Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On rhetoric and romanticised revolution

Or, But Words Can Never Hurt Me

Okay, so I'm sure you know that Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot, along with 18 other people, at a neighborhood meeting in Tucson. The shooter was a scattered, rambling, unsettling anti-government type; the victims included a nine-year-old girl and a federal judge who died while shielding a man with his own body.

When a tragedy like that takes place, the immediate instinct is to figure out why, God, why it happened--and it's a reasonable one. This tragedy had an easy focus: Sarah Palin's PAC had posted a map online pointing out Democrats who had supported Obama's health care reform bill. Each was marked with crosshairs; Palin introduced the map by saying, "Don't retreat, instead--RELOAD!"

That a woman targeted with crosshairs should end up shot is horrible but more ironic than suspicious; we have no reason to believe that Jared Lee Loughner was trying to follow Palin's instructions when he went after Giffords. But at the same time, it's significant--while Palin's map may not have been the instigator of this act, it definitely contributed to a growing culture of violent imagery and threatening political rhetoric.

Regardless of the Tea Partiers' own culpability for such rhetoric, it's easy to start with them. They're the ones who adopted the imagery of the American Revolution, which was a violent protest that went far beyond the dumping of tea into a harbor to actual and extensive bloodshed. In a time when objections to things like taxes are generally bloodless and handled by men in suits, Tea Partiers play the role of oppressed colonials who can only accomplish their goals at the business end of a rifle. In the hands of a Revolutionary War re-enactor, that's quaint; in the hands of an unorganized and impassioned crowd scattered across the nation, feeding each other's fervor and whipping themselves into a self-righteous frenzy, it's dangerous.

But it's not just them. Politicians stand in front of cameras to casually throw out incendiary words: Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle suggests "Second Amendment remedies." RedState's Erick Erickson ponders (rhetorically, of course) constituents marching down to their legislator's house to "beat him to a bloody pulp for being an idiot." "If ballots don't work, bullets will." "You're going to have to shoot them in the head." "Armed and dangerous."

We live, thank God, in peaceful and protected times. Fears of homeland terrorism notwithstanding, the greatest threats to the safety of Americans are overseas; we're not conscripted to war; having your voice heard in government comes not by waving a gun but by buying a Congressman. Just like it's easy to trumpet war when you're not going to be the one fighting it, it's easy to throw around violent rhetoric--guns, bullets, watering trees, bloody beatdowns--when you've never had to deliver on it and likely never will. For the vast majority of Americans, dramatic things just don't happen, and it becomes easy to fantasize about wearing the hat of a righteous and triumphant revolutionary standing up for liberty at all costs.

Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the face. Six people died. Violence has consequences. Revolution isn't romantic. Bloodshed isn't romantic. Death isn't romantic. Death is bloody and tragic and permanent, and it's easy to ignore that when you're holding a "tree of liberty" placard at a Tea Party rally, but it's a fact and it's always there.

It's not about being passionate or even angry--God knows I have more than one pissed-off post up here, certainly ones where I would have done well to wait half an hour before clicking "post." Passion is what has made our country great--it was passion and determination, not violence, that sustained the American Revolution. Be fervent, vehement, angry, irate, even.

But there's a line between anger and incitement. Before you cross that line, take a moment to consider what a "Second Amendment solution" would look like, and who it would hurt. Consider how you'd feel if the "tree of liberty" were "watered" by someone you love. Consider what would happen if you really did "march down to [your] state legislator's house" and his teenage daughter answered the door. Consider what your next step would be after you "reloaded."

Giffords herself commented on the impact of violent rhetoric in early 2010 when, shortly after Palin's map went up, her office was struck by brick-wielding vandals.
"We're on Sarah Palin's targeted list," she said, "but the thing is that the way she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they've got to realize there's consequences to that action."

"The reality is that we've got to focus on the policy, focus on the process, but leaders--community leaders, not just political leaders--have to stand back when things get too fired up and say, 'Whoa, let's take a step back here.'"

The First Amendment guarantees us freedom of speech--up to certain limits--and I'll always stand by that. But we have to recognize the impact of our words, even before we get to the stage of "inciting imminent lawless action." Things that are legal to say aren't always right to say. What is now for you a sunlit Nathan Hale daydream was, at one time, an unavoidable and tragic consequence of change. And it could be, now, a rallying cry for more violence and bloodshed and death and tragedy.

Be angry. Speak passionately. But for the love of God, understand what you're saying before you say at be willing to say, "Whoa, let's take a step back here."

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