James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Violence

  • H.L. Mencken on 'Civility,' Improbably Enough

    'He carefully guards his amour-propre'

    From a reader in North Carolina:

    >>I'm sorry this is late to the discussion, but it took me a while to run down the quote from H. L. Mencken. I think about it often, but I wanted to get it right, as I think it sums up civility in public or private discourse.He laid down these rules doing a controversy with Upton Sinclair:

    "[W]hen [a person] fights he fights in the manner of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon. That is to say, he carefully guards his amour-propre by assuming that his opponent is as decent a man as he is, and just as honest -- and perhaps, after all, right."

    These three assumptions about one's opponent, his decency, honesty, and possibility that he's right, seem to me the essence of civil argument. Just as important, I think, is Mencken's reason for civility. It isn't for the other person's sake, or even to ensure a good debate. A person is civil for his or her own good. Descent into incivility is demeaning to the uncivil person, not the opponent. Those who screech in the public forum may win the battle of a day. They may even win all the battles. But in the process, they have irreparably injured themselves.<<

    This is an interesting quote from Mencken, given his known love for florid denunciations. So maybe it's useful as something to bear in mind during extended disagreements/discussions.

    On the "useful to bear in mind" point: obviously people are always going to disagree, occasionally turn into "haters," get angry and unreasonable, and all the rest. That's life, and it's politics. But in the long-term ups and downs in the tone of political discussion, it's handy to have reminders or guidelines of better and worse ways to do things -- and this is one.

    I was on a discussion of related themes this morning, on the Diane Rehm show, with Deborah Tannen of Georgetown, Jill Lepore of Harvard, and former (and I hope future) Rep. Glenn Nye. Online here.

  • 'How to be Civil': The Finale!

    One more trawl of reader ideas about defining and improving public behavior. Let's hope some of these work.

    Previous installments here and here. The question is whether the even-now ever so slightly fading talk about "civil" discourse means anything in practice. Today we have one more set of suggestions from readers. First, from a reader on the stakes in changing the political tone:

    >>The incivility that typifies political and public life pushes people like me away from engaging in the public discourse and away from public service.  In the private sector people are mostly polite because it's good for business and crucial to getting things done.  The harshness that we find in the public political discourse is the result of self-selection: only the nasty and the really thick-skinned opt to engage in political life.  I and many others are turned off by the nastiness and choose to disengage from the public discourse.  I confess that I have abandoned the future of my country to the nastiest people around, both Democrats and Republicans.  Let them play in the mud, I'm not interested.<<

    'Wrong, but not bad':

    >> How about this one: Talk of your opponent as someone with different views, beliefs or opinions that you think are wrong, but not as a bad person.

    That to me has been the most damaging thing in our politics in the last 30 years; people cannot simply disagree with their opponent. They have to somehow paint the other person as being a bad person as well. This eventually leads to the kind of crackpot rhetoric we see from Beck and Limbaugh and Palin; that Democrats are not just wrong on something, but are actually conniving to do evil and nefarious things because they are, at base level, bad people. This kind of demonization is in the long run much more dangerous than the simple use of bombastic rhetoric because it can somehow justify, in the unstable mind, the impulse to use violence. After all, if one is targeting an actual "enemy of the state" (and trust me, many people really do believe that Obama is willfully and intentionally trying to destroy America), that makes one not a deranged loon, but a hero.<<

    Enough with Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, et al:

    >>I have one to offer: Eschew hystical historical hyperbole. In other words, avoid equating your opponents and/or their programs to historical figure, acts, movements, or periods that are widely understood to be examples of evil unless you could make the case for the analogy with a straight face to a credentialed academic historian knowledgeable about the time period.

    The more heinous the object of comparison, the more cautious you should be in invoking it. Words to use with extreme care, if at all, include:Socialist, Communist, Marxist, Leninist, Hitler, Stalin, Goebbels, SS, Cossacks, Holocaust, Pogrom, apartheid, blood libel, Crusade, cruxifiction, slavery, lynching, etc. Throwing these terms around casually is not only inflammatory, it's insulting both to your contemporary opponents and to the victims of the actual historical atrocities. Use historical comparisons only when they actually illuminate the discussion of contemporary issues. (Acceptable: Discussing the ways in which gay marriage bans are and are not like anti-miscegenation laws. Unacceptable: Calling NPR executive Nazis.)

