20 January 2011

A Liberal Unrepentant

One reason why Republicans won't let the questions raised after the Tucson amoklauf about political rhetoric drop, even as their protests make them look increasingly like whiners, is that their sense of honor demands an apology that will never come. They want Democrats and other liberals to admit that they were wrong in their initial impulse to blame the shootings on "hateful" right-wing rhetoric. Some may even entertain a dim hope that liberals will admit that they lied deliberately for political advantage. They shouldn't hold their breath. While I believe that the "blood libel" began with an almost unconscious impulse rather than with willful indifference to facts that weren't yet publicly known, I still think that liberal libellers have almost unwittingly maneuvered Republicans into a rhetorical trap. At least it's my perception that Republicans must suffer eventually in public opinion for a volume of indignation that sounds as if the "blood libel" is a worse crime than the amoklauf. To the extent that liberals realize the opportunity, they'll stiffen against pressure to recant or repent in order to keep Republicans mad and sputtering.

Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker may be playing according to just such a strategy. His lead article for this week's "Talk of the Town" section tries to have things both ways, admitting readily that everyone was wrong about the shooter's political orientation but refusing to apologize for anyone having guessed wrong. Instead, with what must look like absolute insolence to a Republican readers, he suggests that the rush to judgment was Republicans' fault.
[I]t is also the truth that, when the news broke of the Tucson shootings, no one’s first thought was that some unhinged leftist was responsible. From the outset, commentators of all persuasions assumed something like the opposite—assumed it openly if their instant impulse was accusatory, implicitly if it was defensive. And no wonder.... [Militant outbursts during Rep. Giffords' re-election campaign] took place amid a two-year eruption of shocking
vituperation and hatred, virtually all of it coming from people who call themselves conservatives—not just from professional radio and television propagandists but also from too many Republican officeholders and candidates for office. The portrayal of the national government as a sinister tyranny and President Obama and his party as equivalent to Communists and Nazis—as alien usurpers bent on destroying the country and the Constitution—spawned a rhetoric of what a Nevada candidate for the Senate approvingly referred to as “Second Amendment remedies.” During the same period, there has been a sharp, sustained rise in death threats against the President and against (mostly Democratic)
legislators. And there have been real victims: according to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, at least fifteen people had already been killed by practitioners of “insurrectionist” violence since the middle of 2008. These realities, and not the malevolence of liberal opportunists, were why, in the immediate aftermath of the crime, the “national conversation” focused on the nation’s poisonous political and rhetorical climate.

For the final insult, Hertzberg adds: "That conversation, which was worth having before, is not less worth having now because the connection between the crime and the climate is so murky—and it may well turn out to be more productive." His moral seems to be that, if so many people assumed that a right-winger had committed mass murder in Tucson, that means that right-wingers must have done something wrong, somewhere, at some time. The readiness with which so many people blamed Republican rhetoric or propaganda, Hertzberg implies, obliges Republicans to do some soul-searching.

Change the context and some of the names and Hertzberg's reasoning seems more offensive. Let's say that, for one reason or another, the rumor raced from Tucson that the shooter had been a Muslim. Had that rumor caught fire, would Hertzberg after the fact have been as eager to remind American Muslims that their fellow citizens had good reason to jump to conclusions? What if, as my Instant Conspiracy-Mongering Device wrongly anticipated, people assumed that the shooter was either a Mexican or a hitman for one of the Mexican crime cartels? Would Hertzberg be so averse to contrition in either case? An ironic suspicion that Republicans themselves were more likely to jump to any of these conclusions doesn't dispel the feeling that Hertzberg is playing more dirty here than he would otherwise because he ha--er, strongly disapproves of Republican policies and personalities.

So the Tucson controversy continues to show both parties at their worst, exposing each side's deepest, most pathological fears of the other. The truth of the story and the true scandal of the ease with which a madman could get his gun are small matters compared to the continuing debate over which party is more mean. It would be grimly amusing if it wasn't also sad. I'd really like to believe that partisan leaders on both sides stoked the rhetorical fires purely for cynical reasons; the problem of Bipolarchy might be more easily solved if that were so. But times like these remind us that, however much they appear to collude eagerly against outsiders or independent activists, they really, really hate each other. Hertzberg himself opines idiotically that the President's talk at last week's Tucson pep rally will prove a calming moment; "The atmosphere smelled cleaner" in its aftermath, he raves, and "perhaps the memory of it will leave us all in a better place than where it found us." Something sure smells, but I won't say what.

