Saturday, January 8, 2011

NWR: A Rant About Political Rhetoric and Its Violent Results

In my non-wedding life (which is most of it, thankfully), I'm very involved in policy and government affairs. My degree was in political science and I spent a lot of time studying the roots of violent ethnic conflicts and civil war, with particular emphasis on the way political rhetoric, economic despair, and demagoguery have played integral roles in some of the world's worst human tragedies. With this as my background, I've watched - horrified and seemingly helpless - as our economy and hopes have crumbled and as dangerous political rhetoric has provided false hopes and a twisted focus for legitimate rage. I watched in horror as the media and politicians twisted a community center development at the site of an old Burlington Coat Factory into an outlet for islamaphobic and racist fears, twisting the memory of Ground Zero into xenophbic fever, screaming at innocent black bystanders and stabbing New York cab drivers for being muslim.

Disagreements - even fierce disagreements - should be an aspect of public discourse and political life. But what I've seen in the last few years is worse and uglier. And today, my worst fears have been realized. So please forgive me as this blog veers off from the wedding-and-life-story category today. But I just wanted to take a moment to mourn for the victims' families and make a public plea for a shift in what we as a society have come to accept from our political leaders and media. Feel free to turn away now if politics aren't your thing.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was shot today. Point-blank, in the head, at an informal meet-her-constituents event at a supermarket. After a gunman walked right up to her and shot, he continued shooting with his semi-automatic rifle. Another six people were killed and eighteen wounded. At the moment, the congresswoman seems to be in stable but critical condition, with the bullet passing through her brain.

This assassination attempt would be bad enough in normal circumstances. (Yes, assassination. That's what we call political murders.) But it turns out that Rep. Giffords was on Sarah Palin's controversial "crosshairs" site on which she placed literal targets on representatives who voted for the healthcare bill. Palin introduced the website on her twitter account by announcing "Don't Retreat - Instead RELOAD." This sort of violent language was taken up in Republican and Tea Party campaigns and discussions across the country, including by Giffords' main opponent, Jesse Kelly, who used similar language. Kelly's campaign held an event called "Get on Target for Victory in November." Description: "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

Both Palin and Kelly have already scrubbed their websites (though google cache lives forever). Palin's website is down and she has issued a statement about her prayers for Giffords. Even if the real-world result of their incitements to violence isn't directly their fault, they both had the guilt/insight to suddenly recognize that such words are in entirely poor taste (to say the least), despite the outpouring on Palin's facebook page from supporters who are upset about fingers getting pointed at an obviously innocent Palin.

Unfortunately, these defensive politicians and their supporters are right. It's not Sarah Palin's crosshair chart's fault that a clearly disturbed person (whose motivations we don't yet know) tried to assassinate a congressperson. We can't point to a single statement about M16s or reloading and say "that's it! that's what set the assassin off!"

But we can point to many Republican's and stridently partisan media's willful use of violent rhetoric to incite political fealty and destroy any semblance of civil society. Their combined, unrelenting, violent, and divisive, rhetoric has taken standard political disagreements into a culture war that they are actively arming. This is the sort of hateful rhetoric that sparked violence in Rwanda. This is the sort of hateful rhetoric that sparked cultural acceptance of Hitler's genocide. There's enough historical precedent to show that violent rhetoric and troubled economies lead directly to real violence.  Regardless of the background of this one lone shooter, this shift in public discourse has created some level of public acceptance for rage-filled rallies, disgusting dehumanizing language, and violent incidents.

We can't let politicians and talking heads hide behind the bullshit flimsy excuse that words aren't a real call to violence. Because when speech after speech riles people up with incitements to shoot, kill, and destroy, the sum of these words played a part in this. Their hands are bloody, even if I can't pin it to a single statement and even if murder wasn't your direct intent.

And if the Democratic leadership doesn't finally stand up to denounce this as an assassination and to finally call out mainstream Republicans' language as a disgusting, flimsy cover for hatred, fear and violence, then we're all lost. There was a time when disagreement could be principled. There was a time when we could debate and agree to disagree, even on serious issues and seriously held beliefs. But when we use imagery to instill fear in order to derive fierce political support, we're stirring a dangerous pot that's starting to boil over now.