    As a first step to demonstrating your understanding of and commitment to this principle, promise here and now to stop using the words "Fascist" and "Communist" interchangeably, and to stop using them to refer to ANY contemporary mainstream American politician.<<

    Don't assume anyone is anti-American:

    >>I think your one piece of guidance [from a reader] may actually do the trick:

    "Never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart."

    It reminds me of a Sunday School lesson with my kids. Jesus is asked which is the most important commandment: He answers: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

    It seems that your rule would prevent Rush Limbaugh from saying:

    "We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president."


    Sarah Palin from saying Obama "pals around with terrorists" or that Obama is "hell bent on weakening America."

    Almost everything I can think of would be covered by your simple guidance: never imply that your opponents are traitors, advocate overthrowing the U.S., wants to harm U.S. citizens, is un-American, needs to be stopped by any means necessary, deserves the death penalty for their policy positions or isn't a "real American."<<

    No more harping on the 'real America':

    >>Civility in political dialogue, of course.

    My pessimistic take:

    For the deceitful, civility has no meaning.

    My optimistic take:

    All citizens are Americans. Anything that characterizes another American as not "on the team" is off limits.

    So, to talk about "real America" or "taking back America" or treating one of your ostensible American teammates as a "target" is off limits. On the ground that it is absolute, unadulterated bullshit that no respectable teammate would ever do. This is actually a pretty easy measuring stick to apply. Wanting Obama (team captain) to fail? Not only unacceptable, we're beating the snot out of this guy in the shower...<<

    On the other hand:

    >>I like the idea of more civility in public life. I am pro-civility. But when your reader suggests that we "never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart," s/he crosses that line that separates reasonable norms of expression from attempts to rule certain forms of political expression out of bounds.

    Does everyone in politics, in fact, have "the best interests of Americans at heart"? It would be surprising if they did. American politicians are not, in general, less selfish, greedy, or corrupt than people in any other field or any other country. And if someone in public office is behaving in a selfish, greedy, or corrupt way, it doesn't help to pretend that he or she is merely a well-intentioned-but-misguided patriot.

    Norms against invocations of violence are highly desirable. Norms against vigorous and sometimes personally insulting political argument have no place in a democracy.<<

    The role of simple manners:

    >>Civility-How about we simply go back to manners. Remember manners? Emily Post? Handshakes, where people look each other in the eye, hats off in buildings boys etc. Let's easy up on the profanity.

    Boycott bombastic, self-serving media outlets, and take the time to call, email, text companies who advertise with those outlets, and or boycott those companies. My wise and sage 94 year old father would say, "hit them in their wallets".

    We seem confounded about children bullying. Really? There is huge segment of adults that do that all day and into the night on TV, radio, on internet forums.... How about parents? What are our children over-hearing us say to one another? If the kids are hearing what that guy was spouting, it's a wonder there isn't even more hatred abounding. They bully cause the significant adults in their lives bully.

    We are all responsible for what is happening. Until we all stop waiting for someone else to fix it, and get involved, it will not stop and we will only have ourselves to blame.<<

    Journalists need to do more:

    >>I haven't heard much introspection from reporters, journalists or talking heads on whether they should more consistently call people out (in real time) when they try to push an untruth or false equivalency. Those who don't see their job in purely cynical terms have the opportunity to set the groundrules, call foul when appropriate, and ultimately reduce the megaphone they give those who repeatedly cross the lines.<<

    A few rules:

    >> 1) No side has a monopoly on the truth.

    2) Beware tribalism in politics. (Orwell might've referred to this as one of the smelly orthodoxies...?) Step outside of the (D) and (R) boxes. Think of the sharp, decent people one has met who vote differently than one does; think about the level of scorn one is truly willing to heap on them.

    3) the Golden Rule works, as does the Hippocratic Oath.

    4) Perceive, deeply, the dark side of a system that, arguably above all else, prizes victory in political competition. Perceive the effects of money on politics and of power on human decisions.

    5) Find a hobby other than politics. I have fallen into this trap as well, partly because it is such an interesting subject and full of personalities and events that interest me, and it does have some impact on our daily lives (though that varies from group to group).

