Thursday, April 01, 2010

Racism, political violence and false equivalencies (1)

White racism is a real problem in the United States today. So is violence in general, with political violence a particular subset of that. We need to understand both problems as realistically as possible.

White racists are normally not straightforward when talking to the press or, often, even in private when they're talking to the kind of person "you can't say n****r around". Racism as such is disreputable and so few people freely describe themselves as such. If white racism were confined to people who are as blunt as the notorious Westbrook Pegler was in 1963, in the article from the John Birch Society magazine which I quoted in a post last November, in which Pegler declared, "As to whether I am a racist ... yes, I am.".

In a weirdly ironic way, conscientious opponents of racism may be more likely to describe themselves explicitly as racist, meaning it in a confessional sense of recognizing their own racial prejudices. Most devotees of the real thing speak in what are often called "codewords". This may be a misleading term, because the fact that some appeals aren't explicit doesn't mean people can't understand them.

Domestic political violence in the United States, especially the lethal kind, has been primarily a practice of far-right groups for the last 20 years. By any half-sensible measure, Islamists are also rightwing - theocracy and the subordination of women are generally not "left" goals. When it comes down to individual cases, each one is unique, of course. And Islamist radicals operate from very different premises than Christian or secular far-right terror groups. But to pretend that political violence and politically-motivated killings are somehow a problem of "both sides do it" is not a realistic view of the current moment.

What kind of political and religious speech encourages or incites violence can be a tricky thing to determine. But tricky doesn't mean impossible. And with some experience and good judgment, it's really not that hard to make distinctions. If someone tells you, "You're a jerk", you would understand that as a insult and might get angry about it. How angry would depend on the person or the context. But if someone says to you, "You're a jerk and a liar and a thief and a rotten cheating scumbag and your mother is UGLY", no one is likely to have problems understanding that the second version expresses a much higher degree of anger, provocation and in-your-face hostility.

The question of legal liability is a related but distinct issue. Generally, American law allows people when talking about most things, and especially about politics and politicians, to say pretty much any durn fool thing they want. Illegal speech is pretty narrowly defined. It's illegal to threaten to kill someone, for instance. If you fantasize aloud in a public place that the President out to be killed, you might get a visit from the Secret Service. It's not legal to plot with your militia buddies to kill a bunch of cops, as the Hutaree Militia is charged with plotting.

The effects of speech and actions are obviously partially a function of the influence, authority and credibility of those speaking and acting. When it comes to political violence, a mayor or a minister is likely to have more influence when they make public statements than what your old high school buddy says in a bar after his fifth beer.

I don't have a problem with a little disorder. Ordinary political speeches shouldn't be treated like a reverent church service. If politicians can't deal constructively with a few boos or hisses in the crowd, they probably should not be in politics. Look at those noisy debate from the British House of Commons that C-Span sometimes carries. Completely shouting down a speaker is generally a pretty tacky approach and is an aggressive and provocative approach. But I wouldn't say that such a thing is always and everywhere wrong, either. I notice that Karl Rove fled from a book-promotion presentation a few days ago in Beverly Hills when the very scary meanies from Code Pink showed up and started interrupting during the event. TPM has a news report and video: Karl Rove Forced [sic!] Off Stage In CA By Code Pink Protesters by Eric Lach 03/30/10.

I just can't get too upset about that particular event. For one thing, I've seen Code Pink's approach to protesting, which is to have individuals stand up in sequence and make a point, after which they're normally lead out of the crowd. It's annoying and it's meant to be. But brave Karl Rove is the first one I've ever heard fleeing in terror from the Code Pink mob. (A mob apparently consisted of three or four nonviolent, unarmed protesters.) The title of his book he was promoting there is Courage and Consequences. As the video shows, before fleeing the scary Code Pink ladies, Rove whined a bit about the "totalitarianism of the left". And he probably scored some points with some people for that. In-your-face protest polarizes people, which is why anyone staging such a protest needs to think carefully about how they approach it. But the only way not to provoke opposition is not to do anything - and opposition may chase you anyway! From the video from the TPM report, Rove finished his speech and then skedaddled before signing any books. What, was he afraid someone was going to ask him to sign a book with, "I'm a corrupt creep?"

I don't have any trouble distinguishing between the Code Pink protest and last summer Tea Party mob scenes where the protesters were simply there to literally shout down the speaker and intimidate members of the audience at Congressional town hall meetings. The distinction is clear enough to me. I'm not big fan of recently-minted Arlen Specter. But I saw a video of him dealing with Tea Party protesters, and the contrast with what the TPM video shows of whiny Karl Rove, Specter insisted that a particular disruptor be ejected from the meeting eventually. But first he engaged the protester directly and engaged his issues, very importantly showing that he wasn't going to be intimidated but at the same time could recognize the legitimate concerns of even a protester who was misbehaving to the point of having to be removed from the room.

And, anyway, today's Republicans don't give a damn what I think of the Tea Party mobs. And they're going to whine about the "totalitarianism of the left" whether Karl Rove is confronted by rude protesters or not, and whether it makes a lick of sense or not.

But to pretend in the present environment that the current problems of political violence is coming equally from "both sides" is a way of minimizing the problem of far-right violence. For an example, see Dave Neiwert reporting and analysis in Bill O'Reilly denounces the hate -- but wants to pretend it's the same on both sides Crooks and Liars 03/31/10.

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