Does hateful rhetoric really lead to violence? History gives us the clear answer: yes
Chris Matthews decided to take seriously Nancy Pelosi's choked-up discussion of concern about the violent undertone of recent right-wing rhetoric -- which of course has the right-wing a-holosphere chortling in blithe dismissal -- on Hardball earlier this week. So he brought on author Gerald Posner and the SPLC's Mark Potok to talk about it.
It prompted an interesting discussion about the relationship between the wild rantings of right-wing talkers and the ugliness that is manifesting itself on the street in our discourse -- especially now that we have right-wing nutcases who attend churches where the preacher tells them killing Obama would not be murder showing up at presidential rallies with AR-15s.
MATTHEWS: ... The question here is very serious. What is it in the atmosphere that allows a person to feel comfortable showing up at a political event carrying a gun, in some cases two guns, and letting people know they're armed? What is it in the atmosphere that lets a person bring a sign that compares the president of the United States to an animal or to a Nazi? What is it makes them feel comfortable doing that kind of crap in public? I wonder if it isn't the atmosphere of language that's being used today. Your thoughts, sir, Mark.
MARK POTOK, SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER: I think it is the atmosphere, the language that's being sort of ejected into the atmosphere, I think that, you know, what we're hearing, in particular from our—quote, unquote—“leaders,” from both political leaders and commentators.
I mean, you know, yesterday Rush Limbaugh was on the air talking about an incident in which black kids attacked a white kid on a school bus, an incident that police said was not racially motivated, and saying that what we need are segregated buses, that this is the only way, I suppose, that white people can be protected from black people.
I think when we have characters like Limbaugh saying that on the air to millions of Americans, many of whom actually revere the man, you know, it's not surprising that people feel that, you know, the race war is around the corner and that we're allowed to say these kinds of things.
GERALD POSNER: ... Chris, you have hit the nail on the head. It's a license that allows somebody who's on the edge to cross the edge from thinking about acting out to actually crossing the line and being violent and thinking they can change history with a single bullet. And we have shown time and time again that that's possible.
It's not simply the overt threat to the well-being of the president that's important here. There's also the threatening nature of packing heat openly at a public meeting where the presence of guns is highly likely to be interpreted by your fellow citizens as an implied threat to their well-being should they happen to disagree. That is, they not only threaten the president, these guns intimidate and silence your fellow citizens.
The flip side of this was Glenn Beck, responding also to Pelosi's remarks, and insisting that we pay it no mind, because the people she's concerned about are just crazy, and there's nothing we can do about them.
Beck: Look -- Timothy McVeigh -- nutjob! Nutjob! On the fringe of the right! That, President Clinton tried to blame on Rush Limbaugh. It was ridiculous then, and it's ridiculous now. Harvey Milk -- killed by a guy who was hepped up on Twinkies. It was ridiculous then -- it's ridiculous now. The shooter -- and Timothy McVeigh -- crazy people! It's madness.
This was largely the position taken by Jesse Walker at Reason earlier this week, when he drew up what appears to be the first serious attempt at critiquing my book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right.
When panicky centrists aren't willing to draw an unbroken line from peaceful conservatives to the violent fringe, they posit a somewhat subtler link. The killers, they acknowledge, aren't taking their marching orders directly from Fox News and AM radio. But by giving serious attention to theories associated with the fringe right—that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is preparing concentration camps, that Barack Obama is not a natural-born U.S. citizen—Glenn Beck and other broadcasters are validating the grievances of potential killers, giving them the impression that they aren't alone. This validation is buttressed by the sweeping, sometimes violent rhetoric about "liberals" that you hear from partisan celebrities, such as Ann Coulter's joke that McVeigh should have blown up the New York Times building instead. In The Eliminationists and on his blog, David Neiwert tries to establish a chain linking "eliminationist" behavior in American history (lynchings of blacks and Asians, the slaughter of American Indians), eliminationist rhetoric on the mainstream right (the Coulter wisecrack), and von Brunn–style efforts to eliminate people directly.
