Challenge the B.S.

Let’s be clear:  no one should advocate censorship.

That said, we need to understand the power of language.  Images matter, words matter, what you say has an effect.  Every propagandist in history has grasped this essential truth.  Without oratory, Hitler and Goebbels would never have turned Germany into a killing machine.

The only antidote, however, is not less but more.  Not more propaganda, just more words, more images, more information.  More truth.

Ah, but, as the man said,  What is truth?

Sarah Palin, or her speech writers, has decided to play with that a bit and compare the criticism against her rather fevered rhetoric to the Blood Libel.  Now, she has a perfect right to do this.  Metaphor, simile, hyperbole—these are all perfectly acceptable, even respectable, tools of communication.  No one—NO ONE—should suggest she has no right to state her case in any manner she chooses.

What is lacking, however, is perspective and a grasp of the truth.  Not fact.  But truth.  Is there any truth in her assertion that the backlash against what is perceived to be an inappropriate degree of aggressive even violent imagery is the equivalent of two millennia of persecution resulting in the near-extinction of an entire human community?  Absolutely none.  In fact, what she has done is add substance to the perception that she is a callous, insensitive, and rather inept manipulator of public opinion.  In other words, a propagandist.

What should follow now is a discourse on the actual Blood Libel and debate on the public airwaves over whether or not this is a valid comparison.  Then there should be a review of the statistical links between violent political rhetoric and actual violence.  We should have a discussion—not a condemnation, but a discussion, bringing into the conversation more information, more fact, and more than a little truth.

Do I think Sarah Palin is responsible for Loughner’s actions in Tuscon?  No.  Loughner is, in my opinion, a seriously disturbed young man and would likely have gone off on anyone at any time.  However, he chose as his target a politician, one who had been singled out by the party machinery of the Right as a target.  I believe Palin when she says her intent was to eliminate Gifford by popular vote.  I do.  I don’t accept as credible the idea that she would have sanctioned assassination on anyone.  She wants to play a part in national politics, she wants to win, and insofar as it may be understood, I think she wants to win within the system.  Do I also believe she thinks some of the rules of the system are bad and that she is willing to color outside the lines?  Certainly.  But that’s not a singular criticism, either.

Do I, however, believe that we have a toxic atmosphere of political discourse which a certain segment of the population may be incapable of parsing as metaphor?  Absolutely.
Here’s a smattering of samples from over the years from a variety of sources.

“I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus—living fossils—so we will never forget what these people stood for.”—Rush Limbaugh, Denver Post, 12-29-95

“Get rid of the guy. Impeach him, cen…sure him, assassinate him.”—Rep. James Hansen (R-UT), talking about President Clinton

“We’re going to keep building the party until we’re hunting Democrats with dogs.”—Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX), Mother Jones, 08-95

“My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.”—Ann Coulter, New York Observer, 08-26-02

“We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.”—Ann Coulter, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, 02-26-02

“Chelsea is a Clinton. She bears the taint; and though not prosecutable in law, in custom and nature the taint cannot be ignored. All the great despotisms of the past—I’m not arguing for despotism as a principle, but they sure knew how to deal with potential trouble—recognized that the families of objectionable citizens were a continuing threat. In Stalin’s penal code it was a crime to be the wife or child of an ‘enemy of the people.’ The Nazis used the same principle, which they called Sippenhaft, ‘clan liability.’ In Imperial China, enemies of the state were punished ‘to the ninth degree’: that is, everyone in the offender’s own generation would be killed and everyone related via four generations up, to the great-great-grandparents, and four generations down, to the great-great-grandchildren, would also be killed.”—John Derbyshire, National Review, 02-15-01

“Two things made this country great: White men & Christianity. The degree these two have diminished is in direct proportion to the corruption and fall of the nation. Every problem that has arisen (sic) can be directly traced back to our departure from God’s Law and the disenfranchisement of White men.”—State Rep. Don Davis (R-NC), emailed to every member of the North Carolina House and Senate, reported by the Fayetteville Observer, 08-22-01

“I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out.” —Glenn Beck (on air), May 17, 2005

Do I think Sarah Palin has contributed to that?  Yes.  Ever since her appearance on the national stage and her absurd squib about pit bulls and hockey moms.  A great many people reacted positively to that, but I think a great many more, even if they were inclined to support her, scratched their heads at that and went “Huh?”