P.S. If you're curious about those "insurrectionist" murders Hertzberg was referring to, here's the timeline from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence -- and Tucson is on the list.


Anonymous said...

Which is why I believe the government should come out and claim any talk of armed insurrection or revolution is treason and those doing so should be arrested and condemned as traitors. When they arm themselves to keep from being arrested, we send in the military and wipe them out once and for all.

This country survived one bloody civil war. Any attempt to begin another one should result in the strictest, harshest possible punishment.

Anonymous said...

On further reflection, 1 other question comes to mind: When is the last time you heard about Beck or Limbaugh or Palin, etc. apologizing after running their mouth and finding out after the fact that they were wrong.

There is an old Christian axiom, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." As with any axiom, there must be a corollary, "As they do unto you, so must they desire to be done to them."

Anonymous said...

I've read a few books by Ayn Rand. Does that automatically make me an "Objectivist"? I've read the bible. Does that automatically make me a "Christian"? I've read a few books put out by conspiracy theorists, does that automatically make me a "Conspiracy Nut"?

My point being, people see his reading list, note that among his favorites are "The Communist Manifesto" and "Mein Kampf" and they jump to the conclusion that he was a "leftist". Yet none of his rants have anything to do with socialism, just a general dissatisfaction with government and an (un)healthy dose of the same paranoia coming from many a teabagger blog.

Did he consider himself partisan in any meaningful way? I doubt it. But that still doesn't mean that all the violent rhetoric didn't help swing an unhinged mind.

Samuel Wilson said...

Well! Let's try a few responses.

The people clearly reserve a "right" of revolution on some level, or else we should still be British colonies. Since the right of revolution is asserted in the Declaration of Independence, which also helpfully enumerates the specific abuses by Britain that justified revolution, let that document serve as a standard. Give "insurrectionists" one chance to demonstrate whether the abuses they complain of rise to the Jeffersonian test. The abuses would need to be comparable in both quality and quantity, since the Declaration argues that Britain's "long Train of Abuses" had to reach a critical mass before the colonists felt compelled to revolt.

On the standards dictating apologies, you are quite correct about Republican hypocrisy. Speaking for yourself, however, does anyone owe anyone else an apology for the various misstatements in response to the Tucson amoklauf?

Regarding the suspect's reading list, at least the Republicans actually referred to something actually relevant to the person before making their claims, while liberals seem guilty of instant inference. Having read some of the suspect's screeds, I suspect he was more likely influenced by relatively nonpartisan conspiracy theory than by partisan, ideological "insurrectionist" rhetoric. If you want to say that the violence of the rhetoric further unhinged him regardless of the rhetoric's ideological content, you could probably also blame an explicitly leftist rampage on the same violent rhetoric. There might be some merit to that approach.

Anonymous said...

I didn't assign a specific partisanship, just said the violent rhetoric. Pointing out that, among such recent acts of violence, his is the least likely to be based on a specific leaning. But, as Hertzberg mentions, there have been a slew of other murders, acts of violence and threats of violence and death, aimed at left-wing politicians, by deranged, paranoid right-wingers who have absolutely no basis for their paranoia.

If this continues, then the left will have only two possible choices: Become second class citizens under a regime of right-wing christian conservatism or to start answer acts of violence with acts of violence, possibly leading to another civil war. None of which bodes well for this country.

The government must stop being weak and answer this problem now. A weak government cannot stand. If the Democrats are to ever show some spine, now is the time to do so. When an elected representative - even one from Texas - can openly talk about secession as a threat against the elected government, there is a problem. When people start using slogans like "If the ballot doesn't work, the bullet will" or start referring to "second amendment solutions", there is a problem. When the government refuses to call them out and demand proof of these allegations, when the government refuses to defend itself, there is a problem.