The theory is interesting, but it has two enormous problems. The first is that it ignores the autonomy of people on the fringe. Not just the radicals who commit the crimes, but the radicals who don't commit crimes. There's a complex ecology at work here, one demonstrated most clearly in those cases when militiamen alerted authorities to terrorist plots in their midst. Words have influence, but they influence different people in different ways; you can't reduce media effects to simple push-pull reactions. Accusing Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly of validating right-wing violence isn't so different from accusing pornography of validating rape, Ozzy Osbourne of validating teen suicide, or Marilyn Manson of validating school massacres.
Actually, it is quite different from that. Because what The Eliminationists describes is not artistic expression or mere point of view, but rather ideological exhortation -- rhetoric specifically intended to inspire both belief and action. The former has only a tenuous causal connection at best, while the latter has a long and well-established causal connection to violent behavior.
Surely Walker doesn't believe for a minute that radical anti-Israeli speech emanating from Hamas has no connection to the suicide bombers who board buses in Tel Aviv. It's hard to imagine anyone not acknowledging that radical Jihadist anti-American speech doesn't inspire Al Qaeda's acts of terrorism. Nor even that the Ku Klux Klan race baiters of the '20s and '30s didn't help inspire various acts of lynching and "race rioting".
Accusing Beck and O'Reilly of validating right-wing violence isn't like connecting Marilyn Manson to Columbine -- which is to say, connecting something that only tenuously could be said to actually inspire or advocate violence. It's much more like connecting radical imams to 9/11.
Ideologues who inspire violent action through radicalizing propaganda have been with us for many decades, even centuries. The fact that, in recent years, the more action-prone of the people who violently respond to these exhortations are increasingly confined to the fringes of American politics doesn't mean there isn't still serious culpability on the part of those who indulge rhetoric that winds up unhinging people.
I frequently use the case of David Lewis Rice to explain and illustrate this point:
On Christmas Eve 1985, Charles and Annie Goldmark were at home with their sons Derek, 12, and Colin, 10, preparing for a holiday dinner when the doorbell rang. It was Rice, a 27-year-old unemployed transient, posing as a taxicab driver delivering a package. He brandished a toy gun and forced his way into their home, then set about using chloroform to render all four Goldmarks unconscious. He then proceeded to kill them slowly, using a steam iron and a knife that he used to insert into at least one of the victim's brains. Annie was pronounced dead on the spot, Colin pronounced dead on arrival, while Charles died there a short while later; Derek finally succumbed 37 days later.
But Rice wasn't just a deranged loony -- though he probably fit that description too. He also was a deranged loony who had been set into action by the malicious lies of a group of right-wing haters, whose venom became his inspiration ...
Sociologist James A. Aho, in his book This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy explains where Rice got his inspiration:
Ed Fasel [fictitious name] was head of the local Duck Club chapter. It was from Ed that Rice received the tragic misinformation that Charles and Annie Goldmark were leading Seattle Communists. In the course of discussions concerning local subversives and crooks who were presumably frustrating Rice's efforts to secure a job, Fasel, mistaking Charles for his father John, related to Rice that the Goldmarks had been investigated and that Charles was "regional director of the American Communist Party." Rice took this to mean that Charles was the "highest obtainable target I could reach, the greatest value informationally." After handcuffing the Goldmarks, Rice intended to interrogate them about the next person in the conspiratorial hierarchy, possibly to preempt at the last moment the impending invasion of alien troops [a conspiracy theory to which Rice subscribed].
What occasioned Fasel to dredge up a name associated with an event that had occurred two decades previously in another part of the state? In a Seattle Port Commission election during the summer of 1985, one of the candidates was Jim Wright, a Republican. Wright's campaign manager was none other than Ashley Holden, a defendant in the Goldmark trial. [Holden had been a leading torchbearer in the McCarthyite "Red fever" that swept Washington state in the late 1940s and '50s, and had been one of the people who falsely accused the Goldmarks in print of being part of the Communist Party.] Upon discovering this unusual link, the Seattle media jumped on it, and the name "Goldmark," with its unfortunate connotations, "got out again," to use one informant's phrase.
