Sunday, January 9, 2011

Political Rhetoric and Violence

Apparently, the Sarah Palin's staff is now claiming that the infamous "cross-hairs" campaign poster, pointed to by many as evidence of the kind of overheated right-wing rhetoric that may have led to the Rep. Giffords shooting, was really intended to be a "surveyors" symbol all along.  Mark Kleiman points to the broader context and the right-wing pattern of using the language of violence.

The political debate over the degree to which rhetoric played a role in the shooting, if any at all, has been polarized as usual.  The refrain on the right is defensive, and points to evidence of extreme rhetoric on the left during the Bush years.  But this seems pretty wrong to me. I'd pose a couple of questions.

First, is it true that there is a lot of extreme, dishonest and dangerous rhetoric coming from the right? And second, is there an equivalent amount coming from the left – either now, or in the past 10-20 years?

I used to listen to a lot of AM radio in the 90′s – Michael Savage in SF. When Oklahoma City happened it seemed to fit right into the paranoid narrative: the government is illegitimate, conspiracy theories and the endless likening of liberalism to creeping communism. This was all over the airwaves. The callers would frequently start talking about violent revolution, the hosts muting them with a wink. If anything, the rhetoric seems to have gotten worse, with FOX news turning up the volume to eleven.

I don’t ever remember things getting this bad on the left, even during the worst days of the Bush administration, from the left’s perspective. I think there are numerous reasons for this, the largest being the left’s disinterest in guns and violence in general, as a cultural matter. What I don’t understand though, is the right’s seeming willingness to be entertained by so many obviously immoral media personalities. And I mean immoral in the sense that they are routinely meanspirited and dishonest. They revel in ad hominem attacks, and traffic endlessly in overgeneralizations and transparent falsehoods. The left just has never had this. AM radio is completely dominated by the right. MSNBC is giving FOX a run for their money, but their audience pales in comparison.

I suppose you could chalk some of this up to the generally liberal, or at least centrist, slant of the mainstream media, which likely alienates many rural and conservative citizens. But how could you trade something like NPR for Rush Limbaugh? What am I missing? Why isn’t there at least an NPR equivalent on the right, something that attempts serious journalism, treats people with respect and isn’t more akin to the Jerry Springer show than intellectual engagement? Given the obviously large size of American conservatism, fact that there hasn’t been anything built up on the right that isn’t largely mean, dishonest or vapid would seem distressing. If all liberals seemed to be interested in was a sort of Air America-style format, I’d really worry about the seriousness of the left.

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