It’s What They Say, Not How They Say It

Alan Maass Jan 21, 2011

The mass shooting in Arizona that left six people dead and more than a dozen wounded shocked people everywhere and naturally left them asking how it could have happened.

Some of the resulting discussion was about serious and complex questions–the connection of the right wing’s violent rhetoric to actual acts of violence, for example, or what this society does and doesn’t do for people with mental illnesses. Other parts were absurd–like the Religious Right’s age-old complaint about people losing faith in God, or the media’s gossip-mongering about Jared Lee Loughner’s upbringing.

Barack Obama’s speech in Tucson last week at a memorial service to pay tribute to the victims was widely celebrated, even by some conservative opponents, for rising above these questions.

His words were definitely a stark contrast–and for millions of people a breath of fresh air–to Sarah Palin’s spiteful video statement released the morning of the service.

Palin bitterly denounced any and all critics for even questioning her campaign last fall against Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords–one of 20 Democrats running in November who were singled out by Palin’s political operation on a map marked with rifle-sight crosshairs. Palin’s use of the term “blood libel” in her statement–with its references to anti-Semitic abuse and violence–was a deliberate provocation, knowingly delivered on a day of mourning.

Obama, by comparison, seemed like he cared about the victims of the shooting more than the effect that their living or dying might have on his political career. He was obviously moved personally–as anyone would be–to be in a position to give voice to the grief so many people feel about the shootings.

Nevertheless, the underlying message of Obama’s speech was very political. “As we discuss these issues,” he said, “let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

Obama didn’t refer directly to Palin or the controversy about the extent to which the right wing’s hate-filled rhetoric should be held responsible for what happened. He didn’t have to–most people who heard Obama’s call for ” a more civil and honest public discourse” would have filled in that blank for themselves.

But what he did say directly was telling–that Americans should rise above their differences and unite around “all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

That begs the question: How are Sarah Palin’s “hopes and dreams” for the world bound together with those of the targets of her bigotry? Why should people whose lives are being ruined by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression “rise above their differences” with Republicans like Palin–or with Democrats like Obama?

The problem with U.S. politics isn’t the tone of the debate in Washington, but its political direction. The problem isn’t that the politicians’ rhetoric is too heated, but that none of them really speak for the interests of working people. The problem isn’t how they say it, but what they say–and what they do.

If that wasn’t obvious, the behavior of Republican leaders in Congress following the shootings has clarified things. They’re promising to be more civil toward their Democratic opponents–and House Speaker John Boehner is setting an example by changing how he refers to the Obama administration’s health care law.

“As evidence of a slight rhetorical shift,” CNN reported, “House Speaker John Boehner abandoned labeling the current health care law as ‘job killing,’ and instead called it ‘job crushing’ and ‘job destroying’ in a new message posted on his Web page.

Yes, that’s a real quote–not an Onion parody.

So we’re supposed to be better off if the Republicans’ fanatical opposition to a health care law whose reforms were already far too limited is expressed in a slightly less bloodthirsty vocabulary?

Even if the Republicans can contain their hate in the coming weeks–and that’s a big if–the real problem is the substance of their agenda of defending Wall Street and Corporate America, while making working-class people pay.

It’s an agenda on which Democrats like Barack Obama agree with far more than they disagree–so the challenge to right-wing policies and rhetoric alike will have to come from outside Washington, in the struggles and political movements that stand up for an alternative.

Obama’s message in Tucson wasn’t new for him. His promise to rise above partisanship and unite left and right was a central theme of his presidential campaign in 2008.Politicians like Obama make this appeal because it’s popular to be against “partisan politics.” That’s not because people don’t care about substantial political questions, but because the U.S. political system rarely seems to be about those questions. Instead, “politics” in Washington seems to be power-hungry phonies maneuvering to get the better of the other guys–especially as portrayed by a mainstream media that never misses an opportunity to trivialize important social issues.

That perception may explain why, according to a CBS News poll, a clear majority of people rejects the idea that the Arizona shootings had any relationship to Washington’s “harsh political tone.” To connect what happened in Tucson to the petty battles between Tea Partying Republicans and their Democratic adversaries may have seemed like it was diminishing a tragedy.

