Monday, January 10, 2011

Rhetoric & Violence

I’ll admit it. The moment I heard that an Arizona Democratic congresswoman was shot, I thought, “Oh great! One of the Tea Party-ers took all that rhetoric seriously and shot someone.” Judging from the initial blog posts of some in the blogosphere, notably Klein, Krugman, and Yglesias, I was not alone in that initial thought.

We seem to be wrong, or at the very least not completely right. Despite the facts not supporting, completely, the notion that the perpetrator was politically motivated the pundit-ocracy has tee-ed off on this tangent and I don’t think that’s an entirely bad thing.

Will Wilkinson disagrees and I think his post is important to keep us all tethered to the real reasons this particular gunman perpetrated this particular heinous act, but I also think his post fails to address something connected to the incident.

Why did so many commentators believe, just like I had believed, that the shooting was politically motivated and specifically why did we think it was entirely probable such an incident was perpetrated by a member of the Tea Party?

There’s a lot of baggage to that question. Clearly I’m citing “liberal” bloggers and there is the perceived “liberal bias” of the mainstream media. Maybe we are fearful of people who identify with the Tea Party and/or the people further right than people in the Tea Party. Maybe we’re concerned the ramparts of our urban utopia, bastions of liberalism that they are, will be stormed by gun-toting “patriots” from the “real America” and those first shots fired in Arizona are the opening salvo in a broader struggle yet to come that will be decided by “Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson” as Glenn Beck once said.

I would follow up those potential reasons for our response and ask, why do we feel that way? The answer, to my mind, is the hateful, violent rhetoric that has become part and parcel of the message of the right.

Also, let’s be honest with ourselves and admit that the violent rhetoric in recent years has been coming more from the far right then the far left. It’s not being partisan if it’s true. I didn’t hear anybody threaten to shoot John Boehner if he became speaker (though plenty of people threatened to move to Canada if McCain was elected president, which would seek to confirm leftist pacifism). It hasn’t always been that way in America, but that’s the way it is right now.

We’ve heard this litany before. Sarah Palin’s crosshairs map, basically anything that Glenn Beck says about Obama, Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s “second amendment remedies” for Congress, and who can forget the original innovator, Rush Limbaugh. Michelle Goldberg has a web-only piece in The American Prospect that recounts some of the history and urges some restraint in the rhetoric we use. This isn’t an assault on free speech, this is a call for some personal responsibility. Does Sharron Angle believe we should actually shoot members of Congress? I would imagine not. Does Glenn Beck truly think we have exhausted all options and armed opposition to the government is the only way to bring change? I doubt it (advertisers don’t have products to sell during a full-scale civil war and that’d be an issue for a radio program).

If they don’t believe it, then they have a responsibility not to say it. I’m not talking about being at a point were we can disagree without being disagreeable, I’m just asking that you not advocate for a violent solution to what is a political problem. And I’ll go on record and say this, we don’t need legislation about speech to handle this, we don’t even need forced civility, we just need not encourage the violent elimination of political opponents. That strikes me as a low bar.

What happened in Arizona on Saturday was a tragedy of the first order. Two public servants were shot and one has already died. Five other people died for doing nothing more offensive than being in that parking lot at that Safeway at that moment. As we learn more about the perpetrator, hopefully we will begin to understand why this particular incident happened. It does not appear to be what so many of us thought it was when we first heard the news, but maybe this is an opportunity. Perhaps this violence, though not springing exclusively from violent rhetoric, will give us all a moment to consider our words, what we want them to mean, what they may mean to others, and what actions that perception could lead to.

This time it wasn’t politically motivated, but if I heard the same story again, right now, I’d have the same first thought I had on Saturday. I’m hoping we get to a point where that’s not the case.

4 comments:

Colin said...

Jason, while I admire your candidness in this post, much of this doesn't make sense to me. For starters you write:

We seem to be wrong, or at the very least not completely right. Despite the facts not supporting, completely, the notion that the perpetrator was politically motivated the pundit-ocracy has tee-ed off on this tangent and I don’t think that’s an entirely bad thing.

That the shooter was inspired by right-wing rhetoric isn't just "not completely right", it isn't right *at all*. There is nothing, not one scintilla of evidence, which suggests Loughner was prompted by anything other than the bizarre voices in his head. The fact that members of the punditocracy have sought to exploit this for political gain and support their existing narrative of the Tea Party as home to violent political extremists is disgusting.

What's really revealing about this episode is the considerable prejudice harbored by many on the left towards the Tea Party. They are stereotyped without reason as a bunch of violent hate-filled racists. "Clinging to their guns and religion" one might say. During the health care debate they were libeled as racists. When the smoking SUV was discovered in Times Square Katie Couric I believe immediately speculated it was from someone angry about Obamacare. Now this.

