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.
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