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Civility Don’t Get You No Votes

January 13th, 2011

On the left, no persons of note that I know of have claimed that Loughner was a through-and-through right-winger or Republican. His reading list, if even accurate, was all over the map, and with people who are as apparently deranged as he is, it is doubtful that political affiliations mean very much in any case. The most claimed on the left that I have heard is that the atmosphere created by preposterously insane conspiracy-theory mongering and the accompanying violent rhetoric at least possibly helped spur Loughner into doing what he did, and even if not, it is time to recognize that violent imagery is inappropriate for political discourse.

Some people on the right wing don’t stop so short, however. Of course, you have the knee-jerk reaction of Freepers to automatically paste “Registered Democrat” before the name of any miscreant (Loughner was, in fact, a registered Independent)–but crazies can be found in the comment sections of both sides.

One expects more from people with larger followings or, especially, elected office. That didn’t stop a Republican member of the House of Representatives from saying this:

This guy appears to be a communist. His beliefs are the liberal of the liberals. There is no evidence whatsoever that this man was influenced by Sarah Palin or anybody in the Republican Party. This man is not a conservative; he’s a fan of communism – that’s the opposite of conservatism.

–Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC)

Not to be outdone, the Tea Party Express released this:

During the past few days friends of the shooter, Jared Loughner, have stepped forward to say that they knew him to be a political liberal. He admired the Communist Manifesto and burned the American flag.

And, of course, we have Rush himself claiming that the Democratic Party is Loughner’s best friend:

What Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country. He’s sitting there in jail; he knows what’s going on. He knows that a Democrat [sic] Party — the Democrat [sic] Party — is attempting to find anybody but him to blame.

–Rush Limbaugh

Many right-wingers are assuming that he’s a liberal because he listed The Communist Manifesto on his reading list on YouTube. All too often, conservatives seem to think that anyone who even reads The Communist Manifesto is of course a liberal–which is about as stupid as assuming that anyone who reads “Mein Kampf”–also on Loughner’s reading list–is a right-winger. And yet, many on the right seem to think reading Hitler’s tome also marks people as liberals, so that’s kind of what we’re dealing with. The reading list also included “We the Living,” an Ayn Rand novel which was anti-Communist. Just as much can be discerned from his listing many children’s books as well.

Some point to the friend calling him a liberal (it was just one that I know of, and as an aside, he didn’t burn a flag, nor would this mark him as a liberal either)–but she also called him a Libertarian, and said pointedly that this was three years ago and he may have changed–and many of his more recent ideas, such as using the gold standard, government taking over and controlling everything, that abortion is terrorism, have a right-wing flavor to them. As stated before, he was all over the map. Assigning a single political affiliation to the man is not really even an issue, nor should not be.

On the left, we’re basically saying, “This atmosphere of hysteria and violence is going too far, possibly contributing to acts of violence such as this, so let’s dial it back some. Disagreeing, even vehemently, is no problem–just don’t use violent language or imagery.” On the right, the ones speaking out seem to be saying, “The shooter’s a liberal! This has nothing to do with our rhetoric!” Let’s observe for a moment that even Keith Olbermann did not excuse himself from his observation that things must be toned down; he apologized, and removed and is reworking his popular segment “Worst Persons in the World” as an example of how things should be toned down. I can only suppose that we don’t see outward motions like this on the right because they would feel doing such is an admission of culpability.

And as you know if you read this blog regularly, I do believe that the rhetoric is relevant. Stoking the anxieties of the public with unfounded, often completely fictional scare stories to make the public irrationally fear organizations or specific people, simply to gain political traction, is relevant. Elected officials and nationwide political figures using thinly-veiled–or completely unveiled–references to violent action as an acceptable response to political dissatisfaction is relevant. You create an atmosphere in which people fear far more when no rational basis for that fear exists, you create an environment in which it is considered all but patriotic to arm yourself to the teeth, and then you have respected figures saying that if the person you want to see elected doesn’t win, or if a desired measure doesn’t pass, people should respond with guns.

To suggest that this does not even slightly, tangentially affect the cultural mindset in such a way that could spur unbalanced individuals to violence is, I believe, pure nonsense. Of course it has an effect. Nor am I the only one to think so:

“It’s a reasonable question to ask,” Dr. Marvin Swartz, a psychiatry professor at Duke University who specializes in how environment impacts the behavior of the mentally ill, said in an interview this morning. “The nature of someone’s delusions is affected by culture. It’s a reasonable line of inquiry to ask, `How does a political culture affect the content of people’s delusions?’”

Now, does this mean that Sarah Palin is directly responsible for Loughner shooting Giffords? Of course not. Nor have I heard anyone of note claiming a direct connection, only that violent imagery has an influence–the accusation that she’s to blame for the whole thing is a straw man made up by the right wing.

Can we even know, as an incontrovertible fact, if the rhetoric of Palin and others like her had any effect on Loughner specifically? Not yet, and we may possibly never know for certain.

