“I’m just saying” has become the big lie of right-wing politics

Who doesn't love a military coup? It's like a county fair that nobody can leave.

Tell me that heavily armed Thai soldier isn't wearing a Livestrong bracelet.

Wouldn’t it be great if the American military seized control of the government, deposed our duly-elected President and enforced their own interpretations of the Constitution without the oversight of Congress or the judiciary? No? Um, yeah, I don’t think so either—I was just asking. I’m going to go over here now and absolutely not advocate the armed overthrow of the U.S. government.

That’s essentially the position of John L. Perry, who two days ago used his Newsmax.com column to advocate a domestic military coup to solve “the Obama problem.” I’m going to go ahead and use the word “advocate,” despite Perry’s assertion—possibly deployed to prevent, you know, his being arrested for sedition—that “describing what may be afoot is not to advocate it.” He says so just before reminding us that “Officers swear to ‘support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’ Unlike enlisted personnel, they do not swear to ‘obey the orders of the president of the United States,'” rhapsodizing for 350 words about the possible reasons why this possible coup would be totally justified, and winding everything up with a completely hypothetical, non-advocating question: “Will the day come when patriotic general and flag officers sit down with the president, or with those who control him, and work out the national equivalent of a ‘family intervention,’ with some form of limited, shared responsibility?”

If you clicked on the link, you’ll notice that you were reading Perry’s column not on Newsmax.com, but in quoted form on Talking Points Memo. That’s because Newsmax took that sugar down with a quickness, possibly because of coverage like this. Perry remains oddly silent in his own defense, presumably because he is having a hard time getting cell phone reception in his underground bunker, but Newsmax has publicly stated that Perry “has no official relationship with Newsmax other than as an unpaid blogger.” He used to be a senior editor there, too, but whatever.

Newsmax’s relationship with John L. Perry is apparently so tenuous and not worth mentioning that they publish his columns without reading them first. Their flurry of denials, along with Perry’s bizarre insistence that he is not advocating a scenario that would exist only in his mind had he not published it on the internet, is symptomatic of an American right that does not want to take responsibility for its own politics. The assertions of right-wing commentators are increasingly introduced with phrases like “it has been suggested that” and “many in the media claim.” Besides being attachable to any claim in order to create the illusion of legitimacy, such phrases allow pundits to pretend they don’t advocate the views they’re propagating. That’s a profound act of bad faith. John Perry is solely and ultimately responsible when he describes the moral imperative of US military officers to depose the duly-elected President of the United States, just as I am solely and ultimately responsible when I offer to fight Mr. Perry or his designated representative in an empty swimming pool. It’s one thing to employ the “I’m just saying” defense in a passive-aggressive argument with your girlfriend; it’s another to invoke it when you’re discussing the course of American politics, which actually has real-world outcomes.

The right appears to be comfortable with the politics but not the outcomes. Conservative rhetoric increasingly describes without advocating, repeating claims that “some have said” without endorsing them or even proving that they exist. It’s speech without speaker—the child’s fantasy of being invisible in a crowded room, perpetrated by grown men who are supposed to be responsible for the political evolution of the nation. And the results are clear: end-of-life counseling struck from health care reform because “some believe” it will lead to euthanasia, endless accusations that the President is not an American citizen, talk of tyranny and socialism and fascism from people who in the same breath abdicate their responsibility to defend such claims.

Those ideas come from somewhere. Everything that is said is said by someone, and if the passive voice attributes it to nobody then the speaker must claim responsibility. The American right said there were death panels in H.R. 3200. John Perry said that U.S. military officers should use force to depose the President. Such statements may have been politically expedient, but they are practically—on the level of real-world consequences and the business that politics is a tool to accomplish—ruinous. American conservatism has reduced itself to a purely destructive force, and the proof is in its collective unwillingness to take responsibility for what it creates.

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  1. I’m sitting here trying to think of appropriate responses to this sort of rhetoric and behavior. By “appropriate,” I mean principled (can’t sell your soul to fight the devil, not that the folks here are devils), practical, and productive. The absolute worst case is an extremist does do something terrible to President Obama and then an extremist on the left responds in kind. Suddenly our beautiful experiment in democracy is over. What can we do as everyday folks to make the best case — reasoned discourse, individuals holding themselves to higher standards, institutions that reward such behavior, etc — win out?

    Is this rhetoric simply fringe behavior best ignored? Do we send it to our friends and loved ones with a note about resisting extremism on either side? What is to be done?

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