Saturday, January 22, 2011

Where Is the High Road?

This sort of stuff can be infuriating. Importantly, I imagine that it's infuriating to folks on both sides of the political lines. Rhetoric tends, perhaps by its very nature, to certain kinds of excess and "flourish," and in the current context, I'm certainly alarmed by what appears to be a growing class of political terrorists in the U.S.--that is, people who believe that killing those with whom they politically disagree (or even discussing it or encouraging it or joking about it) is an acceptable course of action. (At the same time, I realize that a vast majority of people see through this; but a terrorist class does not have to be large to be a problem.) This seems particularly problematic in the context of what is supposed to be a (deliberative) democracy. It belies a terrible ignorance of history and the humanities--Plato's Apology for a start, and Socrates' warning that killing him would not accomplish very much--which reflects something deeply amiss in the American social fabric.

But what I've really been pondering is the question: what is the right response to violent rhetoric and political violence? There seem to be a few options:

1. Find a scapegoat: Blame Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Which is roughly what's happening, and I can't see this achieving much, except infuriating everyone over and over.

2. Give a warm-hearted, earnest speech: Talk about bipartisanship and working together and tolerance and the point that violence simply can't be the right way to resolve political disagreements in a (supposedly) civil and democratic society. The sort of speech Obama would deliver with typical eloquence. Edifying, but yawn.

3. Fight fire with fire: Buy guns and create counter-balancing violent factions, i.e. in this context, well-armed lefties. Let Obama (and Peolosi, etc.) start carrying unconcealed handguns. Incompatible with #2.

4. Embrace the One's Targethood: Tell the violent rhetoric-mongers and the actual terrorists, "Bring it on." This probably sounds childish, but honestly, I don't think anything else could have any significant chance of speaking to the people who feel so disenfranchised by the society that they need to resort to the language of violence or to violent action. It would also get the attention of the yawning majority in a way that #2 alone can't. So, take away the thing the violent are trying to have for themselves: the status of a sacrificial lamb. Don't blame them (or their alleged order-barkers), don't ask them for a tolerant hug (since that's not what they want): acknowledge this desire and will to advocate and do violence, acknowledge one's vulnerability to it, and one's willingness to be killed if it must come to that. This is hard. (Seriously: it's very easy to talk about dying for one's beliefs and another thing to face that prospect in all seriousness unless you are a very marginalized person without anyone who loves you.) And this is a non-ideal solution, for a non-ideal situation. In an ideal situation, no one has to be in a position where they must be willing to die for what they believe. I don't think that "bring it on" is exactly the right phrasing, although there is a sense in which this is what Socrates was up to in the Apology. And there are worse examples by which to live.

5. Play Deaf: Just ignore the rhetoric; acknowledge the violence that happens, condemn it, and those who would support such acts, and move on. This is what I try to do because otherwise I'll go crazy. But it's not obviously the right response for those who are more directly engaged in political activity. Perhaps merely "vowing to fight on"--insofar as this is a distinct response from #2 (or #4) fits here.

In any event, I think it would be great to hear Obama and others to acknowledge in a more unnerving and less abstract way that some people think that that political rivals should be killed, to openly acknowledge themselves as those rivals, and in this and other ways to personalize themselves as the targets of this violent rhetoric and, in some cases, action. (Maybe they have, and given my relative inattention, I've missed it.) Violence is easier when the enemy isn't a real, concrete person.


  1. I wonder what would happen if someone tried this. They might get shot, which is a good reason not to try it. More likely their opponents would either accuse them of lacking a sense of humor (or of failing to understand harmless metaphor) or else treat the "bring it on" speech as a confession that the speaker was indeed a revolutionary socialist who won't be stopped by anything less than violence. I can imagine that this might be accompanied by sheepish embarrassment. But there seem to be enough people to keep the rhetoric going who are incapable of embarrassment or else will say anything if it gets them paid and/or famous. I don't know whether there is a solution, but if there is, it might be for someone to be killed in circumstances that very clearly were linked to some specific speech made by a specific person. The demand for violent rhetoric needs to go away, but that might not happen until there are no longer any angry old (white) men (I think this is the main audience for the rhetoric in question, but I could be wrong).

  2. Yeah. Point about angry old (white) men duly noted. In part, what I'm thinking would be to emphasize the point about personalizing the language, which means to more directly confront threats and so on. I heard a news piece recently about the kinds of death threats people who planned to vote in favor of the health care bill received, and it was absolutely unbelievable. Most people will find it unbelievable, and I'm thinking that more exposing and confronting of these threats, more discussion of them as threats to persons in the specific might lead some of the people who, in some weird heat of the moment, think that this violent rhetoric is acceptable. Perhaps this belies a naive optimism that at least some of this rhetoric is the result of thoughtlessness about the full meaning of what one is saying, and what it would mean if someone took what one is saying to heart.

  3. I don't think that's naive (although I could be naive in thinking that, of course). It seems to me that there is rampant thoughtlessness here. What I can't tell is whether that's all it is, or whether any of the people involved (talking heads, paymasters, et al.) either just don't care whether anyone takes it to heart or else positively wants this to happen. I suspect both of the latter are mixed in with the thoughtlessness to some extent (in some, not all, people), but there's no knowing what the ratio of ingredients is. I am pretty sure it's mostly thoughtlessness though.