Sometimes it’s a relief when the media gets something wrong.
Last November the newspaper Politico noted that Mitt Romney hadn’t yet pulled out all the stops in his race against then-frontrunner Rudy Giuliani. “So far, the tough shots from Romney have not been fired. Some top strategists warn of a ‘murder-suicide’ scenario, in which Romney might draw blood from Giuliani but get splattered himself if voters are turned off by attacks and take it out on the attacker,” Jonathan Martin wrote.
Wow. “Murder-suicide?” Doesn’t get much worse than that. Luckily for both men, even though their political campaigns died, they themselves didn’t.
Martin’s story provides an extreme example, but it perfectly highlights a problem with our political rhetoric these days -- too many people use violent words to describe non-violent activities.
It’s not just in politics, of course. “If I’m going to go down in flames, I’m at least going down with someone I enjoy watching play,” Texas Tech basketball coach Pat Knight said after his team suffered a lopsided defeat. In the online business world, Lance Ulanoff of PCMag.com declared that “Facebook’s death spiral has begun.” We can only hope nobody gets hurt during these impending crashes.
But it’s politicians and political reporters who are most likely to use violent metaphors. Candidates are said to have a “war chest” to pay for their bid. Debates trigger a “war of words.” Contenders promise to “fight to the finish.”
And here’s how MSNBC’s Chris Matthews sees the political picture: “The Republicans are like the -- like the Iraqis. Have you noticed?” he asked on the Tonight Show in January. Actually, Chris, I hadn’t noticed. Could you explain?
“They got their Shia wing, the fanatics. They’ve got Huckabee. This where I get into trouble. This is just where I get into trouble. Huckabee and Thompson are the Shiites, and the Sunni, the more moderate guys, are McCain, and -- who else they got over there? And uh, Rudy Giuliani. And then they got Romney, the Kurd.”
It seems almost impolite to remind Chris that there’s at least one big difference. While Iraqis frequently settle their disagreements with bombs and guns, the Republicans do so with words and votes.
That’s the beauty of our system. A political campaign may be many things, but it’s almost never violent. All those who’ve dropped out of the race to date did so unharmed, although it’s still possible Hillary could kneecap Barack, or vice versa.
Furthermore, all the “losers” go back to what are potentially lucrative careers, whether in the world’s most exclusive millionaire’s club (the U.S. Senate) or to a life of -- presumably -- helping the poor. (When he suspended his presidential bid, John Edwards said he first spoke to a homeless woman who begged him, “You won’t forget us, will you?”)
The real problem is that we’ve lost the meaning of “war” because we allow everything to be called a war. “Every day we hear about the ‘war on cancer,’ the ‘war on drugs,’ the ‘war on poverty,’ and exhortations to make this or that social challenge the ‘moral equivalent of war,’” notes Jonah Goldberg in his new book “Liberal Facism.”
That’s been great for politicians, who get to pass more laws and control more facets of our lives. But it’s not helpful to clear thinking or clear communication.
The irony is that all this violent rhetoric comes at a time when actual war is rarer than ever. Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that “from the beginning of 2002 to the end of 2005, the number of armed conflicts being waged around the world shrank 15 percent, from 66 to 56.”
Also, “estimated battle-death tolls declined worldwide by almost 40 percent over the same period.” And while the genocide in Sudan remains a problem, it’s now the only such incident in the world. That’s an impressive change from 1989, when there were 10 ongoing genocides.
Of course, there are places where actual violence is needed. Our country is engaged in a war against terrorist enemies, who’ve distinguished themselves with their willingness to kill anyone they can. We’re going to have to kill most of these, in order to convince others not to join their hopeless cause.
Yet when a reporter describes a mere political spat as a “bloodbath over NAFTA” (CNN’s Dana Bash), she’s making it more difficult for Americans to keep things in perspective.
There’s little need to “ride to the sound of the guns” these days, since there’s less gunfire than ever to ride toward. What we do need are reporters who are as precise in their use of language as our troops are in their use of firepower. That’s worth a shot, isn’t it?