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Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Only tangentially related to Lebanon and cross-posted on facebook...

Experiencing a national trauma from abroad is pretty much like experiencing a national trauma at home. On Saturday night I watched the BBC World News channel on tv, read the New York Times webpage, and of course monitored facebook as more information about the shootings in Arizona became available. Despite the fact that I was sitting in Beirut, I felt close to the tragedy, maybe because I lived in Tucson for four years, love the place, and have friends scattered around Arizona.

On facebook opinions flow as quickly as information. After a few days of reading both and following the news somewhat obsessively, I realize I apparently disagree with many fellow liberals about the degree to which the shootings are a referendum on the state of civic discourse in the U.S.

I think the state of civic discourse is bad. But the biggest problem isn’t that the discourse is violent (though it is), it’s that the discourse is bad. It’s weak, reductive, excludes dissenting voices, and oversimplifies complex issues. We need to put a broader spectrum of ideologies in heavy circulation and we need to have more knowledgeable analysts put events in their various contexts.

But know why I object to Sarah Palin? Because 1) I disagree with virtually all of her political positions, and 2) I think she lacks intellect, wisdom, civic commitment, and curiosity. Not because she has used metaphors like “let’s reload” or an info-graphic that looked like a rifle scope. (Also, not because she’s the mother of a single parent, engages in leisure activities that don’t interest me, or works outside the home…all of which have been used against her and most of which are rooted in sexism and classism.)

Agonism and satire are among the many rhetorical postures that have long been used by both individuals and social movements—sometimes in vitriolic and divisive ways. And, yes, by members of many different political ideologies. Not always the best way to build consensus, persuade people who disagree, or promote peace—if those are indeed the goals—but let’s acknowledge that these tropes and strategies have long, long histories and diverse practitioners.

The fist as a symbol of black nationalism. The rifle scope in the artwork of the great hip hop band Public Enemy. Caricatures of Sarah Palin’s children.

I mean, are we really pointing to Keith Olbermann as the savior of civil discourse? He’s an entertaining guy, but, come on!

The debate about whether “both sides” use violent rhetoric is going nowhere and plays right into the oversimplification game anyhow: our side doesn’t do this, our side does this less than the other side, our side did this in the past but now now, our side doesn’t have a body count.

Certainly political discourse didn’t cause that madman to kill people in Arizona. And I’m suspicious of the notion that political discourse “created the climate” for him to kill people. By most accounts he seems to be mentally ill, likely schizophrenic. Yes, but Rush Limbaugh et al should be responsible and know that unstable people might hear their inflammatory rhetoric and act out. Okay, then Ozzy Osborne should never have released the song “Suicide Solution,” hip hop artists should never have created any inflammatory lyrics about police brutality, that Iraqi journalist shouldn’t have thrown his shoe at George Bush, Swift should never have written the barbaric “Modest Proposal,” Thomas Paine shouldn’t have been so reckless as to publish Common Sense, oh and Scorcese shouldn’t have made Taxi Driver, which had violent imagery and an incendiary plot and created a climate in which Hinckley could attempt to assassinate the president.

Yes, but those examples conflate pop culture, art, politics and news media. You bet they do. How can you separate those realms? They all contribute to the climate, they all circulate images and representations, they all have some degree of influence. And people accuse all of them of creating a toxic culture. I never bought into the idea that punk rock music (which I love) creates a toxic culture and I have trouble buying into the notion that inflammatory right-wing political speech (which I don’t love) creates a toxic culture. It creates a lousy public sphere, but not a toxic culture and not a climate for murder.

Part of the problem is that I don’t know what “creates a climate” means. And in the context of these events in Tucson, I don’t know what phrases like “rhetoric matters” and “rhetoric has consequences” mean either. I have a PhD in rhetoric and I don’t know what these things mean exactly. These all strike me as vague statements, meant to establish some kind of tenuous correlation. Imagine that the shooter in Arizona had his bedroom walls plastered with images of Glen Beck. What then? What would we as a society be obligated to do with that information?

We should absolutely analyze this tragedy from every angle. Yes, we should analyze the rhetoric that circulated in the shooter’s worlds. But in the rush to critique the political climate, we neglect other matters like the gun (purchased, carried, and concealed legally) and the mental illness (untreated despite frightened neighbors and dismissal from college). Now that’s toxic.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Bill. Been meaning to drop you a note for some time now . . . really enjoying the blog. Best to you & Nicole. Take care, Troy