    In the end, we are contemplating how we as a society will allocate material goods and services, and to whom we will grant the administrative authority to effect such allocation. That's it. If one's ears turn red on a subject like this, one has to step back and ask: seriously? seriously?? Even as a fed myself, I say, there is more to life. <<

    Another checklist:

    >>Here's my take on guidelines for civil discourse:

    Discuss only the topic, not the person making the argument.
    Check your facts -- and recheck them. If you're unsure, don't use it (or acknowledge your ignorance).
    Avoid hyperbole, unless obviously humorous.
    Avoid violent metaphors and similes.
    Never advocate violent action as a solution unless discussing an actual conflict or a declared enemy, but even then, be cautious.
    Focus on reason, not emotion.
    Acknowledge counterarguments, and respond with respect. (Insults can, and should, be ignored).
    Try to persuade those who disagree with you, and don't incite those who do.
    When a statement angers or annoys you, be aware of your emotions and exercise self-control in your response.

    I'm sure there are more, but these would be a pretty good start, I think.<<

    More »

  • Is There Anything to Do About 'Civility'?

    Is there a way to calm the national mood? Readers have a lot of ideas.

    This post is plenty long, and even so it covers only a fraction of the responses that have come it. The original question was, does increased "civility" mean anything in practice? Any handy rules of thumb, akin to Michael Pollan's rules about food? First suggestions previously here. A reader writes in to begin another installment:

    >>I would start with the observation that civility works. Violence never persuades; at best, it gets the other person's attention long enough to have an actual conversation. Failing that, a violent act might effectively stop a single act of serious harm, such as invading Poland or shooting up a schoolyard. But the actual persuasion, the actual conversion, can only come about through dialog, civility, and mutuality.

    I can think of three rules of civility I try to live by:

    1) I work hard to never engage in threats or other forms of violence. If I even find these attractive, I ask myself why, and deal with the basis for my anger. I find that when I understand the source of my anger, one of two things happens: either I discover a real contradiction in my thinking or my way of life and decide that I need to make a change, or else I discover something truly wrong about the policy or point of view that I disagree with, and by taking the time to understand my anger, I can make a truly compelling case.

    2) I avoid rhetoric or thinking that has as its end the elimination of a political viewpoint. Even in the case of viewpoints considered truly evil by general consensus, I try to focus on enshrining a good value rather than eliminating an evil one.

    3) I avoid any desire to humiliate political opponents. I try not to paint them or think of them as personally evil, avoid fantasies in which they have to eat their words. I try not to speak or to think of them as personally evil or defective. I remember that shame, in politics, does not serve any useful purpose.<<

    From a European now working in the US software industry:

    >>How about banning the use of the "strawman" fallacy (i.e. attacking someone for a position they don't really hold)? That should take care of about 90% of all inflammatory rhetoric.....

    Moving from the Netherlands to the US about a decade ago, the unchecked use of strawman-based rhetoric struck me as the biggest difference in the nature of the public debate. Unfortunately, things are changing for the worst back in the Netherlands, with right-wing politician Geert Wilders stealing plays from the US political play-book to significant effect. One example: the term "liberal elite" is recently getting a lot of air time and is used as a way of blanketing opponents and ascribing them all kinds of supposedly nefarious attributes and ideas<<

    Another reader:

    >>As bad as specifically violent rhetoric is the invocation of 'tyranny', 'treason' and the like, which I think are used (perhaps not fully intentionally) because they de-legitimate the political opposition and justify extreme measures in response. In fact, I am coming to see even 'tea party' as suspect in this way, since it suggests violent opposition to an illegitimate authority.<<

    A reader in California:

    >>Defining 'civility' is a perfectly worth goal but somehow the whole conversation has turned to the political rhetoric rather than the obvious observation that our country is awash in guns, our political system awash in corporate and NRA money. What was the discussion after the attempted assassination on President Reagan in comparison? As I emailed a friend yesterday, perhaps our moment of silence should be a contemplation of the meaning of the words "well-regulated".<<


    >>1. The words "traitor," "treason" and variations thereof are reserved for people actually charged with treason.

    2. All references to tyranny should be limited to foreign governments. Concerns about the scope of government in the United States should instead be couched in the language of individual and states' rights and freedoms instead of in the language of encroachment by a hostile power.