True to form, right-wingers tried to play on this very sentiment to claim that the media and the “left”–by which they typically mean people who are very far from being left wing–unfairly blamed them for the shootings.

These outraged claims–that poor, defenseless conservatives like Palin have once again been victimized by the liberal elite–are designed to distract attention from some pretty vile facts, whether or not they played a direct role in motivating Loughner.

Giffords, a relatively conservative Democrat who nonetheless supported the Obama administration on health care and other contentious issues, was indeed singled out by Palin and other right-wing Republicans as vulnerable in the November election. Palin urged her followers on Twitter: “Don’t Retreat, Instead RELOAD!'”

Giffords’ Tea Party-backed opponent Jesse Kelly took Palin’s gun-metaphor obsession a step further when he organized a fundraising event where supporters could shoot an automatic rifle. “Get on Target for Victory in November,” read a message from Kelly. “Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”

Loughner’s shooting spree happened at a political event organized by Giffords–exactly the kind of setting where growing numbers of Tea Partiers have shown up carrying weapons to dramatize their opposition to the Democrats.

Then there are the examples of other shooting rampages planned or carried out by right-wingers who were explicitly motivated by the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh–like, for example, Bryon Williams, who was inadvertently stopped by California Highway Patrol officers on his way to San Francisco, where he planned to “start a revolution” by attacking the offices the liberal Tides Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union.

Right-wing figures like Palin and Beck have multibillion-dollar media empires at their command. They incite fear and bigotry with coded and not-so-coded language that invokes racism, homophobia, sexism, Islamophobia and a host of other prejudices–all with a nudge and a wink about the consequences of their words. But when individuals act on their message of hate, they’re the first to complain that they’re being treated unfairly.

And of course, when someone they can demonize is found to be at fault, they’re the first to decry the “language of hate.” As journalist Mehdi Hasan wrote at the Guardian Web site: “Imagine, for a moment, that the shooter outside the Tucson Safeway last Saturday had been a Muslim. Does anyone doubt that accusations of homegrown terrorism, links to al-Qaeda and vast Islamist conspiracies wouldn’t have come thick and fast?”

For all the countless hours and pages devoted to the question by the mainstream media, no one knows that much about why Loughner did what he did.Loughner clearly suffers from mental illness. If the shootings weren’t evidence enough, he left behind a collection of rambling videos on the Internet that testify to his condition. As for any political beliefs that might have motivated him, there’s no clear evidence–only the signs of an anti-authority tendency that can just as easily be portrayed as far-right libertarian, rather than liberal, as some conservative pundits have tried to do.

Missing from all the conflicting media speculation about Loughner as an individual is any consideration of the broader picture–of the elements of U.S. society that shape tragedies like these. The right wing’s message of scapegoating and hate is one of those elements. But so is the day-to-day violence of a world dominated by inequality, oppression and greed.

And Arizona has, in the past year especially, been a symbol for several different forms of that violence.

After a press conference following the shootings, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was roundly denounced, and not just by right-wingers, for his statement that Arizona has “become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” But it was surprising how few media outlets even mentioned Arizona’s anti-immigrant law SB 1070 that last year made the state notorious as precisely what Dupnik called it.

SB 1070 essentially legalized racial profiling with requirements that law enforcement officials determine the immigration status of everyone they stop, and that they detain, even for minor offenses, anyone who can’t prove they’re in the U.S. legally. The worst provisions of the law were blocked by a federal judge, but not before immigrant communities were decimated when people fearful of being victimized left.

Barely a week before Loughner opened fire, another reactionary law went into effect in Arizona–a ban on ethnic studies in public schools.

There’s little evidence that Loughner thought one way or the other about the state’s new “Juan Crow” laws, as they came to be called by activists. But the casual dehumanization of whole groups of people by politicians ambitious for the limelight, like Gov. Jan Brewer, has certainly become more a part of daily life in Arizona than ever.

The state has also been hit harder than most by the economic crisis. Real estate prices dropped dramatically in the suburban area of Tucson where Loughner lived with his parents. The 22-year-old reportedly filled out applications for dozens of low-wage jobs, but wasn’t hired. Like countless other college students, his prospects looked grim after graduation.

