Monday, March 01, 2010

Unhinged rhetoric and political violence

In the process of preparing my earlier post on Frank Rich's deficient column on rightwing political extremism, I found myself puzzling again over the question of how much we can blame Republican agitators for pushing people toward violence.

Here is Rich's take:

At the conference’s conclusion, a presidential straw poll was won by Congressman [Ron] Paul, ending a three-year Romney winning streak. No less an establishment conservative observer than the Wall Street Journal editorialist Dorothy Rabinowitz describes Paul’s followers as “conspiracy theorists, anti-government zealots, 9/11 truthers, and assorted other cadres of the obsessed and deranged.”

William Kristol dismissed the straw poll results as the youthful folly of Paul’s jejune college fans. William Bennett gingerly pooh-poohed Beck’s anti-G.O.P. diatribe. But in truth, most of the CPAC speakers, including presidential aspirants, were so eager to ingratiate themselves with this claque that they endorsed the Beck-Paul vision rather than, say, defend Bush, McCain or the party’s Congressional leadership. (It surely didn’t help Romney’s straw poll showing that he was the rare Bush defender.) And so — just one day after Stack crashed his plane into the Austin I.R.S. office — the heretofore milquetoast Minnesota governor, Tim Pawlenty, told the audience to emulate Tiger Woods’s wife and “take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government in this country.”

Such violent imagery and invective, once largely confined to blogs and talk radio, is now spreading among Republicans in public office or aspiring to it. Last year Michele Bachmann, the redoubtable Tea Party hero and Minnesota congresswoman, set the pace by announcing that she wanted “people in Minnesota armed and dangerous” to oppose Obama administration climate change initiatives. In Texas, the Tea Party favorite for governor, Debra Medina, is positioning herself to the right of the incumbent, Rick Perry — no mean feat given that Perry has suggested that Texas could secede from the union. A state sovereignty zealot, Medina reminded those at a rally that “the tree of freedom is occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots.”
In some ways, the question of how much responsibility agitators bear for violence committed by those influenced by them is one of those classic sophomore philosophy class kinds of questions. You can think of all kinds of abstract arguments that present seeming nuances. But actual cases present more concrete issues.

As far as legal responsibility, the basic principle is clear that if one person directs someone that is following his authority to commit a criminal act, then the one giving the order is also committing a crime. Just because a mob boss tells his hit man, "Make the problem go away" instead of "Go shoot John Jones in the head and make sure he's dead", that doesn't mean he can't be held legally responsible for ordering the hit. Similarly, if someone hears Glenn Beck say that progressivism is a cancer that's destroyed America - which he actually does say - and then goes to the Holocaust Museum and starts shooting at people, it makes no sense to hold Beck legally liable for that action.

Civil liability is broader. The head of a white supremacist group who constantly preaches violence against members of "enemy" races can't be held legally culpable if one of his followers decides to go assault someone from a targeted race. But in some circumstances he or his organization might be held to have civil liability related to the assault.

Moral and political liability is another matter. Dave Neiwert has observed that the kind of effect someone like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh has on hardcore Patriot-militia or white supremacists types is that they think of even characters like that as practically part of the power structure that is conspiring against them. So when they hear that Beck of Limbaugh is saying that Obama is coming to take our guns and establish a fascistcommunistmarxistnazi dictatorship, they are likely to plunge into a more urgent state of paranoid. As in, "Well, if those people are saying things like that, the real situation must be way worse!"

When prominent commentators or elected officials promote crackpot conspiracy theories and overblown accusation, other people need to call them on it. What's outrageous obvious requires judgment. And judgment when it comes to moral and political responsibility is less clear-cut than with legal responsibility, because we aren't talking about sending people to jail or having a court imposes civil penalties in the former cases, which are the sort Rich is addressing.

Political speech is often aimed at arousing passion and it's often messy. Hyperbole is part of the package. That's where real judgment comes in. Dave Neiwert in The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right (2009) suggests some guidelines on how to judge when political speech is sliding into encouragement of violence. Repeatedly describing one's enemies as disgusting animals - worms, rats, vermin - or as diseases should be red flags in this regard. He gives some very recent examples in Glenn Beck's eliminationist attacks on progressives: How long before someone acts on this violent rhetoric? Crooks and Liars 02/28/10.

As important as this aspect is, it shouldn't stop us from looking at the particular situations that make significant numbers of people receptive to the rhetoric. As far as actual acts of domestic terrorist violence, it doesn't seem to be the case there are large networks of social support for them at present. Unlike, say, lynch-murders during the segregation decades in the South, where some combination of support, community and family loyalty and fear both realistic and exaggerated meant that it was hard to catch and convict lynch-murderers. And it was not unusual for local law enforcement to be in on the lynchings, as in the infamous case of Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964.

I don't have any grand sociological insights to offer. But this is why its important for Democrats not to minimize the seriousness of the radical rhetoric by leading Republican politicians and commentators or the thuggier aspect of howling mobs of white people showing up at Congressional town hall meetings displaying weapons and howling down health care supports to bully people into not challenging them. These people are coming from somewhere (literally and metaphorically). And while the guys who show up to Democratic Congressional town hall meetings openly carrying weapons are unlikely to become bleeding-heart liberals any time soon, an effective response on the Democratic side can deprive that rhetoric and those kinds of stunts of some of their power to move the potential constituents for far-right radicalism.


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