The Problem with Shock and Awe

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

The world's indifference to the ongoing genocide in Darfur will be parsed and studied for years to come. After all, Sudan's holocaust emerges in an era when Hotel Rwanda and Schindler's List are top-grossing entertainment, and, unlike Rwanda, the genocide in Darfur has lasted for years, not months. In its fifth year of crisis, Darfur is dying a senselessly protracted death, complete with the false sanctuary of refugee camps and a lingering mirage of international assistance.

This column is not about Darfur. Instead, it is about the national discourse that surrounds unfolding historical events. Foreign policy idealists have long called for a multilateral intervention in Sudan backed by the full strength of the United States military, but such an intervention would, of course, divert crucial resources away from another humanitarian crisis--one that our country is directly responsible for.

Divisive political issues, such as Darfur, demands to be addressed by someone who grasps the full nuances and particularities of each side of the argument. Ann Coulter, mercifully, rises to the occasion.

"If you're looking for a good definition of 'no imminent threat,' Darfur is it. . . . These people can't even wrap up genocide. We've been hearing about this slaughter in Darfur forever--and they still haven't finished. . . . Who's running this holocaust in Darfur, FEMA?"

Coulter has raised a valid, even timeworn, point--that countries should only pursue foreign policy agendas that are in its own self-interest--but you would never know it. In the competition for mainstream media attention, it has become conventional wisdom to couple levelheaded arguments with incendiary rhetoric. Just look at Ann Coulter, who has built an entire career out of generating media firestorms for her hateful invective.

Or, if you happen to be a conservative, you might say: just look at Michael Moore.

That's right, Michael Moore. In a bizarre manifestation of our need to find a yin for every yang, Michael Moore has somehow been pinpointed as the left-wing Ann Coulter. A controversial liberal if there ever was one, Moore sounds like a pretty vile and despicable figure from the way conservatives, moderates, and even some liberals talk about him. You would think he spent his days demanding federal assistance for immigrants trying to illegally cross the border, or making children cry because they prayed in school.

Surely, his most outrageous statement must have run along the lines of, "In the history of the nation, there has never been a political party as ridiculous as today's Republicans. It's as if all the brain-damaged people in America got together and formed a voting bloc." Or maybe, "Conservatism was established to allow unattractive men easier access to the mainstream of society." Now that's just mean.

Of course, both of these statements were originally said, in modified form, by Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, respectively. The liberal version of right-wing extremism turns out to be little more than calls for impeachment of the sitting President and, at worst, the insinuation that some aspects of democratic socialism--you know, like the one they have in most of Europe--may not be all that bad. At the very, very fringe, you might find one or two demands for slavery reparations, but that's rare.

The idea that Michael Moore's brand of anti-President, pro-socialized medicine (read: anti-Bush, pro-universal health care) extremism somehow balances out Coulter, Limbaugh, Falwell, O'Reilly, et al. on the right is indicative of a fundamental disconnect between the progressive movement and the American center. Conservative extremism, in general, is more readily tolerated than liberal extremism. Call a feminist a "feminazi" and you will find a national audience that silently, if not proudly, agrees with you. America, by and large, is a fundamentally conservative country.

The tide is turning, somewhat. In 2003, the decision to invade Iraq was supported by three out of four Americans. The erosion of that support has come at the cost of almost 4,000 American lives, not to mention, of course, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian lives. Rational people of all political stripes have awoken to the fact that the decision to invade Iraq was illegal under the standards of international law, and founded upon false claims perpetrated by the Bush administration.

Mainstream support for withdrawal may be growing, but certainly not because our country is getting any fonder of progressivism. And maybe that's a good thing. The right-wing tactic of galvanizing by emotion--tapping into the public's most instinctual fears and prejudices--will never work for progressives. No amount of incendiary rhetoric can galvanize the public like a good old rational argument can.

So what a step back this week has been.

As of this morning, the search string "General Betray Us" returns almost 700 hits on Google News. "Cooking the books for the White House," the subheading of the now infamous ad, returns 455 hits. From the Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Times, every major newspaper has had at least one turn at the punching bag.

"Execrable," proclaims Rolling Stone, in a blog post that rivals their review of Gigli.

"It's hard to decide which was the more disgusting," sneers the New York Post, before getting a jibe at both MoveOn and, bizarrely, Hillary Clinton (who suppresses her middle-of-the-road tendencies just long enough to call the controversy what it really is: a "political sideshow").

The advertisement's most substantive claim--that "the Pentagon has adopted a bizarre formula for keeping tabs on violence"--go completely unreported in all Google News sources, save for a single entry in the Baltimore Sun's political blog. Phrases such as "deaths by car bombs," "assassinations only count," "more American soldier deaths," and "neighborhoods have been ethnically cleansed" are nowhere to be found in any mainstream reports about the ad.

Political discourse is depressing enough without progressive groups relying on sensationalist tactics to draw attention to their claims. Incendiary rhetoric is a right-wing luxury in a right-wing country--and let them have it. Progressives, especially the progressives of my generation, must lead the way in stating our case, calmly and dispassionately, imparting arguments based solely on rational analysis and factual evidence. We might not make the news for our exaggerations and eviscerations, but we just might make the news for being sane.