12 January 2011

Gabrielle Giffords, Violent Rhetoric and Stochastic Terrorism

I won't soon forget the stifled shriek my wife made on Saturday afternoon when we got home from the health club and she turned on the laptop to discover that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been shot.  Until this fall, we had lived for the past year plus in Tucson, Giffords's district, only about five miles from the site of the shooting.  I won't recount the details, which all have sure read a hundred times already, plus I don't like listing the numbers of dead and wounded as "statistics".

In addition to the upset felt by all, I felt particularly aggrieved.  It always feels more personal when a tragedy hits a place you know well, whether you know the particular people involved or not.  But I'm a political junkie, so I know about political figures and where they stand on issues.  Giffords is not a firebrand liberal, but she is not the kind of "Blue Dog" that most people think of when they hear that term for moderate/conservative Democrats either.  She is not a corporatist, or a Wall Street enabler, or a slave to the health insurance industry like so many of the people whom the progressive left consider traitors to their causes.  She is a defender of the right to bear arms, and she is a fierce advocate for increased border security.  These are her "conservative" credentials, quite unsurprising for a representative from a district with as much illegal immigration and frontier heritage as the Arizona 8th.

But what I liked best about Giffords, and liked the more I got to know her from watching her as my Representative, was that she was simultaneously able to always do what she felt was right, and take difficult stands on progressive issues that she knew would help her country and district, and yet still be a true representative of the people of her district, whether they always agreed with her or not.  Giffords was not one of the rare Democrats who won a close election in 2010 because she wavered and shifted rightwards, as the media narrative would like you to believe.  She won because she did what she believed in and had the certainty of her convictions to be able to forcefully defend her actions, but in such a way that even many who disagreed still respected her for her reasoning and her strength.  Democrats in 2010 failed to capitalize on the discontent among moderate Republicans with their lunatic tea party candidates not because they were too liberal, but because they were too spineless, and moderates and other independents admire strength of reasonable convictions as much as any other characteristics in their politicians, regardless of whether they are in 100% lockstep agreement on all of the issues.  Giffords has a lot of moderate Republican support in her district.  Witness Judge John Roll, a GHW Bush appointee, killed on Saturday in that Safeway parking lot.

Anyway, the burning question in the media following the shooting is, as always, who is to blame for this?  Whether a direct connection can be made or not, the irresponsible, violent and apocalyptic rhetoric from politicians, pundits, and other leaders on the right is an obvious place to begin a discussion.  It is especially obvious when you have lived in Arizona, as I have, for the past five years, and have followed politics closely on both the local and national levels.

This post could easily turn into a very long rant that goes off in all different directions, so I want to try to keep it corralled a bit.  That said, the idea behind this post was to bring together links to some of the best commentary I've read in the past three days.  I can't remember the last event that brought so much excellent insight and impassioned righteous indignation from liberals, but it has to have been before Obama was elected.  It's unfortunate that it took the deaths and maimings of many innocent people to wake them up from their slumber. 

Some of these articles are long, but every single one of them is worth your time to read, I personally guarantee it.  You will be smarter, more informed, and more immune to bullshit and false equivalencies from the apologists in the national media, and especially from the villains who provide the bulk of the hate and violent provocation in the political debate in America today.

This article was written last summer in Harper's Magazine, and is without a doubt the best picture of the current governmental and political environment in the State of Arizona that I have ever read.  You really get a taste of how far ahead of the curve on the tea party crazy the Arizona GOP is compared with the rest of the country, which really just got its first solid taste of it in the past two years.

Any way out of Arizona’s crisis will require raising taxes, a move that is tantamount to heresy for most lawmakers. For nearly a year, the legislature refused to approve the emergency sales-tax increase (of just one cent per dollar) proposed by Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican who had been elected as secretary of state but assumed the top job in 2009 when Janet Napolitano joined the Obama Administration. Eventually, lawmakers passed the buck to voters by authorizing a May 18 statewide ballot on the sales tax—which passed, after a $2.2 million marketing effort by education and business groups—but before doing so they enacted tax cuts that over four years will deprive the state of more money than the sales-tax increase is estimated to bring in. 

Instead, to raise cash, the legislature has pursued a series of wild sell-offs and budget cuts. It privatized the capitol building and leased it back from its new owner, an arrangement that brought in substantial revenue but over time will cost Arizona far more. The legislature has sold off numerous other state properties at bargain prices, and has put up future lottery revenues as collateral on a $450 million loan. Meanwhile, Arizona removed more than 300,000 adults from state health coverage and terminated one health-care program for 47,000 poor children. Funding was slashed at the agency that deals with reports of child abuse and neglect, and also at Children’s Rehabilitative Services, so that parents of children with cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, and a number of other conditions are now required to pay 100 percent of treatment costs. 

