Monday, April 05, 2010

Racism, political violence and false equivalencies (4)

A second issue on which Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby and Digby had an exchange this past week was this post of Digby's, Mean Country Hullabaloo 03/30/10. In it, Digby refers to this story, Prosecutor: 9 teens charged in bullying that led to girl's suicide 03/30/10. Somerby takes it up in his 03/31/10 Howler. Digby mused in connection with this story:

It appears this little girl was mentally tortured to death.

I'm sure this behavior isn't unprecedented. Lord of the Flies was an allegory, but it was also a fairly realistic depiction of human behavior. But I can't help but feel that the violent, apocalyptic rhetoric of the right over the past few years has torn off much of the civilizing bonds we'd built up over the years. Certainly our recent cavalier attitude toward torture ("when they deserve it") hasn't gone unnoticed.

Keep in mind that most of the people who are screaming in red faced rage in news stories every day aren't young people. It's older people --- the faces of authority --- who are doing it. These parental (and grandparental) role models acting out of control with anger gives tacit permission to some kids to act like animals too. [my emphasis]
Now, I would say Digby overreached the evidence of which I'm aware on this particular case. Because to make even an indirect connection between the antics and rhetoric from political extremists and this particular event, we would need to know specifically how much of it the defendants had been exposed to and what their parents' expressed attitudes toward it had been. And, after all, school bullying didn't start in the last couple of years.

The sources of violence are complicated and much disputed. One of the concerns has to do with what I still think of as the "Twinkie defense" used by Dan White, the radical conservative San Francisco politician who murdered Harvey Milk and George Moscone in 1978. He argued that he had been driven partly insane by the general trashiness of pop culture, including advertisements for the Twinkies snack. Then-Governor Jerry Brown and the state legislature moved to tighten the terms for an insanity defense after it proved partially successful in White's case.

Which gets me back to something I said in the first installment of this series of posts. It may be difficult at times to distinguish whether a particular factor contributed to a particular instance of violence. But difficult doesn't mean impossible. And recognizing that there are meaningful sociological factors in violence doesn't mean that we don't hold those who actually commit violence fully responsible for what they do.

There are also degress of responsibility: responsibility under the criminal law is more rigorously defined than in civil law, which is more rigorously defined than moral or ethical responsibility. No high school teacher could be held responsibile in any of those ways if he lead a class discussion about the right to revolution in the American Declaration of Independence and one of his students kills someone a couple of weeks later. At the other extreme, if the teacher gives the student a gun and helps him plan the murder, the teacher would be held fully responsible for the murder along with the student.

And note what Digby's post does and doesn't say. Close reading of this kind is something that following Somerby's column for years has reinforced in me. Digby presents her comments as speculation. It's fair to say that she is suggesting that radical-right rhetoric may contribute to crimes like the one describing in the news article. And she does specify the specific kinds of interpersonal transactions that could communicate callous attitudes toward violence from adults to children.

Somerby departs from his close reading habits in this case, though, to ask, "are we all Newt Gingrich now?" The reference is to the Congressional campaign of 1994, 20 years ago. A woman named Susan Smith in South Carolina had just confessed to deliberately killing her two children, after claiming initially it was an accident. You can read the long excerpt from a contemporary AP report Somerby quotes there. But here is the part quoting Gingrich's statement:

During an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday, Gingrich was asked how the campaign was going in the final week.

"Slightly more moving our way," he replied. "I think that the mother killing the two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things. ...

“How a mother can kill her two children, 14 months and 3 years, in hopes that her boyfriend would like her, is just a sign of how sick the system is and I think people want to change. The only way you get change is to vote Republican. That's the message for the last three days.”
Somerby compares Digby's comment to that incident with Newt Gingrich. Somerby uses it to illustrate a point that he's been making - usually on more solid grounds - for years. Which is that liberal commentators, reporters and analysts can be just as sloppy and unfair as conservative ones.

But he's way off-base with his Digby/Gingrich comparison. For one thing, Newt Gingrich at that time was the House Minority leader and was leading a high-profile national campaign to elect Republicans to Congress and defeat Democrats. He was quite successful in the overall effort, which is commemorated in the phrase "Gingrich Revolution" to refer to that result and its aftermath. Digby, on the other hand, is a liberal and partisan but independent political analyst, blogger and sometimes writer for Salon.

And Gingrich was clearly smearing the entire Democratic Party with that comment, which is very evident from the AP quote Somerby uses. It was an instance of a favorite Republican rhetorical device known as "you're one, what am I". In this case, he tossed out this obnoxious charge, then mealy-mouthed about what he actually meant about it, as Somerby's AP quote shows. So he gets to make the charge, the Democrats respond to it, the pundits chatter about it which keeps it in the news, and Newt claims that he was quoted out of context without actually copping to what he said.

