Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Violence and Political Gain

cross-posted at Dagblog

I haven't blogged about Tucson because it left me sickened and sad, and because Articleman said it all better than I could have. Anyway, I had nothing to say. Violence like this is a terrible, terrible thing. Everyone should be against civil bloodshed. What else could there be to say?

But now, apparently, many public voices are focused on how horrible it is to "gain political advantage" from violence, by which they mean gaining political advantage from violence directed against one's own side. But gaining political advantage from violence against your opponents is evidently great.

Nine or ten months ago, Republicans complained that Democratic congressmen were "exploiting" death threats against them for political gain. Now after the actual violence against one of those House members has actually come to pass, conservatives are complaining that Democrats are "exploiting" this violence. And voices in the media are echoing this charge.

Here is the new conventional wisdom: Inflammatory political speech is not wrong. Holding public figures responsible for their inflammatory political speech is wrong.

That position is insane and morally depraved, but is nonetheless considered serious, uncontroversial and even laudable. After a few days of hearing it repeated, I am even more sickened and saddened, but I'm also extremely angry.

Penalizing political movements or figures who advocate violence or who are recklessly inflammatory is not worse than advocating violence or being recklessly inflammatory. Penalizing movements or politicians for advocating violence or recklessly inflaming the violent is not "just as bad as" advocating violence or recklessly inflaming the violent. How could it be?

Blaming those who encourage violence is a good thing. One ought to blame those who encourage violence. Such blame should be proportionate and realistic, and should not demonize those who have spoken recklessly but encourage them to come over to the side of the angels. There can be too much blame, or inappropriate blame. But it is right and just to blame public figures when they abandon their responsibility to preserve our civil peace. Demanding accountability from such figures is not a game. It is necessary in any democracy.

If British troops shoot and kill civilians in Boston over a snowball fight, that should be held against George III and against his appointed Governor of Massachusetts. Their policies have led to civil bloodshed, and that is unacceptable. The Governor and the British government were obligated to step back and to become more conciliatory. Nor were Samuel Adams or Paul Revere playing some inappropriate "blame game" by holding the British government responsible for the Boston Massacre. Adams and Revere were right.

If segregationist fanatics blow up a church and kill three little girls inside it, that should be held against the segregationist position. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not wrongfully exploiting those children's deaths. Nor did the Civil Rights Movement wrongfully exploit the violence used against them in Birmingham or at Selma, or the violence of the mobs who gathered to block the integration of Ole Miss, or the inflammatory speeches of segregationist southern governors, or the murders of Medgar Evers and other civil rights volunteers. The segregationists should have been held accountable for that violence, should have been forced to renounce it, should have backed off and restricted themselves to peaceful, legal means. The side using the bombs and the guns and the firehoses should know that they will lose by using them.

It is not wrong to use Martin Luther King, Jr.'s murder to advance the cause of civil rights in this country. I defy anyone who says that it is.

Every politician, every public advocate, every speaker for a public cause should live in holy fear of causing Americans to hurt or kill their fellow-citizens. And they should know that they will pay a steep political price for any violence by those on their side. Dr. King certainly lived in such holy fear, would go to great lengths to prevent any violence by his own supporters, and publicly attempted amends when crowds did not keep to his non-violent message. Dr. King was in Memphis in April 1968 because an earlier march there had been marred by vandalism and other violence from those at the rear of the march. King was disconsolate after that earlier event and determined to return to Memphis to make sure that there was a genuinely non-violent demonstration. The Reverend King was in Memphis on the day he died because of his deep commitment to preventing any violence by his own side, and I think we could all stand to reflect on that commitment now.

If public figures pay no price for inflaming violence (whether they have inflamed it deliberately or merely through depraved indifference to the danger their words cause), then we have a system in which political violence and inflammatory speech is rewarded. If a course of action carries a benefit but no cost, then that course of action will eventually be followed. Politicians who refuse to endanger the public will sooner or later lose to those who have no such scruples. This is axiomatic. If the only price for rhetoric that leads to violence gets paid by your opponents, then the rules of the game will not only permit politicians to gamble with their voters' safety and their opponents' lives, the rules of the game will demand it.

And when violence by one's own side against the other brings gains rather than losses, we're through as a democracy. Violence, and not votes, will carry the day.

And yes, this extends to causes I believe in. John Brown's violence did not and could not make slavery right, but it did obligate abolitionists to renounce such violence unequivocally and to recommit themselves to a peaceful end to slavery. That they did not, that so many of them chose a path that helped foreclose any option but civil war, is a sorry thing, the violence and intransigence on the slaveholders' side notwithstanding. The stupid violence by some members of the Black Panther Party in the early 1970s did not make charges of continuing racism in our society less true, but it did set back attempts to deal with our problems constructively, and we would all have been better off without that violence.

If something horrible happened to Sarah Palin or John Boehner, that would lead to enormous sympathy for their positions, no matter their merits. That is human and understandable. If something horrible happened to Sarah Palin or John Boehner after a bunch of politicians and pundits had been talking about them as horrible menaces who want to kill your grandmother, then the people who had been demonizing Palin and Boehner would quite understandably be discredited in the public eye. That is not wrong. In fact, it's quite natural. And it's totally okay by me, because I don't want anything bad to happen to John Boehner or Sarah Palin. I disagree with them. I'd be pleased to see Boehner lose the Speakership and Palin's ratings drop. But I wish them every health in the world.

The way politicians should avoid blame for inciting violence is by not inciting violence. It's really that simple. If you don't enjoy people blaming you just because you used the rhetoric of violent revolution on the campaign trail, then don't use the language of violent revolution on the campaign trail. I don't want to hear about how you shouldn't be blamed and it's not your fault. I want to hear you talking like the civil peace matters to you, all the time. That is the smart and self-interested thing to do, and also the patriotic and moral thing to do. If you feel aggrieved that (for once) the smart political play is also the right thing to do, then your grievance is noted: you are unfit for office.

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