All totaled, the cuts amounted to roughly $1 billion, which came on top of a similar amount that had been slashed the previous year. These cuts, in combination with the sale of state assets (which raised more than $700 million) and the securitization of the lottery, plugged a massive hole in next year’s budget. But the deficit for 2011 is already projected to be at least $1 billion and possibly double that, on a total budget of only $9 billion. The situation will only worsen from there, as federal stimulus money dries up and the state runs out of short-term sources of cash. “Could we cut our way out of it mathematically?” Dennis Hoffman, an economist who has forecast revenue for Arizona governors since 1983, mused when I asked him about the crisis. “Anything is possible on paper, but for practical purposes it can’t be done, unless you want to start releasing prisoners, shutting down universities, and eliminating extracurricular activities in the schools. We’ve already had a $2 billion haircut over the past two years. Try another $2 billion and see what the state looks like.”
 What you have in Arizona is a state legislature that is dominated by the most unserious and unhinged people in the state, and despite the population of the state being reasonably moderate, the government is as far right-wing as mathematically possible.
Then there was Sylvia Allen, a real estate broker from the town of Snowflake, who, in 2008, was appointed by the local Republican Party to finish the term of a respected conservative who had died in office. Allen, who retained her seat in an election that fall, has since gained minor notoriety after calling for more uranium mining, saying in a speech that “this earth has been here 6,000 years, long before anybody had environmental laws, and somehow it hasn’t been done away with.” She also has complained that trees are “stealing Arizona’s water supply” and sponsored a new law that allows carriers of concealed weapons to forego safety training and the indignity of background checks.

Anyway, let's get back to the news term of the week:  "Violent Rhetoric".  The folks at Lawyers, Guns & Money have provided the service of reminding the world that not all offensive speech, or even all hateful speech, qualifies as "violent rhetoric".  But some of it, some that has had a flashlight shined upon it in the past few days, most certainly does.
Typically, then, we are left in a situation in which politicians, as rhetors, design speeches whose pathos is general enough to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.  It stands to reason that if we want to understand what “violent rhetoric” entails, we must focus on whose images and stories are stoking whose imaginations and to what effect.  Pointing out that Keith Olbermann associated Fox News with terrorist organizations foreign and domestic does nothing of the sort because the audience and intended effect of his statements is unclear.  How unclear?

If we posit his intended audience is liberals and leftists who believe President Obama is a centrist—which strikes me as a fairly accurate assessment—then we need to ask what the intended effect on that particular audience of associating Fox News with al-Qaeda would be.  Keeping in mind that we are currently at war with al-Qaeda, are we to believe that Olbermann is encouraging liberals and leftists to join a military-like organization and wage an Afghanistan-type offensive against Fox News?  Given that his audience is composed of people who are, generally speaking, opposed to war, does that make any sense?  Or is it more likely that he is simply attempting to create an association of like-with-like in which the likeness is supremely unflattering?  His rhetoric here is pathetic and inflammatory, but from the perspective of what it is intended to persuade its audience, it is also incoherent.  It can’t be considered “violent” because it in no way encourages its audience to have its imagination stoked by reference to violence.
Consider a slightly more infamous example:
Here the intended audience is those who believe President Obama is a radical leftist and associates itself with the center-right.  Unlike the audience of liberals and leftists, who oppose war and favor a restrictive interpretation of the Second Amendment, this audience is more hawkish and more likely to support of an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment.  I would contend that this is an example of “violent rhetoric” not because it contains crosshairs aimed at “the candidates” who represent “the problem” in need of “solution,” and despite the fact that talking about “solving” human beings has a rather untoward history, but because its violence is a product of whose imaginations are being stoked and how it is being done.
While definitionally correct, and certainly gratifying to liberals, it is a bit convenient that the author's framing of the above makes it virtually impossible for liberals to engage in "violent rhetoric" because of the fact that liberals in general do not like war, violence and guns.  It's kind of a truism, circular reasoning, whatever it might be called.  The author is a teacher of rhetoric not logic, and neither am I.

So, we will need something a bit more concrete to demonstrate that "violent rhetoric" is coming overwhelmingly from the right of the political spectrum.  Fortunately, there have been a wealth of articles written in the last two days that painstakingly document the multitudes of examples of such speech and acts on the right, and the paucity of such on the left.

Melissa McEwan at Shakespeare's Sister wins the prize for the best "No, both sides DO NOT do it" posting of the past few days.

