Michael Gerson: An invasion of artificial outrage


The invasion, evidently, has begun.

“What’s not acceptable,” Gov. Bobby Jindal, of Louisiana, explained recently, “is people that want to come and conquer us.” Yes, the conquest of America: pretty unacceptable. “That’s not immigration, by the way,” he continued, “that’s colonization.” Ditto on being colonized, as the British learned to their chagrin.

Jindal is talking about a Muslim fifth column intent on establishing Sharia law in unassimilated enclaves and eventually subverting the Constitution and conquering the country. A pretty serious charge against some portion of the several thousand Muslims living in Louisiana, for instance.

The proof? During a recent trip to Great Britain, Jindal was pressed for evidence of Muslim “no-go zones,” the supposed beachheads of the Islamist invasion. “I’ve heard from folks here,” he responded, “that there are neighborhoods where women don’t feel comfortable going in without veils.”

I can’t imagine that “heard from folks” would be a sufficient footnote in a paper at Oxford University (where Jindal studied as a Rhodes Scholar). Yet it is apparently enough for a sitting governor making accusations of subversion. Jindal could have used his platform as a prospective presidential candidate to make points about the (very real) dangers of radicalization. Instead, he talks of invasion, colonization and conquest.

This is appalling, and symptomatic. In our politics, ideological assertions tend to gain massive velocity. It is not enough to raise questions about global warming; it must be (according to Sen. James Inhofe) the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” It is not sufficient to call for improved control of the border; immigrant children may be carriers of Ebola (as Rep. Phil Gingrey once asserted).

Some of this emerges from the feedback loop between partisan media and populist leaders. Cable and talk radio pull political ideas into close orbit, then slingshot them outward at tremendous speed. Extreme language yields outrage, audience share and buzz in the conservative movement. The danger comes when talk radio becomes the voice inside your head.

The use of apocalyptic language is often a form of self-elevation. It allows a politician to embrace the role of lonely truth seeker. “Of course,” Jindal said, “the politically correct crowd when you say things like that they’ll call you racist.” Only the honest and brave are willing to risk such opprobrium. Political figures who perceive the hidden threat are not only Diogenes searching for truth, they are Horatius defending the bridge against subversive Muslims, climate scientists, disease-ridden children, or whatever.

This rhetorical strategy is a disaster for democratic discourse. It creates a cartoon version of reality. It avoids the hard work of drawing careful distinctions and offering nuanced judgments. It leaves some people on constant high alert; others are exhausted by an endless series of supposedly existential threats and unable to distinguish the real ones.

Above all, extreme rhetoric shapes a certain view of ideological opponents. Climate scientists and their allies, in the opinion of some on the right, are not just mistaken, they are liars. They are acting out of corrupt financial and ideological motivations. No real debate is possible with people consciously engaged in a fraud or a hoax. They can’t be engaged; only defeated. This approach becomes even more dangerous when opponents are defined in ethnic or religious terms. It creates an atmosphere in which neighbors are viewed as potential subversives.

There are, of course, comparable arguments made on the progressive side. Opponents get dismissed as theocrats or as hopeless defenders of privilege. Such people cannot be debated; they can only be delegitimized and silenced. The strategy on both left and right is the same: to present politics as a battle between the children of light and the children of darkness. Opponents become enemies. Democratic deliberation becomes difficult or impossible.

America has enough real problems and real enemies without the manufacture of artificial outrage.