Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Words have consequences

Conservative bloggers and pundits have been shocked at the notion that some of their movement’s biggest loudmouths should shoulder some responsibility for the young man accused of killing six people at a political event on Saturday, January 8, in Tucson and nearly succeeding in assassinating Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Rarely have I seen such a desperate attempt to evade reality as has occurred since the shooting rampage in Tucson. It would seem to be a fairly non-controversial notion that when a politician is targeted for assassination, the language that contributes to hostile discord ought to be carefully considered and avoided. However, mentioning that issue has caused politicians and pundits on the right to stiffen, deny, and go on offense. Could this be because they are harboring a latent guilt?

Me thinks they doth protest too much.” And anyone who has studied Hamlet knows that if someone protests too much, then they are harboring guilt. (You have studied Hamlet haven't you?  It was taught in my high school.)

Republicans and Tea Partiers shouldn’t be surprised or offended that their party and movement are taking criticism in connection with the Tucson killing spree. Beyond the shooter's possible mental illness, the real cause of the Tucson violence would seem to be the fear, ignorance, and anger that have become commonplace in the American public dialogue. Loughner chose as his target a centrist Democratic congresswoman who had criticized Arizona’s draconian immigration law and supported healthcare reform, taking positions in direct opposition to the Tea Party and Republican base.

In effect, he chose political sides by the choice of his target, Democrat Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

It really does not matter that the man who finally made good on the thousands of threats received during the last year by American politicians is mentally ill. What matters is that the pundits, the politicians, and the shameless men and women of all political persuasions, who screamed and shouted and distorted the truth in order to raise and sway a mob, showed disdain for our nation – which can push the mentally unbalanced into action. The rancid political climate easily feeds into the despair of the mentally unbalanced. Insane people tend to be driven by obsessions and delusions and a general sense of despair.

It was no surprise that Rush Limbaugh rose to defend himself and other right-wing propagandists against the idea that they bear some responsibility for the shooting tragedy in Arizona. Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and those like them overlook a simple, logical conundrum:    

If, as they frequently like to claim, they are the motivators who brought about the conservative resurgence in November’s elections with their inflammatory and rabble-rousing anti-Democratic rhetoric, then how can they be so sure that they did not have a part in motivating this incident or others of lesser crime against Democrats?  

Some will say such risk is inherent with our right to free speech. But as most appreciate, free speech does not entitle one to shout “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no blaze. It is similarly reckless when Palin, Hannity, Limbaugh, or Beck label any who opposes their politics as traitorous Nazis, Fascists, or Commies who want to take over our nation. They have to be fully aware that the average uninformed person believes them – and that a crazy, schizophrenic person could act on it.

Although it is not yet known whether he had leanings toward any political group, Jared Loughner’s Youtube rhetoric did lean to the right with Glenn Beck (gold for U.S. currency) and Michelle Bachman (the government is using mind control). He also had reading material that leaned about as far left as one could get (Communist Manifesto). But by all accounts, Loughner is an avowed, although incoherent, constitutionalist, using the document as a bludgeon to argue a variety of issues – just like the Tea Partiers. He reportedly accused his community college of violating the Constitution by forcing him to retake a math class – and insisted that a syllabus was unconstitutional. Where had he heard all this “unconstitutional” talk?

All the violent language, all the hatred, made the political climate in America ripe for a violent act. The fact that Loughner was apparently mentally ill does not mean that his act can or should be treated as an isolated event having nothing to do with the national political climate. Unless he lived in a bubble, he saw and heard it all. In fact, the climate that pervades the United States is one where political violence is glorified – and violent rhetoric exists with particular intensity in Arizona. 

Unbalanced people are emboldened to action by the incendiary rhetoric we hear day in and day out. It gave the perpetrator permission to act. 

It is a fact that many attacks on Democrats in the last year were motivated by such talk, including the vandalizing of Ms. Giffords’ office (and those of a number of other Democratic congressmen) after the health care vote, threatening the bill’s supporters, and using ugly imagery such as the placement of a coffin in the yard of a Democrat who voted for the bill or hanging another Democrat in effigy. Add that to the fact that if you go back to the 2008 campaign, there were large crowds of Republican voters at Palin rallies shouting “Kill him” about Obama – while she, in turn, said that he “palled around with terrorists.” Not to be outdone, Democrat Hillary Clinton brought up the idea that Obama may be a secret Muslim which scared the stuffing out of common folk. Many on the right, such as Limbaugh, picked up that ball and ran with it, charging that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim.

When GOP leaders encouraged the falsehood that health care reform would include the creation of death panels; when Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina disrespectfully yelled “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s address to Congress on health care reform; and when Rep. Randy Neugebauer of Texas yelled “Baby killer” at Rep. Bart Stupak during the floor debate on the bill, the Republicans all but said that the stakes were so extreme that they warranted extreme measures.

