Last week, former Attorney General Eric Holder had the temerity to turn a Michelle Obama quote on its head. “When they go low, we go high,” she’d said back in 2016, a year that feels as if it’ll never stop unfolding and also feels like a lifetime ago.
On Wednesday, video of a campaign appearance by Holder surfaced in which he suggested a less decorous approach: “When they go low, we kick them.”
Conservative media, from the Federalist to the Daily Wire to the National Review, pounced on the statement as evidence of the nascent leftist violence that for years they have been writing about with a combination of fear and lust. As if Holder, with the legs of a white-collar lawyer, was about to don combat boots and go stomping into CPAC to crush some scrotums.
It was nothing but a continuation of the purposefully spurious, water-muddying fear-mongering that’s par for the course on the right.
We watched conservatives pull the same trick when they pretended that the women protesting the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh were ravening maenads jockeying to tear the judge limb from limb as if he were Orpheus. It’s the same empty, hysterical lie Donald Trump echoed when he called Democrats an “angry mob” in Iowa last week, and when Rand Paul’s wife declared that she keeps a loaded gun in her house, the better to repel hypothetical assaultive leftists with deadly force.
As if Eric Holder, with the legs of a white-collar lawyer, was about to don combat boots and go stomping into CPAC to crush some scrotums.
Holder wasn’t advocating violence of any kind. And when Hillary Clinton suggested this week that it was time not to be civil with Republicans, she wasn’t suggesting anything more than curtness, or an end to rhetorical indulgence.
None of that mattered, because it never does. The conservative media, and conservatives in general, are expert at creating foes even where there are none. That’s why they pilloried a ”Late Show with Stephen Colbert” writer for a wry joke about ruining Kavanaugh’s life ― after he had been sworn in, to great, crowing fanfare, as the next Supreme Court Justice of the United States. It was a crystalline example of conservative bad faith: a punch-down campaign meant to create a kind of golem, an artificial foe ― and force their enemies on the left into a defensive crouch.
To the fear-mongering right, it might as well be 1857, the nation teetering on the brink of civil war. Leftists are pedophiles, “Demon-rats,” “Dimmocrats,” an unintelligible, wild-eyed tribe capable of dread violence at any moment. There’s a reason NRA-TV has become a culture war channel, when once it had relatively anodyne programs about hunting.
It’s about ginning up fear of slaughter, and this involves such efforts of contortion that the entire right-wing media landscape has become a kind of verbal Cirque de Soleil. Only there isn’t much sun in that world; it’s quite unremittingly dark. There is the enemy, the enemy’s plans, the inexorable march of hordes who must be defeated.
Elected Democrats find themselves permanently in the position of seeking to deny and disarm these ideas. After all, the idea of Nancy Pelosi taking up an AK-47 and blasting her enemies is not-so-faintly ridiculous. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have a shiv hidden in her pantsuit. And Maxine Waters’ sharpest weapon by far is her tongue. But over and over, for years, Democrats have attempted to explain their policy positions in the face of rhetoric that places them just left of Lenin and slightly bloodthirstier than Mao.
So they inevitably end up making a show of stating their support for the Second Amendment, or border security, or prosecuting undocumented immigrants for crimes.
The Democratic Party runs former prosecutors and war veterans in far greater numbers than public defenders or anti-war agitators, as if to repel, from the start, any implication that they are further left than George W. Bush. The arc of political rhetoric in the United States bends only rightward.
Watching this cycle play out, yet again, in the run-up to the 2018 midterms, I find myself exhausted and resentful of the implication that progressivism is inherently suspect.
I don’t want physical violence or a civil war― who does?― but I wouldn’t mind fighting back in earnest. The time for playing defense is over. There are, after all, affirmative values on our side, too.
We may not rely on the Bible to push our policies, but there are sacred principles on the left too, a holy rage born of empathy for those who seek and require aid. There’s a genuine desire to dismantle a carceral state that exempts elites on principle. To end a pointless war passed on from generation to generation. To vanquish white supremacy, a holy urge toward equality. Our political will for a woman to control her own body need not bat its eyelashes in demure deference to the false notion that a zygote is worth more than her future. The desire for peace need not be uttered shamefacedly as “defense” bills pour resources that could feed millions into flying death machines that strike down starving children.
The time for playing defense is over. There are, after all, affirmative values on our side, too.
There is no need to for Democrats to be shamefaced, to stammer, to seek the understanding of our opponents. We live in a wealthy country in which being diagnosed with a disease is a sentence to die in debt. In which so many people in hospital beds are dying clutching their bills and the just-mended swim in financial despair.
To chase after bipartisanship is to deny that that pain is worth fighting to erase. There should be no more kids setting up lemonade stands to pay for their siblings’ medical bills ― and that alone is worth taking to the streets for, erecting a barricade in lieu of a warm, smarmy handshake across the aisle.
There are principles on our side, justice on our side. There are banners worth taking up, not in timidity, but in full blazon. There is power to be reclaimed, to be taken ruthlessly and squeezed for all it’s worth.
It’s time we saw the oft-repeated lie that leftists are inherently violent and thus inherently illegitimate for what it is. It’s time we stopped bothering to deflect it. Because it’s time to fight, and it’s time to admit that that’s what we’re doing. Above all, it’s time to cease expending any effort on apologizing, and, instead, seek unabashedly to win.
Talia Lavin is a writer and researcher based in Brooklyn, New York.
An earlier version of this article stated that Dionysus was torn apart by naiads. It has been edited to reflect that Orpheus was torn apart by maenads.