But are Sarah Palin and others like her responsible for creating an environment in which such violence is more likely to happen? Absolutely. You cannot be a widely respected national figure with millions of charged, angry people taking your words as gospel, claim that the government is literally planning to kill off babies and seniors, or that there is a massive conspiracy to destroy democracy leading to your children being killed by black people, and expect that there will not be any real-world consequence to your hyperbole and violent imagery.

All of this has become notable since the 2008 elections, when the Republicans took their gloves off and started making up ludicrous crap about Obama. How he was either a terrorist or a terrorist sympathizer. He was a Muslim, born in Kenya, and a communist fascist dictator. It got to the point where people in the crowds at these rallies started shouting things like “Kill him!” That doesn’t come from nowhere, that doesn’t happen without provocation. After Obama was elected, things only ramped up, and birthers were not even the most extreme. Right-wingers started showing up at Obama appearances armed with guns and rifles, bearing signs which made it clear they favored killing him. T-shirts were sold with a “prayer” for Obama’s death. All of this based not on anything Obama did–he was still two months away from taking office–but based upon the spectacular lies and gross exaggerations spread by his political opponents.

Thus, it is of extreme irony that Palin now accuses her critics of “blood libel”:

If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision. If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

This woman has some fracking gall. The same woman who stirred audiences to shout death threats against her opponent as she shouted blatant lies about “palling around with terrorists” accuses her opponents–who only say we should tone down the violent rhetoric–of placing Palin in physical danger? Somehow, her use of outright vicious smears and repeated violent imagery had nothing whatsoever to do with the rising levels of national paranoia and violence, but calls for her to stop using the violent imagery places her life in imminent danger?

I think one thing is clear: it is indeed possible to cause violent action with inflamed rhetoric and violent imagery. Case in point: Dr. George Tiller, a doctor who performed abortions, was intensely vilified by Randall Terry; he was called a Nazi, a terrorist, and a murderer. Terry even went so far as to publish Tiller’s home address. Tiller was shot dead by a man with links to Terry’s organization, one who–like Loughner–was mentally unstable and had been driven to fear his government. One cannot directly blame Terry, but it would be a matter of great surprise if he had carried no influence in the matter, and no surprise at all if he had a great deal of influence in it. Had Terry argued against the issue rather than painting a target on the back of a specific doctor, had he spoken urgently and passionately in favor of treasuring life instead of using such outrageous, fear-sparking hyperbole about the actions of a single individual, it is not unthinkable at all that Tiller would probably still be alive today. But Terry probably has learned from long experience that terrorism, committed behind the veil of legitimacy and carried out by the extremism he legally stokes, has a far greater real effect and so does not flinch at its use.

What worries me is that instead of toning things down, the right wing only seemed amped to turn the volume up. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who previous railed about terror babies and spoke in the House itself about death panels and Obama wanting to get older people to “die off more quickly,” actually told Sheriff Dupnik to “tone his rhetoric down.” He also joined the right-wing chorus in painting Loughner as a liberal:

It may be that if the things that we’re reading — that he’s a liberal, hates the flag, supports Marx, that type of thing, turn out to be true, then it may be embarrassing to some of the current administration’s constituents, and, heaven help us, we wouldn’t want to embarrass any of the president’s constituents.

Even worse, among the people spouting ridiculously transparent lies, spinning insane conspiracy theories, popularizing irrationally bizarre hyperbole, and using suggestively violent imagery, there are far too many elected officials in their numbers. Maybe I’m romanticizing the past, but was there not a time when national politicians’ lies had to be at least halfway credible or they would be discredited? That if they suggested armed violence as a political tool, even in jest, they would have no hopes for re-election?

As the left wing goes about saying we should have more peaceful and responsible public debate, the right wing only responds with more incendiary hyperbole–offensive hyperbole at that–and an implied promise to continue their practice, if not outright denial that the practice exists.

In the past, I have spoken out often against this, and as the only solution I can think of, I offered the possibility of civil suits. I admitted that they were a long shot, but I see potential value in them. I think Dr. Tiller’s family might have had at least a presentable case against Randall Terry, for example, and the Tides Foundation, to a lesser degree, against Glenn Beck and Fox News.

I see civil suits as the best course of action because, if I am not mistaken, they require less direct evidence than criminal cases, as we saw in the O.J. Simpson trials, and thus may not be as difficult to pursue as the laws which are easily danced around.

I do not see them as a threat against free speech, as they only would address the more onerous examples of violent speech–something which, at least in spirit, is supposed to be illegal in any case. It would never silence anyone on an issue, it would only serve to pressure them to be careful about staying with the facts–again, supposedly what the law now mandates–and not using violent rhetoric, something not only completely divorced from, but in fact, inimical to the free expression of ideas.

As it seems unlikely those on the right will voluntarily stop using hyperbole and violent imagery, short of civil suits in the more extreme cases, I see no way to stem something which I perceive to be a very real threat to free and unhindered political discourse in our society.

One thing is certain: violence has no place in our politics.