    3. At no time can we separate the "real" Americans from the fake ones, even if we disagree about values.

    4. If the statement is calculated to shut down debate or devolves into name-calling ("You lie!), it is not helpful.

    5. Attributing an opponent's positions to personal deficiencies or ulterior motives (e.g. calling them stupid, drug-addled, insecure, or racist/sexist) is not constructive.

    6. Respond to your opponents as if you believe them to be reasonable, intelligent, mature adults--even if you don't actually think so.

    7. Anything meant to bait your opponents or purposefully piss them off is not helpful. You should either be trying to convince the other side, or rallying your own, but never saying something just to provoke reaction.

    8. If you make the claim that someone is being dishonest, you need to immediately follow that claim with evidence.

    9. Replace all further political discourse with the Socratic method. (My personal favorite)<<

    A reader in Virginia:

    >>One possible civil-civic-discourse rule: Forbid anonymity in newspaper and magazine online forums.

    The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot provides a nice example of a newspaper trying to respond to calls for that rule: http://hamptonroads.com/verify. I love it that they explicitly invoke long-established journalistic standards against pernicious anonymity.)<<

    More »

  • Suggestions on 'Civility'

    Is there a way to set rules for more "civil" conduct?

    I asked last night for suggestions on what, exactly, it would mean to have a more "civil" tone of political discourse. We all have heard that we're supposed to nicer to one another. But how would we know we were doing so? The reader who originally asked the question suggested, "Never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart." My nominee was, stop using imagery of violent death -- nooses, targets, and so on.

    More from the inbox. To start:

    >>I'd suggest that one shouldn't say something in a manner that one wouldn't also use at the dinner table with one's ten-year old kid. I'm not talking opinion here, just tone and verbiage. We should probably all assume that those we're speaking to won't have the sensitivity to understand when we're exaggerating and dramatizing our views. Do you for a minute think that Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck would speak the way they do when they're having dinner with their impressionable kids (or grand-children)? Not a chance. The reality is that there are enough stupid, adult humans who don't have the intellectual or social IQ of a ten-year old; inspire them with a bunch of incendiary rhetoric and don't be surprised when bad shit happens.<<

    From a reader in North Carolina:

    >>What I would like to see is a code of conduct, to which elected office holders, candidates for office, and maybe even media pundits, could swear to uphold. We cannot make it legally mandatory, or remove people from their positions if they refuse to do so or if they violate the provisions of the code. However, it should be a matter of public record whether or not someone is or is not committed to abide by the code's provisions. We can rely on public opinion to eventually deal with those who refuse to commit to the code. As for violations of the code, there could be some sort of voluntary hearing or arbitration mechanism, and anyone who swears to uphold the code also agrees to submit any accusations of their transgressions to such a board. The board's findings would be made public, again subjecting the transgressors to the force of public opinion.

    What should be in such a code? Speaking the truth, or at least not saying something they know to be untrue, would be a good start. Full disclosure of personal financial interests and sources of funds should be there as well. As you have implied, any ad hominem attacks should be strictly off limits, along with any incitement to hatred or violence or other harmful acts. There should be a basic commitment to the proposition that reasonable people can disagree, and express their disagreements reasonably.

    This is part of it, but there is another big part that would be necessary as well: the citizenry. We would also need some mechanism where ordinary citizens could endorse such a code, commit to follow it themselves, and commit to not reward those in high places or with aspirations for such who violate its provisions. If there were tens of millions of Americans who were on record as endorsing such a code of conduct, and expecting it of their leaders, I am pretty confident that we really would see a big change.<<

    A practical step:

    >>Tucson's station might begin by changing their call letters from KG-U-N to something less provocative. It's a simple suggestion. I think it falls in the common sense category,<<

    From a local government official in Maryland:

    >>Let's not over-think this. If we're looking for specific "rules" governing civility, we can consult the manual. I'm not convinced, however, that rules would serve any purpose other than another starting point for arguments. Your reader's hope that objective standards would help us "call out" those who violate the rules seems to me an ineffective way to actually make people play nice. Civility isn't competition, but I fear that's where a rule-heavy system would take us.

    I live in a community that has embraced for several years a "Choose Civility" campaign. We all have magnets on our cars showing how civil we are. We also like to complain about other drivers who cut us off or are otherwise uncivil. After all, hypocrisy is a fun, if easy, target.

