Sunday, January 09, 2011

Language of Violence and Revolution by Politicians and Opinion Leaders

What mythago said.

I sense that we're going to be overwhelmed with attempts to distance Loughner from the right wing world. "Somebody who knew him in high school says he's a liberal (not that it matters)" kind of stuff. We'll probably also hear "He was crazy, so the fact that politicians and commentators use the rhetoric of violence may not have actually made this shooting more likely." But that misses the larger point, which is that the rhetoric of the likes of Palin, Beck and Coulter legitimizes a mindset that is inherently anti-democratic (small "d" - in a democracy we solve our political disputes at the ballot box, not with guns) and whatever the intention will inevitably be taken literally by some percentage of the population.

It's not acceptable to shrug, "They're speaking metaphorically, so it doesn't count." They only back away from their statements when a price is imposed - and a price is rarely imposed and is even less likely to be significant. "Oh, the crosshairs on targeted Members of Congress were 'crosshairs that you would see on a map'? [Added: the latest 'explanation'.] I don't think I've ever seen that, and it doesn't explain the associated slogan, 'Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!', but... good enough for us."

The more common result appears to be reward - the violent rhetoric or imagery is covered by the media but not criticized (or criticisms are reported from political opponents while the news show depicts the exchange as routine politics), the speaker continues to get "talking head" spots on mainstream media shows... or gets hired to host shows... the sky's the limit. Let's recognize this for what it is in the hands of people like Beck, Palin and Angle: the deliberate use of a known political formula that brings fame, money and political influence.

The political views of Loughner are irrelevant to this issue, as are the political views of the likes of Palin and Beck. Their conduct is the problem, not their political beliefs. If there were a left-wing radio firebrand using equivalent rhetoric, he too would be part of the problem. If he were embraced by the Democratic Party, were an opinion leader for that party, or were considered to be a serious contender for its next presidential nominee, that would highlight a serious problem within the Democratic Party. It's well past time for the mainstream media and the Republican Party to stop embracing the crazy, but if they choose to continue do so they should do as mythago suggests - take credit for legitimizing violence in the political arena and for its bloody consequences.


  1. "I sense that we're going to be overwhelmed with attempts to distance Loughner from the right wing world."

    I haven't been following this story closely, but aside from the assumptions of some talking heads and the political affiliation of the victim, has there been any indication at all that he was connected/close to the right wing world?

    As to the main point of your post, I don't disagree that the level of political debate in this country is about as low as it can get, but hasn't that pretty much always been the case?

    Whether it is accusing your opponent of being a "baby killer" or a communist, vitriol has pretty much always been the LCD in politics . . . in large measure because it works.

    If anything, historically things were probably worse throughout most of American history then they are now.


  2. The point is not "Sara Palin's irresponsible violent rhetoric caused this". It's "This act is consistent with her rhetoric, so why is she scurrying away from her own words?" If her words are defensible on their merit, where's her defense of them?

    Although I find some amusement in the right-wing 'defense' paraphrased as, "Nobody but a right-winger could be convinced of anything by our rhetoric, and he doesn't appear to have been one of us," Loughner's politics aren't the issue. We will never know what caused Loughner to act, and even if he were to say something like "Sara Palin is my Goddess and this was my blood sacrifice to her," there would be plenty of cause to doubt his words. As mythago says, when the "Don't Retreat, Reload!" rhetoric is put into literal action, this is what it looks like. If right-wingers don't like that, whether or not there is a causal connection, they need to reconsider their words.

    It's also important to recall that we're talking about the rhetoric of a handful of people within a very large party. Most establishment Republican politicians and media figures have gone through their careers without saying anything approaching the casual, violent rhetoric of Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck. But the Republican Party has chosen to embrace those figures and their rhetoric - if you believe that "the level of political debate in this country [being] about as low as it can get" is a problem, they've decided that it benefits them to be part of the problem or even to make things worse.

