Friday, January 28, 2011

No ‘Both Sides’ To Tone-Down Rhetoric Call

 No ‘Both Sides’ To Tone-Down Rhetoric Call

 Dr. Jason Johnson

One of the most interesting phenomena to watch as a political observer in this country are the vacillating narratives that occur when any tragic and unforeseen event happens. After the initial shocking event, you have the main facts that come out, then the right or the left attempts to define the event in terms that are most beneficial to their causes.

This happens with movies, (everyone was trying to explain “300” and “Avatar” as statements about the War in Iraq), sporting events (New Orleans Saints win Super Bowl and thus the Gulf is now fine) and yes, tragedies such as the shooting of Congresswoman Gifford in Arizona last weekend.

 As more facts come out, sometimes the politics are put aside and the event is viewed as an isolated occurrence. This should not be one of those times, Jared Loughner is a murderer spurred on by right wing rhetoric over the last 3 years. Any suggestions otherwise are simply paving the way for the next tragedy.

Last Saturday, Loughner, an emotionally disturbed 22 year old opened fire on a community event sponsored by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tuscon, Ariz. He shot 19 people, killed 6 and opened up a wound that has been festering in America for since the election of 2008.

Various web postings by Loughner showed that he thought the government was evil, was engaging in mind control techniques and that he was fiercely against illegal immigration. While there are questions about whether or not he was liberal or conservative, his political leanings nor his mental illness should not diminish the fact that this was a clearly political act.

At first, the left wing pundits went to town on this issue. Blaming the harsh rhetoric of conservatives such as Sarah Palin, who one promoted a poster on her Web site with Giffords on crosshairs as a “targeted” Democrat for her votes on healthcare and immigration. Predictably the right struck back, claiming that none of their rhetoric should be held responsible for violence and playing the “we’re all victims here” game. Within 48 hours, public discourse seems to have settled on a narrative that Loughner was a crazy guy, and that while civility is important we can’t place too much weight on his politics. By the end of the week this will be a mental illness story, which is about the worst thing that could happen.

Loughner is crazy, but he was acting on his political beliefs in a way that has been fostered by the political right of this country since Obama got elected in 2008. When the dust settles in a week they’ll be right back to calling for armed revolution, “re-loading” and “taking their country back” whenever it suits the political needs of Republicans and their Tea Party surrogates. And they’ll deny any responsibility when the next tragedy happens.

A colleague of mine put it perfectly this weekend: this is about the language of legitimacy. It is one thing to say that Obama and Democrats are wrong on the issues, but since 2008 top Republican leaders and candidates have told their supporters that just about everything that Obama has done (including his election) is illegitimate. He’s not a citizen, he wasn’t really elected president, his healthcare plan is unconstitutional, he’s attempting to take over the country, and the list goes on and on.

When a political leader is just wrong, you fight within the law to stop them, but when a political leader is portrayed as illegitimate, then you are within your rights to do anything in your power to topple them. Why not? They aren’t there legally to begin with. This right wing narrative is not being pointed out and it is now and in the future going to open the door to even more violence against the left and the presidency of Barack Obama.  There is no “both sides” to this argument. You didn’t see liberals calling for armed revolution against George Bush, or death threats against Republican Congressmen who tried to privatize Social Security.

I, like all Americans, am saddened by the tragedy of the Tucson shooting and hope that the murderer Loughner is brought to justice. However, if we don’t want to see this happen again, it is time to finally call out the Republican leadership for their tacit promotion of this kind of violence. Eric Cantor, Sarah Palin, John Boehner and the rest will not stop using references to revolution and illegitimacy as long as they think it will get them votes. Nevertheless if the public starts to put blood on their hands maybe they’ll think twice the next time they pick up a microphone and talk revolution.

(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in campaigns and elections, pop culture, and the politics of sports. He can be reached at

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