Gabrielle Giffords and the rightwing hate machine (on the bogus equivalence between right/left extremism)
Reaction to the horrific Arizona shootings, where six people were slaughtered including a 9-year-old girl, quickly congealed along clear-cut lines:
a) The left blamed the right, pointing to violent imagery and language from Sarah Palin to the Tea Party.
b) The right furiously denied blame, with some trying to pin the shooting on the left.
c) Among public officials, pundits and press, the common impulse was to draw the typical false equivalence between rhetoric on the right and left.
At least one person was not buying it:
“When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And, unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” – Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik
“We need to do some soul searching … It’s the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business. People tend to pooh-pooh this business about the vitriol that inflames American public opinion by the people who make a living off of that. That may be free speech but it’s not without consequences.”
We do not yet know whether the Arizona massacre was directly fueled by rightwing rhetoric. But we do know this: one of the most dangerous myths promulgated by the media and political establishment is that there is a comparable level of extremism among conservatives and liberals, that left and right are mirror images.
Even the most cursory perusal of rightwing radio, television, blogs and assorted punditry illustrates a profound distinction: in large measure, the right’s overarching purpose is to stoke hatred of the left, of liberalism. The right’s messaging infrastructure, meticulously constructed and refined over decades, promotes an image of liberals as traitors and America-haters, unworthy of their country and bent on destroying it. There is simply no comparable propaganda effort on the left.
The imbalance is stark: Democrats and liberals rail against the right’s ideas; the right rails against the left’s very existence.
The result is an atmosphere where bigotry thrives, where science and reason are under assault, where progress (associated with progressivism) is frowned upon. And it’s an atmosphere where violence becomes more likely. Pretending this is not the case is to enable it.
The deeply-etched themes that run through American politics reflect the right’s successful framing: Democrats and liberals are wimps, Republicans and conservatives are gun-toting patriots; Democrats and liberals despise their country, Republicans and conservatives are the only ones willing to protect it; Democrats and liberals want to intrude on your freedom, tax you and bankrupt the nation, Republicans and conservatives want to give you freedom, liberty and wealth. The current of eliminationism infusing the right’s worldview is an inevitable outcome of such contorted impressions – it’s a natural impulse to want to destroy that which is (supposedly) destroying you.
Those who foist the false right/left equivalency ignore this reality. Their definition of extremism is necessarily warped, since they have to stretch logic to fabricate a sense of balance. If you want single-payer health care, you’re a liberal extremist, but if you deny global warming, you’re simply a conservative skeptic. As the national discourse moves further and further right, only the most unhinged rightwingers are tagged as extreme, while all it takes for a liberal to be labeled an extremist is to espouse a policy position that is out of the mainstream. That is not to say there are not violent individuals and extremists on the left, but that it is absurd to argue that left and right are comparable in the language of violence and incitement.
When center becomes right and right becomes far right, conservatives can get away with wilder and weirder behavior. Exhortations from radio blatherers to bash liberals are dismissed as “entertainment.” Glenn Beck’s bizarre rantings barely get a yawn.
This has been a long time coming and culpability lies not just with the haters but with those in the media and Democratic establishment who refuse to confront the hate-mongering when they see it. Here’s something I wrote about Ann Coulter in 2006. It sums up everything I want to say about the ongoing demonization of the left and the resulting potential for violence:
NBC, a major U.S. media outlet, has given Coulter extended play in recent days. They have knowingly given a public forum to a woman who slandered 9/11 widows and who is now on the record identifying John Murtha, a U.S. Congressman, a Marine, as an ideal target for murder. Anybody who watched Ann Coulter’s June 14th appearance on the Tonight Show had to realize that it was a watershed moment in the war between the establishment media and the progressive netroots. It was also a signal to Democrats that liberal ideology can be denigrated with impunity. Had the words “Jew” or “Christian” or “Conservative” been substituted for “Liberal” we’d be waking up to a national scandal.
Never mind that Jay Leno and George Carlin sat like trembling lambs while Coulter spewed gutter-level invective at millions of Americans – we’ve already seen the same obsequiousness from Larry King, Matt Lauer (who ended his faux-debate with Coulter by saying “always fun to have you”) and others. The larger issue here is that despite an uproar from the progressive netroots, NBC saw fit to give Coulter a platform to continue her liberal-scapegoating and to slander women who lost their husbands on 9/11.
It’s hard to deny that Coulter’s words border on incitement. What she says is neither amusing nor smart nor humorous nor factual nor worthy of airing on a major media outlet. It treats a substantial segment of the population as sub-human, as creatures deserving of public scorn and worse (She said Jesus would say that “we are called upon to do battle” on liberalism). Careful not to violate Godwin’s Law, I’ll refrain from the obvious comparisons, but what we’re dealing with here is a dangerous inflection point in American politics. When this kind of opprobrium is peddled by major media outlets, it’s high time that the Democratic establishment and the larger progressive community understand that this is a make-or-break showdown with the media.
Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and their ilk have made an industry out of liberal-bashing. Coulter fits in perfectly with those hate-traffickers. And contrary to the false Michael Moore comparisons made by Leno and others, there is no progressive counterpart to these people on the national stage. The basic thrust of the left’s critique is that George W. Bush and his administration are bad for America. It is in our tradition for citizens to defend the Constitution and to question the actions of their elected leaders. Rightwingers may characterize it as Bush Derangement Syndrome, but the progressive community, for the most part, is going after government corruption and lies, not vilifying an entire group of Americans as Bin Laden-loving traitors.
Nearly five years after I wrote that, only one thing has changed: the problem has gotten worse.
UPDATE: An essential post from Melissa McEwan:
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.
And as long as we continue to play this foolish game of “both sides are just as bad,” and rely on trusty old ablism to dismiss Jared Lee Loughner as a crackpot—dutifully ignoring that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators; carefully pretending that the existence of people with mental illness who are potentially dangerous somehow absolves us of responsibility for violent rhetoric, as opposed to serving to underline precisely why it’s irresponsible—it will be inevitable again.
Anyone who listens to the relentless liberal-bashing on rightwing radio and other conservative outlets will quickly realize that the level of vitriol and derision directed at the left will inevitably provoke a few individuals to act out. And they do. Often with deadly consequences.
It is clear to me that most people in journalism and (non-right wing) blogging do not listen to right wing talk radio very often and simply cannot believe it when critics report what they are saying. … I realize that it’s hard to believe that Americans are this obnoxious. It’s probably even harder to believe they are paid hundreds of millions of dollars to promote this bigotry on the radio to millions of other Americans, but they are — they are speaking the language of eliminationism and hate day after day after day. If it soothes you to believe that those who are alarmed by that are the intemperate ones so be it, but it doesn’t change what they are doing or the effect it’s had on our politics.
For context, read The Terrorist Threat: Right-Wing Radicals and the Eliminationist Mindset:
An abortion provider who had been a frequent target of Fox News’ bloviator Bill O’Reilly was gunned down during a church service in Kansas; a mentally disturbed man who believed the “tea-bagging” movement’s contention that the Obama administration is destroying the American economy — and who reportedly owned a number of firearms — withdrew $85,000 from his bank account, said he was part of a plot to assassinate the president and disappeared (he was later captured in Las Vegas); and this week, a white supremacist who was deeply steeped in far-right conspiracism entered the U.S. Holocaust Museum and opened fire, killing a guard before being shot and wounded by security personnel.
The three incidents share a common feature: All of these men thought they were serving a higher moral purpose, that is, defending their country from an insidious “enemy within” as defined by the far right — a “baby-killer,” the Jews who secretly control the world and a president who’s been accused of being a Manchurian Candidate-style foreign agent bent on nothing less than the destruction of the American Way.
David Neiwert, a veteran journalist who has covered violent right-wing groups for years, calls the worldview that informs this twisted sense of moral purpose “eliminationism.” It’s the belief that one’s political opponents are not just wrongheaded, misinformed or even acting in bad faith. Eliminationism holds that they are a cancer on the body politic that must be excised — either by separation from the public at large, through censorship or by outright extermination — in order to protect the purity of the nation.
As eliminationist rhetoric becomes increasingly mainstream within the American right — fueled in large part by the wildly overheated discourse found on conservative blogs and talk radio — Neiwert’s new book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right, could not have come at a more important time. In it, Neiwert painstakingly details how the rise in eliminationism is a very real threat and points to the dangers of dismissing extreme rhetoric as merely a form of “entertainment.”
Here’s an exceptionally detailed post from Media Matters on another example of rightwing hate breeding violence:
“I would have never started watching Fox News if it wasn’t for the fact that Beck was on there. And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed that blew my mind.” – Byron Williams
Byron Williams, a 45-year-old ex-felon, exploded onto the national stage in the early morning hours of July 18.
According to a police investigation, Williams opened fire on California Highway Patrol officers who had stopped him on an Oakland freeway for driving erratically. For 12 frantic minutes, Williams traded shots with the police, employing three firearms and a small arsenal of ammunition, including armor-piercing rounds fired from a .308-caliber rifle.
When the smoke cleared, Williams surrendered; the ballistic body armor he was wearing had saved his life. Miraculously, only two of the 10 CHP officers involved in the shootout were injured.
In an affidavit, an Oakland police investigator reported that during an interview at the hospital, Williams “stated that his intention was to start a revolution by traveling to San Francisco and killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU.” Read the rest…
Mike Stark describes it this way:
Rush Limbaugh is heard by more people on a near-daily basis than any other person in the world. I’m not positive about that, but pretty damned sure. A good cable news audience (Bill O’Reilly sets the standard here, I believe), may reach 5 million people on an excellent night. Network news shows get 7-8 million people.
For three hours every single weekday, Rush Limbaugh reaches (for at least part of those 3 hours) 20 million people. The naked fact is that he is the most influential political voice in the United States. Probably moreso than the President himself.
Over his 25 years of broadcasting, Rush has built up a ton of trust with his audience and completely changed the AM radio spectrum. Hannity is close on his tail in terms of reach. Just behind him, you find Beck. And Ingraham. And Levin and Savage and Medved and Prager and Dobbs and Mancow and Bennett and Doyle…. and… and…. and….