In my interview with him, Holden convincingly insisted that he knew nothing of the Duck Club nor any of its members. "I deplored the murder," he said. "There is no question," he went on, parroting local wisdom, "Rice was demented."
Now, did "Fasel" or any of his cohorts have criminal or even civil liability in this matter? Almost certainly not.
But did they have the blood of the Goldmark family on their hands? Most of us would judge that they did indeed.
That is to say, there was a level of moral and ethical culpability involved in the irresponsible speech that inspired David Lewis Rice. When you fill an unstable person's head with a pack of crazy ideas that inspire them to act out violently, there are social and economic consequences that deservedly ensue.
The critical components that distinguish irresponsible free speech from responsible are interworking pieces: whether it is intended to harm by scapegoating or demonizing, and whether or not it is provably false. In the Goldmark case, the things the Duck Club told Rice not only demonized the Goldmarks, but they were also things that were simply not true -- though the tellers wished ardently that they were, they were purely concoctions of their fevered imaginations.
This is true of so much far-right wingnuttery -- the "Birther" conspiracy theories, the FEMA-camp claims, the "constitutionalist" theories about taxation and the Federal Reserve, to list just a few examples -- and yet people believe them anyway.
This rhetoric also acts as a kind of wedge between the people who absorb it and the real world. There is always a kind of cognitive dissonance that arises from believing things that are provably untrue, and people who begin to fanatically cling to beliefs that do not comport with reality find themselves increasingly willing to buy into other similarly unhinged beliefs. For those who are already unhinged, the effects are particularly toxic.
All of these theories, you'll observe, serve the explicit purpose of supporting a scapegoating narrative. And a number of them have been featured in some shape, form, or fashion, in the mainstream public discourse because they have been presented seriously for discussion by various right-wing talking heads, most notably Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs.
But pointing out their ethical and moral culpability inevitably means that they immediately blame it on the "crazy" people, and who can take responsibility for "crazy" people?
Part of the problem is that we actually have seen this happen time after time after time: A mentally unstable person is inspired by hateful right-wing rhetoric to act out violently -- and yet because of that mental state, the matter is dismissed as idiosyncratic, just another "isolated incident." And over the months and years, these "isolated incidents" mount one after another.
But simply ascribing these acts to mental illness is a cop-out. It fails to account for the gross irresponsibility of the people who employed the rhetoric that inspired the violent action in the first place, and their resulting moral culpability.
Next, inevitably, they complain that we're only trying to silence them:
This is a familiar refrain that comes up every time anyone raises a socially damning issue like this one: We're trying to oppress them, to silence their voices, by pointing out how morally and ethically bankrupt they are.
Actually, we're just pointing out how bankrupt they are. No one here has said anything about silencing their voices -- we just want them to face up to the consequences of their irresponsible rhetoric. It's called culpability: They obviously are not criminally culpable, nor likely even civilly culpable. But they are morally and ethically culpable.
We do have serious differences of opinion here. We strongly believe that there's a clear, common-sense connection between the paranoiac fearmongering that has passed for right-wing rhetoric since well before Obama's election (and has become acute since) and violence like that in Pittsburgh, or in Knoxville: horrifying tragedies, in which the sources of the criminal's unambiguous motives are that very same hysterical fearmongering -- whether it's about the evil socialists, stinking immigrants, or conspiring gun-grabbers who've taken over the country since Election Day.
... The point is not to silence the people saying these things, but to point out how grotesquely irresponsible they are -- in the hopes that they will cease doing so, and start acting responsibly. It's their choice to use irresponsible rhetoric. It's not just our choice but our duty, as responsible citizens, to stand up and speak out about it.
And make no mistake: Rhetoric that whips up irrational fears among the public, that demonizes and dehumanizes and scapegoats -- that's irresponsible rhetoric. And we are calling the American Right on it.
Think about what Bill Clinton actually said after Oklahoma City (and carefully note the difference between this and what the Right now claims he said):
In this country we cherish and guard the right of free speech. We know we love it when we put up with people saying things we absolutely deplore. And we must always be willing to defend their right to say things we deplore to the ultimate degree. But we hear so many loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other. They spread hate. They leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable. You ought to see -- I'm sure you are now seeing the reports of some things that are regularly said over the airwaves in America today.
