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Ted Cruz didn't defend Nazis. But he's still wrong.
The use of clickbait, outrage politics is not unique to one side. And it must be stopped.
If you’ve picked up a theme in this blog, it’s that I don’t demonize “the other side.” The distortion caused by so-called “negative polarization” — defining ourselves (and our tribe) by who we hate — is one of the most fundamental problems of not just the moment in history, but our species’s history. Our ability to move forward on important problems, and engage in collective action, depends on cooperation between disparate groups. Negative polarization undermines this.
But I still think it’s important to call power to account. We should always look at things from our opponent’s perspective. We should put the best spin on the arguments they’re making and not the worst ones. And we should, above all, always be open to dialogue. Even with all that, there are times when someone, especially someone in a position of powerful, is wrong.
That’s what happened last week with Senator Ted Cruz.
If you haven’t heard, Ted Cruz was widely condemned in the media for defending the Nazi salute while berating Attorney General Merrick Garland last week. Garland was testifying to Congress regarding supposed federal investigations of parents who had made threats to school boards. And Cruz defended the salute in the context of a broader defense of a parent’s right to protest their local school board. You can see the clip below.
The internet blew up in the face of this clip, which was viewed millions of times. The Daily Beast wrote, “Ted Cruz Defends Parents Doing Nazi Salutes at School Board Meetings.” CNN wrote, “Ted Cruz defends parent's use of Nazi salute.” The entire soon-to-be-metaverse exploded with outrage.
There was just one problem. The clip was taken completely out of context. Cruz was not defending Nazis, as the headlines suggested. He was defending the right of a parent to accuse a school board official of being a Nazi. There’s a good argument that people should not use Nazi comparisons so lightly, but that nuance was left out of the media narrative, which simply asserted that Cruz was a Nazi. The progressive law professor Larry Lessig, among others, objected to this.
So if Lessig is right that the attacks against Cruz were unfair, why am I saying that Cruz should be called to account?
As is usually the case, it’s not because of the thing that’s blowing up on social media (and, by extension, the mainstream media that is increasingly driven by social media algorithms). It’s something more fundamental than that: Cruz and his allies use of the exact same techniques — clickbait, exaggeration, and outrage politics — that were used against him.
If you listen to the full hearing, you see Cruz berating Garland from the very start of the hearing as having broken his promise. Garland, a bespectacled former judge known for his temperance and bipartisanship, looks shellshocked. His eyes blink rapidly. He stumbles over his words. And he generally responds like a deer in the headlights.
Cruz wasn’t even the most angry person in the committee. Senator Tom Cotton who, like Cruz, was educated at Ivy League universities and is widely seen as a whip-smart lawyer, engaged in petty personal attacks and called Garland a “disgrace.”
And what are they upset about? What caused so much furor that Cruz was compelled to scream at Garland, and that compelled Cotton to call him a disgrace? A simple one page memo indicating that the federal authorities should discuss threats of violence against school board members. There are reasons to disagree with this memo. The law on “true threats” is fraught, as animal rights activists have experienced. What is a threat to one person is a protest to another.
And most of us would probably agree that at least some categories of threat are at least worth investigating — if only because some threats of violence actually lead to violence. That is all Garland asked for. And even if one disagrees with him, one should be able to do so without immediately reaching the conclusion that Garland was abusing his power, playing politics with the law, or breaching his oath to the Constitution. Yet those are all things that Republicans accused Garland of doing.
I’m not saying Republicans are the only ones to do this. Democrats “grill” one of their opponents, and get rewarded for it, too. But there’s something deeply disturbing about a politics where there’s no effort at understanding the other side before destroying them. That’s what people tried to do to Cruz.
But it’s what Cruz did, too.
What can do to avoid falling into this sort of outrage politics? How do we keep our political system focused on issues that matter, and not the latest social media outrage? How are we falling victim to the sociological dynamics that elevate these conflicts, over more substantive efforts to move forward on our community’s problems? (And is even this post an example of how outrage draws attention — and therefore drowns out subjects that matter more?)