Sunday, January 09, 2011

Political rhetoric and political violence: Are conservatives like Palin to blame for the Arizona shooting?

In the wake of yesterday's deadly shooting in Arizona, the assassination attempt on Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, with fingers being pointed (justifiably, I think) at the likes of Sarah Palin (and the Tea Party, as well as much of the Republican Party), much of the talk today is about political speech:

Do Palin and others deserve any of the blame for what happened yesterday? More broadly, what is appropriate and what isn't?

At Slate, Jack Shafer defends "inflammatory rhetoric and violent imagery," criticizing those, like Keith Olbermann, who are calling for American political rhetoric to change. Shafer writes:

Only the tiniest handful of people -- most of whom are already behind bars, in psychiatric institutions, or on psycho-meds -- can be driven to kill by political whispers or shouts. Asking us to forever hold our tongues lest we awake their deeper demons infantilizes and neuters us and makes politicians no safer.

At The Daily Beast, Howard Kurtz, another media-focused pundit/apologist, takes a somewhat more balanced approach, noting that such violent rhetoric, while "highly unfortunate," is hardly new. He writes:

Let's be honest: Journalists often use military terminology in describing campaigns. We talk about the air war, the bombshells, targeting politicians, knocking them off, candidates returning fire or being out of ammunition. So we shouldn't act shocked when politicians do the same thing. Obviously, Palin should have used dots or asterisks on her map. But does anyone seriously believe she was trying to incite violence?

To a certain extent, Kurtz is right. And it isn't just in politics. How often do we hear military terminology used in sports? Take the NFL, where winning the war in the trenches is part of every game. But to a certain extent, he is also deeply naive. Palin may not explicitly have been trying to incite violence, but the reality is that words have consequences. This is hardly a new observation, but it bears repeating.

(Update: I realize I'm being way too nice to Kurtz here. His piece, like Shafer's, is appallingly smug. For a sound critique, see Sullivan.)

When you whip up a frenzy and try to mobilize the mobs who follow you unthinkingly, as Palin did during the '08 campaign and again last year, you plant seeds in the minds of those who may not quite get what you're doing, who may not appreciate all the various nuances of political speech. Even if we give Palin and others on the right the benefit of the doubt and allow that all they were doing was trying to rally their "troops" to vote, the possibility, if not the likelihood, remained that one or more of those "troops" would misinterpret the message.

Palin may not have been talking about killing Giffords when she put her in the crosshairs, but it's hardly a stretch to think that others might take her literally. And when you add to that the obsession with guns that animates so much of the right, including both the Tea Party and the Republican Party -- think back to the guns that showed up at health-care town halls a couple of years ago -- what you end up with is a cauldron of potential violence just waiting to explode.

In a perfect world, or at least in a world of universal rationality, Shafer may well be right. We should all be mature enough to understand the context of political speech, including that which is inflammatory and violent. But we don't live in such a world, and the fact remains that all is takes is one person with a gun, or whatever other weapon, to turn whispers or shouts into a bloodbath.

What's more, this isn't just about speech but about ideology as well. It's not just that Palin put Giffords and others in the crosshairs, targeting them, or that military terminology is prevalent specifically on the right, but that conservatism today, as reflected in both the Tea Party and the Republican Party, is exceedingly violent. It isn't just about limited government, it's about conspiracy theories rooted in anti-government, and specifically anti-federal government paranoia. It isn't just about the right to bear arms, it's about owing guns en masse, carrying them in public (whether concealed or right out in the open), and flaunting them (and also using them) as political protest.

All of this, too, is in that cauldron, and it's threatening to bubble over for years. From time to time it has, and what happened yesterday was just the most dramatic incident so far. It could very well get even worse.

As I do not in theory disagree with Shafer and Kurtz, I do not necessarily disagree with Olbermann (see his comment below) and others who are calling for political speech to be more responsible. I certainly do not want this to be yet another Janet Jackson moment, with a single incident (however tragic, in this case, unlike the mere exposure of a nipple) leading to gross over-reaction. Remember when 9/11 was supposed to have been the end of irony? Of course it wasn't. People moved on. And there will continue to be violent political rhetoric even after this.

No, what I worry about is not so much political speech itself but that speech, when violent, combined with a similarly violent political ideology, as we find on the right today. That's when it gets dangerous, and when, as we have seen in the past, long before yesterday, it can get literally violent.

No, let's not over-react, but let's not just dismiss what happened yesterday as merely the violent outburst of an insane individual acting alone, haunted by demons disconnected from political reality. The context and the discussion need to be broader, absorbing not just political speech on its own, which can usually be justified, but the context of that speech, the ideology behind it and the climate in which it is expressed.

It may still be far too early to pin the blame on anyone or anything in particular, but it's pretty clear, I think, if we do consider speech alongside ideology, that our fingers ought to be pointing at Palin and all those like her on the right, which is to say, at much of American conservatism today, including the Tea Party and the GOP.

We must not allow them to get away with what they're doing. And they should not be allowed to get away with claiming that they had nothing to do with it.

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  • It's all about the hints. The politicians and religious leaders will drop the hints, and someone eventually will pick it up. Just like what happened to George Tiller and the Unitarian church in Knoxville, violence peddlers on the Right will squeal, "B-b-but we didn't MEAN it!!" (Which by itself is disingenuous, because if you didn't mean it, why say it, implying even people on the Right don't fully believe the bile they spew.)

    The crazies are just cat's paws that are used by those in power with too much lose to intimidate the opposition. The same thing happens in Islamic terrorist groups. After all, bin Laden isn't blowing himself up.

    By Anonymous Lit3Bolt, at 6:31 PM  

  • U.S. Democrat Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski in October:

    ""Instead of running for governor of Florida, they ought to have him and shoot him. Put him against the wall and shoot him."

    By Blogger Wigboldus, at 2:50 PM  

  • U.S. Democrat Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski in October:

    ""Instead of running for governor of Florida, they ought to have him and shoot him. Put him against the wall and shoot him."

    By Blogger Wigboldus, at 2:50 PM  

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