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Two Sword Lengths: Violent Imagery in U.S. Political Rhetoric

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Let me tell you a story. In 1935, Sir Albert Lambert Ward was a Member of parliament serving the British House of Commons.

From the front Government bench soldierly Sir Lambert Ward had hoisted himself up to plead the Government’s case on a bill. In excitement he moved farther & farther out toward the centre of the hall. Suddenly came hoots of laughter and great cries of “Order! Order!” Sir Lambert looked around in bewilderment, hesitated, looked at his feet, jumped back.

Centuries ago British members of Parliament were occasionally given to the regrettable practice of pointing their arguments with their rapiers. To check the habit two red lines were drawn down the centre of the House of Commons about six feet, or two sword lengths, apart. When Sir Charles Barry’s present Victorian Parliament building was erected (1840-50), strips of red carpet before the Government and Opposition benches took the place of the original red lines, and to this day no member may step off the carpet while addressing the House.

Opposition and government members of Britain’s Parliament are still separated from each other by two sword lengths, a reminder that electoral politics, representative democracy, is a substitute for civil war. And vice versa. The U.S. Civil War began in 1861 because slave states did not accept the results of the Presidential election of 1860 in which a candidate opposed to slavery was elected President. The Civil War was, in fact, an early example of a “second amendment” solution.

Political rhetoric is full of martial imagery. Candidates and parties wage “campaigns”. Parties “target” districts and voting blocs, candidates promise to “fight” for their constituents. Volunteer canvassers are sometimes referred to as “foot soldiers”. Politicians and parties use military language and metaphors in an array of countries with differing political cultures, most of which do not have a recent history of political violence. But merely using military metaphors in political speech does not inspire political violence. England has had two civil wars in the last 600 years but the most recent was in the 17th century (never mind the several Celtic uprisings that have occurred from time to time). Canada’s closest brush with domestic political violence was the FLQ Crisis in 1970, the work of a handful of far left radicals never supported by the broader Quebec society.

The United States has suffered more than its share of political violence, even in recent years and up to the horrific event in Tuscon on January 8. Upon hearing of the shooting of Representative Gifford, I (and many others it turned out) could not help but think of the violent rhetoric deployed by the right (fringe and mainstream) in recent years. There remains no identified direct link between Sarah Palin’s notorious gun sight map and Loughner’s actions last Saturday. Nor is there any demonstrated link between the shooting and any other specific example of violent right wing rhetoric. Loughner’s motive remains unclear if not unknown or unknowable.

That does not mean that the right has not created a toxic political environment through the use of violent imagery. I am not sure I agree with every point made by Cenk Uygur but he makes a strong case that something bad has been going on for several years now:

Leaving aside any culpability the right might share for Loughner’s actions, I don’t think the existence of violent right wing rhetoric and imagery in today’s U.S. politics can be seriously denied. And to anyone who wants to argue that the “left” (meaning the centrist Democratic Party) is just as guilty of violent rhetoric, I say, show me. Show me the evidence, the examples of the left using hate filled and violent language for political purposes. I have an open mind. I can be convinced.

While we wait for such evidence, let us contemplate what the right’s motives are for using violent language. Is the use of violent, eliminationist rhetoric strategic and if so, what is its purpose and effect.

David Neiwert, author of The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right has been studying this problem for many years now. On Saturday he wrote in a post at Crooks and Liars:

We don’t yet know why the shooter — identified as a 22-year-old man named Jared Loughner — shot Giffords and a number of other people… But it’s impossible to survey the events so far and not come to the preliminary conclusion that this was yet another awful act inspired by right-wing hate rhetoric.

I warned against precisely this kind of outcome in my book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right. Events like this one, I explained then, reflect

a particular trend that has manifested itself with increasing intensity in the past decade: the positing of elimination as the solution to political disagreement. Rather than engaging in a dialogue over political and cultural issues, one side simply dehumanizes its opponents and suggests, and at times demands, their excision. This tendency is almost singularly peculiar to the American Right and manifests itself in many venues: on radio talk shows and in political speeches, in bestselling books and babbling blogs. Most of all, we can feel it on the ground: in our everyday lives, in our encounters, big and small, with each other.

