The un-toilet-trained right wing

Speculating about a seriously ill man’s reception in Hell isn’t polite, even if he’s a U.S. Senator from a party you oppose.

When a ninety-two-year-old is “seriously ill,” it’s more likely than not that the end is near. So it’s possible that Robert Byrd’s astounding political career is about to draw to a close.

Byrd has not been one of the politicians I admire, though his stubborn insistence on the prerogatives of the Senate reflects one of the factors that kept the Constitution working until the Hill Republicans decided in 2001 to elevate party loyalty over institutional loyalty. And, given how tight things are in the Senate, it would be unnatural for conservatives not to be counting votes right now. (According to Nate Silver, under W.Va. law if a Senator dies the Governor – a Democrat – appoints an interim Senator. There would be a new election in November if the vacancy occurs before July 3. If it occurs later, then the interim would fill the rest of the term.) I don’t see any point in pretending that Sen. Byrd’s well-being is the only thing that should interest political junkies.

But the convention of not publicly saying unnecessarily vicious things about the terminally ill or recently deceased is one worth upholding. If the person in question isn’t one your admire but you have need to comment formally, you find something nice to say; if not, a decent silence is appropriate. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, and all that. Even Michelle Malkin knows that much.

Alas, the sort of conservatives who comment on political websites are not, as Jeffrey Goldberg might say, toilet-trained. The comments on The Hill or Pajamas Media are about 80% nasty. Big Government is the worst, by a nose. Not a little bit nasty: “too bad he didn’t die earlier” nasty and “he’s going to Hell” nasty and “the rest of the Democrats should die, too” nasty. About a third mention Byrd’s membership in the Klan, more than sixty years ago, leading to the usual “all-Democrats-are-racist” rant. Overall, a pretty disgusting display.

Yes, there are sites – for example – where liberals display this sort of behavior. But they’re marginal, and deliberately marginalized. I doubt this reflects a systematic personality difference across the political spectrum. Institutionally, though, the entire right side of the aisle has been seized by lunatics, and they’re setting the tone.

Really, it’s not good for the country.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

8 thoughts on “The un-toilet-trained right wing”

  1. "I doubt this reflects a systematic personality difference across the political spectrum."

    Both Ann Althouse and Eugen Volokh endorse torture.

  2. As a conservative, i will decry those comments. They are in poor taste and uncalled for.

    That said, u might want to check mainstream Dem sites like the huffington post, the Democratic Underground, and Wonkette for the disgusting comments about Dick Cheney going to the hospital before u throw stones

  3. Eugene Volokh is my perfect case-in-point. He supports lots of policies I oppose, though he does not, in fact, endorse torture. He was willing to entertain the idea that an Iranian law allowing death-by-torment for some especially appalling crimes might be justified, but quickly thought better of it. He has never endorsed Cheneyism, though I was disappointed that he didn't oppose it loudly.

    But I would be far more likely than Eugene to make a sneering reference to a dying man. I'm not crass enough to do it in public, and I think that matters; but politeness aside, as a personality trait I'm much meaner than Eugene is.

    Now there's a line I associate with Glenn Greenwald – but which you'll also hear from the extreme right-to-lifers – that when an issue is really, really important, such as torture or abortion, civility is a frill that decent people don't bother with, and that your devotion to justice is measured by your willingness to abandon the decencies of discourse: not only to personally abuse your opponents and their families, but to misrepresent their views so as to make them seem even more disgusting than they are. I don't think that view characterizes one side of the Red Team/Blue Team split more than it does the other.

    What I do think is that liberals, despite not being any nicer than conservatives, are somewhat less likely to indulge their nasty side in public.

  4. Eugene Volokh threw it out there. As an owner of a dog and a parent, it doesn't count as being "trained" if you have the accident and then are ashamed. Of course, it's better than not even caring.

  5. I've never cared for the convention that we shouldn't speak ill of the dying or the dead. If someone was a monster, or at least I believe they were, I'll say so.

    But more importantly, I think we should be honest, and that we shouldn't be gratuitously cruel. So when a Richard Nixon (or, indeed, a George W Bush) dies, I think we should feel free to execrate his memory. But when some undistinguished backbench supporter of Nixon or Bush? Someone whose evil deeds aren't so exceptional, or whose legacy is more complicated?

    After all, Byrd was in many ways not all that memorable. He was in the Senate for a long time, and he managed to steer a lot of pork to his home state, neither of which makes him a titanic historical figure. He was not only a member of the KKK but indeed an avowed racist well into his adulthood, and he filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But he also repented of that legacy, and spent decades doing so publicly (if not always with complete openness). He was apparently a great lover of and historian of the Senate and the Constitution, and the only time I've ever really warmed to him was when he was such an eloquent speaker in defense of the Constitution during the rush to war in Iraq.

    It would be wrong to ignore Byrd's early racism, but it would be dishonest to let it define a man who apparently overcame it. And, of course, it would be absurd to use that racism to promote the interests of a Republican party that gratefully assumed the legacy of that early racism, by welcoming Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, by kicking off the 1980 campaign with a States Rights speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and by an embrace of the segregationalist Concerned Citizens Councils and or nativist movements that continues to this day. As always, the key is honesty and fairness – to ignore Byrd's early racism would be to ignore his accomplishment in outgrowing it.

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