Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Arizona Killings And The Tea Party

The Washington Post:
The Tea Party Express says blaming the constitutionalist movement and Sarah Palin for the Arizona shooting that killed six people and wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is "outrageous."
The California-based group says liberals are trying to exploit the shooting for political gain and place the blame on society for embracing the tea party movement, but the 22-year-old charged in the shooting is the only person responsible for the violence.
In a statement Monday, the Tea Party Express says if the suspect, Jared Loughner, has a definable political ideology, it is that of a far-left anarchist, nothing close to the tea party movement.
Writing about this topic is like boxing with shadows, to some extent pointless, because there will be no long-term change. The paths of the various debates are also predictable: Events are interpreted to go along with a particular political stance. Thus, Loughner's book list at his YouTube site (which really looks like the reading list for some course) is mined for impressions about his possible political leanings:
Loughner’s YouTube profile page includes a long list of his favorite books. On the list are “Animal Farm,” “Brave New World,” “The Wizard Of Oz,” “Aesop Fables,” “The Odyssey,” “Alice Adventures Into Wonderland,” “Fahrenheit 451,” “Peter Pan,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “We The Living,” “Phantom Toll Booth,” “One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest,” “Pulp,” “Through The Looking Glass,” “The Communist Manifesto,” “Siddhartha,” “The Old Man And The Sea,” “Gulliver's Travels,” “Mein Kampf,” “The Republic,” and “Meno.”
People do this because information on Loughner is scarce. But if we are going to decide from this list that Loughner is a far-left anarchist (as many on the right now argue) or an acolyte of the tea party (as many on the left have argued), why not suggest that he is infantile, liking tales for children and stories about a little girl falling down a well or climbing through the looking-glass?

That the Tea Party Express calls him a far-left anarchist doesn't mean that he is one. Neither does it mean the reverse, of course. Though anyone who thinks that reading Mein Kampf is an equal sign of leftiness with reading Das Kapital should take a refresher course on history. And of course listing certain books as one's favorite reading does not mean that one agrees with their conclusions or their world-view. I have read most of the books on that list, by the way, and I bet many of you have, too.

I have spent so much time on that one little snippet to point out the shadows we are boxing and also to describe the formulaic reactions to the killings. Whenever something like this happens the formulas are activated. Hence the assertion that liberals seek political gain but the killer is really one of them, and many similar ones.

Is the tea party guilty of these particular killings? Without some totally new evidence, probably not. Whether even the killer himself can be regarded as legally guilty in the sense of being able to stand trial remains to be seen.

But this does not mean that there aren't precipitating factors to these killings. If I had to make a guess of them, I'd list the lack of proper mental health care combined with lack of funding for the same, the ease with which a semi-automatic Gluck could be bought by someone who shouldn't have had access to guns and, finally, the cultural cues about who might be a suitable victim for slaughtering.

These causes didn't rise from a political vacuum, and in many ways it's the question of the semi-automatic in the hands of Loughner and the support of this kind of unregulated access by many right-wing groups that we should talk about. But that is not yet the topic that is debated. Instead, we are to discuss the culture of hatred.

It is in creating those cultural cues that politicians and radio talk show hosts bear some moral responsibility. This is not limited to those on the political right but strongly tilts that way, in terms of the numbers of comments and their severity, perhaps because violent words and warlike images about other Americans as the enemy are what angry people wish to hear and see, but perhaps also because violent words and warlike images create those angry people who are then easier to manipulate for political purposes. And anger has been the predominant emotion of the American political right since at least the 1990s.

Is the tea party innocent of fanning the flames of political anger?

Let's see. Here is an announcement by Gabrielle Gifford's opponent in the last elections, a tea party candidate called Jesse Kelly.

Kelly may not have written that announcement himself, but whoever wrote it certainly used violent imagery in the context of a political election.

Other examples of violent imagery from tea party meetings:
When conservative Florida radio host Joyce Kaufman went to a Tea Party rally on July 4, she got so fired-up that she was moved to make a fairly incendiary statement: "If ballots don't work, bullets will." Kaufman's statement was caught on camera and shown on The Rachel Maddow Show—and ironically, it inspired people who don't agree with her to threaten violence in response. As a result, Kaufman has announced that she will no longer be serving as Republican Rep.-elect Allen West's Chief of Staff

Then there is this picture from the big tea party demonstration in Washington, D.C.:

I understand that such signs may not be somehow "approved" by the tea party itself but they are a visible part of the movement, not just an aspect of a tiny extreme fringe.

Violent metaphors or direct statements about violent options in the public debate, especially any statements of acknowledged leaders, can fan the flames of violence in different ways. One of those is the validation which is offered by public individuals openly stating something that someone else may have only thought in silence. Suddenly talking about gunning politicians down sounds just fine because others agree! And in public! And once it sounds just fine and natural, it becomes the way many speak about politicians.

A second way is through the "othering" of the opposition, by making them look inhuman, loathsome or frightening. Neither political side is completely free of this, but by far most of this comes from the right, and in particular from the talk show host Glenn Beck. Examples:
Beck: "The army ... of the extreme left is gathering" and they are saying "cops are bad, kill the cops."

Beck portrays Obama, Democrats as vampires, suggests "driv[ing] a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers." On his March 30, 2009, Fox News show, Beck aired a graphic portraying Obama and Democrats as vampires and said: "The government is full of vampires, and they are trying to suck the lifeblood out of the economy." Beck then suggested "driv[ing] a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers." Beck returned to that imagery on his January 19 radio show, warning listeners that progressives are "vampires" who now have a "taste of blood" and are "gonna start getting more and more violent."

Beck suggests that progressives support "armed insurrection."

Beck suggests Pelosi and Obama support "pick[ing] up a gun" to advance "revolution."

Beck suggests Obama administration may kill him.

Beck suggests progressive coalition will become violent and riot "a year from now."

Beck connects U.S. progressives to the Holocaust, says they "have not changed their viewpoint."

Beck: "Violence will come. And violence will come from the left. Violence is part of the plan."

Beck warns of violence: "Trouble" by the "most violent" progressives "is coming."

Beck: "They're trying to beat it out of you slowly. Boil you, basically, like a frog."

I have mostly ignored Beck's hallucinatory rants. That may have been a big mistake. Note how he manufactures a frightening enemy to his supporters there, a left which will attack in violent ways. What should a person do who is under the risk of such an attack? Granted, Beck also sometimes argues that violence is not the answer to the "violent threats" of the progressives and liberals. But the constant "othering" by Beck certainly makes it easier for his audiences to regard liberals and progressives as vampire-like frightening enemies who are going to attack one day unless one does something.

This post isn't really about the guilt or innocence of the tea partiers, in some ethical or moral terms, but it suggests a more multi-layered way of looking at the horrible killings in Arizona and reminds us that all speech has consequences. Politicians and talk-show hosts should remember that.