Monday, January 10, 2011

Fighting Words and Crazy People

So the Jared Loughner thing has everybody up in arms on both sides. The moment that Sheriff Dupnik suggested that bigotry and political calls for violence might have had something to do with the violence that actually occurred, the right wing immediately circled their wagons, got up in arms, and started returning fire. Rhetorically speaking, of course.

Even though Dupnik named no political side, party, movement or person, everybody immediately knew who he was talking about when he said "When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous." The fact that the extremist right wing that controls the overall conservative movement immediately took offense at this, obviously amounts to an admission of guilt. They knew he was talking about them - we all did - even though he didn't mention them in any way. That's a pretty telling point by itself.

Of course there have been the usual fringe-right claims that Loughner was a "liberal plant," based primarily on the notion that he has smoked marijuana in the past (as if roughly the same proportion of right-wingers as left-wingers don't smoke pot). Then there have been the attempts at false equivalence, with wingnuts poring through old news items looking for a quote from a Democrat that uses firearms-based rhetoric. They managed to find Obama using the old "knife to a gunfight" phrase back when he was just a candidate. So that makes it even, right? When Beck says that your country is being taken away from you by godless communist socialist nazi czars and turned into a death-panel dictatorship, when tea party protestors march en masse with signage talking about watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants, and "we came unarmed... this time," when elected Republican officials start talking about "second amendment remedies," all that is equivalent to that one almost-forgotten Obama quote, right? Well, only in wingnut-world where Democrats have to have a perfect score or else it's a tie.

Frankly, as an anti-wingnut avowed liberal, I've been having my fun as well picking apart their arguments. The problem is, there is a valid argument to be made in defense of Beck and Palin, but making the argument for them just grates against me, particularly since Beck, Palin and all of their hordes of drooling redneck followers seem incapable of making it so far, and I'm having a hard time feeling charitable for them. Nevertheless, the truth is the truth. So here goes...

This entire "culture of violence" argument, the notion that we should hold people responsible for a causal connection that goes from an individual to society in general to a perpetrator... well, we've seen that form of argumentation before. When Ice-T got blamed for (potential) violence in Los Angeles, when Marilyn Manson got blamed for Columbine, and when Grand Theft Auto and other video games got blamed for general hooliganism in the modern age, it was the same form of argument. Someone put something out into society, and the resulting societal environment then caused (or might cause) an unbalanced individual to commit violent acts.

The fact is, crazy people are going to do what crazy people are going to do. We can't prevent violence from unbalanced individuals by censoring ourselves and walking on eggshells in case some psychopath might misconstrue what we were talking about and take it too far. That holds just as true for Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin as it does for Marilyn Manson and Ice-T. If a dangerously unbalanced individual fixates on whatever you were saying and takes it much farther than you ever intended, that's not your fault. Furthermore, even if you had censored yourself, they would have fixated on something else. If Charles Manson could fixate on the White Album as a call for worldwide race war, or if John Hinckley could fixate on Taxi Driver as a reason to shoot President Reagan, then they could have fixated on anything at all to do anything at all.

Discussions about the state of mental health care in America as a preventive measure for such attacks are certainly reasonable. Discussions about the gridlock surrounding the gun control debate as a preventive measure are reasonable as well. But holding one person responsible for the behavior of another - especially with an entire "cloud" of media culture standing between them - is neither effective nor in the long run philosophically desireable.

It's worth noting that the other examples I gave were art forms, whereas this case is a question of political speech. By its very nature, political speech amounts to advocacy: you're exhorting people to do something, whether it's to go out and vote, volunteer, protest or donate. But the primary reason that we protect artistic speech is to draw an even stronger fence around political speech (there's extensive SCOTUS reasoning on this subject). That is to say, we protect speech in general just in case it turns out to be political. And political speech is exactly what we're talking about here. In American democracy, it's the holy of holies. The one true untouchable right. Probably the last one we've got left.

As a side note, I'd like to say that the ChristoFascist arguments regarding "permissive sexuality" (i.e. not criminalizing gayness) and a "culture of death" (i.e. giving women control of their own bodies) follow the same form of causal argumentation: from person to society to horrible consequence, whether real or imagined. And they're equally bunk. We should not be holding individuals responsible for the state of our culture, regardless of the strength of their platform or pulpit. We should only hold those who act as responsible for their own actions. That right there is the essence of the entire notion of free speech. And autonomy in general.

But here's the crux of the argument that conservatives should be making, and would if any of them had the guts to stand up for themselves: America has a long tradition, over two centuries in fact, of using metaphors and analogies related to combat, war, firearms, fisticuffs and all forms of violence in service of political rhetoric. It's quite simply how we talk about politics - how we always have. And as much as liberals might be "up in arms" about the right's rhetorical approach at the moment, it can be instructive to look at some of the literature coming out of the 1800's between political campaigns, at which point one realizes that this kind of talk is something that's simply embedded in the DNA of participatory oppositional democracy. It might not be pretty, but it is a part of the healthy, spirited, (ugly, messy) debate that makes up a passionate democratic system in action.

This liberal fantasy of us all wearing togas and standing among greek columns in a golden light while we calmly and delicately discuss issues of the day in flowery Socratic logic is something that has simply never happened. It's something that can't exist in the real world. In fact, just that fantasy has been what's been causing the Democratic party to roll over and play dead every time a major policy issue gets put before Congress.

If Beck, Palin, et. al, want to reiterate their (presumed) opposition to any form of gun control or public mental health care, then we should definitely call for their heads... figuratively speaking, of course. Otherwise, let 'em reload or shoot for the whites of our eyes or whatever it is they're currently blathering about. And meanwhile let's circle their rear flank and gut them like the filthsome squealing pigs that they are.

Rhetorically speaking, of course.


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