Both sides are, in fact, not "just as bad," when it comes to institutionally sanctioned violent and eliminationist rhetoric.

An anonymous commenter at Daily Kos and the last Republican vice presidential nominee are not equivalent, no matter how many ridiculously irresponsible members of the media would have us believe otherwise.

There is, demonstrably, no leftist equivalent to Sarah Palin, former veep candidate and presumed future presidential candidate, who uses gun imagery (rifle sights) and language ("Don't Retreat, RELOAD") to exhort her followers to action.


There is no leftist equivalent to Glenn Beck, host of a long-running nationally syndicated radio show, former host of a show on CNN and current host of a show on Fox, best-selling author, DC rally organizer, and longtime user of eliminationist rhetoric, including equating universal healthcare to rape, joking about victims of forest fires being America-hating liberals, comparing Al Gore to Hitler, condoning the murder of Michael Moore, accusing Holocaust survivor George Soros of being a Nazi collaborator, joking about poisoning Nancy Pelosi, equating immigration reform with burning US citizens alive, publicly endorsing violent revolution, and winkingly telling his viewers not to get violent, all of which amounts to a speck on the tip of a very big iceberg.


Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

This is not an argument there is no hatred, no inappropriate and even violent rhetoric, among US leftists. There is.

This is evidence that, although violent rhetoric exists among US leftists, it is not remotely on the same scale, and, more importantly, not an institutionally endorsed tactic, as it is among US rightwingers.

This is a fact. It is not debatable.

And there is observably precious little integrity among conservatives in addressing this fact, in the wake of the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Palin takes the absolute cake for audaciously asserting that her rifle sight imagery was really "a surveyor's symbol," and not even having the decency to sheepishly acquiesce that, even if that were true (and not evident bullshit), it's understandable how a reasonable person could look at her "surveyor's symbol" alongside the word "target" and get the wrong, ahem, idea. No, it's all just a wall of total denial in the Palin camp, when she's not whining about being a victim herself of people who have the temerity to actually hold her accountable for her carelessly casual violent rhetoric. It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt. And then it's deny and play the martyr.
This list of instances of gun violence by "insurrectionists" and comments by the people who encourage them from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence is long and thorough and frightening, and doesn't need to be quoted.  If you read the whole thing, you might find a couple of people who may be considered "leftist" (the one who the right will be endlessly flogging over the coming weeks is that guy who took hostages at the Discovery Channel a few months ago, mainly because there aren't many other examples), but nearly all are ultra-conservative or libertarian types.

Apart from the "both sides do it" deflection (which is the slightly more sophisticated cousin of "but he started it"), the most common non est mea culpa you're likely to hear regarding Jared Lee Loughner is that he is a "lone nut".  As Matt Bai said in his widely read op-ed in The New York Times on Sunday, "It wasn't clear Saturday whether the alleged shooter in Tucson was motivated by any real political philosophy or by voices in his head, or perhaps by both."  

Of course, Bai presents us with a false choice (a favorite pastime of national political pundits, it seems).  There is no reason to believe that the shooter cannot have been motivated by BOTH a real political philosophy and voices in his head.  In fact, the knowledge that there are lunatics out there who may take "metaphors" and "jokes" seriously should make it so that public figures are even MORE careful about what sorts of things they say, especially when employing fear and violent imagery in rants about important topics like national and global politics.

I've seen two excellent metaphors employed to illustrate this connection.  The first was by Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post on Saturday night on Keith Olbermann's show (sorry, can't find video of it).  He compared violent rhetoric to a flu epidemic.  Just as epidemic illness mostly kills the young, old, sick, and weak, so does violent political rhetoric most influence the already mental disturbed. You wouldn't say that the flu was not to blame for killing an old woman just because she was old and probably going to die soon of something anyway.  Well, unless you were an asshole.

The second metaphor came from commentator "NC Steve 3.0" at TPM (I have to give Steve his props.  He is the best commentator at that blog, bar none).
Murdoch, Limbaugh, Beck, Malkin, Freep.com--the whole bunch of them--are like the tobacco industry in the 60s. They make millions selling people addictive poison. When confronted with the fact that their product is addictive poison, both the pushers and most of the addicts reacted with all-too-predictable fury. Just as the television networks made millions off of cigarette ads, the modern MSM today makes millions by using the poison spewers to generate "content" to fill up the time between commercials.

But better than these two simple metaphors is this incredibly insightful and eye-opening piece that has acquainted the entire progressive blogosphere with a new meme in the past two days:

Stochastic Terrorism.

Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.