    Nobody has claimed that you can't find isolated incidents of violent rhetoric coming from the "political left", past, present or future. But it's not presently embraced by the left-wing political or media establishment. That's a pretty huge distinction between left and right.

    Also, as previously indicated, the issue isn't that speech can at times be low, or that such speech should be unlawful. Although idiots like Michelle Malkin may believe that an inflammatory statement or image by "some random guy" she believes is on the political left is equivalent to violent rhetoric from a person held out as a probable Republican Presidential candidate and possible Presidential nominee, it's not.

    Should the thought leaders and political leaders of the Republican Party be using rhetoric of violence and revolution? The actions of 99.9% of them says "No way." But if they want their actions to speak louder than the words of people like Palin, they need to (as she might say) man up and cast her out.

  3. If anything, the degree of vitriol seems to have more to do with who feels like they are "out of power" then it does party affiliation. (Some of the commentary during the Reagan and Bush II years pretty much embraced their violent deaths and the sixties were all about "revolution".)

    I will concede that I have never read or watched anything put out by Palin or Beck - so they may well be more heinous than I assume or than anyone of similar stature has evern been in the American policital scened.

    That said, it occurs to me that any line of argument that begins (in essence) "when rhetoric is put into literal action . . . " sort of misses the point of rhetoric.

    I think a great number (all?) of us have said things (EIA, etc) that we didn't "literally" mean.

    For that matter, I don't recall anyone saying that the old lefty mantras "no justice no peace" or "by any means necessary" (both of which if "put into literal action" would result in blood shed) should be forever barred from political discourse after the stabbing deaths of Hassidic Jews in NY, riots in LA, etc. (Ditto, I've always been a little troubled about the idea of "watering the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots . . .")

    It would be nice if politicians "manned up" and cast out their politically useful but morally troubling allies - but the failure to do so seems to be historically fairly ubiquitous (I will readily grant that most of it currently seems to be coming from the right, but as is usually the case left leaning (no not you) commentators seem to be way more worked up about this now then in the past and ditto right wing commentators were more concerned about the violence inherent in the rhetoric of the "revolutionary" (late 60s and early 70s left) past then now.


  4. By definition, the point of rhetoric is to persuade. If I were to present as a political slogan, "Don't Retreat, Reload!", I would be trying to gin up my supporters - perhaps those you described as those who feel "like they are 'out of power'" - to support my cause. I would be choosing that particular line because it appeals to them. I would not use it at a Wall Street fundraiser.

    Absent an actual revolutionary environment, it's safe to say that the vast majority of my followers would "get it" - I'm speaking figuratively. However, there would be some percentage who take me more literally and there will always be wackaloons like Loughner who, due to presumed mental illness, could potentially latch onto anything that feeds his delusions. (In a revolutionary environment my followers would probably, quite reasonably, take me literally.)

    By way of example, if I were to argue that in certain states with open carry laws you have the right to wear a gun to a rally featuring the President, I would be correct. That wouldn't mean it was a good idea or that I wanted you to do it. But as you know, some people have done exactly that. But what would you expect?

    If you can find examples of Democratic presidential hopefuls or prominent Democratic opinion leaders echoing a "No justice, no peace" line in their speeches or punditry, I would love to hear about it. But again, we're not talking about average persons or obscure politicians (and man, you can find lots of stupid things coming out of the mouths of politicians) but about a prominent subset of the people at the top of the Republican hierarchy. The remainder of the Party's leaders, by virtue of practice, appears to agree that violent rhetoric doesn't belong in our political discourse but doesn't have the fortitude to draw a line or impose a consequence on the likes of Palin or Beck.

  5. First, as to your point regarding the low quality of politicians and rhetoric, I have no argument.

    As to your second point, ". . . examples of Democratic presidential hopefuls or prominent Democratic opinion leaders echoing a "No justice, no peace" line in their speeches or punditry, I would love to hear about it."