Loughner wasn’t driven to kill by a bad economy alone, either–but it would be absurd to deny that the deteriorating living standards and bleak future he faced along with millions of other people didn’t compound already existing tensions and crises.

When internalized conflicts burst out in horrible acts of individual violence, political leaders talk piously about their reverence for human life. But that’s a lie. The ruling class of the United States is the most violent in the history of the world–to judge only by the horrific wars it has waged around the world, at the cost of tens of millions of lives lost and many more destroyed.

Some people have connected Loughner’s shootings in Arizona with Timothy McVeigh, for obvious reasons–McVeigh’s bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 also came amid a conservative political climate after a Republican election victory in which the right claimed to be standing up against the liberal elite.

McVeigh was a part of far-right organizations, and Loughner is not. But whatever else the two do or don’t have in common, it’s worth remembering something else about McVeigh. Before he became the despised murderer of 168 people in Oklahoma City, he was decorated as a hero by the U.S. government for his part in murdering Iraqis during the 1991 Gulf War. He learned to kill as the driver of a military bulldozer, burying Iraqi soldiers alive in their trenches during the invasion 20 years ago this month.

The truth is that America’s rulers glorify violence in any number of forms, while claiming to oppose it in other forms. That hypocrisy is part of a toxic mix of factors that shaped Jared Loughner. None of them was necessarily responsible for his horrifying murders in a direct way. But all of them are part of a world where violent acts–some officially disapproved of, and others officially celebrated–are constant.

It’s easy to see how a right-wing politician like Sarah Palin contributes to this broader social and political climate that breeds violence in all its forms. Palin celebrates the use of U.S. military power around the world, and she actively promotes the ugly racist stereotypes that so often serve as the justification for war abroad and repression at home.But if that’s true about Palin, then we should also recognize how liberal political leaders like Barack Obama are also complicit.

After all, Obama is responsible for doubling the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in his first two years in office, escalating hostilities in Pakistan and other countries, and repackaging the U.S. presence in Iraq. His administration spared no expense to save the banks, while leaving homeowners in danger of foreclosure to fend for themselves. When Arizona passed SB 1070, Obama opposed the law, but he met the anti-immigrant right more than halfway with stepped-up enforcement measures that have resulted in a record number of deportations.

For millions of people, Obama’s election in 2008 represented the hope of a genuinely new direction and new priorities in Washington. Obama has dashed those hopes on every front, and more often than not, he has done so in the name of the values he put forward in Tucson–transcending left and right to find common ground.

Thus, for example, the drive underway to cut Social Security and other so-called entitlement programs according to the blueprint drawn up by Obama’s deficit commission last year is explicitly justified as a bipartisan initiative in which left and right must come together for the common good. Obama is giving Corporate America a chance to achieve its long-held goal of slashing Social Security that the Republicans could never have delivered on their own.

Obama is seen as very much opposed to the vitriolic rhetoric and intransigence of figures like Palin. But in truth, Obama needs the Republicans, as does the ruling class as a whole.

In the debate on health care, for example, the right’s hysterical complaints about “death panels” and a “government takeover” of health care helped the insurance and pharmaceutical bosses to sabotage sentiment for even half-measures like the public option, much less a single-payer system that could truly provide universal coverage. This helped ensure that the Democrats would be locked into a proposal that was acceptable to the industry.

For Obama, the fanatics of the right provide him with the best justification for his compromises and middle-of-the-road-or-worse policies. Many people who want Obama to accomplish more believe his hands are tied by the strength of the right. The administration uses this argument regularly against left critics. Anyone who objects to its appeals to “bipartisanship” is told that they’re unrealistic or impatient–or, in the current context, lacking in civility.

Those who want to right the injustices of this society should protest the bigoted attacks of the right wing. But we can’t accept the calls by Obama to “transcend our differences” and “find common ground”–because the common ground is the property of the status quo. On the contrary, we welcome the conflict between left and right–in the form of struggle for a better society, and the louder the better.

Martin Luther King was right about the appropriate tone for people who want to change the world when he wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:*

I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist for love–“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you”…Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist–“This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist–“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice–or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?

*Thanks to Steve Leigh and Leela Yellesetty for this quote.

This article was originally published on

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