Well, people like that who want to share our freedoms must know that their bitter words can have consequences and that freedom has endured in this country for more than two centuries because it was coupled with an enormous sense of responsibility on the part of the American people.
If we are to have freedom to speak, freedom to assemble, and, yes, the freedom to bear arms, we must have responsibility as well. And to those of us who do not agree with the purveyors of hatred and division, with the promoters of paranoia, I remind you that we have freedom of speech, too, and we have responsibilities, too. And some of us have not discharged our responsibilities. It is time we all stood up and spoke against that kind of reckless speech and behavior.
If they insist on being irresponsible with our common liberties, then we must be all the more responsible with our liberties. When they talk of hatred, we must stand against them. When they talk of violence, we must stand against them. When they say things that are irresponsible, that may have egregious consequences, we must call them on it. The exercise of their freedom of speech makes our silence all the more unforgivable. So exercise yours, my fellow Americans. Our country, our future, our way of life is at stake.
Of course, the right-wingers mewled piteously after Clinton gave that speech, too. They claimed he was trying to silence them, when in fact he was quite explicit about not doing that. Nonetheless, it became part of established right-wing lore that "Clinton blamed Rush Limbaugh for Oklahoma City."
This, as we've already noted, is palpable nonsense:
Because we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of thought, there will probably always be haters like Richard Poplawski among us. Inevitably they will be driven by fear: the fear of difference. Because to them, difference of any kind is a threat.
And what we know from experience about volatile, unstable actors like them is that they can be readily induced into violent action by hateful rhetoric that demonizes and dehumanizes other people. And thanks to human nature and those same freedoms, we will certainly always have fearmongering demagogues among us. But the purveyors of such profoundly irresponsible rhetoric need to be called on it -- especially when they hold the nation's media megaphones.
That was as true in 1995 as it is now. Which brings us to the second part of Jesse Walker's critique:
The second problem is the implicit version of history. Neiwert has uncritically embraced the idea that the militia movement began in 1992, so it's easy for him to imagine a progression from the old lynch mobs to the right-wing '80s underground to the '90s militias to Republicans who tolerate militia-style arguments. But if Churchill is right about the origins of the militia movement, the original eliminationists might have a different, more dangerous set of descendants.
I'm not sure what in the hell Walker is talking about here. Nowhere have I suggested that the militia movement began in 1992. And I haven't uncritically embraced anyone's theories about their origins. After all, I was there and reported on them at the time. I've been reporting on them since.
Walker seems oblivious to the fact that my first published book was a study of the "Patriot" movement of the 1990s from a Northwestern perspective, titled In God's Country. It was published by a small academic press, so I can't blame him if he hasn't read it. But a little research would have revealed to him that the book is based on my on-the-ground reportage involving the extremist right in the Northwest dating back to the 1970s and picking up in the early '90s.
I come by my conclusions honestly -- that is, through firsthand experience as a journalist. I covered the Montana Freemen standoff and subsequent federal trials, as well as the activities (and ultimately federal court trials) of militia activists in western Washington, northern Idaho and eastern Oregon as well. I interviewed numerous militia leaders and even more of their followers, and I dug through the extant sociological research to understand better what made them tick.
What I can tell you is what I laid out in the book, with the full body of evidence: that the militias were actually an outgrowth of the larger "Christian Patriot" movement that became an umbrella term for the American extremist right in the mid-1980s. The militias were seen as a means to recruit new believers from the mainstream, by appealing to their "libertarian" ideals and their fears about guns and government power.
This shift was best recorded by Aho in his seminal text The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism, which was published in 1990. It contains the first real dataset of information about this segment of the American Right. It describes, on page 10, the "Christian Patriot" organization calling itself the Oregon Militia. So the concept of Patriots forming militia cells certainly predated 1992.
Now, did the militias' recruitment efforts -- their attempt to mainstream themselves -- entail the very sort of appeals that Robert Churchill describes? Certainly. But the far-right bloc that now calls itself the Patriots have always tailored their appeals in such fashion. They are nothing if not adaptable.
