Al Gore, Andrew Sullivan, and "Fifth Column"
The etiquette of using a provocative epithet.
Andrew Sullivan wants to know why it was OK for Al Gore (in an interview with the New York Observer) to describe Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the Washington Times as a "fifth column," but not OK for Sullivan to use that same epithet to describe the tiny band of leftists who, after Sept. 11, opposed the war against al-Qaida. As one who criticized Sullivan for slinging the term "fifth column," Chatterbox will gladly explain: It's the context, stupid.
"Fifth columnist" means "traitor." (For a fuller definition, click here.) When Sullivan (in an essay that appeared in the Sept. 16, 2001 SundayTimes of London) used the term "fifth column," he used it in the context of imminent war:
The middle part of the country—the great red zone that voted for Bush—is clearly ready for war. The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead—and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.
Reading this as the United States prepared to invade Afghanistan, it was impossible to avoid the literal reading that Sullivan believed anti-war dissenters were morally indistinguishable from traitors. (Sullivan recycled the smear on his Web site, referring to "the enemy within the West itself—a paralyzing, pseudo-clever, morally nihilist fifth column that will surely ramp up its hatred in the days and months ahead.") To suggest that Americans who opposed going to war were traitors was obviously beyond the pale. After Chatterbox called him on it, Sullivan wisely backed off:
I have no reason to believe that even those sharp critics of this war would actually aid and abet the enemy in any more tangible ways than they have done already. And that dissent is part of what we're fighting for. By fifth column, I meant simply their ambivalence about the outcome of a war on which I believe the future of liberty hangs. …
(To read the complete semi-retraction, click here.)
Now let's consider the context in which Gore used the term "fifth column." He was not talking about war. He was talking about journalistic objectivity. Specifically, he was saying that certain conservative media outlets were
part and parcel of the Republican Party. Fox News Network, the Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh—there's a bunch of them, and some of them are financed by wealthy ultra-conservative billionaires who make political deals with Republican administrations and the rest of the media. … Most of the media [has] been slow to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks—that is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of what's objective as stated by the news media as a whole.
There isn't a rational soul on earth who would interpret Gore's remarks as suggesting that Roger Ailes, Wes Pruden, or Rush Limbaugh were in any way sympathetic to, let alone collaborating with, any foreign enemy. Rather, Gore was suggesting that these men, and the institutions they work for, were traitors to the journalist's creed that news organizations should not serve any one political party. We can argue about whether that creed should be absolute (Chatterbox is less troubled by partisanship than he is by dishonesty about partisanship). We can argue about whether Gore, a man whose love of metaphors can sometimes lead him into rhetorical cul-de-sacs, spoke felicitously in this instance. But no one can argue that Gore accused anyone of being a traitor to his country. That's why Gore's use of "fifth column" warranted no censure, whereas Sullivan's did.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.