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Lessons from Tucson


Cynicism and irrational fear may be the real problems

In the aftermath of last weekend's horrific shooting in Arizona, there's been a lot of talk over the last few days about the need for American politicians and pundits to ratchet back on the references – either explicit or implied – to violence and violent images. Much of this talk is welcome and on the money.

On Sunday, Paul Krugman of the New York Times penned a column entitled "Climate of Hate" [2] in which he said the following:

"The point is that there's room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isn't any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary.

And it's the saturation of our political discourse – and especially our airwaves – with eliminationist rhetoric that lies behind the rising tide of violence."

Krugman is right, of course; if enough prominent people say a particular thing (or things) enough times in enough public forums, it begins to have a desensitizing effect. Language and beliefs that were once verboten can gradually become acceptable and even respectable. And as Rachel Slajda documented at Talking Points Memo yesterday morning [3], the most recent campaign season was chock full of violent (and almost always conservative) imagery.

Now add apparently unstable people like Jared Loughner into the stew and results like last Saturday's shooting are not terribly surprising.

In many ways, it's a familiar pattern. If enough clerics or movement leaders call for a violent jihad enough times, eventually there will be disturbed people like the 9/11 hijackers and Timothy McVeigh who will act upon these words.

What lies behind the violent language and imagery

But, of course, most of the people using violent language or images aren't doing so with the intention of actually promoting real violence. Sure, a few crackpot candidates and radio shouters on the far off fringe may have connections to the kooks in the various "militia" groups and the like, but most public figures aren't that far out there.

Notwithstanding her professed love of guns, Sarah Palin didn't keep images on her website of the districts of political opponents (like Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords) in crosshairs [4] (now removed, thankfully) because she wanted to promote actual armed conflict. For all of the talk about "revolution" and "taking no prisoners" and "hunting Democrats," effete, gazillionaire blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck don't really want gun battles in the street. If it ever erupted anywhere close they'd hop on their private jets and hightail it to some tropical island.

For most of these people, the violent imagery is a tool. They use it because they know it will work to help them promote their actual political agendas.

But why does it work? What makes such talk so appealing to so many and such an effective tool?

The answer is pretty obvious to anyone who looks at the situation dispassionately; it is fear – ignorant, irrational fear. The world is moving and changing at a fast pace – faster, it seems, than ever before – and many, many people are terrified of what that movement and change portends.

Think about it for a minute; consider the change that the average adult American has witnessed in the last few decades – especially with the omnipresence of the 24-hour, 365-days-a-year news cycle keeping it in his or her face every day. The economy has changed, work has changed, food has changed, communication has changed, sex roles have changed, entertainment has changed, the population has changed, huge nations have changed, the environment has changed, and with 9/11, common perceptions of safety and security have changed.

Now, add to this mix the effects of 40 years of policy success by a corporate-funded movement determined to undermine the public safety net and zealously promote the notion of a dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest world [5], plus the worst economic downturn in 75 years and the sea change represented by the election of Barack Obama, and you've got quite a stew in which to cultivate a political movement based on looking to the past.

Indeed, there's nothing particularly new or original about such a development in the face of rapid societal change. There are scores of historical examples in which conservative movements have ridden waves of fear and corporate money to power through the use of macho, nativist appeals about threats to the mother country and violent language and imagery. Heck, look at modern Iran and Russia.

Strange as it may seem, allusions to violence and weapons in such situations are a salve to many. Especially for white men – the group of Americans whose once unchallenged position atop the societal heap is now at least subject to question – guns say "Stop! Go no further. Do not cross this line."

Actual use of a weapon (or even ownership, for that matter) may be the exception rather than the rule, but these people like the idea of it; the notion that weapons are out there to send a very tangible message to "the other." Unfortunately, in such an environment, some disturbed outliers (like Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph and Jared Loughner) fail to catch on that the guns and weapons bravado is just supposed to be a pose.

So, what do we do?

Finding the antidote to the kind of tragic violence that occurred in Tucson this past weekend will not be easy. Having brought the heat under the stew up to a slow boil, we may find it hard to cool things down overnight.

In the near term, though, the direct approach put forward by a lot of people of varying political persuasions – ratcheting back on the rhetoric and purging the violent references and imagery – is a good start. The less we expose the Jared Loughners of the world to such ideas, the better.

In the long run, however, the real solution has to involve addressing the root cause, namely, the fear of the future and of the unknown that afflicts so many. Here, three solutions stand out:

First is a renewed commitment to economic growth and revitalization and a robust safety net. Nothing soothes fear of the future like widely shared economic security.

Second is a lot more patient, persistent myth-busting. If we are to halt cynical manipulation of the fearful, thinking people must speak out calmly, forcefully and repeatedly to respond to (or as Sarah Palin might say, "refudiate") the right-wing propaganda machines. We need more strong and active progressive voices.

Finally, is a revived American peace movement. While most progressives still celebrate peace and its most famous champions (i.e. Jesus, Gandhi, MLK, the Dalai Lama) explicit use of peace language seems to have lost some its "coolness." Now seems like a good time to try it do something about this.

Seventy years ago in the 1941 State of the Union speech, President Franklin Roosevelt listed "freedom from fear" as one of the four core freedoms [6] for which our country must stand. He was right, of course. In 2011, there are few better things that we could do to i
mprove our democracy and the public discourse upon which it depends than to heed Roosevelt's call to strengthen and preserve that freedom.