When the conservative movement’s True Believers are fed a steady diet of extraordinary warnings intended to induce a paranoiac, panicked fear — They’re Destroying America! They Want to End Your Liberty! Health Care Reform is the End of America! — and simultaneously fed a diet of suggestions that the solution is simply to do away with them (see Sean Hannity’s recent bit of eliminationist “humor”), then what other outcome should you expect?

People are acting out in an eliminationist manner because they have been inundated with, and have naturally internalized, a broad range of eliminationist ideas and talking points. Such speech is being bandied about in every cultural bandwidth—from talk radio, to the local press and in letters to the editor, to blogs and national mainstream media.

I’ve also explained the dynamic at work here:

The critical components that distinguish irresponsible free speech from responsible are interworking pieces: whether it is intended to harm by scapegoating or demonizing, and whether or not it is provably false…

This is true of so much far-right wingnuttery — the “Birther” conspiracy theories, the FEMA-camp claims, the “constitutionalist” theories about taxation and the Federal Reserve, to list just a few examples — and yet people believe them anyway.

This rhetoric also acts as a kind of wedge between the people who absorb it and the real world. There is always a kind of cognitive dissonance that arises from believing things that are provably untrue, and people who begin to fanatically cling to beliefs that do not comport with reality find themselves increasingly willing to buy into other similarly unhinged beliefs. For those who are already unhinged, the effects are particularly toxic.

All of these theories, you’ll observe, serve the explicit purpose of supporting a scapegoating narrative. And a number of them have been featured in some shape, form, or fashion, in the mainstream public discourse because they have been presented seriously for discussion by various right-wing talking heads, most notably Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs.

But pointing out their ethical and moral culpability inevitably means that they immediately blame it on the “crazy” people, and who can take responsibility for “crazy” people?

Who indeed? Certainly not Beck, Palin, Limbaugh or O’Reilly, all of whom have denied any responsibility for last weekend’s shooting, despite the absence of any request for them to do so. Palin’s guilty conscience betrayed them all when she so quickly removed the infamous gun sight map from her website.

Assuming the validity of Neiwert’s theory of eliminationist rhetoric, why does the right employ such tactics? Brian Topp is a strategist and former official with Canada’s center left New Democratic Party. Writing in the Globe and Mail he comments on right-wing rhetoric in the U.S.:

Why do populist right-wingers need to play these games? Because they can’t defend their program on its merits.

Help for the poor through tax giveaways to the rich. Economic security by breaking people’s pensions. Fiscal responsibility by bankrupting the state. Jobs by promoting economic recklessness that has produced a global economic crisis. A better society by promoting gross income disparity. Double and triple the police and prison apparatus to deal with a crime rate that has long been in decline. Better health care by making it available only to those who can afford it. Getting the state out of people’s lives by imposing narrow religious views in the schools. Legislating responsibly by abdicating the legislative and budget process to corporate lobbyists. Peace by warmongering. None of the central goals of American populist right-wingers hold up in rational debate. So a smokescreen is required. Take our country back! Respect the constitution! And… lock and load!
It’s had a good run in the past two years, this latest manifestation of right-wing unreason in the United States. But perhaps this is the moment its real nature stands revealed. Like all right-wing populism, that is something it cannot survive.

It would be nice to see the end of “right-wing unreason” in U.S. politics, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. Such tactics will only be abandoned when they have been defeated – at the ballot box. In the meantime, the crazy talk will continue and there will be outbreaks of violence on some scale for the foreseeable future.

U.S. centrists and all three of its leftists need to consider how best to respond to such right-wing eliminationist rhetoric without stepping over the (rhetorical) two sword lengths line. Hate speech must be countered and violence confronted, but not in kind. The grown ups will have to lead by example and sadly, there aren’t too many grown ups these days in the Republican Party or the broader conservative movement.

Written by slothropia

January 12th, 2011 at 11:30 am