In an MSNBC interview in March 2010, Giffords said that Palin had put the “crosshairs of a gun sight over our district,” adding that “when people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that action.” Chuck Todd then asked Giffords if “in fairness, campaign rhetoric and war rhetoric have been interchangeable for years.” She responded that colleagues who had been in the House “20, 30 years” had never seen vitriol this bad. But Todd moved on. Few wanted to see what Giffords saw – that the vandalism and death threats were the latest consequences of a tide of ugly insurrectionism that had been rising since the final weeks of the 2008 campaign and that had threatened to turn violent from the start.

The rhetoric employed by Sarah Palin and those like her is so anti-democratic in its spirit that it should, and it does, leave many conservatives feeling queasy. Her speeches are an incitement to violence – which technically is treason. The statements like the "second amendment solution" put forth by Sharron Angle, “Get on Target for Victory” by Kelly, “Don’t retreat…Reload” by Palin and other violent statements like these turned our nation’s politics into a blood sport. The Palin message on her Facebook page was: "Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!"

Palin’s message is a symptom of the tone in US politics. Palin had published a “target map” on her website using images of gun sights to identify 20 House Democrats, including Giffords, for backing the new health care law. Putting a bull’s eye on Gabrielle Giffords' congressional race – as Sarah Palin did – was an explicit or intentional invitation to violence. Palin took her bull’s eye webpage down after the shooting. And Sarah Palin did call these marks “bull’s eyes” at one time – although she is now trying to deny it.
Jesse Kelly, the Republican (Tea Partier) whom Giffords beat, was another possible reason her assassin went after her. His "Get on Target for Victory" rallies were all about violent language. Here is a copy of the Get on Target for Victory rally – and also a picture of Jesse Kelly, the man who sponsored it while running against Gifford. It says "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office… Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly":
Leaders in the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement have spoken out against Saturday’s violence, but that rings hollow after their failure to condemn the political rhetoric of violence such as "take up your arms/don’t retreat – reload" rhetoric by Sarah Palin or the hatred spewed by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. They are excusing their own horrible culpability by saying that the Democrats did it, too. It is true that Democrats have not been completely innocent of using language that could be construed as violent. But there is no doubt that most of the vitriolic language over the last three years has come from right wing mouths and from right wing pens. The anger has been much more pervasive and more white-hot on the right: "Don't retreat, instead -- reload" or "Second Amendment remedies" "Take our country back" or "Terrorist, Fascist, Nazi…Kill him" and "Obama is a secret Muslim."

What is more disturbing is what Republican and conservative leaders have not said over the last three years. Their continuing silence during simmering violence has been chilling. A few unexpected voices have expressed alarm. After an antigovernment gunman struck at Washington’s Holocaust museum in June 2009, Shepard Smith of Fox News noted the rising vitriol in his e-mail traffic and warned on air that more “amped up” Americans could be “getting the gun out.” But most Republican leaders encouraged violent rhetoric from people who believe "Obama's going to take everyone's guns away" or "Obama's going to put everyone in concentration camps" or the President of the United States "pals around with terrorists" and is a secret Muslim not born in this country.

The hate and disinformation on FOX has also helped to dumb down our democracy, making a serious national discussion about anything important too “elitist”. The FOX media pundits prefer slogans and short, one-sentence made-up “facts” that fit their world view. Framing themselves as taking part in a revolution gives the impression of violent overthrow – and their sheep repeat the “facts” over and over, getting angrier and angrier – and many far right politicians have been complicit through participation.

It is time for the right wing to “man up” and take responsibility for the political tone they set during 2008 and that has continued into this year. But they don’t. Instead, they childishly point their fingers at the Democrats and shout “they did it, too!” If politicians on both the hard right and the far left constantly use violent rhetoric to stir up opposition to their adversaries, then they are responsible for the crazy people who take their urgings seriously. 

Actual violence toward a Democrat was bound to happen at some point. As one blogger wrote: "YOU GUYS HAVE BEEN BEATING THE DRUM FOR YEARS, NOW YOU ACT SUPRISED WHEN SOMEONE GETS UP TO DANCE!?"     

In her “blood libel” video, Palin asked, “When was it less heated — back in those calm days when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols?” She’s right. A large swath of the United States is still the Wild West. The U.S. has about 4 times more guns per capita than any other nation – often with tens of guns in a household. Calls for civility will have no more lasting impact on the “tone” of American discourse now than they did after the J.F.K. assassination or Oklahoma City. But the fact that the United States has a history of violent politics does not make it okay. It has always been wrong. 

Words have consequences, rhetoric shapes reality, and much as we like to believe that we are creatures of reason, there is something about a crazed person’s irrational fantasies that makes him all too easily pushed into deadly action. For the past three years, it is the inflammatory words on the hard right that are stirring up the murderous crazies in our country. 

This shooting presented an opportunity for all on the hard right and far left to reflect on the consequences of the tone of discussion and debate in this country – because in order for democracies to function there must be mutual respect among rivals. Some did just that.  But the hate toward President Obama (by about one-quarter of our country's population) is a festering boil that will once again, very shortly, cause the atmosphere to be highly contentious. 

The words you choose do matter! 

“The short memories of American voters is what keeps our politicians in office.” - Will Rogers