Political violence on the left and the right: fantasy and reality
If you were looking for an example of how right's wingnutosphere manages to spin the most innocuous wisps of nothing into massive earth-shaking scandals of cosmic import, look no further than the outbreak of right-wing hives that erupted last week over these words from the estimable political-philosophy professor Brian Leiter:
Meanwhile, the Republican criminals in Wisconsin forced through their attack on workers' rights, leading to an uproar in Madison. ... At some point these acts of brazen viciousness are going to lead to a renewed philosophical interest in the question of when acts of political violence are morally justified, an issue that has, oddly, not been widely addressed in political philosophy since Locke.
Within a week's time, these words had morphed into an example of left-wingers advocating violence in places like Wisconsin!, one of the favorite memes o' the week at Fox. Megyn Kelly devoted an entire segment to wondering about the meaning of Leiter's words:
KELLY: Well, some on the left now suggesting that crackdowns on unions like we saw in Wisconsin will lead to renewed interest in whether violence would be morally justified.
Of course, Kelly couldn't manage to find a Faux Democrat who could actually read what Leiter wrote in context and laugh the whole discussion off the screen, since such a creature does not exist. This left Kelly free to then compare Leiter's quip to a nutty rant from Louis Farrakhan. Fair 'n' balanced!
The person who pretty much kicked off the whole charade last week was the Ole Perfesser, Glenn Reynolds, who wanked:
This whole “new civility” business just isn’t working out as promised. On the other hand, it is working out pretty much as expected. . . .
It seemed that everyone on the right, rather than read what Leiter's words actually said, wanted to read what they thought his hidden meaning was -- namely, that violence might become philosophically justified, a la Eugene Volkh: "My sense from Prof. Leiter’s post, though, is that he is hinting at more than just a philosophical inquiry".
Ann Althouse, as is her wont, made the leap and went there:
How quickly the lefty mind turns toward violence! ... Here, I'll help you get your fancy-schmancy, high-tone philosophy seminar started: Acts of political violence are justified to get what you want.
Leiter is…inclined to approve of the impulse toward violence on the left and willing to mobilize the discipline of philosophy to generate rhetoric to support its political goals. It’s quite disgusting.
Indeed, there was great handwringing on the right that Leiter was actually inciting violence. James Taranto cites reader John Benjamin:
Frankly, Leiter borders on incitement. Not to see that comments such as his enhance the possibility of actual violence in the future is unacceptable. There is a profound degree of antipathy in political circles today and one would be denying reality if one expressed surprise at an act of political violence today. Shock and horror, yes, but surprise, no and it's due precisely to the allowing of intellectual lunatics such as Leiter the light of day on campus or anywhere inside civilization.
Even Taranto -- who nonetheless read Leiter's remarks as intimating an approval of violence -- wouldn't go quite that far. But nonetheless it became a fait accompli that Brian Leiter was urging the left to engage in violence.
Which is not just patent nonsense but patently dishonest nonsense: The clear meaning of Leiter's remarks is that this kind of political-miscreancy-without-accountability ultimately gets people to thinking about violence, and some of them concoct philosophical justifications for it -- which really is almost unquestionably true, regardless of which side of the political aisle you sit upon. He says absolutely nothing to indicate approval or disapproval; he merely remarks on this point.
For what it's worth, we're of the opinion that political violence of any kind regardless of source -- whether privately inflicted or state supported -- is only acceptable in the name of self-defense or humanitarian defense of others. And while we have been adamant in standing up to the rhetoric of eliminationist violence that has been endemic on the Right in recent years, we're similarly adamant that threatening rhetoric has no place on the Left. And to the extent that it has bubbled up in Wisconsin in recent weeks, we are willing to stand with those who condemn the threats.
But what's most amazing about this episode is how finely tuned right-wing ears have become to even the vaguest intimation of advocacy of violence from the left, in part because of the anger bubbling up in Wisconsin. Amazing, because they have been utterly deaf when it comes to the endless deluge of vicious and hateful bile that's come from the American right in recent years. John Benjamin's fears that Brian Leiter is inciting violence are downright laughable when stacked up against, say, your run-of-the-mill Glenn "Progressives Are Cancer on Society" Beck rant, or Sean Hannity's latest eliminationist joke.
Their fears are especially ironic in the face of what they have produced. In contrast to the handful of relatively low-level threatening remarks we've seen out of Wisconsin, there has been a real flood of threats from the American Right directed at liberals and government officials, including some that have produced federal prosecutions for making threats. These threats have come from sovereign citizens, among others; they have involved numerous instances of political-campaign violence, as well as threats to judges, and 'Patriot' threats of violence against sitting governors. There have been explicit threats from Tea Partiers and death threats from anonymous racists.
But those are just the threats, which really have been so numerous and have become so common that it's really impossible to track them.
This is not the case when it comes to incidents involving real or imminent violence producing arrests. Here's what a map tracking them for the past two and half years looks like:
Here's the complete list. As you can see, since July 2008, we are up to 24 incidents and counting.
Here's my challenge to all those right-wing bloggers who are up in arms about the left's supposed countenancing of the advocacy of violence: Come up with a comparable map.
Really. I'd like to challenge the entire wingnutosphere to map out for us the incidents of actual left-wing violence targeting conservatives over the same time period. Threats don't count: You have to demonstrate that someone inspired by left-wing ideology either engaged in a violent act or was arrested while preparing to engage in one.
Because then you could demonstrate that you have solid grounds for fearing the potential advocacy of violence in left-wing rhetoric. Over here on the Left, we don't have that problem. We have those grounds.
My guess is, the best you'll be able to come up with is Kenneth Gladney. Which is about as lame and hapless an example of "political violence" on recent record.
Of course, we understand why you're trying to make someone like Brian Leiter out to be an advocate for violence: It's a way of diverting our attention from the very real concerns that exist about the results of right-wing violent rhetoric. Of course, in order to succeed, you have to completely whitewash away the very real and troubling history of right-wing extremist violence in America over the past 20 years. But that's something you've all become very skilled at.
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