After the Arizona Murders, Politics As Usual

I thought the shootings in Arizona might cause a brief moment of unity. Twenty shot; six dead, including a little girl; an attempted political assassination, an attack on democracy itself. Was I naive to think that the instant reaction might be an uncomplicated desire to unite--in sympathy for the victims and in deploring a crime against us all? Of course I was. It takes more than this to bridge the divide in American politics. One strand of commentary implicated the political right in the crime: see Paul Krugman, Jake Weisberg. Another fulminated against the accusation: George Will, Glenn Reynolds. Some even saw the shootings as a moment to celebrate anger in politics. "Our spirited political discourse, complete with name-calling, vilification--and, yes, violent imagery--is a good thing," Jack Shafer argued in Slate.

Madman on the rampage? Reach me down my previous line on evil conservatives, slanderous liberals, free speech. I'm not saying these disagreements don't matter or can be shelved; only that it was a shame to see them expressed so reflexively before the blood had been cleaned off the sidewalk.

Just before she was shot, Gabrielle Giffords wrote to a Republican friend about the need to "tone our rhetoric and partisanship down". I think she was right, and if she recovers she might agree that this is not such a bad time to say so, even if it turns out that vilification and violent imagery played no part in motivating her attacker.

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Toning down the rhetoric is not a fifty-fifty thing, in my view. The right has a particular fondness for gun metaphors, and should curb it. If Sarah Palin isn't ashamed of the cross-hairs on Giffords's district, she should be. (Gun owners are supposed to be responsible and temperate, aren't they?) But the "climate of hate" that Krugman complains of is a much broader thing and has been formed by non-compromisers on both sides (not least by Krugman himself, whose seething contempt for conservatives is celebrated across liberal America).

Weisberg writes:

At the core of the far right's culpability is its ongoing attack on the legitimacy of U.S. government--a venomous campaign not so different from the backdrop to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Then it was focused on "government bureaucrats" and the ATF. This time it has been more about Obama's birth certificate and health care reform. In either case, it expresses the dangerous idea that the federal government lacks valid authority. It is this, rather than violent rhetoric per se, that is the most dangerous aspect of right-wing extremism.

Yes, I agree that this is a dangerous idea. But didn't many liberals accuse George Bush of lacking "valid authority" after the Supreme Court declared him the winner of the 2000 election? For eight years, didn't they say he stole the presidency? Of course, say liberals: because it was true! Well, whatever the rights or wrongs of the Supreme Court decision, once it had ruled, the matter was decided under the law, and to continue complaining that the Bush presidency was illegitimate was reckless in just the same way that the views Weisberg attacks are reckless. There's a more general point. The right's views on federal authority parallel the left's opinion of states' rights. Exactly how the constitution divides--or ought to divide--powers between the federal government and the states is a matter of ongoing debate. On Weisberg's view, it should be a "dangerous idea" to dismiss every assertion of states' rights as a mere expression of racism, bigotry or other forms of backwardness--as many liberals are prone to.

Shafer has some puzzling opinions. This one threw me completely.

Any call to cool "inflammatory" speech is a call to police all speech...

What? Surely we can manage subtler distinctions than that. You know, "persuade" is not the same as "command"--that kind of thing. Still, he is right that you cannot legislate civility, and that it would be wrong (as well as plainly unconstitutional) to try. His big mistake, I think, is to see ceaseless anger and contempt as the formula for a healthy polity. Spirited, he calls it.

The problem with anger is that it makes it harder to think clearly. It's just bad practice. You might not want to outlaw it, but it can't hurt to understand the drawbacks. Also, in the end, we have to get on with people whose views we do not share. If we work ourselves up into mutual loathing, or antagonize the other guy to the point of incoherence, then we are unable to communicate. We cripple our ability to govern ourselves or live together happily. Even if the result is not physical violence, it is exaggerated political turbulence and discontent. Shafer seems to want as much of these as we can get, without actually coming to blows. Those African countries riven by tribe? They're so spirited! Basically, aim for civil war, then pull it back just a notch.

It doesn't sound like "a more perfect union" to me.