IN DECEMBER 1994 I wrote the first of what would become a yearly series of columns on the subject of liberal hate speech. That was the year Republicans swept the midterm elections to win control of Congress, and ideological passions were running high. I had noticed that when a prominent Republican or conservative said something offensive about liberals, it typically set off a storm of media condemnation, while an anti-conservative smear voiced by a liberal or a Democrat rarely drew any protest. There was no end of sour commentary, for example, when Newt Gingrich recommended that Clinton Democrats be portrayed as "the enemy of normal Americans." It was an outrageous remark, and Gingrich deserved the drubbing he received.
But when Jesse Jackson explicitly likened the proposals of the new majority to Nazism and apartheid -- "If this were Germany, we would call it fascism. If this were South Africa, we would call it racism" -- there wasn't even a ripple of disapproval. Julianne Malveaux, a radio host and USA Today columnist, caught no flak when she prayed aloud for the death of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. "I hope his wife feeds him lots of eggs and butter and he dies early like many black men do, of heart disease," she snarled on PBS.
What was true in 1994 remains largely true today. MSNBC fired right-wing talk host Michael Savage in July, and rightly so, when he told a gay caller to "get AIDS and die, you pig." The liberal Nina Totenberg, on the other hand, suffered no ill effects for saying, during the flap over General Jerry Boykin's views of Islam and the war on terrorism, "I hope he's not long for this world." When the startled host asked if she were "putting a hit out on this guy," Totenberg backtracked and said she only wanted to see him expire "in his job."
But this isn't the first time the NPR diva has publicly wished death on a conservative. "I think he ought to be worried about what's going on in the Good Lord's mind," she said of Senator Jesse Helms in 1995, "because if there is retributive justice, he'll get AIDS from a transfusion, or one of his grandchildren will."
Such venom should be beyond the pale. But too many liberals would still rather dismiss conservative ideas with an ugly slur than actually grapple with them on the merits. Debating the pros and cons of racial preferences or US foreign policy can be difficult; much easier to simply hiss "Racist!" or "Nazi!" or some equally poisonous insult.
"What you have now" -- this is left-wing activist and actress Janeane Garofalo, analyzing the Republican Party during an appearance at the 92d Street Y in New York this year -- "is people that are closet racists, misogynists, homophobes, and people who love . . . the politics of exclusion identifying as conservative." That was apparently enough to win her a guest-host slot on CNN's "Crossfire," where she offered this thoughtful critique of the Patriot Act: "It is in fact a conspiracy of the 43d Reich."
Ah, yes, the reductio ad Hitlerum. Why meet a conservative with facts or logic when you can simply tar him with the Nazi brush? Thus we had Nancy Giles on the "CBS Sunday Morning show" sourly tying Rush Limbaugh's "edgy" radio manner to you-know-who's. "Hitler would have killed in talk radio," Giles declared. "He was edgy, too." Ellen Gray of the Philadelphia Daily News struck a similar note in commenting on "The Reagans," the canceled miniseries. "If Hitler had more friends," she told The Washington Post, "CBS wouldn't have aired [its Hitler miniseries] either."
Of course no one came in for more Hitler comparisons this year than George W. Bush. Third Reich references were practically a staple of antiwar rhetoric.
The president "is not the orator that Hitler was," acknowledges leftist commentator Dave Lindorff at Counterpunch.org. "But comparisons of the Bush administration's fearmongering tactics to those practiced so successfully and with such terrible results by Hitler and Goebbels . . . are not at all out of line."
Such repugnant comparisons are in fact wildly out of line. But so long as the double standard persists, liberals will continue to make them with impunity.
Of course this complaint can be taken too far. Ed Gillespie, the Republican Party's chairman, has been accusing Democrats of engaging in "political hate speech" when they call Bush a "liar" or a "miserable failure." But there is a world of difference between labeling someone a failure and labeling him Hitler. My objection has never been to political elbow-throwing. What I have tried to argue is that certain kinds of insult -- those that fantasize about people's deaths, or slime them as racists or fascists or terrorists -- do such violence to our public discourse that they should simply be shunned.
Ten years ago almost no one was calling attention to this liberal slander problem; now magazine articles and even books are being written about it. Progress of a sort, I guess. There's room for a lot more.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.