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  1. Tim Kane
    January 14th, 2011 at 00:03 | #1

    As I suggested in the last thread on this topic, what’s on trial here isn’t individuals, it is methods.

    Rightist were immediately defensive after the shootings, and they should be.

    Liberals/Democrats feel that they can win debates on most of the material issues of the day on the merits. Conservatives do not.

    This all is spawned from Krugman’s Monday column, where he distinguished the right’s violent rhetoric as being eliminationist. I think that was a bulls eye on his part. But it requires some follow up.

    The for the vitriol and violent eliminationist talk on the right is eliminate the debate because they can’t win the debate on the merits.

    Rush Limbaugh on Monday said that “they want to eliminate all opposition.”

    They can’t conceive of politics based upon civil discourse and civil debate because under such conditions, they can’t win on the merits on any of the big issues of the day: climate change, supply side economic policies during a deflationary recession, health care?

    Their positions are antithetical to even a remedial understanding of civics. They stand no chance in a debate on the merits. Therefore eliminate the debate: shut out all discussion at town hall events, shout down the opponents, demonize the opponents, intimidate the opponents with threatening and violent innuendos.

    Much of their base is people who like simple decisive solutions, and violence always offers up some of that. Other people are moved over to them by a version of Stockholm syndrome (not wanting to be on the receiving end of such vitriol, they join the side that hurls it).

    These methods have given them political victories despite the idiocy of their ideas in contemporary context. To give up these methods is to be consigned to political defeat and/or irrelevancy.

    Some of their views are a distortion: they are ideologues, rogue ideologues prone to violent vitriolic eliminationist rhetoric who will stoop to any means to maintain political ascendancy they therefore project the same onto Democrats (they see us as the same animal as themselves – so they figure the attack on their methods are a political attack orchestrated by democrats, in a sense, doing the same as they do so they are punching back, best as they can).

    Democrats are not ideologues, but pragmatist, in search of the best public policy. A civil debate sounds like a good idea to us. Violence, vitriol and eliminationist rhetoric does not. Nor would it undermine our politics because we believe we can win a debate on the merits, if such debate is allowed. Avoiding that debate is what the conservatives are fighting desperately against, right this very minute.

    They will not back down because they can’t. They’ve got nothing else in their holster (pardon the gun metaphore). So it’s either more of the same, or more of the same on steroids… until the public finally turns their back on them and walks away. Maybe the public reaction to this shooting will bring that about. Or maybe it will be the next shooting. Conservatives have got nothing else in their holster, and furthermore they are running out of bullets. There’s an inevitability here. Sooner or later people are just going to turn their backs on the whole farcical modern conservative movement. Then comes the bright new day. Hope I live to see it.

  2. Tim Kane
    January 14th, 2011 at 00:17 | #2

    One other point… while Laughner’s act of mass murder can’t be directly attributed to right wing politics, it was still a political act. His target was a politician, not a movie star, not a business person. That makes it political in nature. His target was a democrat – a democrat who had been on the receiving end of political targeting before. Thus there is no daylight between politics and the crime.

    Palin especially and movement conservatives in general are not going to be able to separate themselves from this. Palin will go back to her old methods, but people are going to make the links to the down stream implications of her methods as she is doing it. She can’t use the lock and reload metaphore anymore. Everyone knows what that can end up meaning in the real world.

    I think that this might be a time of sudden change.

  3. Troy
    January 14th, 2011 at 05:32 | #3

    (it was just one that I know of, and as an aside, he didn’t burn a flag, nor would this mark him as a liberal either)

    Actually I think Loughner did favorite a video to youtube showing someone in a costume — likely himself — burning a flag out in the desert. This is just guesswork but this video was the only Loughner favorite in youtube and it has the same syllogistic BS in the intro.

    Just taking a wild shot at things now, what Loughner’s politics are now would be closest to libertarian anarchism I think.

    The right is really too dense to understand that Marx’s blueprint theoretically leads to anarchy — a decentralized society with only laborers and nobody “above” them.

    That doesn’t matter, all that matters is what they can spin.

    As I say over and over again, the problem isn’t the lies per se it’s the millions of people who buy into them.

    Same thing with the eliminationist rhetoric. It is very empowering for them to move liberals into the “human scum” category. It is a form of intellectual protection and comfort, plus it creates a convenient “other” to focus on.

    It is good propaganda but bad civics. It’s also mixed in with Christianism — the belief that the world is in eschatological decline, the final conflict is coming, this nation was founded as a Christian SuperState but is in danger of falling away from its Divine Mission.

    It’s all kinda nuts, but millions of people buy into that, too, and Palin and DeMint are right in the thick of it.

    I’ve also said before that I think America’s economic problems are more solvable, technically, than Japan’s, but Japan’s politics are much less screwed up than ours, making me really unsure which nation is going to be in worse shape later this century. Perhaps we’re both screwed.

  4. Troy
    January 14th, 2011 at 05:33 | #4

    I have a comment in moderation.

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