Two Wrongs and the Right: Overreaction to Conservatives Leads Liberals to Hypocrisy

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Celebrity attorney Gloria Allred needs to join the 21st century. Or the 20th. Last week, amid the well-deserved outcry over Rush Limbaugh’s stunningly loutish remarks about Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke — whom Limbaugh called a “slut” and a “prostitute” for supporting mandated contraception coverage — Allred made a stunningly asinine move of her own. She called for the Palm Beach County Attorney in Florida to charge Limbaugh under an obscure 19th century state law that makes it a crime to question a woman’s chastity. In the process, Allred sounded as backward as right-wingers who want to keep antediluvian codes like sodomy laws in effect.

I can hear the hysterical cries of “false equivalency!” from liberals as I write this. They were at it last week when commentators like my former TIME colleague Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post or Kirsten Powers of the Daily Beast dared suggest that male media personalities on the left — like Matt Taibbi, Keith Olbermann or Bill Maher, who called Sarah Palin a “c***” on his HBO show last year — are themselves guilty of misogyny. Rather than swallow their ideological pride for a moment, too many liberals, including more than a few leading feminists, have dug in like the Vatican and refused to acknowledge that their side too can be wrong or unfair. Or, as in the case of Maher, who just gave $1 million to a super PAC backing President Obama, as boorish as Limbaugh.

Yes, there are qualifications. Limbaugh is a powerful gazillionaire radio-show bully who beat up a powerless student on the air, while Maher targeted a powerhouse political celeb who was almost one heartbeat from the presidency and blasts her own opponents as if they were so many moose. Maher, like Limbaugh, apologized for his remarks last week while defending their right to speak their minds. But this isn’t about the First Amendment; it’s about the ugly loss of civility in American discourse. The bottom line is that publicly calling any woman the C word is the sort of knuckle-dragging stuff for which Maher so sanctimoniously lambastes the gun-loving, NASCAR-watching, churchgoing heartland on Real Time. Maher’s left-wing defenders, meanwhile, argue that he’s an entertainer — seemingly oblivious to the fact that right-wing presidential hopeful Rick Santorum made the same excuse for Limbaugh.

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We in the mainstream media too rarely point out that double standard, but Allred’s retro-hypocrisy – which is about the First Amendment — is too hard to ignore. The obscure Florida defamation code she wants prosecutors to use on Limbaugh is one of those musty statutes that sit forgotten in every state’s penal attic. But to demand in the year 2012 that we criminally prosecute anyone for this kind of speech is disturbing, especially so to correspondents like me who have been chronicling the recent comeback of criminal defamation laws in Latin America. Limbaugh apologized for slandering Fluke; now Allred should apologize for promoting the legal philosophy of Hugo Chávez.

Two-wrongs-make-a-right, fight-Fox-with-Fox mind-sets seem to be more prevalent on the left these days. When a controversy erupted last fall over conservative Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s biographical data, liberals thought they’d found a smoking gun, but they misfired. Rubio had admittedly been implying that his Cuban parents fled Fidel Castro’s communist revolution — they in fact arrived in the U.S. before that upheaval — but when the left tried to demonize Rubio as a fraud and nullify his son-of-exiles narrative, it looked more paranoid than progressive, more like the reactionary birthers who deny President Obama’s U.S. citizenship.

One of the groups that led the charge against Rubio was American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC founded by David Brock, head of the liberal watchdog Media Matters. Last week the group went after the senior Senator from my home state of Indiana, Richard Lugar, a moderate Republican and venerated statesman who epitomizes the kind of bipartisan civility that’s sacrilege to his party’s right wing — which is going all out not just to defeat Lugar in the May primary election but to destroy his image. And conservatives are getting a big assist from American Bridge 21st Century, which thinks a Democratic candidate has a better chance of beating Lugar’s ultraconservative challenger in the November general election. On the American Bridge website you can find a video that accuses Lugar, as he enters a campaign fundraiser, of indifference to victims of Indiana’s recent deadly tornadoes.

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Granted, the 79-year-old six-term Senator should perhaps be thinking of retirement rather than re-election; and this primary race has forced his campaign to pander uncharacteristically to the GOP’s right wing. But as a native Hoosier, I can only confirm that few politicians have done more for Indiana, especially folks caught up in tragedies like tornadoes, than Lugar has — and American Bridge’s attacks, as noted last week by Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully, himself a respected arbiter, are typical of how many Democrats “who have revered Lugar for decades … are suddenly treating him like he’s Rush Limbaugh.” They are, as Tully adds, proving themselves as “cynical and mean” as they accuse the Tea Party set of being.

A lot of liberals don’t see it that way: they say it’s simply a matter of political survival in the Tea Party age. But that kind of attitude only seems to get them into hot water — and the contraception-coverage mandate itself was a good example. Liberals understandably get upset when the religious right questions their secular morality; yet they refuse to appreciate how equally offensive their scorn for religion can be, and that cluelessness was evident in the White House’s original contraception decree, which obligated religious-affiliated institutions to pay for birth control coverage even if it contradicted church doctrine. (Revised rules now require insurers to pay for the coverage.)

Liberals like Maher tend to assume all persons of faith are as irrational as the dogmatic dopes he skewered in his 2008 film Religulous. But we don’t all “blindly follow priests, rabbis, swamis and mullahs,” as the group American Atheists implied this month when it announced it was erecting billboards in Hebrew and Arabic now as well as English. Polls show a majority of U.S. Roman Catholics disagree with the Vatican on issues like abortion — and certainly birth control — but American Atheists still seems to divide people into “atheists and other freethinkers” and those of us who “substitute faith and mythology for reason and science.”

It’s a Manichaean you’re-with-us-or-against-us worldview — and it sounds a lot like the one the left assails the right for holding. But it’s America in the 21st century — and liberals need to admit that they’re susceptible to it too.

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