Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The right's role in the Arizona massacre

Guest post by Dan Fejes

Dan Fejes is a blogger at Pruning Shears. He lives in northeast Ohio.

(Ed. note: I first came across Dan last November when I was doing a brief stint at Crooks and Liars, and I instantly became a fan of his thoughtful analyses of complex issues. Here is his take on the Arizona shooting, specifically a response to the stupidity of Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds. It's his first guest post for us, and we hope to have more from him in future. In the meantime, I encourage you to check out his excellent blog. -- MJWS)

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Glenn Reynolds is a dumbass and those who find his arguments persuasive are, if possible, even more stupid:

[I]f you're using this event to criticize the "rhetoric" of Mrs. Palin or others with whom you disagree, then you're either: (a) asserting a connection between the "rhetoric" and the shooting, which based on evidence to date would be what we call a vicious lie; or (b) you're not, in which case you're just seizing on a tragedy to try to score unrelated political points, which is contemptible. Which is it?

Melissa McEwan gets it:

When, a few months ago, there was a spate of widely-publicized suicides of bullied teens, we had, briefly, a national conversation about the dangers of bullying. But in the wake of an ideologically-motivated assassination attempt of a sitting member of Congress, we aren’t having a national conversation about the dangers of violent rhetoric -- because the conversation about bullying children was started by adults, and there are seemingly no responsible grown-ups to be found among conservatives anymore.

The reason the right wing is partially responsible is because it has embraced eliminationism. It has created a culture of political violence. This extremist rhetoric is almost exclusively the province of the right. There are virtually no examples of -- please pay attention to the following words -- prominent commentators and high ranking elected officials on the left doing the same. Both sides don't do it; only the right validates and exhorts its violent lunatics. Athenae:

The point that needs to be made clear as possible, loud as possible, often as possible, is that this is about people in POWER calling for violence. There have always been fringe goofballs making noise on everything from fluoride in the water to aliens in the cornfields.

The difference now is that you have members of Congress feeding these freakjobs, and a former vice presidential candidate cheering them on, and a whole news network dedicated to freaking them out and telling them where to aim their weapons.

What Reynolds fails to realize is that human psychology is complex. So are societies. As wonderful as it would be to have an unambiguous, direct, 1-to-1, "here is my last diary entry Sarah put her in the crosshairs so off I go on a shooting spree" piece of evidence to tie it all together in a neat package, life is rarely so cooperative.

Thoughtful people tend instead to look at things like patterns and environments. The law does this, too: Incitement to riot is not a crime because lawmakers thought there was a straight line between violent rhetoric and violent action, but because when you saturate the air with hate you cannot control who breathes it in. It goes out to the sane and the crazy, and those on the edge as well. You don't know how it reaches people, how it bounces around, how it can settle into an unsettled mind and incubate. All we know is this: The more violent rhetoric you put out there, the more you get back.

The fact that we will never have the kind of smoking gun evidence that unmistakably ties a specific belching of hate with a specific crime does not make suggestions of a connection a vicious lie, nor is the examining of the toxic bile spewed forth by the right an attempt to score an unrelated political point.

Advertisers spend billions of dollars trying to reach consumers, but in the words of retailer John Wanamaker, "I know that 50 percent of my advertising is wasted. I just don't know which 50 percent." It probably never happens that someone sees a Pepsi ad and thinks, I think I'll grab a cool, refreshing Pepsi right now. What we do know is, increased spending on Pepsi advertising will lead to increased sales of Pepsi.

The more you get the message out, the more you influence behavior. It is not controversial with advertising. Hell, it is not controversial with religion -- why bother proselytizing otherwise? It is not controversial in any area of human endeavor. Get the message out, influence behavior. Get the message out, influence behavior. Only inside of Reynolds' teeny tiny little brain does the widespread, top-down, continual delivery of a message have no impact whatsoever.

Sorry, I'm calling bullshit. Elected representatives, right-wing patrons, and the most famous conservative voices have taken great pains to continually bombard the base with extremism. They poke and poke with their sharp sticks with full knowledge that they will get a reaction. Like the unknown 50% of advertising that is wasted, they cannot be sure which messages will catch fire and which will fizzle out. Neither can they know which ones will inspire a more aggressive response, though I'm willing to generously grant that in their heart of hearts they would prefer to see the mere threat of violence (e.g., packing heat at campaign rallies) than the actual commission of it.

But that does not excuse them, and it certainly does not exempt them from scrutiny when it literally blows up and the blood starts flowing. I can understand Reynolds' reluctance to be associated with, or see his allies implicated in, the massacre in Arizona. But only someone with a truly below average intellect or a deep psychological investment in remaining blind can fail to see it: the right wing is partially responsible for this. They created this culture of political violence. They cannot be denied their portion.

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