    But civility isn't about judging others. It's about judging ourselves. And we don't need rules to judge our actions, especially not those actions that are at their core about being nice and respectful. We only need a little empathy, a little self-awareness and the ability to honestly ask ourselves how we would feel if our own words or actions were turned against us. Nearly every society and religion has some variation on this idea (The Golden Rule, Ethic or Reciprocity, etc.), even the Baltimore Ravens, who provide this gentle reminder about conduct to their fans at every home game: "Don't be a jerk!"

    That doesn't seem too hard.<<

    And, from a reader in Tucson:

    >>1) Speak and act privately and publicly as if the person you respect most is secretly observing (and judging) you.

    2) Treat others as you would want them to treat you..... [In a followup note this reader said:]

    I hate to say this, but there is an existential inevitability of violence here, of various kinds to be sure. I'm from the Detroit of the 1960s/70s and the same was true there, although for some different reasons. A common thread seems to be too many guns distributed over too few brain cells, plus a simmering inchoate anger at circumstances. Vague, I know, but it's in the air at times, and it's certainly not a white-collar approach to problem-solving. <<

    Many more on hand, but that is enough for now. Actually, here's one more in this first haul, on the related topic of reining one's own temper. From a psychiatrist in New York:

    >>Many years ago, I had a friend who collected all chipped china or glassware she could find. when she was furiously angry with her husband, and that is not an infrequent occurrence, she would take one of the chipped plates and glasses and go into the bathroom and throw it into the bathtub.

    I think one of the things that might increase civility in discourse and behavior, is of course gun control laws. Throwing chipped plates into the bathtub never hurt anyone.<<

    More ahead; thanks for these.

  • What We Take for Granted

    America is going to be a gun culture. Is there a better way to live with that reality?

    [See Update below] A friend in Texas writes:

    >>This was the back page of the sports section in the Dallas paper last Thursday. It really struck me (having lost [a family member] to a 9mm) that these particular handguns, like too many other guns for sale, have absolutely no even arguably legitimate purpose in the hands of ordinary citizens, as distinct from soldiers and law enforcement officers. (They might be useful to members of a well-ordered militia, but presumably the gun advocates who've written and read that term out of the Second Amendment would not invoke it to defend the sale of these guns.) It seems extraordinary for them to be offered for sale as if they were electric drills, in newspaper ads suggesting gift certificates and credit cards.<<

    Thumbnail image for GunShow.JPG

    Anyone who has been around American politics recognizes that as a practical reality America is always going to have a gun culture. People write from Europe, Japan, Australia, China, and elsewhere lamenting and wondering how this can be; we could debate the reasons forever, but it is.

    Yet much as we recognize degrees of difference in the violence of language and imagery -- within an overall commitment to the untrammeled right of free speech -- in theory we could recognize degrees of risk and collateral damage, within an overall recognition that many Americans will want to be armed. As the reader suggests, you can respect the ordinary citizen's right to be armed in self-defense -- while questioning average-citizen easy access to extended-clip or automatic or semi-automatic *weapons, like the one with which a single attacker in Tucson could shoot 20 people within a few seconds. [*Update: I should have left semi-automatic off the list; extended clips are the sensible next object of concern.]

    The NRA naturally couches the argument in all-or-nothing terms: a restriction on any weapon is a threat to the right to be armed at all. They have been strong enough to extend that unreasonable absolutism to most politicians as well. (Ie, unless a politician is willing to accept the all-fronts open-ended career-long hostility of the NRA, it's not worth the politician's while to suggest common-sense restrictions on gun-sales laws, ammunition supplies, types of weapons that are available, etc.) The absolutist outlook is almost always a problem for a democracy. Here is illustration number 523.  
  • A Very Good Question: What Does 'Civility' Mean? Exactly?

    A specific question to make the discussion more productive.

    A reader writes with this "let's get specific" question:

    >>Seeing media and op-ed reactions to the Tucson shootings, I was struck by the fact that the vast majority of coverage seems to be along lines that do not seem particularly constructive.

    It has quickly become a question of whether political discourse has become too inflamed, and whether this over-the-top rhetoric is in part responsible for the violence we've just seen. Most fair-thinking and reasonable people seem to agree that we should restore a larger sense of civility to our political speech, but what I have yet to see from anyone is a constructive attempt to define what the proper guidelines of political speech really are.

