Violent language and violent rhetoric can be a problem, but I do not think it is the main problem afflicting our diseased political discourse.*
The main problem, rather, is disingenuous rhetoric that coolly and calmly demands a violent response from anyone who believes it or takes it seriously. This talk may have nothing to do with guns or crosshairs or "reloading," but it is the logic of life and death. That logic doesn't just raise the possibility that some unhinged person on the fringes might take it wrong. It suggests and requires violent action as an unavoidable moral obligation.
As Conor Friedersdorf put it, "Tone is overemphasized in these conversations about political discourse, while substance is mostly ignored."
In other words, Friedersdorf says, we ought to be less concerned about Sarah Palin's bullet-riddled rhetoric and more concerned with the substance of her lies:
Palin’s remarks about death panels communicated an untruth: the notion that Barack Obama’s health care reform effort sought to empower a panel of bureaucrats who’d sit in judgment about whether an old person’s life would be saved or not. That is the sort of thing we ought to find objectionable, even if the substance is communicated in the most dry language imaginable, because were it true, radicalism would be an appropriate response. “They’re going to start killing old people? We’ve got to stop this!”
Please note that such a response to "death panels" would not be optional. If you really believed that some kind of government Gestapo was being sent to euthanize your elderly neighbors, then opposing these forces would not be a matter of choice. It would be a moral obligation.
If you really believed it.
Sarah Palin, of course, did not really believe this. Nor did the vast majority of her followers. It was a lie, deliberately told — a lie that her fans and followers pretended to believe in a great game of political dishonesty.
That dishonesty is not a matter of dispute. It was proved true by their actions or, rather, by their inaction. These millions of people pretending to believe what they knew to be a lie did not cry out, "We've got to stop this!" They lacked any of the urgency that must accompany genuine belief in such a horrifying thing. They did not possess this urgency and they did not act on this urgency because they did not really believe it.
Friedersdorf considers some other disingenuous lies now in circulation — lies millions of Americans are enthusiastically pretending to believe, belied at every step by their own actions and inactions:
Since Barack Obama took office, prominent voices on the right have called him an ally of Islamist radicals in their Grand Jihad against America, a radical Kenyan anti-colonialist, a man who pals around with terrorists and used a financial crisis to deliberately weaken America, a usurper who was born abroad and isn’t even eligible to be president, a guy who has somehow made it so that it’s okay for black kids to beat up white kids on buses, etc. I haven’t even touched on the conspiracy theories of Glenn Beck. The birthers excepted, the people making these chargers are celebrated by movement conservatives – they’re given book deals, awards, and speaking engagements.
If all of these charges were true, a radicalized citizenry would be an appropriate response. But even the conservatives who defend Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, D’Souza, McCarthy, and so many others don’t behave as if they believe all the nonsense they assert. The strongest case against these people isn’t that their rhetoric inspires political violence. It’s that they frequently utter indefensible nonsense. The problem isn’t their tone. It’s that the substance of what they’re saying is so blinkered that it isn’t even taken seriously by their ideological allies (even if they’re too cowardly, mercenary or team driven to admit as much).
They’re in a tough spot these days partly because it’s impossible for them to mount the defense of their rhetoric that is true: “I am a frivolous person, and I don’t choose my words based on their meaning. Rather, I behave like the worst caricature of a politician. If you think my rhetoric logically implies that people should behave violently, you’re mistaken – neither my audience nor my peers in the conservative movement are engaged in a logical enterprise, and it’s unfair of you to imply that people take what I say so seriously that I can be blamed for a real world event. Don’t you see that this is all a big game? This is how politics works. Stop pretending you’re not in on the joke.”
That's all good and true and undeniable, but let me highlight again this one part:
[They] don’t behave as if they believe all the nonsense they assert. The strongest case against these people isn’t that their rhetoric inspires political violence. It’s that they frequently utter indefensible nonsense.
They do not believe their own nonsense. We know that they do not believe it because they "don't behave" in accordance with what such beliefs would entail — what such beliefs must entail.
This disingenuous nonsense hardly even qualifies as political discourse at all. It's more like some kind of performance art — the theater of dishonesty, the theater of lies.
Such dishonesty has become a central feature of our political discourse. It drives and shapes every election. It is, for millions of Americans, the defining feature of how they vote and who they vote for.
I refer here not to the birthers, baggers, Beck-ers and Birchers who have dominated headlines for the past two years. I mean the anti-abortion voters. The central organizing principle for these voters and the politicians who cater to them is a towering dishonesty, a lie told to others and to themselves.
That this lie is a lie has been proven, time and again. "They don't behave as if they believe" any of what they are saying. Therefore we must conclude, they do not believe what they are saying.
