Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Giving Rational Cover to Irrational Acts

What did George Wallace and Ronald Reagan have in common? They are the only two prominent right-wingers who have been targets of assassins.

Were JFK, RFK, federal judge John Wood, the husband and mother of federal judge Joan Lefkowitz killed by right wingers? Not necessarily, but when you add those cases to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and two abortion providers, plus the Oklahoma City bombing and outbreaks of violence in Waco and at Ruby Ridge, a couple of patterns seem to emerge.

  • The United States is by far the most violent of Western democracies and among the least politically stable.
  • There is a connection between lunatic actions and protected, if not revered, hate speech coming from those in positions of public trust.
  • Something must be done about handguns.

Let me elucidate:

According to Columbia professor Steven Mintz, “Nine presidents have been the targets of assassination, along with one president-elect and three presidential candidates. In addition, some eight governors, seven U.S. Senators, 10 Representatives, 11 mayors and 17 state legislators have been violently attacked.”

Including threats of violence, actual vandalism and disruption of public political events, the targets are overwhelmingly liberals, progressives or others on the non-lunatic fringe right wing of discourse.

One cannot connect the dots between conservative conviction, or even hate-filled venom emanating from the jackals at Fox and the EIB Network, with violence aimed at politicians. No rational person -- not even Limbaugh, Beck or Palin – advocates gunning down political opponents. Only the irrational, disturbed persons, do such things. But somehow their paranoid rantings and objects of hate tend to be the government or agents of government that are also the targets of attack from distant voices on radio and television who prey on the fear of naïve listeners.

It is a lie perpetrated with increasing success in this week’s post-Tucson narrative that “both sides” need to tone down the level of debate. There are not two sides here. The mainstream media have always failed when it comes to reporting social or political divisions because of an ingrained fantasy that one side in a controversy has the same facts and moral force as the other side. Because Newt Gingrich and Fox chief Roger Ailes say both sides do it is reason enough to prove that the supposition is false, because their entire careers are built on mendacity. ccasionally a conservative Democrat in Congress may lose his temper and call an irresponsible right-winger a “Howdy Doody-looking nimrod” but the scales of invective are lopsidedly weighted from the Right.

Mine is a life of the word, and still I am undecided as to whether words are just words – used for effect – or whether words have intrinsic harmful effect.

I believe that rhetoric used by rational people is entirely figurative, and that only emotionally unbalanced people take rhetoric literally. In the private sphere, you may be sarcastic, argumentative or even obnoxious to someone of relatively equal mental capabilities. But you would not speak in such a way to a child, a stranger or someone you believe to be intellectually incompetent. And this is what the Limbaughs, Becks, Palins, Savages, O’Reillys, Hannitys and others must comprehend: The bigger their audience, the more harm they can do, simply because as the universe of listeners goes up, the more it contains simpletons. They don’t need me to tell them that because it is the First Commandment of broadcasting – know your audience. And they damn well know their audience, and that is why they do bear some measure of responsibility for ratcheting up the climate of violence. They give what rational cover an assassin needs to perform an irrational act.

Palin – who shoots defenseless moose and wolves for fun – can plausibly deny that putting crosshairs over Giffords’ district was a call to shoot the congresswoman. And Giffords’ last electoral opponent (who said in his campaign, “Get on target for victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M15 with Jesse Kelly”) can disclaim responsibility for last Saturday’s act of political terrorism. But what rational person cannot see the connection? If you are a rabble-rouser, you must take responsibility not just for the rousing but for the rabble, as well.

And what of defeated Nevada senatorial candidate Sharron Angle, who campaigned on a platform of “Second Amendment remedies” for members of Congress she opposes? Had she made that speech outside the Safeway in Tucson minutes before Giffords was gunned down, she might have been in violation of federal law for crossing state lines to incite violence. But what legal remedies are there against speech that is divorced from the act? There are none, and that is the way it should be. People are responsible for their own actions – Jared Loughner and Sharron Angle as well.

As for guns, how ironic that Giffords not only is one of the few remaining Blue Dog conservative Democrats in the House, but she is a strong opponent of gun control. In fact, she boasted recently she carries a 9-millimeter Glock, the same type of gun that felled her, and is a good shot. More ironic is that the NRA gives her a grade of D and spent $39.000 supporting the opponent who wanted to “remove Gabrielle Giffords from office.”

Handguns have no place in any civilized society. But since the Second Amendment seems to have trumped the First (support for gun control is at its lowest ebb ever in public opinion polling) there is little hope of anything being done to ban a product whose one and only purpose is to kill people. My solution is this: Progressives ought to buy guns, join the NRA in hopes of changing its policies, and, in the alternative, learn to shoot.

1 comment:

  1. Very good analysis, Ira.

    I am old enough to remember the assassination of President Kennedy. Because of recent assassination of Mississippi NAACP Chair Medgar Evers, the Birmingham Church bombing, the vitriol directed at Kennedy from the extreme right-wing in those days and because of an incident a few days (or weeks) earlier in Dallas where UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was physically attacked by anti-Administration demonstrators, the initial assumption by many was that the shooter must have been inspired by the right wing. This was not an unreasonable hypothesis.

    It turned out that the assassin was a man with Communist background, and we later learned that there may have been a mob connection, as well. So there was no right-wing connection.

    What should we learn from this history?

    First, no one should make definitive statements until we know all the facts.

    Second, if our initial assumptions (even if wrong) are based upon objective evidence of a danger to civil society, then the shock of the moment should lead good people of all political persuasions to step back and consider whether the rhetoric has gone too far. Talk of "Second Amendment remedies" is not good for healthy political discourse.

    Third, the Kennedy assassination was not done by a "mad man." Rather, it was a calculated political act. The Tuscon tragedy, on the other hand, appears not to have been a calulated political act. But it is reasonable to consider whether the kind of discourse we have seen over the last two years -- principally from the extreme right -- has created a polluted stream in which the madmen swim. In other words, an environment in which the madmen are more likely to focus their insanity on political figures.