Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Varied Vitriol

There are two narratives out there in the mainstream media explaining the shooting in Tuscon. The primary theme: everybody does it; the secondary theme: at least President Obama is trying earnestly to tamp down the rhetoric. The first is inaccurate; the second is true but misleading.

On Morning Joe (transcript here), we have two "reasonable Republicans," as they are considered, agreeing to spread the blame. Political consultant Mark McKinnon, who advises Republicans but vowed not to be involved in 2008 if Barack Obama were nominated, set the tone:

Two, let`s be careful about calling her opponents enemies and demonizing government. We may not ever know if this issue is connected to the environment, but it`s an opportunity to change the environment, to address the environment in the way that both President Bush, and President Obama campaigned on. They wanted to change the tone in Washington and there`s a lot of upsides that can come from that.

But certainly, it`s not hard to see how when you dehumanize people and call your opponents enemies, that creates an environment that`s more conducive for people like this. As Barnicle said, this guy didn`t go to a church, he didn`t got to a baseball game. He went to a political -- finally, let`s be careful not to blame each other. As we saw come out and try and take political of this situation.

Talk show host and former U.S. Representative Joe Scarborough (R-Fl) agreed:

No doubt about it. That was John -- we`ve been talking about that this morning. The sadness, of course the horror at the shooting, but then the sadness afterward. People immediately trying blame the other side. Trying to attach a political label to this very deranged kid.

Of course, this is exacerbated by the highly partisan, such as Rush Limbaugh, whose screed Monday against Barack Obama included:

RUSH: Remember that? President Obama has said a number of these things. We have three sound bites of President Obama. If graphics on Palin's Facebook page can incite violence, then what about stuff like this? This Obama September 17th in 2008 during a campaign event in Elko, Nevada.

OBAMA SEPTEMBER 17, 2008: I need you to go out and talk to your friends and talk to your neighbors. I want you to talk to 'em whether they are independent or whether they are Republican. I want you to argue with them and get in their face.

RUSH: "[A]rgue with them and get in their face." March 18, 2009, Washington, after Obama delivered remarks on the South Lawn about bonuses on Wall Street, a reporter said, "Mr. President, a new round of bonuses from these contracts are coming out. What can you say to the American public to quell the anger? Because people are angry about this new round of bonuses. There's more bonuses said to be coming for AIG executives."

OBAMA MARCH 18, 2009: I don't want to quell anger. I think people are right to be angry. I'm angry! What I want us to do, though, is channel our anger that constructive way.

RUSH: "I don't want to quell anger. I think people are right to be angry." I'm angry for the moooove-ment. And just recently, October 25th the syndicated host on a Univision show said, "Mr. President, you were able to pass a health care plan and you worked a lot for that and most of my listeners, they haven't seen that, same way you worked for health care immigration reform, same effort."

OBAMA: If Latinos sit out the election instead of saying we're gonna punish our enemies and we're gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us, if they don't see that kind of up surge in voting in this election, then I think it's gonna be harder, and that's why I think it's so important that people focus on voting on November 2nd.

RUSH: "Punish our enemies." Spoken like a true community organizer. Hand-to-hand combat! Get in your neighbor's face. He also said, "Find an ass to kick." I mean, President Obama's a lifelong political agitator. What do political agitators do but get people angry? That's what a community organizer

Limbaugh is angry- or feigning anger- because President Obama expressed anger about obscene multi-million dollar bonuses given to corporate executives who unflinchingly accepted taxpayer dollars for their companies. (Fortunately, Rush never gets angry- at, say, Democrats, liberals, minorities, labor unions, the poor, the middle class and, above all, those uncomfortable with the rising inequality of income distribution and the devastating effect it is having on the middle class.)

Most seriously, however, Limbaugh is conflating normal, traditional heated political rhetoric with violent rhetoric. But as Keith Olbermann noted Saturday, Sarah Palin, Jesse Kelly, Allan West, Sharron Angle, and Glenn Beck all are examples of right-wingers who have engaged in rhetoric not just over-heated or offensive but threatening. (He could have added Robert Lowry and Michelle Bachmann.) Olbermann is hardly objective- but neither has any conservative been able to identify such a pattern in which liberal audiences are called to arms.

They have tried of course. In its fund-raising letter prompted by the attempted assassination of Representative Giffords, the Tea Party Express wrote "The media didn't tell you that the left-wing website, DailyKos, had targeted Congresswoman Giffords, putting a BULLSEYE on her, did they? But that's just what happened." Markos Moulitsas notes "The media didn't tell you that because it never happened. It's fantasy. It's a lie." (He links to the original DK post.)

The use of violent imagery has been used far more often by the Republican right than by Democrats, though there have been exceptions. McKinnon notes approvingly that Barack Obama campaigned on the need to change the tone of Washington and the New York Times' Helene Cooper, in a post entitled "Obama Avoiding Fingerpointing," swooned that the President

is, so far, keeping his distance from the debate over whether vitriolic political discourse contributed to the attack in Arizona that killed six people and wounded 14 people, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords....

This is only the second time in his presidency that Mr. Obama has assumed the role of comforter-to-the-country. The first was In November 2009, when 13 people were shot and killed at Fort Hood, Tex.

Presidential candidate, Obama, however, (in)famously declared "If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun. Because from what I understand, folks in Philly like a good brawl. I’ve seen Eagles fans.” Curious, then, that with Democratic politicians more assiduously than GOP politicians avoiding violent rhetoric, McKinnon, Cooper, Chris Matthews, believe President Obama is the one Democrat who is rising above the political maelstrom.

Even Obama's bout of machismo, however, likely had little or no effect. Rhetoric professor Scott Eric Kauffman ("SEK") of Lawyers, Guns, and Money explained in a slightly different context the importance of the intended audience. "The Imaginations of liberals and leftists who support a restrictive interpretation of the Second Amendment are not stoked by (violent) images," he explains, while some rhetoric of the right "is violent, then, because it was intended to appeal to an audience whose imaginations would be stoked by a reference to shooting things."

Too little has been made of the distinction between this sort of speech and that which is merely extremist or hateful, or with which the listener disagrees. Limbaugh made this mistake (intentionally, of course) and so did Scarborough, who in Politico lumped everything under the rubric of "hate speech" and hoped "good people on the right and left will begin to call on their political leaders and cable news cheerleaders to start showing restraint."

Arguably, though, an even more important distinction is between violent rhetoric and that demonizing government, which seems to appeal both to disturbed individuals and the mainstream right. Kauffman, who is skeptical of the impact of the violent bombast of Palin and others, contends

The more pernicious rhetoric here is the conspiratorial variety being mainstreamed by the likes of Glenn Beck: rabid and ahistorical anti-federalism feeds into the beliefs of those who believe they’re being persecuted by vast faceless conspiracies.

It is an interesting theory and an ironic one, too. While violent rhetoric is primarily, but not the exclusive, province of Republicans, anti-government rhetoric has been practically patented by the GOP with its talk radio allies, such as Glenn Beck. If this connection between the anti-government meme of the GOP and commission of politically-inspired violence gains currency, it really would call into question the platform, strategy, and goals of the Republican Party. If only.

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