The Relative Comment

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Debating Fault in Political Violence

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Relative to: The debate, arising from the tragic shootings in Arizona, about whether political language and culture create such events, or whether such events are the sole fault of the individual(s) who carry them out.

The NYTimes has printed two editorials that outline the kind of debate that follows political violence in the United States. Both are reasonable arguments and make valid points about how Americans should understand such terrible events as the murders of  Federal Judge Roll, a 9-year-old girl, several retirees, and the wounding of Rep. Giffords and many others who chose to spend a Saturday getting to know a Congresswoman.

The first piece is by Ross Douthat, United in Horror. Douthat reminds readers of previous actors of political violence, including Lee H. Oswald and Arthur Bremer (who shot George Wallace), arguing that such behavior is not a result of mainstream political climates but far darker, stranger places. Violence in American politics tends to bubble up from a world that’s far stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue — a murky landscape where worldviews get cobbled together from a host of baroque conspiracy theories, and where the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast…These are figures better analyzed by novelists than pundits: as Walter Kirn put it Saturday, they’re “self-anointed knights templar of the collective shadow realm, not secular political actors in extremis”…We should remember, too, that there are places where mainstream political movements really are responsible for violence against their rivals… Not so in America: From the Republican leadership to the Tea Party grass roots, all of Gabrielle Giffords’s political opponents were united in horror at the weekend’s events. There is no faction in American politics that actually wants its opponents dead.

The second piece, Climate of Hate, by Paul Krugman, finds political culture as a whole responsible. Krugman claims that something like the Arizona shooting is not much of a surprise, that in fact, something like it was bound to happen given today’s political climate. He cites the report from DHS that right-wing extremism is on the rise (a report widely criticized by both sides of the aisle), and Krugman claims that in fact, right-wing violence has been on the rise. Why? Because Conservative actors, politicians but also TV pundits, radio personalities, bloggers etc. continue to use ‘eliminationist rhetoric’. The point is that there’s room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isn’t any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary. And it’s the saturation of our political discourse — and especially our airwaves — with eliminationist rhetoric that lies behind the rising tide of violence. But even if hate is what many want to hear, that doesn’t excuse those who pander to that desire. They should be shunned by all decent people. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been happening: the purveyors of hate have been treated with respect, even deference, by the G.O.P. establishment. As David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter, has put it, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.”

Here are two possibilities, laid out side by side for Americans to contemplate. But who’s right?
Douthat is correct in that it’s hard to argue that Sarah Palin is responsible for a man with a history of mental trouble (as has been said about Jared Lee Loughner) picking up a semi-automatic pistol and shooting up a congressional event because Palin put a cross-haired target over Rep. Giffords nine months ago. As much as liberals may want to place the blame on the easiest of targets, and putting a woman in the cross-hairs is incredibly tactless and disgusting, Sarah Palin did not create this tragedy, nor did any other Conservative political figure. Loughner bought a weapon and used it to kill and wound those people.

But Krugman is right, too. No one individual is responsible beside Loughner, but everyone in the public and political sphere has responsibility for the things they say. If you are a public figure, be it an actor, a politician, or a talking-head, you impact the climate of our culture (my wife put this line eloquently, and I’m stealing it). In fact, the Bill O’Reillys and the Glenn Becks and the Rachel Maddows and the Keith Olbermanns want to influence society. To argue that such individuals are not assisting in the creation a political culture seems to deny reality. And in this light, these people, and everyone else (even little known bloggers) assist in creating the political climate. And pretending otherwise in the face of tragedy only makes one seem petulant and in denial. Words have consequences, no matter how many degrees of separation away those consequences are felt.

So don’t blame Sarah Palin. Blame Jered Lee Loughner. And everyone else.

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Written by Christopher ZF

January 10, 2011 at 12:14

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