Friday, April 4, 2014

Don't Blame Rick Weiland. Blame a Hyberbole Culture Run Amok

This week, Democratic candidate for US Senate Rick Weiland earned widespread ridicule when he made the following statement about the McCutcheon v. FEC campaign-finance case:
"Today's decision of the United States Supreme Court to strike down any real limit on the purchase of our democracy by big money may be the worst decision made by any Supreme Court since the Dred Scott case reaffirmed slavery in 1857."
Taken at face value, this is of course a laughable claim. Decisions such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Korematsu v. US are appalling pretty much without any partisan debate. But Weiland doesn't deserve all the flak he's getting, either. The reason for this is simple: this statement clearly was not intended to be taken at face value.

Instead, Weiland—who has based his entire campaign on being the anti-big-money candidate—was trying to make a point, and he knew how to get a megaphone with which to announce it: exaggerate. Sure enough, it worked, as a candidate to whom pundits were giving virtually no media attention—nor any chance of winning—suddenly had his name plastered across the internet. In a world which Weiland had discovered was not going to pay any attention to a nonserious message candidate in a prairie state, he realized that he would have to be outlandish to cut through.

Weiland's not the only one who's realized this. Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson called Citizens United "the worst Supreme Court decision since the Dred Scott case" in 2010. Now-Senator Ed Markey once said, "The Dred Scott decision had to be repealed; we have to repeal Citizens United." And at least one conservative columnist wrote that 2012's "Obamacare decision represented the greatest single judicial limitation on American liberty since Dred Scott v. Sandford."

It's an unfortunate byproduct of our extremely noisy era that people feel they must resort to extreme hyperbole to get fairly standard points across. There's a language cold war going on—one that has already ruined the word "literally"—whereby everyone competes to out-emphasize each other. Words and phrases that used to be saved for special occasions are now seen as feeble thanks to overuse—and thanks to being overtaken by even more extreme words and phrases. "X is the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott" has simply evolved into the fashionable way to say, "I think X Supreme Court decision was pretty bad."

It's unfortunate. But it's the reality we've created for ourselves, so we shouldn't be surprised. And, ironically, that probably means we should stop remarking upon it every time someone says a decision is the worst since Dred Scott. But, grimly, that will just mean soldiers in this cold war will have to move on to the next, even more outrageous statement to express their dissatisfaction with the high court.

Weiland isn't stupid. I sincerely doubt he believes McCutcheon is the worst Supreme Court decision since 1857. (For one thing, it's hard to believe he doesn't find Citizens United even worse.) But he believed it "may be" (his exact words in the statement, by the way), and he believed everyone should know it was really, really bad. In today's world, that calls for rhetoric dialed up to 11—and I think Weiland knew exactly what he was doing when he borrowed this well-worn, attenton-getting figure of speech. The worst Weiland is really guilty of here is resorting to cliché.