Unfounded Accusations, the Tuscon Shootings, and Inflamed Discourse

There has been much talk about the state of American political discourse after the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona. It seems natural in the wake of such an event to try to pinpoint the exact cause. Even when someone is as seemingly deranged as the shooter, Jared Loughner, many still attempt to find the trigger that sent him on his killing spree. While some have attacked the gun laws of Arizona and the state of mental health care, the greatest weight of the blame seems to have been placed on the tone of political discourse in the United States. This is not necessarily a new talking point; throughout the summer of 2010, the blogosphere, and ultimately the mainstream news media, was abuzz with concern for the “heated rhetoric” surrounding the health care and other debates.

In some portrayals, town halls seemed to be more fisticuffs instead of peaceable assemblies of citizens. The constant message from left-wing blogs of a racist, violent Tea Party tried to frame white hoods and burning crosses on the entire movement. Unsurprisingly, then, within minutes of the news that Rep. Giffords had been shot, tweets and blog posts flew about the internet holding Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and any other popular conservative figures responsible for the deaths and injuries of that day. The editorial pages were not slow to follow, either by outright playing the blame game or taking a more subtle stance of “reassessing the state of political discourse.” Unfortunately,by their rush to judgment, those criticizing the “poisonous discourse” have only inflamed the passions of those who feel — quite rightly — that they are being wrongly accused.

When someone in the media criticizes the state of discourse, it is almost always framed in the narrative of a reactionary swing to the far right, fed by demagogues on that perennial punching bag, Fox News. Tweets abound from smug commentators posting the infamous Sarah Palin target map as a smoking gun directly implicating her in this massacre. Facebook statuses on my News Feed rushed to demonize the Tea Party for supposedly turning to violence in order to make a political point. The finger pointing quickly expanded out of the blogosphere and entered editorial pages and cartoons across the country. Jeff Danziger, the noted cartoonist, sketched out an image of a gunman emerging from a tea pot while firing a gun. The New York Times’ editorial board quickly entered the fray, stating on January 11 that “it is legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats, setting the nation on edge.”

Of course, the hastily-crafted judgment of the Gray Lady, among others, did nothing to cool tensions. Rather, conservative blogs were infuriated that they were being indicted for a crime without any evidence. This is a pattern that has been long in the making. In their hand-wringing moralizing over the supposedly racist, radical Tea Partiers, the editorialists and commentators have only added more fuel to the fire they claim to deplore. While there are numerous examples to pick among the accusations of racism, one might take Frank Rich’s column in the New York Times from March 27, 2010. Rich commented that “the conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman” is the real reason behind Republican opposition to the Democratic agenda. That the Republicans actually have policy differences with the Democrats, and that these differences even have grounding in reason, seems not to have crossed Rich’s mind.

Such statements typify the attitude on the Left regarding the motivation for opposition to the Democratic agenda. In the minds of the Times’ editorial board, there cannot be any factually-based opposition to the great plans of President Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress. They are confused why the masses that inhabit the vast region between New York City and Los Angeles are so passionately opposed to Obama’s benevolent programs. Since there is no legitimate policy-based opposition, they think this rejection can only be due to racism. What these commentators fail to realize is that the unfounded charge of racism is one of the most poisonous barbs that can be thrown in political discourse. Citizens who hold reasonable opposition to the healthcare bill or financial regulation bill are only infuriated when they are hectored about their supposed underlying racism. By linking opposition to irrational causes such as racism and other hatreds, these columnists and bloggers insult their fellow citizens and only drive them to even greater opposition.

The same reaction can be seen in the wake of the Tucson shootings. Conservatives mourned the victims and prayed for the families as much as liberals did, yet one can imagine the reaction when they are told that they have blood on their hands. Hot Air, RedState, and the rest of the right-leaning blogosphere led the defense against the initial charge of attacks from sites such as Daily Kos, along with the subsequent salvoes of the newspaper editorial boards. What resulted has not been a halcyon era of civil discourse but a tense standoff between those ready to accuse and those ready to defend.

It should also be mentioned that the cries for civility were noticeably absent in the eight years of the Bush administration. For all the talk about a dangerous political environment, one cannot find a conservative film about the assassination of President Obama. Meanwhile, Death of a President, i.e. President Bush, can be found for rental on Netflix. Even among the mainstream Democratic leadership, one could not make a speech without referring either to the hatred of Bush or the illegitimacy of his presidency. Howard Dean, perhaps not taking any lessons from his scream, made the blustery comment in 2005 that “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for.” For all the worrying over the implications of the Birther conspiracies, there did not seem to be any hand-wringing over the jokes that Bush was placed into office illegitimately. One would hope the rejection of both the Birther conspiracies and the Florida election conspiracies would be non-partisan issues, given that both notions have no factual basis whatsoever.

Moreover, it is important to remember that the supposedly deplorable state of political commentary did not start on the day after President Obama’s inauguration. The website Reason created what might have been attack ads if television existed in 1800. The ad, taking real accusations from the election of 1800, highlighted the accusation that John Adams is trying to “import mistresses from Europe” and Jefferson’s own comment that Adams had “neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Regarding Jefferson, the advertisement stated that “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced” under a Jeffersonian administration. It is unlikely nowadays that anyone is as inflammatory as the pro-Adams source who asked if citizens were prepared to see “children writhing on a pike.” So much for the civil days of political discourse that supposedly once existed.

Ultimately, one must remember that the most important aspect of political discourse is truth. While ideally truth should be conveyed in a calm matter, it is hardly a sin to be passionate about an issue. Is it true that the most heated talk about FEMA internment camps or death panels (or, looking back to the Bush administration, the worries over martial law or mass election fraud) is unnecessary in discourse? Of course, but this is true principally because these talking points are simply untrue, not necessarily because they were expressed in fiery language. It is important for people not to be cruel or demonizing, but the public should be concerned about whether someone is speaking truthfully before worry about whether he is speaking nicely. Barring some groundbreaking revelation, it seems clear that neither Sarah Palin nor Fox News sent Loughner on his killing spree. It is time to stop using this tragedy as a way to score political points openly or subtly. False accusations of blame or chastisements of the public for its incivility will only further inflame the state of political discourse.

~Samuel L. Coffin

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