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Both Sides Are Not Equally Responsible for our Toxic Discourse

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It was inevitable that, in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's massacre in Tucson, Arizona, many people would rush to conclusions about the motives of the alleged shooter and the meaning of those motives for understanding the larger political context in America in 2011. These sorts of events are, by definition, extreme ones, and it makes good sense to be careful about drawing more general conclusions from such unusual occurrences. But it's not a bad thing for events like this to prompt a conversation about the toxicity of our political discourse. And if we're going to have that conversation, it would be nice if commentators avoided resorting to the mindless meme that "both sides" are equally responsible for the ugly, over-heated rhetoric that is now so commonplace. Unfortunately, in its first attempt at raising this larger conversation on Saturday, the New York Times, in the person of Matt Bai failed this simple test of accurate characterization. His piece began as follows:

WASHINGTON -- Within minutes of the first reports Saturday that Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, and a score of people with her had been shot in Tucson, pages began disappearing from the Web. One was Sarah Palin's infamous "cross hairs" map from last year, which showed a series of contested Congressional districts, including Ms. Giffords's, with gun targets trained on them. Another was from Daily Kos, the liberal blog, where one of the congresswoman's apparently liberal constituents declared her "dead to me" after Ms. Giffords voted against Nancy Pelosi in House leadership elections last week.

Odds are pretty good that neither of these -- nor any other isolated bit of imagery -- had much to do with the shooting in Tucson. But scrubbing them from the Internet couldn't erase all evidence of the rhetorical recklessness that permeates our political moment.

For starters, the attempted comparison in this set-piece is absurd. On the one hand, you have the most recent GOP Vice Presidential nominee and a national superstar on the right, drawing maps with cross-hairs on it. On other, you have someone, unnamed, somewhere on Daily Kos' vast website using a phrase that is not, in common usage, a violent one.

Bai does spend some portion of his column providing examples of violent imagery as used by significant public figures, and all of them happen to be from the right -- Sharron Angle, Harry Reid's Senate opponent in 2010, talking about "domestic enemies." (And remember Michele Bachmann's infamous interview with Chris Matthews in 2008?); Rick Barber, an Alabama Republican Congressional candidate, talking about "gathering your armies" for an assault on Washington; the more general imagery of armed revolution stoked by Tea-party inspired GOP candidates and activists; Michael Steele calling for Nancy Pelosi to be sent to the "firing line." Bai could have gone farther of course -- Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh -- who between them have audiences in the tens of millions, repeatedly use the most caustic, inflammatory and often violent rhetoric to characterize that which they hate -- Obama, liberals, etc. And Bachmann herself has urged her supporters to be "armed and dangerous." Again, this is a hero of the right, not some obscure writer somewhere in the hinterlands of a liberal blog.

But despite this obvious reality -- that the vast majority of the most violence-suffused rhetoric in public life comes from right-wing public figures, Bai still remains wedded to a notion of balance that mischaracterizes reality. He bookends his BS introduction with an equally BS paragraph near the end of the piece:

None of this began last year, or even with Mr. Obama or with the Tea Party; there were constant intimations during George W. Bush's presidency that he was a modern Hitler or the devious designer of an attack on the World Trade Center, a man whose very existence threatened the most cherished American ideals.

Intimations, indeed. What major national Democratic figure signed on to "truther" conspiracy theories about 9/11? Who was it, exactly, among prominent national Democratic figures who was constantly intimating that Bush was Hitler? Much was made of a two videos, among 1,500 submitted to a Moveon.org contest in 2003, that drew this connection (and Moveon, which had nothing to do with the videos, quickly removed the material from their site). But again, were there any major national Democratic figures who could be said to fall into this category? Maybe George Soros. Oh, no wait, that's not true. It's the right -- including Glenn Beck -- that repeatedly "intimates" that Soros was a Nazi collaborator.

As Krugman wrote Monday morning, concerns about "civility" are misplaced. People have profound disagreements about the most important issues and democratic societies should air those disagreements vigorously.

And right-wingers are generally free to indulge their taste for gun-related metaphors, to carry weapons openly at political events in states (like Arizona) that allow such things and to use violent and apocalyptic imagery to characterize their opponents (as when members of Congress compared health care reform to the imposition of Stalinism). But the two sides do not, in equal proportion, resort to extremist, inflammatory rhetoric and, particularly, to violent imagery flowing from the right's fetishization of guns. And when horrific events like the one that took place on Saturday occur, they should not expect to be exempted from accountability for their brazenness, nor should mainstream journalists continue to obscure the blindingly obvious realities of the main sources of the ugliness in our public discourse.

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