(As an aside, it's an approach that seems to me to be popular with rank-and-file Republicans, too. I could make my own speculations on it, though I'm not entirely satisfied I understand the psychological appeal. But unless I could cite 100 current prominent Republicans stating explicitly they were using such a device, the Daily Howler would probably think I was being Newt Gingrich, too.)

Gingrich's accusation didn't just fall from the sky as a unique comment that existed all on its own with no connection to the poltical moment. Joe Conason recalls that campaign in Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (2003), saying of Gingrich:

The former Speaker's rise and fall is a modern epic of spurious moralizing.

Gingrich defined his own fraudulence in the methods he used to achieve power. A central theme of his propaganda lexicon was the "breakdown in public manners and morals" he blamed on liberalism. He recommended that when Republicans discussed themselves and their party's values, they should use words such as moral, crusade, and family. When they talked about Democrats, he urged them to emphasize terms like decay, sick, liberal, permissive attitude, antifamily and bizarre.

As he drove the Republicans toward their takeover of Congress, the portly firebrand plugged his movement's morality with evangelistic fervor. "You have absolutely, in the abstract, a cultural civil war going on," he told US News & World Report in 1992. "A nihilistic hedonism and secular belief pattern is by definition involved in a religious war with a spiritual system."

While he blathered on about the culture war, Gingrich's close associates waged a private jihad on Bill Clinton. In the closing months of the 1992 election, Chicago financier Peter Smith, a top contributor to Gingrich's GOPAC fund, hired the Georgian's consultant and confidant Eddie Mahe and two Gingrich lawyers to dredge up dirt about the Democratic nominee's sex life. They focused on a far-fetched tale about an affair with a black prostitute in Little Rock that had produced a male "love child." Their objective was an old-fashioned sexual smear, tinted with race.
That is the context in which Gingrich made the comment which Somerby used to suggest that Digby was doing the same in the post in question.

Conason goes on to note that Gingrich's speculation was about as baseless as it gets, in that particular case:

Sensational facts about the incident soon emerged that suggested quite the opposite [of Gingrich's vague suggestion that Democrats were somehow responsible]. Smith was neither a feminist nor a welfare mother; she wasn't even a Democrat. She was the stepdaughter of an affluent local stockbroker named Beverly Russell, who also happened to be the county chairman of the Christian Coalition and a member of the South Carolina Republican Party's executive committee. The nephew of a former governor and senator, he was just the kind of wealthy, well-connected gentleman cultivated by politicians like Gingrich. He even sang in the local Methodist Church choir.

At home, however, Bev Russell wasn't quite the ideal dad. Court records revealed that he had sexually molested his stepdaughter regularly after she turned fifteen. He had continued having sex with her for the following eight years - despite her two suicide attempts - until the weeks preceding her crime. While Russell's personal ideology had nothing to do with his monstrous behavior, he certainly shared the flair for sanctimony that is common among leaders of the political and religious right. "Of course, had I known at that time what the result of my sin would be, I would have mustered the strength to behave according to my responsibility," he said after the press exposed his relationship with his stepdaughter. If this grotesque tale left any impression on Gingrich, he never mentioned it. He was still exploiting family tragedy as propaganda a year later, when he blamed "the left" and "the welfare state" for the slashing murder of a mother and her children in Illinois. [my emphasis]
Digby's speculation, which was clearly several orders of magnitude more cautious than Gingrich's cynical propaganda in 1994, also has a context. In Training Torturers 04/01/10, Digby discusses a disturbing trend she's been following for years, the increasingly routine use by American police of Taser electric shock device, which the European Union considers torture devices. This one involving two policemen who decided that the best way to deal with a 94-pound, 10-year-old who was having a temper tamtrum and was perhaps serious emotionally disturbed in some way was by zapping him with electricity. Digby's point is that personal experience of this kind of violence can validate the use of violence by others, victims and observers alike. This is something that is well established in psychological and sociological research.

Even for someone watching one of the popular videos on You Tube of cops Tasering people, they know that what they are looking at in most cases are real videos, including from news reports, of real cops zapping people. This is validating of the use of violence in a way that 100 viewings of a war movie would not be for most people. While this may not be quite as clearly documented as the personal experience of violence and its effects, the burden of proof as far as I'm concerned is on those who would say it doesn't promote violent acting out.

If you just read Somerby's column, you might think that Digby was indulging in the same kind of smear Gingrich did in the Susan Smith case.

From the above, I would say that both Digby and Gingrich were making speculations about something for which they didn't have specific evidence. Below that sky-high level of generalization, there really is no meaningful comparison between the two. Somerby here presents us with a classic example of false equivalence.

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