It's a pretense, a game — a dishonest game played by people who have chosen to embrace this dishonesty and to make it their essential defining characteristic. They don't behave as if they believe what they say. They don't believe what they say. This is as apparent in the pseudo-intellectual pomposity of the anti-abortion play-actors at First Things as it is in the pseudo-spiritual pose of earnestness by the anti-abortion play-actors at Christianity Today.
They do not believe what they say.
No one else ought to believe what they say either.
But every few years, tragically, someone does. Every few years some disturbed or unhinged individual fails to appreciate that these anti-abortion pretenders are merely "frivolous persons who don't choose their words based on their meaning" but, rather, "behave like the worst caricature of a politician."
Every few years, tragically, some poor confused bastard fails to realize that it's all a big game, a pretense, a lie. He takes them seriously and he takes their words seriously and he behaves as someone who believes what they say. So Paul Hill murders a doctor in Florida. Eric Rudolph bombs the Atlanta Olympics. Scott Roeder guns down a doctor in church.
And each time this happens all of the people who have, for years, been suggesting that such violent resistance is obligatory recoil in horror at the sight of someone treating their words as anything other than the disingenuous lies they were always meant to be.
I've written about this before (see "Killing in the name of"), so allow me to quote from that earlier post:
Paul Hill argued that abortion was the moral equivalent of the Nazi Holocaust — just like the National Right to Life Committee, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and dozens of other evangelical groups said it was. If that's true, Hill said, then he wasn't merely justified, but obligated to take up arms against abortionists. If you're confronted with an evil equal in magnitude to that of Adolf Hitler — as all these groups insisted was the case — then surely one is obliged to do more than vote Republican every four years in the hopes of one day appointing enough judges to change the law of the land. Confronted with what all of these groups assured him was the Holocaust, he decided to become Claus von Stauffenberg.
Yet when Hill repeated their own argument and their own rhetoric back to them, these groups all recoiled. They all claimed to share Hill's premise, but not to share his conclusion. That won't work. Hill's violent conclusion arose logically from that shared premise. If he was a madman to be condemned — as all those groups suddenly insisted he was — it was because of the madness of that premise. So how was it possible they could repudiate him without also repudiating that rhetoric that compelled him to act?
What I realized then, in 1994, as I watched these groups line up to condemn violence against "mass-murderers" and to renounce armed opposition to "the Holocaust," was that these folks didn't really mean any of it. They were horrified by the spectacle of someone taking their own rhetoric and arguments seriously. "We don't really mean anything we say," these groups rushed to announce. "We don't really believe any of that."
The problem for all of these groups — the National Right to Life Committee, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council and the rest — is, as Friedersdorf says, not a matter of tone, but of substance.
The substance of what they say demands "a radicalized citizenry." If we are in the midst of a "Holocaust," then we are obliged to respond more vigorously than simply waiting four years for the next opportunity to cast a vote for a candidate who tells us he sympathizes with our opposition to this "Holocaust." If they really believed any of the nonsense they spout about "Holocausts" and "baby-killers" then what are we to make of their behavior, their lack of urgency, their satisfaction with moral-condescension and the occasional vote or rare protest march as somehow an adequate response to the massive horror and injustice they pretend to believe is occurring?
They do not behave as if they believe what they say. We are thus forced to choose between believing their words or believing their actions. We cannot believe that both are true. We cannot believe that both are honest. If their actions, their very lives, are sincere, then their words are dishonest. If their words are sincere, then their lives are monstrous.
Neither alternative is pleasant, but these are the only options allowed to us.
For my part, like Friedersdorf, I believe that it is their words that are insincere. I believe these are frivolous people who don't choose their words based on their meaning. I believe these are simply dishonest people who enjoy the warm feelings of smug superiority their pretense allows them to pretend to feel despite their knowing that none of what they are saying is defensible or true.
And when, as has happened before and will happen again, some poor soul is foolish enough to believe the substance of what they say and goes out and picks up a gun or a bomb and goes on a deadly rampage I do believe it is just and necessary to hold these pretenders responsible — not for the tone of their rhetoric, but for the substance of their lies.
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* Here's a rundown of some of the more helpful things I've read on this question of violent rhetoric and gun-talk.
George Packer has a good discussion of the false equivalence falsely asserted by those seeking to absolve themselves of any blame for the incendiary climate of our current diseased discourse. And James Fallows has some wise words on the usually "Cloudy Logic of 'Political' Shootings," amplified and clarified with historical context from the past and from recent years.
And this Tumblr post from Sady Doyle offers an important clarification about the sort of people likely to be swayed by what Fallows calls "the political tone of an era."
Doyle notes that it's not just "crazy" people who may "be vulnerable enough to your message to take you at your word and shoot someone," it may also be people who are unhinged for other reasons, such as they "just got fired and are full of rage that needs somewhere to go," or — and this seems relevant in the Tucson case — they are "poisoned by a toxic variety of masculinity that equates manhood with power and power with violence."