How disturbing is Madison Cawthorn’s “thug” comment?
George Orwell’s anti-totalitarian allegories “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” teach us how the corruption of language leads to the murder of objective truth; and how lies and distortions degrade civic life. In doing so, Orwell reminds us that the rigorous sorting and sorting of factual evidence is a prerequisite for maintaining a civilized and democratic society.
That’s why Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s Orwellian description of democratically elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a “thug” and his government as “incredibly evil” after the invasion of Russia is so disturbing. It would be like a Congressman in 1940 denouncing French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud as a “thug” after Adolf Hitler’s forces invaded democratic France.
What is clear, of course, is that Vladimir Putin’s Russia, under the Orwellian guise of “denazifying” Ukraine, has invaded a sovereign democracy, led by a Jewish leader. It was pure aggression, and we see the horrible consequences every day.
At a later event in Rutherford County, Cawthorn backtracked slightly and said “the governments in Russia and Ukraine are incredibly corrupt and very vile.” It’s a favorite ploy these days: sidestepping the conflict by proclaiming some sort of moral equivalence. “Both sides”, we often hear, “are at fault”. What is really at fault, however, is faulty thinking and the resulting false equivalence. To paraphrase Orwell, half a loaf is not the same as no loaf.
Opinion:Party change won’t defeat Madison Cawthorn, but Democrats can
Opinion:For Buncombe County, here’s our chance to turn the tide of the opioid epidemic
Ukraine is an embryonic democracy struggling to eradicate entrenched corruption; Russia is an autocracy with few political rights. The nonpartisan, nonprofit democracy advocacy group Freedom House gives Ukraine a score of 61 out of 100 (“partially free”), compared to 19 (“not free”) for Russia. By comparison, the United States scored an 83; the UK a 93.
Mr. Cawthorn’s statements reflect the heart and soul of “Trump politics,” in which truth is routinely stifled by ideological priorities detached from factual reality. The result is a fun mirror effect in which self-proclaimed patriotic flag bearers of freedom and family contradict the nation’s core values. A shortlist includes:
Democratic Ukraine, seeking greater integration into a US-led, rules-based world order, is smeared as “incredibly evil.”
A fair and accurate US presidential election in 2020 is labeled fraudulent. (Not a single presidential election in the history of the United States has ever suffered significant fraud among those eligible to vote, but suddenly, in 2020, for the very first time, it would have happened).
At the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally, Cawthorn claimed without evidence that “the Democrats, with all the fraud they’ve done in this election… are trying to silence your voice.”
The insurgents who sought to overthrow the newly elected US government are described as heroes and “political prisoners”.
A committee created on Jan. 6 to bring insurgents to justice should be used, Cawthorn says, to “root out the Deep State” — that absurd conspiratorial fabrication more suited to an amateur dystopian novel.
And most recently, allegations about invitations to cocaine orgies from politicians Cawthorn admired. All, apparently, fabrications. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the leader of the House GOP, said, “It’s just frustrating. There’s no evidence behind his statements. … I said (Cawthorn) you don’t cannot make such statements.”
Yes exactly. But why this sudden surprise and indignation? During the Trump presidency and beyond, McCarthy and other Republicans routinely condoned, cultivated, or emboldened speech detached from factual reality.
They gave themselves up to a president who made 30,573 false or misleading statements during his tenure, repeatedly lied about voter fraud and instigated an armed riot on Capitol Hill to prevent one of our Democratic touchstones. most sacred – the peaceful transfer of power.
They offered silence or punishment to a president who tweeted childish debasements, who mocked John McCain, a prisoner of war for five years in Vietnam — for being a prisoner of war. Who attacked Purple Heart veteran Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman for telling the truth during impeachment hearings. Who attacked Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of a son killed in Iraq. Who called veterans who served and died in World War I “losers” and “suckers.”
Orwell’s prescription for the health of a free society is intellectual honesty, what he called the “power to face” facts – often unpleasant facts.
The power to face the facts, however, requires intellectual courage. It requires moving beyond the depravity of “Trump politics.” Beyond the lies, conspiracy theories and misinformation that have sown division among Americans. Beyond veiled encouragement to intimidation, even violence. Beyond populist disregard for expertise and empirical method of thinking. Beyond satisfying our worst instincts.
The health of our system of self-government, which is so dependent on rational, fact-based debate between competing voices and political parties, and respect for the rule of law, demands it.
John Gripentrog is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History, Political Science, Religion and Philosophy at Mars Hill University.