13 January 2011

When does ideology become thoughtcrime?

At first glance, the news of an arrest by the FBI of a man who made threatening phone calls last month to his Democratic congressman seems easier to blame on the sort of political rhetoric that's still alleged by many to have motivated the Tucson assassin of last Saturday. This person allegedly left messages on Rep. McDermott's answering machine informing him that he and the President would have been "shot in the head" by the Founding Fathers, had they all shared any moment in time, and that the caller himself would be happy to kill the representative and his family if McDermott conspired to steal his money, so to speak, by opposing the extension of the current relatively low tax rates. The suspect thus shows two characteristics of the far right: taxophobia, most obviously, and the assumption that current politicians, Democrats especially, have so far departed from the principles of the Founders that those elders would sanction violence against them.

The suspect is at the least guilty of a guileless and perhaps admirable honesty, having facilitated his arrest by giving his real name and phone number while leaving his threatening messages. While I still believe in the virtue of anonymity in political discourse as a shield against ad hominem argument, I suppose I have to give credit to people who are willing to stand fully behind their opinions -- particularly those that will get them in trouble. His honesty or guilelessness is probably all that's creditable about this fellow. He clearly is what many people assumed and still want the Tucson amoklaufer to be, minus the actual violence. In that case, who if anyone is to blame for his incriminating outbursts? The usual suspects will come to the usual minds, but an impulse to name names or denounce specific devils obscures the real issue.

Accusers may dispute amongst themselves the relative influence of Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck on any violent rightist, but all seem to agree on the implicit premise that a certain set of opinions and beliefs encourage political violence. In crudest terms, some liberals seem willing to accept that any belief in limited government increases the likelihood that the believer might shoot a politician someday, just as some seem to think that any reduction of government spending will cause someone to die. A more nuanced suspicion focuses on those who equate expanding government with "tyranny." In this case, anyone who warns against tyranny is suspect on the assumption that the perceived imminence of tyranny would provoke them to drastic, violent action. Even the most suspicious among liberals would concede that not every person who opposes "big government" or sees it as incipient tyranny is a likely assassin or insurgent. The real question becomes whether enough believers have violent potential to make the opinions themselves suspect and subject to surveillance. But once you concede that not every believer is a menace you have to ask whether political opinions or more personal factors make the difference. If someone kills or even threatens a politician, to what extent is the act political, and to what extent is it insane or merely stupid? I don't raise the question to offer an easy answer. Republicans now cry that personal factors are primary if not exclusive; I doubt any of them will defend the man arrested in Washington yesterday. Instead they will probably say that he's only insane or stupid -- though they've proven themselves less likely to dismiss Muslim terrorists that way. Think of our debates on the root causes of terrorism and you'll realize that the current debates on causation and influence aren't as easily dismissed as Republicans would like, yet aren't as cut and dried as some Democrats would want. Even though partisanship has compromised the objectivity of the discussion, cooler minds probably ought to keep the conversation going.


Anonymous said...

Individual Responsibility

>So if a media personality - say Glen Beck - knows that out of his tens of thousands of listeners, probability dictates that at least a small minority will take his extremist views even further and a small percentage of them will take action, can he really deny all personal responsibility? Should media personalities be eschewed of all responsibility for their own opinions when some members of their audience react with violence towards those Beck et. al. claim are enemies of freedom or traitors or what have you?

When individual rights pose a threat to society at large, individual rights must be curbed. How far are you willing to support Freedom of Speech, vis-a-vis people not being forced to take responsibility for the actions their words provoke? How many people need to be shot down in the street because some paranoid/delusional freak listened to Beck's show and decided to "defend America" by killing some socialist/commie/muslim/hippy?

Rights should only be granted to those who have proven themselves to be capable of using, not abusing, those rights.

Samuel Wilson said...

The question is: what standard do we set up to establish an alleged provocateur's responsibility for violence? Would we need to prove that Beck, for instance, was the necessary and sufficient cause for a listener's rampage, or would the culprit's admission that he listens to and likes Beck be sufficient?

In the context of what you write and what Brock said, should it be forbidden to call someone a "traitor" or an "enemy of freedom?" Should such epithets be banned because they're unproven or just because they're provocative? Will Republicans get to make suggestions for the list of forbidden terms? Just asking....

I also suspect that a lot of people to whom you'd deny rights would deny that you have a right or the power to grant or withhold them. The proof would be in the results, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

The point isn't whether I should be able to set up such standards, but to question exactly what "Freedom of Speech" means, what is included, what is not included.

It is illegal from me to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. So there has been a precedent set to some extent that allows the court or government to decide what is covered under "Free Speech".

Insofar as the current group of talking heads, I'd say if it can be proven (say via an email or handwritten note or other) that some public figure provoked listeners with an intention that he/she might push one or more of them into "action", then that person should at least be culpable for conspiracy, for disturbing the public peace, and possibly other crimes.

Anonymous said...

Quite frankly, I don't believe free speech should cover lies. It should not cover political donations. It should not cover gossip or libel or slander. It should not cover bigotry.

I believe what we need is to bring back public dueling. Then a person can be held directly responsible for whatever drivel pours out of his or her mouth. It wouldn't even necessarily have to be to the death. Public humiliation can have a wonderful effect on keeping raging egos in check.

Anonymous said...

Let me ask you this: Is Henry II culpable in the assassination of Thomas Beckett?

Samuel Wilson said...

"[I]f it can be proven (say via an email or handwritten note or other) that some public figure provoked listeners with an intention that he/she might push one or more of them into "action", then that person should at least be culpable for conspiracy, for disturbing the public peace, and possibly other crimes."

Such a test would probably be so difficult that no one would fight against imposing it. A "smoking gun" document of that sort is very unlikely to exist. The real issue may be whether a public figure's words have influence beyond his or her intentions -- whether words or phrases themselves are such dynamite that their use should be discouraged and/or penalized.

Samuel Wilson said...

"I don't believe free speech should cover lies. It should not cover political donations. It should not cover gossip or libel or slander. It should not cover bigotry."

Some of these things might be pre-empted by law because,like obscenity, people would know them when they see them. In other cases, we may not recognize lies until some time after publication. Some things may be forbidden, but some can only be punished after the fact, and after damage is done -- unless you opt to submit all publications to a censorship bureau (including fact-checkers) ahead of publication.

As for dueling, I wouldn't want to legalize it until after Americans grow thicker skins.

And as for Henry II, his situation differs from that of a talk-show host because his position as king gave his legendary offhand comment ("Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?") the force of a command for his listeners. He was culpable because he was king. I don't know whether anyone feels a similar imperative to obey Glenn Beck, for instance, though others feel more certain about that point.