In the ongoing political and cultural war between the American liberal and conservative movements, far too many on the liberal side are guilty of similar "unforced errors" -- mistakes in judgment that lead them into public behavior or statements that hurt their cause and embarrass other liberals. The recent incidents of students and others shouting down conservative speakers invited to campus, or preventing their appearance altogether by sometimes violent protests, is one example of such unforced errors.
Now comedian and actress Kathy Griffin has committed another. She posted a video and photo of herself yesterday holding what is clearly meant to resemble the severed head of the President of the United States, Donald Trump. (I still cannot believe I actually have to write that name and that title together.) As a result, Cable News Network (CNN) has fired her from her annual gig as co-host of its New Year's Eve special, with her co-host Anderson Cooper forced to publicly repudiate her behavior. A maker of toilet equipment that had signed her to be its spokesperson has now rescinded its contract with her, and at least one venue where she had been scheduled to perform her stand-up show has cancelled it.
First and foremost, it must be said that this sort of image is morally and ethically repugnant to any liberal possessed of even the barest hint of a conscience. While I take a back seat to absolutely no one in my loathing and disgust for this President and his policies and attitudes, and freely admit that I have been guilty myself of wishing death on people I opposed politically in the past, I do recognize that this crosses a line that should never, ever be crossed in political discourse. Our right-wing opponents, and their extremist followers, have already done more than enough to coarsen and lower the level of debate in this country as it is; we emphatically do not need to lower it still further by endorsing (or appearing to endorse) such violence.
While the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantees Ms. Griffin the right to such an act as protected political speech, it does not excuse her from its consequences. At the very least, the Secret Service ought to be expected to pay her a visit and ask her some searching questions. And I say this as a longtime fan of Ms. Griffin and her comedy, who is saddened and disappointed in her for this. While her career may not be completely ended in the fashion Bill Cosby's far worse behavior has effectively ended his, it has certainly been dealt a crippling blow.
Moreover, even leaving aside the moral implications, this sort of behavior is tactically asinine. It allows conservatives to portray liberals as not merely wrong on policy, but as bloodthirsty, evil monsters who should be rounded up to protect civil society...or at a minimum, should never be listened to on any subject whatsoever. "See?!?" they can now say. "Those damned liberals are every bit as despicable as we've been telling you!" It deligitimizes our movement and invalidates our legitimate arguments and grievances on public affairs and culture. And it prevents those who might otherwise be persuaded to give our views a hearing from ever doing so. And it surrenders to Trump and his family, and to conservatives and Republicans, that which we absolutely, positively cannot afford to surrender: the moral and ethical high ground—ground they have not earned.
We progressives need to get out in front of this, and police our own in all other such transgressions of civilized debate. The famed creator of the TV series The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling, wrote in one of its episodes decades ago, "In order for civilization to endure, human beings must remain civilized." If we are to have any hope of preserving the gains made by liberal activists and politicians in recent years, and to reverse the disastrous acts of conservative ones (such as Trump's idiotic decision to pull the U.S.A. out of the Paris climate agreement, citing nonexistent reasons of undue burden on American commerce and redistribution of wealth), we cannot afford to commit such "unforced errors" as Griffin and others have committed in the name of liberalism - or allow them to go uncriticized, lest we give conservatives an opening to brand us as hypocrites and enemies of democracy. Again, they do enough of that all on their own, and do not need our help, however inadvertent. Our dissent must be loud, frequent and vigorous, absolutely -- but it must also be well-grounded in fact and reason, and above all, must be civilized and peaceful in words and actions. King and Gandhi must be our models here, not Malcolm X or ISIS.