I've only just picked up Mr. Churchill's book, but here's my impression from my initial cursory glance: It's written from the perspective of someone who wasn't there, and is more interested in promoting a provocative thesis than digging to get to the whole truth. Churchill, for instance, devotes a great deal of time to the work and writing of Mike Vanderboegh, who made great show of trying to drive out the racists from the militia movement. But Vanderboegh had virtually no influence within the movement and was generally shunned by "real" Patriots. Yet at the same time, Churchill makes no mention whatsoever of Col. James "Bo" Gritz, who was a major figure in the movement and one of its important figureheads.
The Gritz example is instructive: I interviewed him on multiple occasions, and inevitably tried to get him to discuss the rumors that he was involved in Christian Identity, the white-supremacist religious movement which stipulates that Caucasians are the true children of Israel, and that Jews are Satanic and non-whites soulless brutes. Gritz was almost always evasive on this count, even though it was well known that he'd had a significant falling-out with Identity leader Pete Peters over the latter's insistence on the death penalty for homosexuals. But what he did tell me, on more than one occasion, was that politically, he identified with libertarians (and particularly Ron Paul).
Later, it emerged that Gritz was indeed deeply enmeshed in the Identity movement. He's now fairly public about it, having married the daughter of one of Identity's more prominent preachers.
This is fairly typical of the Patriot movement in general and its "militia" components specifically: They love to present a normative front that is non-threatening and whose deep radicalism is not immediately apparent. But eventually the real agenda emerges.
It's important to understand that these folks in fact see themselves as residing outside the mainstream. They embrace their radicalism and are proud of it, make wry jokes about it. To the far right, even Fox News is part of the "liberal media" establishment that doesn't dare tell the whole real truth about the nefarious Jewish cabal that really runs America.
So when they see someone like Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck or Lou Dobbs repeating for a mass national audience things they believed were only understood by people like themselves, it has not only a powerfully validating effect, but even moreso a permission-giving one. Just as hate-crime perpetrators believe they are acting on the secret wishes of their larger communities, violent extremists have a need to believe that they are acting heroically, on behalf of their nation or their "people". Mainstream validation tells them they are supported.
Mark Potok explained this to Chris Matthews in that Hardball segment:
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you -- let me ask Mark of the Southern Poverty Law Center, let me ask you this thing here of the South. What is it about the cause—we used to hear the phrase the cause for the people who didn't like what happened in the Civil War afterwards. They thought they lost the war they should have won.
This attitude about how you got to carry—I heard a guy talking the other day in front of the Lee Mansion about you got to keep the battle going, the battle, showing up at these rallies in Washington against Obama.
What is the battle out there that's being fought by the right, especially in the South? What is this? What is this thing out there?
POTOK: Well, I think—I think, in the South, it's a very particular form of white nationalism. I mean, you know, there are a great many people down here who truly believe that the war had nothing to do with slavery, the Civil War, you know, that it was about tariffs or the North imposing an industrial system on the South or any one of any number of other things.
You know, this is very much alive in the minds of a lot of people down here, including academics in many cases. So, you know, all of this rhetoric, all of these ideas have consequences.
I mean, I think it's worth saying, overall, when we talk about the subject, that, you know, hate criminals, people who go out and murder people who don't look like them, are not typically people who think of themselves as criminal thugs.
They are very typically people who think that they are acting on the wishes of the community. They are the brave young men standing up to defend their community.
So, you know, when you have a Limbaugh or other public figures saying Obama's a racist, he has a hatred for white people, as Glenn Beck said on FOX News the other day, you know, there are some people out there, some small sliver of the population, who feel, you know, what the brave young warriors ought to do is go out there and defend the white race, and that may very well mean taking a shot at the president.
MATTHEWS: Well, I thank you both for joining us on this terrible subject.
... By the way, I think that everybody who does these horrible crimes in history does so thinking that, somewhere, there will be warmth for him; somewhere in the country or in the world, there will be people who will respect and love him for what he did. That thought is frightening.
And all the more frightening for being hard, cold reality. No matter how ardently the American Right would like to whitewash it all away.