Recently I've heard a lot of people talking about how the shooting in Arizona was merely the product of violent rhetoric on the part of America's right-wing. Such claims, I feel, are disingenuous. What information I can find about the situation points to the killer being more mentally unbalanced than a political actor. Nonetheless, I feel that this situation presents an opportunity of us to seriously examine the way we discuss politics in our country -- and, especially, how we value speech.
Recently the chancellor of UC Berkeley sent out an email:
[The attack] calls upon us as an academic community to stop and ponder the climate in which such an act can be contemplated, even by a mind that is profoundly disturbed. A climate in which demonization of others goes unchallenged and hateful speech is tolerated can lead to such a tragedy. I believe that it is not a coincidence that this calamity has occurred in a state which has legislated discrimination against undocumented persons. This same mean-spirited xenophobia played a major role in the defeat of the Dream Act by our legislators in Washington, leaving many exceptionally talented and deserving young people, including our own undocumented students, painfully in limbo with regard to their futures in this country.
The statement, in my opinion, makes little sense in this context. The assassin had, so far as we can tell, no comprehensible political motivations or goals; he wasn't, judging from what I've read and heard about the situation, xenophobic, and this wasn't an attack on a person of color or an undocumented student. In fact, Representative Giffords was known as a moderate on many issues, including on immigration.
None of this is to say that I agree with the racist Arizona legislation, or that I oppose the DREAM Act. I do, however, feel that it is concerning to see political viewpoints falsely attributed to a tragic event. When this happens, some may clamor for censorship -- a dangerous step. As Adam Kissel, a fellow blogger and advocate for individual rights, points out, "there is not and cannot be widespread agreement on what speech is "hateful" and therefore undeserving of Constitutional protection."
Additionally, such statements (the statement from the chancellor of UC Berkeley was not the only one of its kind) have given ultra-right wing conservatives such as Sarah Palin an opportunity to gain. Almost immediately we saw a salvo from conservatives, including Sarah Palin, condemning such connections as "blood libel." Here, too, I see problems in our political rhetoric.
I cannot believe that Palin was ignorant of the history of the term "blood libel," which was long used as an excuse by anti-Semites to persecute Jews. More likely, she chose it on purpose. You see, the statement from the chancellor of UC Berkeley was not entirely wrong: there is something terribly wrong with our political discourse (though part of his statement is also part of that problem).
Palin's statement is but one in a long line of manifestations of a paranoia and persecution complex that now characterizes the American conservative movement. Sure, both sides have their nutcases (anyone remember the Truthers?), but the paranoiacs of the conservative movement have increasingly edged toward the mainstream (Glenn Beck, anyone?).
In 2009, a Catholic group likened the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to Nazis, because it condemned the Church's stance on gay adoption. A recent editorial in the Washington Post took note of statements by both Glenn Beck and Erick Erickson (the managing editor of right-wing website Redstate.com). Beck claimed that the government wanted to "take [his] kids" if he didn't allow them to be vaccinated (which, for the record, would not happen), and invited the government to "Meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Weston" if they tried. Erickson claimed, "We have become, or are becoming, enslaved by the government... I dare 'em to try to come to throw me in jail. I dare 'em to. [I'll] pull out my wife's shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door."
Meyerson, the author of the editorial, summarized the problem aptly:
The primary problem with the political discourse of the right in today's America isn't that it incites violence per se. It's that it implants and reinforces paranoid fears about the government and conservatism's domestic adversaries.
Much of the culture and thinking of the American right -- the mainstream as well as the fringe -- has descended into paranoid suppositions about the government, the Democrats and the president. This is not to say that the left wing doesn't have a paranoid fringe, too. But by every available measure, it's the right where conspiracy theories have exploded.
Such a culture of not only paranoia (as Meyerson points out) but also of persecution itself contradicts the possibility of a healthy political discourse. Conservatives who view all things liberal as fascist or an attack upon themselves, or their family, or Christmas, will very quickly find themselves simply unable to compromise on the smallest of matters.
So, yes: I am concerned about the state of political affairs in my country. One side claims that an attack by a madman is the result of political beliefs, and the other drums up apocalyptic scenarios of a fascist takeover (or promulgates the notion that such a takeover has already happened!). And, yes: perhaps the conservatives may have been right, in that it was inappropriate to tie the attempted assassination of this congresswoman to their politics of fear. But perhaps they should take a peek in their own backyard, when it comes to matters of "disgraceful" (as Palin put it) political rhetoric.
Follow Noah Baron on Twitter: www.twitter.com/noahbbaron