Existential rhetoric not new in American politics
After Saturday's tragic shooting in Tucson, some have pointed the finger at inflammatory political rhetoric.
Many singled out Sarah Palin's now-infamous "Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!" tweet and her 'Crosshairs' campaign map, which included Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' district, as a sign that some politicians have gone too far in stoking vitriol against their political opponents. (Since the shooting, Palin reportedly emphasized in an email that she "hates violence.") Others reject any connection between the shooter, who does not appear to espouse any coherent ideology, and our current political climate.
What are the ethical and moral implications of incendiary political language?
This weekend's shooting at point blank range of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a U.S. Congresswoman, continues to attract much attention from the mainstream media. Alongside the coverage of the shooting has been a stinging critique of right-wing talking heads who have heightened their anti-government rhetoric in the past several years. This is quite ironic, as it is these very same pundits who often criticize rappers, rock stars, and violence in films for contributing to the violence in our society.
While I believe both the right-wing critique of rap music, and the recent critique of the right-wing media for inspiring the Giffords shooting to be equally over-blown, the hypocrisy is gloriously evident. For example, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly had as his guest in May 2006, rapper Cam'ron and label executive Damon Dash. Chiding the lyrics in their music for negatively inspiring youth, O'Reilly asked Cam'ron: "What if an 11 year old kid imitates you, Cam'ron? What if he uses four-letter words and he develops a lifestyle based upon the street. He gets tattooed. Do you feel badly about that?"
Following the Giffords shooting, the conversation about media's responsibility in fomenting violence has again come to the fore. This time, however, it is the right-wing media who are being blamed, not rappers or Hollywood. O'Reilly, however, was having none of it. He stated, predictably, on his show that commentators on the left were exploiting the shooting to score political points. He decried what he called the "exploitation of the murders by political zealots." He went on to say that "Only moments after Congresswoman Giffords was shot, some far left loons began to spew their hatred."
While there are indeed moral obligations and responsibilities undergirding free speech, it is unfair to blame Cam'ron or O'Reilly for how their words are interpreted by the general public. This is too large a responsibility. Although many right-wing voices, including Sarah Palin, may have used gun imagery in their critique of the left, they use it because it is an effective metaphor easily understood by their base. While statements like "we are losing our country" may unnecessarily frame fairly mundane policy issues in existential terms, it still falls within the purview of free speech and should be protected as such.
Politicians on the left and the right have always framed policy debates in much larger terms. Health care, taxes, gun rights, abortion, and the like have never been talked about as limited policy issues affecting a few million Americans, but as existential threats to American identity. Unfortunately, once in a while, someone may actually believe it.
Posted by: khenes | January 12, 2011 9:36 AM
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