You want to talk about hateful, violent rhetoric? What about President Obama's quip that “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun"? What about Paul Krugman calling for Joe Lieberman to be hung in effigy? What about Steven Pearlstein of the WashPost calling Republicans "political terrorists"? What about the campaign video in which Rep. JD Hayworth has crosshairs placed on him (it's on youtube)? Hell, this very blog stated that Rep. Michelle Bachmann "barely registers as human these days."

As for Sarah Palin's crosshairs map, are you not aware of the 2004 DLC map with bullseyes on various states? A 2010 map from the DCCC similarly has target signs on the districts of various Republicans with "targeted Republican" when you rollover the symbol on the map. Where is the concern over this? Or are such things only dangerous when Sarah Palin does it?

Now, frankly, I don't care about the Democratic maps. This linkage between violent actions and targets on a map represents the infantilization of the country, where we are all treated as children, apparently so mentally weak that we commit various actions after seeing a damn map on the internet with crosshairs on it.

Colin said...

Correction: it wasn't Couric who attempted to link the Times Square bomber to Obamacare, it was NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg while appearing on Couric's show.

Also, here's another piece of hateful, violent rhetoric that may have escaped your attention:

"That Scott down there that's running for governor of Florida. Instead of running for governor of Florida, they ought to have him and shoot him. Put him against the wall and shoot him." -- Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-PA)


Source: http://thetimes-tribune.com/opinion/editorials-columns/roderick-random/kanjorski-ponders-nuts-bolts-from-blue-1.1052739#ixzz1AjNwG69Z

Jason said...

Colin, I would defend the comment you highlight below by simply saying I was leaving room for the unknown. It is apparently known at this point that the gunman held a grudge against Rep. Giffords for offenses real or imaginary. What is not known with confidence yet is what precipitated the act itself. Given that unknown, I added the slight caveat "completely."

Also, I feel I address the prejudice some on the left have for the Tea Party head on. I would ask if liberals are not "real Americans" in the narrative espoused by prominent Tea Party speakers, then perhaps there is shared prejudice that needs addressed.

As for the tit for tat recounting of moments when a Democratic or a liberal implied violence in a comment I would simply say it's easy to cherry pick.

But to return to the above comment about liberals not being "real Americans" the individuals that defend such a point propagate an "us vs. them" mentality that strays beyond the natural enmity between two opposing perspectives on governance. I think a fair reading of the cannon of the most popular liberal voices and the most popular conservative voices would reveal a disproportionate level of violence soaked rhetoric on the conservative side. And I would again add the caveat that it hasn't always been that way, but that's they way it is right now.

Colin said...

As for the tit for tat recounting of moments when a Democratic or a liberal implied violence in a comment I would simply say it's easy to cherry pick.

Well sure, which is exactly what you have done as well with references to select quotes from Sharon Angle and Glen Beck. I am merely illustrating that this game can be played by both sides -- and I didn't even go into the Keith Olbermann archives.

Also, I feel I address the prejudice some on the left have for the Tea Party head on.

You acknowledge it, but rather than saying that maybe you should question your assumptions, you essentially go on to blame the Tea Party for your prejudices and admit that if another violent incident were to occur you would immediately place them under suspicion.

Frankly I find this fear of the Tea Party rather weird. Having been to several Tea Party protests I have yet to hear any violent rhetoric or calls for violent action. Most attendees are middle-aged suburban types. After the rally they pick up their litter and go home. I still have yet to read about a Tea Party protest that resulted in smashed windows and garbage strewn streets, which is pretty much par for the course at an anti-globalization protest for example.

I would ask if liberals are not "real Americans" in the narrative espoused by prominent Tea Party speakers, then perhaps there is shared prejudice that needs addressed.

Who are the prominent Tea Party speakers who say that leftists aren't real Americans?

And again, this is a game that can be played by both sides. In 2009 Eugene Robinson of the WashPost wrote a column calling the GOP "un-American". Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) said that GOP Senators who opposed an auto bailout were "unpatriotic." Another Michigan Democrat, Gov. Granholm, said Rush Limbaugh was "un-American" for criticizing the Chevy Volt.

More generally I wonder where all of this hand-wringing was during the Bush years, when protesters carried signs equating Bush with Hitler, the president was likened to a chimp and people wore t-shirts with messages like "Kill Bush" (in reference to the Kill Bill movies) and "Not My President."

Personally none of this matters much to me. People are free to utter whatever idiocies they want, and this alleged connection between rhetoric and violence remains more hype than reality. But I also think that much of this criticism from the left is a bit rich and brings to mind the adage about rocks and glass houses.