    Not currently "as prominent" as your examples, but would Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton count? (And in terms of context, "During the Crown Heights riots rioters looted stores, beat Jews in the street, and clashed with groups of Jews, hurling rocks and bottles at one another after Yankel Rosenbaum, a visiting student from Australia, was stabbed and killed by a member of a mob shouting "Kill the Jew." Sharpton marched through Crown Heights and in front of "770", shortly after the riot, with about 400 protesters (who chanted "Whose streets? Our streets!" and "No justice, no peace!"), in spite of Mayor David Dinkins's attempts to keep the march from happening." (paraphrased slightly from Google)

    Are Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as currently "relevant" as Palin? Probably not, were they at their peak and did their party renounce them at the time . . . probably and not that I recall.


  6. I don't recall any similar comments by either Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton.

    Al Sharpton wouldn't count by any reasonable measure. Merely announcing "I'm running" before fading quickly back into political oblivion? C'mon. Also, yelling
    "No Justice, No Peace" at a civil rights rally, even if you believe the rally to have been misguided, isn't at all what we're talking about.

    Jesse Jackson is in the same territory as Ron Paul - he ran for the nomination and won at least one caucus, but he's never been a leader of the Democratic Party nor has he ever had even a slight chance of winning the nomination. To get to the level of Sarah Palin, you're talking somebody with at least the prominence of Joe Lieberman; perhaps more, given that I'm not sure that anybody but Joe thought he was going to win the nomination.


  7. I think a great number (all?) of us have said things (EIA, etc) that we didn't "literally" mean.

    If I am somebody who gets paid to say things on a national stage, then perhaps I need to be a little more careful about my words. Particularly if I say them over and over again.

    Remember The Fisher King? Okay, not the greatest movie. But if you did, you may remember that Jeff Bridges played a 'shock jock' who told a caller that yeah, all those annoying yuppies needed to be blown away. Now, of course, his character was not literally intending to tell the caller to pick up a gun and shoot people - but the consequences of his repeating this violent fantasy was that somebody carried it out, and the results were not really want he wanted after all.

    This is exactly what Angle and her supporters said is a good thing: when you disagree with somebody politically, and they are wrong, and they win an election, you shoot them. Why on earth are they saying anything other than "Shame about his grouping"?

  8. Mythago - I don't think I've ever heard anyone say it exactly that way - but if you are referring to the "second amendment solutions" quote - I will agree that they certainly implied it and should be called to task for it.

    A better question to them might be, "If you were using hyperbole and didn't really mean it, why aren't you using this opportunity to clarity that fact?"

    Aaron - I found the reference I paraphrased on Wikipedia. Not a great source but the best I feel like using for this. If you feel like splitting hairs over whether the phrase was part of a prepared and televised speech or something that was chanted during a protest that he led/organized. Have at it, for the purposes of this discussion it's close enough for me.

    Ditto - both the individuals in question are "prominent" enough Democrats to get called on to speak publicly on the national stage. They may not be 100% equivalent to the former governor of Alaska (and I'm not entirely sure what her status is . . ) but they are close enough for the purpose of this discussion.


  9. Chris, sorry, but if your best example of a "prominent Democrat" in any context is "Al Sharpton," you've lost the debate before you've started. He's never had standing or credibility within the larger party, and has never had anything even slightly resembling a leadership position in the party or the left-wing media. Further, "No Justice, No Peace" is a very long way from, "Don't Retreat, Reload!" - Nobody would have given Sharpton a pass had he used such an expression, nor had he suggested that his followers had "Second Amendment solutions" to the problems of the inner city.

    If you don't know the difference between a marginal player or a wackaloon who gets face time in the media and, say, Sara Palin or Glenn Beck, I really can't help you. But you do know the difference, and I suspect you're just trying to be provocative.

  10. (Sorry for the tone - I've been a bit ornery lately.)


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