Thursday, January 13, 2011

Feeling like the town grump on Obama's Tuscon speech

I've started to feel like the town grump on this one. Especially after reading this saccharine praise from Obama's Call for Renewal: Democracy 'as Good as Christina Imagined It' Politics Daily 01/13/2011. But as I expected, it was widely praised, as reflected in this PBS Newshour segment.

But after the Tucson shooter - another "lone nut" who just happened to be steeped in fanatical rightwing notions - applied his "Second Amendment solution" to a serving federal judge, a Jewish Congresswoman and several others, the people who encourage and condone and enable this sort of thing really needed to hear from the President that it's just not okay for them to be doing that. Bill Clinton in his famous Oklahoma City speech exercised some leadership to stigmatize encouragement to violence by "respectable" citizens. I don't think anyone who finds it okay for Republican leaders to call for "Second Amendment solutions" against Democrats heard themselves stigmatized in any way by Obama's Tucson speech. And I'm afraid until that starts happening on a wide scale, that Obama is likely to have more opportunities to give a similar speech.

The invaluable Digby - who actually was initially far more impressed with Obama's speech than I was (like I said, I'm the town grump on this one) - caught this important post by Chris Kromm of the Institute for Southern Studies, Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil rights era Facing South 01/11/2011. He recalls after the notorious 1963 Birmingham church bombing by so Klan thugs that killed three little girls, the Rev. Marting Luther King, Jr. had no problem assigning a share of moral responsibility to then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace:

The governor said things and did things which caused these people to feel that they were aided and abetted by the highest officer in the state. The murders of yesterday stand as blood on the hands of Governor Wallace.
Our culture has made King into such a plaster saint that Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby can paint a picture of him as devoting himself to attacking anyone who criticized white racism in any way whatsover. The real-life King understood what inflammatory rhetoric by reckless political leaders were designed to do. And, as Krumm reminds us:

James Earl Ray, the man eventually convicted for shooting King, was greatly influenced by Wallace and his agenda, even moving to Los Angeles to volunteer in Wallace's campaign headquarters in North Hollywood.
This is the main reason I find the current fru-fru discussion by the TV talking heads over violent rhetoric so silly. People in the Deep South, especially in Mississippi where I grew up, knew in the 1950s and 1960s if they dissented too explicitly over the segregation issue, they were subject to economic retaliation from the likes of the White Citizens Council or violent retaliation from them or some even grungier group like the Citizens for the Preservation of the White Race (there was such a group in South Mississippi and did quite a bit of political violence in the 1960s). There were clearly people who did argue against segregation and for democracy, white and black. But not many of them were fool enough that they couldn't tell the difference between someone calling them a jerk and someone saying that they needed "Second Amendments solutions" applied against them. Especially if the someone was a prominent conservative leader in the state.

Arkansas columnist Gene Lyons takes a sensibly jaded look at the "who me?" attitude of today's hate-mongers in Right-wingers dodge responsibility Salon 01/12/2011. He mentions an important historical factoid: only one sitting member of Congress has ever been murdered, Congressman Leo Ryan who was killed by the Jonestown cult in 1978. That event has even been indirectly embedded into American English in the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" to mean adopting a fanatical viewpoint. Congresswoman Giffords came close to being the second member of a very undesirable club.

People in the Deep South in Martin Luther King's day didn't really have much difficulty understanding the difference between moral responsibility for creating a climate of hatred and violence and legal responsibility for individual acts of violence. A big part of the strategy of civil rights leaders was to create a negative stigma toward "respectable" whites who encouraged acts of violence. They wouldn't be able to reach the "hearts and minds" of the thuggier types directly. But they could create an environment in which the thuggier types couldn't count so much on the encouragement and protection of the respectables.

That's why I was disappointed in Obama's Tuscon speech Wednesday. After the Tucscon shooting, those who enable this kind of political violence didn't need to hear Obama appealing to make a democracy that would live up to the expectations of a nine-year-old, however charming the notion would have been coming from a minister doing a funeral. The "respectables" who think it's fine for leading politicians to call for "Second Amendment solutions" needed to hear the President say that such careless incitement to violence is damned well not okay. Without calling out any of those delicate Republican souls explicitly, he could have used an example like the treatment of immigrants to say that everyone has a responsibility not to encourage angry and violent characters to act out their hatreds in antisocial ways.

As I mentioned yesterday, I couldn't help but notice that our country's chief diplomat, who has had some experience as the target of the hatreds of the Radical Right - including in a Deep South context - was willing to call political violence what it is on Wednesday. Hillary got it right.

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