    Everyone seems to say, "we need to be more civil!" without actually putting forward positive advice on what constitutes responsible vs. irresponsible speech. I may be a pessimist, but this Potter Stewart "I know it when I see it" approach to irresponsible political speech seems like a pretty ineffective way to fix the problem, because without any rules of thumb to go by, any attempt to condemn a politician's irresponsible speech is just doomed to be deflected as partisan politics.

    I would love to see a list of common sense rules (similar to Michael Pollan's food rules) that serve as good reminders of civil discourse. What would you like to see on such a list? My first one, for example: "Never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart." If we had a set of guidelines that both sides could appeal to, it would be a heck of a lot easier to call out the people that aren't acting well.<<

    This is a worthy challenge. An easy starting example would be: no advertising imagery suggesting lethal violence or the threat of same. Nooses, guillotines, ammo, guns. But those are gimmes. I am sure readers have more creative and useful examples. If you send them in, I'll compile and share them. These could be useful as tests against which to measure upcoming ads, talk-show soliloquys,  etc.  (Below, fax sent to former Rep. Bart Stupak, because of his vote for "Obamacare"; image from TPM.)


  • Data Point: Sources of Violent Political Rhetoric in Recent Years

    What do people mean when they talk about "extreme" political rhetoric? They mean the items on this list.

    The Committee Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has prepared a compendium of sources of "violent" or "insurrectionist" political rhetoric in the past two and a half years. It is here. Let's stipulate that there could have been a tilt, conscious or unconscious, in selection of items for the list. Still, it is stunning in its totality. It is also hard to imagine coming up with a comparable list from "the other side."

    One item (and photo) from a list that is many screenfuls long:

    WILLIAM KOSTRIC.jpg>>August 11, 2009--William Kostric is filmed openly carrying a handgun outside of President Obama's health care reform town hall meeting in New Hampshire. Kostric holds a sign that reads, "IT IS TIME TO WATER THE TREE OF LIBERTY!" a reference to the following Thomas Jefferson quote: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants."<<

    Please review this as a basic background document on considering the possibility that a tone of extremist rhetoric could be related to outbursts of political violence -- or, more constructively, whether one response to this tragedy should be deliberate cooling down of political talk.

  • A 'No Regrets' Response to the Tucson Shootings

    Is there anything to be learned from a massacre?

    From a friend who has worked in and around politics for decades:

    >>It's true, of course, that the causal link, if any, between the heat of political rhetoric and violence against public officials is impossible to know with certainty.  You and the Tea Partiers are correct to point that out. 

    But isn't a "no regrets" approach warranted nonetheless?  If the heat of political rhetoric can be toned down, it is at least possible that some violence may be averted.  (Intuition and history both suggest that incitement can play a role in provoking violence by individuals against other individuals; early 1930s Germany provides an obvious example, even though there, too, the actual perpetrators of violence may in some sense have been "deranged" or sociopaths to begin with.) 

    Here in the U.S., even if no violence is averted - something we probably can't know in any event - the cooling down of political rhetoric, a little more respect and civility in public discourse, may have independent value and is not something we are likely as a nation to regret.  I think that's a stronger argument to make to today's hotheads of rhetoric than the argument that their heated rhetoric has or necessarily will "cause" violence - a proposition they will naturally (and within a few days or weeks, vociferously) resist.<<

    After the jump, a complementary response about civil discourse. Before that, I will note that several historians of late 19th century America have written in to quibble with my assertion that the assassinations of James Garfield and William McKinley were not directly connected to the "main" political issues of the day. For instance, from one professor:

    >>Charles Guiteau [the killer of Garfield] was a paranoid schizophrenic, inflamed by the background political noise of the period, which was the hyper-patriotism of the Stalwart protectionist wing of the GOP. Though often called a "deranged office seeker," Guiteau was motivated less by the desire for a consulship than by his conviction that Garfield (a member of the party's "Half-Breed" reform wing) had betrayed the nation by appointing a free trader to the NY Customhouse. His publically stated goal was to replace the president with Chester Arthur, an arch-Stalwart....
    If early reports about the guy who shot Giffords are correct, he was very similar to Guiteau: a mentally ill person, with fervent but relatively recent political convictions, whose consumption of overheated rhetoric led him to a violent act.<< 

    FYI. Another reaction after the jump.

    More »


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

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The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

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This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.



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