This is what occurs when Bin Laden releases a video that stirs random extremists halfway around the globe to commit a bombing or shooting.

This is also the term for what Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity, and others do.  And this is what led directly and predictably to a number of cases of ideologically-motivated murder similar to the Tucson shootings.

Here's the mechanism spelled out concisely:

The stochastic terrorist is the person who uses mass media to broadcast memes that incite unstable people to commit violent acts.  

One or more unstable people responds to the incitement by becoming a lone wolf and committing a violent act.   While their action may have been statistically predictable (e.g. "given the provocation, someone will probably do such-and-such"), the specific person and the specific act are not predictable (yet). 
The stochastic terrorist then has plausible deniability: "Oh, it was just a lone nut, nobody could have predicted he would do that, and I'm not responsible for what people in my audience do."

The lone wolf who was the "missile" gets captured and sentenced to life in prison, while the stochastic terrorist keeps his prime time slot and goes on to incite more lone wolves.
Read the whole piece, it will change the way you look at al Qaeda as surely as it will change the way you look at Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

Most likely, we will see virtually no change in the violent rhetoric of the right after this event.  It may, sadly, take several similar events to have anything change.  More likely, we will see a hardening of the already self-righteous victimhood and lack of any accountability we have gotten used to from the right ever since the ascendancy of George W. Bush.  They may even accuse those on the left of "waiving the bloody shirt" and making political hay out of a tragedy. 
Waving the bloody shirt: it would become the standard retort, the standard expression of dismissive Southern contempt whenever a Northern politician mentioned any of the thousands upon thousands of murders, whippings, mutilations, and rapes that were perpetrated against freedmen and women and white Republicans in the South in those years. The phrase was used over and over during the Reconstruction era. It was a staple of the furious and sarcastic editorials that filled Southern newspapers in those days, of the indignant orations by Southern white political leaders who protested that no people had suffered more, been humiliated more, been punished more than they had. The phrase has since entered the standard American political lexicon, a synonym for any rabble-rousing demagoguery, any below-the-belt appeal aimed at stirring old enmities. 

That the Southerners who uttered this phrase were so unconcerned about the obvious implications it carried for their own criminality, however, seems remarkable; for whoever was waving the shirt, there was unavoidably, or so one would think, the matter of just whose blood it was, and how it had got there. That white Southerners would unabashedly trace the origin of this metaphor to a real incident involving an unprovoked attack of savage barbarity carried out by their own most respectable members of Southern white society makes it all the more astonishing.

Right wing victimization is definitional. In the wake of politically inspired right wing violence, their first instinct is to rise up in anger and accuse the other side of waving the bloody shirt --- without ever acknowledging where the blood came from in the first place. It's as American as apple pie.

On a rare occasion, if you listen closely enough, you may hear the rare sounds of a Republican (half) admitting some level of guilt or culpability about this tragedy.  But listen more carefully.  Listen to what is NOT being said, and you may learn more than you did from the words...

A senior Republican senator, speaking anonymously in order to freely discuss the tragedy, told POLITICO that the Giffords shooting should be taken as a “cautionary tale” by Republicans.
“There is a need for some reflection here - what is too far now?” said the senator. “What was too far when Oklahoma City happened is accepted now. There’s been a desensitizing. These town halls and cable TV and talk radio, everybody’s trying to outdo each other.”
The vast majority of tea party activists, this senator said, ought not be impugned.
“They’re talking about things most mainstream Americans are talking about, like spending and debt,” the Republican said, before adding that politicians of all stripes need to emphasize in the coming days that “tone matters.”
“And the Republican Party in particular needs to reinforce that,” the senator said.
Much has been made of that comment. But few have focused on what I would argue is the most telling aspect of that commentary.
Why did the "senior Republican senator" in question feel the need to remain anonymous?
The stated reason (to speak freely about the event) seems a bit silly. Pretty much every elected official in America is on the record with comments about the events.
There would seem to be only two reasons for the Senator in question to wish to leave his/her name out of it. Either the Senator was afraid of political retribution from colleagues for calling out his/her own party on the matter of tone and rhetoric. Or the Senator was afraid of retribution from the political base of the GOP.
Either reason, it would seem, is awfully telling.

In conclusion, I'll leave you with one final article, by Kai Wright in The Nation, that addresses the broader question of whether the Republican Party's "Government versus The People" ideology may have run its course.
The question is not whether Palin's rhetoric has gone too far; plainly it has. The question is whether the right's government-vs.-the people ideology has reached its natural climax: a government that cannot function enough to keep us safe and a nation defined by anger at itself. At what point will that be understood for the self-destruction that it is?

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