Martyrdom Politics.