Why a pit bull?  Why hockey?  Pit bulls, of course, are perceived as dangerous animals.  And hockey is perceived as a violent sport.  (In a completely unscientific and wholly personal anecdotal sample, I have attended two hockey games in my life.  One a professional game, the other at a community rink through the Y.  Fist fights were a feature of both and at the pro game it was the fist fight that seemed to get the most audience applause.  At the Y game, it was between 10 to 12 year olds, who did not fight, but the adults at one point, in a heated exchange over a perceived infraction, did get into an altercation.)  Traditionally, it would be soccer moms.  Why the substitution?  Well, you could say that Alaska is simply not a big soccer state and hockey would be the sport of choice.  On the other hand, she was addressing a national audience and her speech writers should have known that the more commonly understood expression would  be soccer, so we have to assume it was a deliberate choice.  And comparing mothers to a dangerous pet?

I could go on.  The fact is, she was challenging her potential constituency to be tough, to be aggressive, to be willing to tear into the opposition, to support the brawl over the debate.  It was a very clumsy way to do it, but the phrase has become part of America’s lexicon of aphorisms, so it must have had some cachet with enough people to matter.

The people who were unaffected by this were those who simply had broader experience with hyperbole.  If you wish to protect people from the negative influences of certain kinds of speech, you expose them to more and more diverse types of speech, not less.  You do not censor.  Rather, you widen their scope, show them alternatives, and give them more.  The antidote to bad speech is not a ban, but to provide good speech, and allow people to become experienced in how to deal with it.  The people who are often the most susceptible to deriving the wrong signals from speech are those who have the least experience with diverse speech.

So when someone decides to compare Obama to a Nazi, the solution is to rehearse what the Nazis were and point out how the comparison is ridiculous.  If someone asserts how horrible liberalism has been for the country, the answer should be a catalogue of liberal successes that have now become part of what conservatives are defending.  If someone suggests that our countries injuries are because we have extended civil rights to gays or banned prayer from public schools, ask how any of that played into Pearl Harbor, the Lusitania, the Maine, or the Civil War?

The answer to hatemongers is not to tighten controls on speech but to open the floodgates to fact and truth.  You don’t expunge what you find disagreeable, you displace it with something of value.  Take their audience away.

If we wish to have reasonable discourse, then we must produce reasonable speech and put it out there, unapologetically, and in sufficient quantity that the propagandists lose credibility.  We haven’t been doing that.  We’ve been, perhaps, assuming too much.  We assume people are reasonable.  People can be, but many have to be taught how, or at least shown the methods of communicating that reasonableness.  We have assumed that the absurdisms of the pundits will fade simply because they are absurd, but maybe that assumption is in error.  Confrontation is difficult and often disagreeable, but conceding to misrepresentations, half-truths, and distortions only makes us look stupid and weak and makes us all vulnerable.

So maybe we should opt not to lay blame.  Maybe we should just do what we should have done all along—challenge the bullshit.

Published by Mark Tiedemann

8 comments on “Challenge the B.S.”

  1. What no one seems to have pointed out yet is one way that, weirdly enough, Palin allied herself with Loughner. By insisting that her words should not be taken as having had any effect on events, she seems to agree with one of the thoughts that came to be an obsession for Loughner: that words in fact have no meaning (other than, perhaps, the meaning he personally attributed to them).

  2. Hm. Hadn’t thought of that, but yes. Who knew? Both of them are postmodern Deconstructionists!

  3. you tell one half of the story. the political left and their voters have a long history of horrible rhetoric and actions as you try to illustrate about the right. As for reasonable discourse….. are you for this even though your ideas are not accepted? Or is reasonable discourse only when you win in the arena of ideas? telling half the story is exactly what you are railing against. You have become the thing you don’t like.

  4. Alan,

    I keep hearing this, but have yet to see credible evidence that this is true. Certainly there are people on the Left who indulge in unfortunate rhetoric—often as a backlash against similar or worse attacks from the Right. I have seen no evidence of a concerted effort on the part of the Left to codify such an irrational, spleen-driven image of the Right as is the case with the Right’s consistent demonization of the Left, most especially Liberalism. The charge that because I call them on it makes me one with them in their presentation of imbalanced images is unsupportable, based on the “Well, everyone does it” justification.