What is more scary? The fact that these folks vote in wildly disproportionate numbers. They aren’t passive listeners. They open their wallets (fear does that to some folks, I guess), forward ridiculous email chains (when is the last time you got a progressive email from a crazy uncle?) and can be reliably counted upon to flood Congress with faxes, letters and phone calls. All of that gives them an outsized voice in our politics. It’s why our issues poll well, but we can’t elect people that do what we want them too. The talk radio crowd, combined with the moneyed interests, crowd progressive voices out.
I’d love to see a graphical representation of American politics compared against the arc of right wing talk radio. My bet is that it’d open up some eyes. I suspect that too many of us believe that since we see talk radio for the hucksterism that it is, it can’t really be a true threat. And I don’t think that could be more wrong. Talk radio is the nervous wiring of the right wing. The Koch’s and Scaife’s and the Waltons may be the brain sending signals through the wires, but as an organizing tool, it’s incredibly potent.
There would be no Tea Party without the likes of Limbaugh:
Anecdotal evidence continues to mount that the Tea Party is another manifestation of a rightwing phenomenon whereby carefully crafted talking points are force-fed to the public through Fox, talk radio, chain emails and other communication mechanisms, then regurgitated in the form of deeply-held convictions.
I say “force-fed” because if you tune in to these outlets, it’s a relentless stream of indoctrination:
Liberals are worse than terrorists — Global warming is a hoax — Obama is a Kenyan socialist — Gays are trying to corrupt our children — “Big government” is oppressing us — All Muslims are bent on our destruction — “Activist judges” are trying to undermine the Constitution – The Constitution’s two main tenets are that everyone should have the right to carry assault weapons and that America is a Christian nation.
A fundamental characteristic of Tea Partiers’ views is the vehement embrace of ideas with little or no grounding in knowledge or comprehension and the parroting of Fox-style soundbites as though they were carefully considered positions.
There’s an entire universe of liberal-bashers on the air, but Limbaugh remains a central figure. Hard to imagine what the country would be like without the anger and hatred he peddles.
I’ve explained why I support the Ground Zero mosque even though Muslims were my mortal enemies in Lebanon and I’m a longtime lower Manhattan resident who lost friends in the towers. I’ve also cautioned against slandering 9/11 victims’ loved ones, emphasized that this is a matter of principles, not people, and argued that whatever we call the project, those principles don’t change. Still, I’m almost certain opponents of the mosque/community center will win the debate.
Here’s why: the rightwing noise machine is extremely adept at creating controversies around individuals. From Fox, Drudge and rightwing blogs to websites, talk radio and elected officials, they are masters at superbly orchestrated takedowns based on manufactured outrage. Remember Shirley Sherrod? Van Jones? Dan Rather?
The two-pronged anti-mosque strategy is crystal clear: find the most egregious name for the project, one that pushes emotional buttons, then hammer away at the individuals associated with it, searching for an angle to destroy them. Thus the laser-like focus on the Imam behind it, Feisal Abdul Rauf, and on his wife, Daisy Khan. Witness the Wall Street Journal today:
A leader of a planned Muslim community center near Manhattan’s Ground Zero compared opposition to the project to the persecution of Jews, in comments that could add to the controversy over the center’s proposed site.
Opponents will likely win this argument because they are forcing proponents, media and neutral parties to play by their rules. Case in point: we are now arguing about whether it’s “Park51″ or the “9/11 Mosque” (Sarah Palin’s choice), whether Rauf is an extremist or moderate, whether or not his wife is a radical. We’ve seen one media profile of Rauf after another, but few in-depth pieces about the Constitutional principles at stake.
Once you’re on the right’s turf, they are halfway to victory. It doesn’t help that Democratic leaders have been completely muddled on an issue of basic rights.
From day one, proponents should have been firm about one thing: this is not about names or people, it’s primarily about core values. That’s not to say that the individuals behind the project are completely irrelevant – of course not – but that the principles must come first.
I return to Mike Bloomberg’s pitch-perfect speech:
Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right. The local community board in lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal. And if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire city.
Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God’s love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest.
I doubt the Ground Zero mosque will ever be built there, but I hope proponents stand firm on the ideals and avoid getting sucked into the right’s ‘name and blame’ game.
Watch this devastatingly effective rebuttal to Rush Limbaugh’s comments about non-profits:
There’s a lot of discussion about what Dave Weigel calls The Big Bad Muslim Poll:
A new national survey by the Pew Research Center finds that nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) now say Obama is a Muslim, up from 11% in March 2009. Only about one-third of adults (34%) say Obama is a Christian, down sharply from 48% in 2009. Fully 43% say they do not know what Obama’s religion is.
During my music business days, I had the privilege of touring this beautiful country: one thing that stuck with me is the torrent of liberal-bashing on talk hate radio, led by Rush Limbaugh. It’s nothing short of indoctrination, so I’m never surprised at polls that reflect the inevitable result of that incessant stream of negativity.
And that’s setting aside Fox, chain emails, and the rest of the rightwing noise machine… you can’t listen to that kind if invective without being influenced by it, one way or the other.