A (Tuc)son of a Bitch

Responses to the Tucson shootings have been predictable: the Right has proclaimed that this was the random act of a madman (and assailed Leftists for making any connections between violent speech and actual violence), while Centrists have bemoaned the toxic political environment that is said to have been created by both sides of the political spectrum.

The problem is that both of these narratives are wrong.  First, ample evidence suggests that there IS a correlation between vitriolic rhetoric and politically-motivated violence.  Second, conservatives and libertarians have relied upon discourses of enmity to a far greater extent than any leftists, and thus, bear at least some responsibility for such acts.

To begin, a great deal evidence points to a connection between public figures deploying violent speech, and an increase in actual violence.  Of course the relationship isn’t neat and linear.  The gunman exhibited signs of paranoid schizophrenia, his political diatribes were more or less nonsensical – united only by “Big-Brother”-like fantasies – and we may well never know exactly what precipitated his decision.  However, it would be a mistake to assert, as John Stewart did, that because we can’t make a causal claim that meets some sort of natural scientific standard, there is no relationship between speech that aims to provoke deep emotional reactions (through metaphors of war, sharp distinctions between friend and enemy, and the dehumanization of opponents) and politically motivated violence.

In brief, here are three pieces of evidence:

  • First, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that membership in so-called “Patriot Groups” (i.e. militant, anti-government organizations) increased by over 200% in 2009.  They note that “[t]he ‘tea parties” and similar groups that have sprung up in recent months cannot fairly be considered extremist groups, but they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism.” The full report is available here: http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2010/spring/rage-on-the-right.
  • Second, the Department of Homeland Security recently released a report noting that right-wing extremist groups are exploiting both the economic downturn and the election of an African-American president to broaden their membership.  It is worth noting that public figures like Malkin, Palin and Beck routinely employ the same discursive strategies as these purportedly “fringe” groups.
  • Third, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has catalogued insurrectionist outbursts since 2008.  Pay close attention to the targets and the motivations of the perpetrators: http://www.csgv.org/issues-and-campaigns/guns-democracy-and-freedom/insurrection-timeline

If it isn’t already apparent, it is worth stressing that the tendency to draw a false equivalence between the rhetoric of the left and right is misleading.  I challenge anyone who buys into this “can’t we all be civil” narrative, to do a quick sociological experiment.  Examine several political mediums through the following questions:

  • How are opponents being constructed?  Are they deemed rational or ridiculed as insane or dangerous? Are they treated civilly or are they shouted down?  If they are demonized, what types of names are they called?
  • Is the perspective being advanced black-and-white or is there room for nuance?
  • Are appeals being made to reason or passion?  If the former, what is deemed “reasonable?” If the latter, what sorts of passions are being harnessed? (e.g. hope and love? fear and hatred? A combination?)
  • What types of metaphors are being used? What symbols? What types of verbs are attached to the opponent?

You could begin by examining the political leaders.  Take statements of Obama and compare them with those of Boehner or Cantor or Palin.  Then, explore TV news.  Compare Keith Olbermann with Glen Beck and Rachel Maddow with Bill O’Reilly.  Next, move onto Radio.  Listen to the broadcasts by Thom Hartmann and David Sirota and contrast them with Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage. If you aren’t convinced, browse through some of the Tea Party and anti-immigrant message boards and compare them with moveon.org and immigrants’ rights message boards.  Finally, read through the comments on a Yahoo! article related to politics – look at the language and logic employed by those voicing conservative views as opposed to those voicing liberal views.

When you’re all done, think about which individuals and groups appeal to violence, hatred, and anger. You’ll find that there is little comparison.

Interestingly, while several leftist commentators have used the event as an opportunity to think reflexively and honestly about their culpability in creating such a polarized atmosphere, the conservative and libertarian right has responded to the idea that they are somehow to blame with indignation and scorn.  So much for the “party of personal responsibility.”  The NY Times token “centrist” David Brooks provides a nice illustration in defending the Right against these accusations:

“We have a news media with a strong distaste for Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, and this seemed like a golden opportunity to tarnish them. We have a segmented news media, so there is nobody in most newsrooms to stand apart from the prevailing assumptions. We have a news media market in which the rewards go to anybody who can stroke the audience’s pleasure buttons.”

As an alternative, Brooks returns to the “random act of a madman” excuse, and argues that, if anything, the shooting points to the need for improved care for the mentally ill.

In a sense, Brooks is right: there is no doubt that the factors contributing to this tragedy were multiple, and responsibility doesn’t lie squarely on the shoulders of conservatives.  In terms of rhetorical enablers, our irresponsible media revels in “the spectacle,” and the anonymity of the blogosphere invites vitriol that most would be embarrassed to engage in were they attached to their actual identities.  In terms of proximate political enablers, American mental-health care IS antediluvian, and the ease with which anyone – crazies included – can access assault weapons should be ethically abhorrent for those who haven’t been weaned on the gun-lobby Kool-Aid.

What Brooks doesn’t seem to realize is that any attempt at providing improved mental health care (or sensible gun regulation, or media demonopolization, or any number of potential policy fixes) would be met with heated reactions from the Tea Party and their ilk, forged around a politics of demonization, fear, and, most of all, anger.  So long as this continues, we can’t have real civic engagement, and we are bound to suffer more politically-motivated violence.


~ by iamtomjoad on January 11, 2011.

One Response to “A (Tuc)son of a Bitch”

  1. you are good. write more

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