    To be clear, I’m mainly concerned with the last three decades. From the point Jerry Falwell dragged the religious right into the political arena and Reagan put the stamp of approval on the demonization of Liberalism, we have seen a growing, consistent, well-directed effort to remake history. The problem the Left has is not, during this period, that they indulged the kind of vicious rhetoric the Right has, but that their willingness to accommodate, cooperate, and find some kind of common ground has undermined their efforts to find a ground to stand on.

    I’m absolutely for reasonable discourse. But building a case that every single problem we have is the result of Liberal ideas and policies is a priori unreasonable. After listening to the misinformation, distortions, outright lies, canards, and nonsense spewed from the mouthpieces of the Right since Rush Limbaugh began his career of propagandizing, I do feel that it’s the Right’s turn to be reasonable for a change.

  5. you having me laughing. you have yet to see credible evidence …. really…. roaring laughing. You are not trying. here start your journey here: . stick with it. there is amble “stuff” out there.

    Did you sleep through the Bush Administration and the banging on Bush and Cheney. Ever heard of Sarah Palin, Clarance Thomas, Dan Quayle, Nuet Gingrich, Carl Rove? The left was and is horrible in reporting on these – and others – on the right

    What you and liberals, progressives, democrats do not like is that there is a large and growing audience of American’s choosing new media sources because the mainstream ones were not reliable and were very left in their reporting. Walter Cronkite, Jennings, Brokaw, Couric, et al are like you in their political leanings. My gosh the left had control of the microphone for soooo long. Decades.

    Oh, did you see the Black Panthers at the polling place in Philadelphia? That’s ok with you?

    Not every problem is from the left. Bush and Republicans spent too much during his tenure. It’s is clear to me that there are ideas that work in government and we are living though policies that are not working. Debt, unemployment, housing issues are not being fixed and it’s well into the BHO admin. to still and lazily blame Bush.

    In reasonable discourse you need to be informed and it sounds like either you don’t want to look under your own rock or still have room to learn. Good luck as you step forward in seeking truth.

  6. Alan,

    The market share liberal talk owns in this country is miniscule compared to rightwing talk radio. Just from the standpoint of saturation, there is hardly a comparison. Be that as it may, the condemnation of this kind of rhetoric goes both ways. My assertion, and I think historically this is born out, it began on the right. You didn’t have anything like Rush Limbaugh on the left for years after he appeared.

    As for the so-called “liberal media”—-come on. Rubert Murdoch? Liberal? No, what the media is after is ratings, because we long ago lost an independent media to moneyed interests. Anything to get the ratings up. If the media were truly liberal, why did they almost universally soft-pedal their treatment of Bush almost through his first term? The reportage from all sources on the Florida election count was horribly inadequate and facts that are common coin now didn’t come out in the mainstream until well into his second term. That is not very liberal to me.

    Nor conservative, frankly. What it is is cowed.

    If the media were liberal, why is you find Business sections in just about every paper or program (even NPR) but almost nothing about Labor?

    Part of the problem is that we’ve reached a point at which anything reasonable sounds liberal because the dialogue, such as it is, has been shoved so far to the right.

    But finally, the argument “Well they do it too!” just doesn’t work. None of them should be doing this. But except for comments about the Republican Party, on your example, I didn’t hear blanket condemnations of conservatives the way many of these Fox pundits go off on liberals as a group. (Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, just that in that distillation…)

    I have no patience with this kind of rhetoric regardless of the political orientation, but it is difficult to ignore the fact that after 30 years of consistent assault, liberalism has been made a dirty word, called into question, and is all but unmentionable as part of the public discourse. When you have progressives apologizing for being liberal—not because their policies are bad, but because the electorate has come to identify them as the enemy—you can’t say that the momentum is on their side, that they even have much of a side in this. The national conversation has been dominated by the loud, spittle-filled voices of the right and what the left says has been almost completely reactive to that.

    For the record, though—Cheney set up a shadow government. The last man in the executive to do that was Nixon and he had to resign, narrowly avoiding impeachment. Nothing official has been done to Cheney. And his pals at KBR bilked the U.S. of billions in their so-called “reconstruction” in Iraq. Just those two facts alone would be enough to cast any liberal in the role of Satan incarnate, and possibly see him in jail. We’re not even talking about Cheney anymore. Liberal media? Please.

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