Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Demagoguery, Incitement, and Violence

Were battle metaphors used by the political right in anyway responsible for the shooting of Representative Giffords? Currently those on the left are saying: absolutely. And those on the right, most prominently Sarah Palin, are disclaiming any responsibility.

When Palin put cross hairs of a gun site on Giffords’ district, with Giffords’ name, did she intend that someone would take a gun and shoot her? Palin and her defenders say: absolutely not, people use battle metaphors all the time in politics. And Howard Kurtz, a reporter on media agrees.

What Kurtz misses, I think, is the bigger picture of non-stop angry demagoguery over Obama and his policies. A demagogue is one who stirs up fear and anger to serve his or her political ends. It is a very effective political tactic that has succeeded very often in history.

The demagogue in a democratic society most often does not want to create violence, but just wants to win election and ensure that their policies prevail. Thus I agree that most on the right that they did not intend for their extreme rhetoric to lead to violence. However the demagoguery does indeed encourage fear, anger, and hatred. And the result is that more unbalanced individuals will go to the extreme of violence.

Now it might be argued that the Conservatives have been simply sincerely warning about a severe threat to the future of the country. A test of that is whether their warnings have been honest. They have not. Politifact.com had as “lie of the year” for 2009 that the then proposed health care had “death panels” in it. In fact such panels never existed in any proposal. And Politifact’s “lie of the year” for 2010 is that the new health care law is a “government takeover” of healthcare. In fact, private insurance remains in place, albeit with increased government regulation. These lies have been intended to scare people, and statements like Glenn Beck’s, that Obama “hates white people,” are intended to stir hatred.

The problem then, is not simply military metaphors. It is military metaphors in the context of any overall campaign to incite hatred of the government, the president, and members of congress. Whether the confused mind of the assassin was directly influenced by this rhetoric we may never know. But that a climate of hatred of government and government officials I think it is likely had an influence. And in any case it is an evil, and those perpetrating this incitement should be condemned, along with their deceitful campaigns.

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