Over the weekend, I had a Twitter tiff with Providence Journal columnist Ed Fitzpatrick over a comment in his Sunday column, which was about the negativity between the two Republicans vying for the party’s gubernatorial nomination. Noting that they both have liberal or Democrat backgrounds, Fitzpatrick wrote, “In Ted Cruz’s Texas, they’d give you the electric chair for less than that.”
It’s obviously a joke, but this sort of humor requires some sense of underlying truth. To mainstream New England liberals, the two bits of common wisdom on which Fitzpatrick is playing are that conservatives brook no dissent and that we are casual about human life.
But humor doesn’t only rely on underlying truth, it also reinforces it. If that smart and reasonable political columnist in the state’s major newspaper can casually reference conservatives’ willingness to put people to death for disagreeing with them, then (while of course everybody knows they aren’t that bad… at least not all of them) it’s smart and reasonable of others to trust in the sentiment. This is how the Obama administration can actively abuse Americans during the government shutdown in full expectation that the news media will blame conservative Republicans (e.g., Ted Cruz). This is how local activists (backed by the teachers’ union, naturally) can get away with declaring that their neighbors want to hurt children and destroy the community for seeking to slow the rate of growth of taxes.
It wasn’t that long ago that mainstream journalists (including Fitzpatrick, as I recall) were assuring me that they understood that it’s possible to oppose same-sex marriage without being a bigot, and now look where we are. In part we’re here based on the casual dismissing of opponents’ views, such as performed by Fitzpatrick’s fellow Providence Journal columnist, Bob Kerr. Many were the jokes about traditionalists’ ignorance and bigotry.
This is a lot of weight to put on a throw-away line in an ephemeral bit of political literature, to be sure. I elaborate on the 140 characters of my tweet only because Fitzpatrick and others objected to my objection. Comedians are comedians, and ideologues are ideologues. Even those who agree with them can see the role they fill and take their words in that spirit. At some level in the development of a smart and reasonable columnist, though, an awareness should develop that even jokes can have consequences.