Fucking politicians. Both the bastards who found this acceptable in the first place and the spineless wimps who allowed it to continue in search of some bipartisan bullshit. We all need to stand up to hateful and violent language, regardless of our political beliefs.

Please excuse my language and the topic today. But murder is too much. I wanted to say something back when the cab driver was stabbed, but I didn't think a wedding blog was the place. Oh well. This is my blog, and I'm done worrying what people will think or whether this fits with the purported topic of this site. Some things are too important. 


  1. Thank you. I am so close to this that I just couldn't begin to write about it.

  2. I also thought of Sarah as I read this. Thankyou so much for making it known to me. Over on the other side of the world, this kind of thing often doesn't make it because we might have a more important story of a cricketer who is seen with a new woman in tow. Really.

    Thanks for your post. And you know what? It's really nice not to be reading about weddings, but about our world and real life.

  3. Thank you for putting into words exactly how I feel about this entire heartbreaking mess.

  4. This was beautifully said.

    And dude, it's YOUR blog. Write what matters to you.

  5. Someone needs to write about this and I'm glad to see that you weren't afraid to. Thank you for the information and explanation.

  6. I, for one, like thoughtful political ramblings. I often don't know how to put my thoughts into words, so I appreciate it when I find a like minded person who has done so, and well. Thank you for writing this.

  7. I agree with kc, and I'm posting this on my Facebook. Thank you so much for writing this!

  8. this is an excellent post...i was a political science major too - we should talk sometime, yeah? i thought this was a DISASTER of a heartbreaking story...and you summed it up so well.

    i hope all this madness stops.

  9. Well said.

    This week has been very politically charged for me personally as well as across the country. I had the TV on in the background this week when Bowling for Columbine came on Showtime. I had never seen it before and stopped what I was doing and sat down to watch for a bit. There is a part where someone makes a claim that the US doesn't drop bombs on countries who don't attach us first...followed by a litany of scenes where in fact, we do. As I was bombarded by the images and facts one after another, I felt my heart racing. I was disgusted. And this "scene" ended by showing a clip of the second plane ramming into the WTC. That day for me, like so many other people, was filled with countless fears and seeing it again was too much. I just started crying. I had to turn the TV off and try to get on with my day. That experience, coupled with the violence of this week? It's just too effing much. It's overwhelming. I feel powerless to try to make a stand, to try to make a change. Something needs to change.

  10. This was an incredibly well-written piece. Words are real, we all know this. I had sadly been avoiding much of politics lately and tend to turn a deaf ear to Palin anyway, but clearly, accountability is a must. Time to get my letter-writing hand ready.

    Props. And Sarah, hugs to you.

  11. I don't have to right words.

    You really do.

    Things do need to change.

  12. Thank you. We outside of the US are increasingly terrified of what people like Sarah Palin are doing to a country that we love so dearly.

    Politicians can be awful, but we know that. We still live in democratic countries, and if we ignore hate speak and vote for them anyway, we are at least as much the problem as they are. Hitler didn't seize power - he was voted in.

  13. Every word you wrote was so true.

    It makes me so angry to hear people say "both sides do it". No. Mainstream Democrats criticize Republican IDEAS. They don't suggest that voters "reload" or use "second amendment remedies". There are crazy people on the right and left, but only on one side are the crazies elected to national office. I don't like to be hyper-partisan, but that's just the honest truth. The violent rhetoric is coming from the right only.

  14. Becca you wrote this so well. It is time for those of us who are sick of the current discourse to stand up against it. I'm so glad you did. Thank you.

  15. well put. Thank you for writing, and writing about it so well.

  16. BRAVO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    You get a standing ovation for this post.

  17. If I hadn't known you for so long, I would have called this post remarkable. You are the pride of the odd-siders with this well eloquently well written, moments after the fact, post.

    p.s. just saw it today


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