Beyond the vitriolic rhetoric

January 18, 2011

While the right wing has much to answer for in the Arizona shootings, the problem goes deeper than just violent rhetoric, says Brian Napoletano.

THE ATTACK on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords that killed six people in Tucson, Ariz., was undoubtedly an act of political violence, regardless of whether its genesis lies in suspect Jared Loughner's alleged (and disputed) links to the racist American Renaissance; Tea Party candidate Jesse Kelly's decision to have supporters fire an M-16 rifle at his "Get on Target for Victory" election campaign against Giffords; the frequency with which Fox News and other right-wing outlets advocate violence against their opponents; or solely in Loughner's brain.

While the right certainly has much to answer for in situations like this, the problem goes deeper than vitriolic rhetoric.

In an insightful opinion piece published by, columnist Michael Kinsley succinctly summarizes the official reaction to the shooting in Tucson that left six people dead. Generalizing from a number of acts of "political violence," Kinsley describes the official response in the following formula:

First, we deplore the event and say we're praying--and, in most cases, actually do pray--for the victims. Then we deplore the corrosive politics that may have contributed to the tragedy. Next, someone on the left will say that right-wingers are more to blame, because they vilify people more than the other side. Then voices on the right will recoil in horror that someone is trying to politicize a national tragedy.

Thus far, Kinsley's predictions seem to be confirmed. A simple Google query containing the words "right," "violence," "incite," and "Giffords" returned about 174,000 hits, the majority of which either focus on right-wing incitements to violence or claim that the right is being unfairly vilified. In reality, both sides are partially correct.

As Kinsley and countless other journalists have noted, right-wing rhetoric is quantitatively and qualitatively more replete with violence than its left-wing counterpart. A number of theories have been advanced to explain this, from sometimes humorous psychological and evolutionary explanations based on the claims of more limited intelligence or heightened paranoia in conservatives, to an intriguing (and at least partially compelling) materialist-idealist hybrid theory that suggests that the greater proportion of wealth enjoyed by most conservatives insulates them from the realities of war and violent crime, leaving them with only the sublime appeal that talk of wars and revolutions contains.

Whatever the merits (and shortcomings) of these theories, and their relationship to the more obvious observation that the sort of stratified, hierarchical society that most conservatives advocate can only be maintained through violence, the fact that conservatives tend to be more violent than progressives only describes a general trend, and fails to link the rhetoric to the action. For this, a deeper look at our society is needed.

SOME PEOPLE have already noticed that there are a lot of angry people out there right now. Moreover, with both the Obama and Bush administrations (and most administrations before them) devoting more than half the federal budget to the military, spending billions (and even trillions) of dollars to bail out major corporations, and contracting out the government's basic functions to private companies that charge more to provide inferior services with workers who receive less pay than direct federal employees, and then turning around and claiming that the budget is not big enough to provide basic social services like health care, unemployment insurance and Social Security for the millions of workers thrown out of work by the latest crisis, people have a hell of a lot of very good reasons to be pretty damned angry.

The more important question is: What can people do with this anger? This question touches on the real crisis in contemporary democracy.

Liberal democracy has always favored the people who already have money more than the people who don't, but the measures that have dominated economic, trade, social and labor policies during the stage of globalization that started in the 1970s have given major corporations veto power over almost every policy issue and concentrated enormous sums of wealth into the hands of a small number of obscenely rich individuals, while the fighting spirit of the unions has been undermined by "cooperation" between labor leaders and capital, the anti-Communist purges of the Cold War and a number of other factors.

The compartmentalization of the left into individual environmental, human rights, social justice, labor and other autonomous movements is a natural result of the absence of a comprehensive political alternative to the pro-market capitalism advocated by the right.

Even if someone wanted to propose such an alternative, the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a shrinking pool of gigantic corporations has made access to the public forum even more difficult for anyone who doesn't already enjoy a surplus of wealth and power. In short, people are mad as hell, but they can't find a way to do anything about it. The entire political process is designed to exclude them, while the media is more concerned with convincing them to buy more commodities than with giving them a forum to speak from.

Even Noam Chomsky, who has witnessed everything from the rise of fascism in the 1930s to today's "war on terrorism," recently observed of the current situation in the United States that he had "never seen anything like this" in his lifetime. He went on to explain the critical difference he sees between the current situation and the Great Depression:

My whole family was unemployed. There were far more desperate conditions than today. But it was hopeful. People had hope. The CIO was organizing. No one wants to say it anymore but the Communist Party was the spearhead for labor and civil rights organizing. Even things like giving my unemployed seamstress aunt a week in the country. It was a life. There is nothing like that now. The mood of the country is frightening. The level of anger, frustration and hatred of institutions is not organized in a constructive way. It is going off into self-destructive fantasies.

A SURGE in violence under such circumstances is almost inevitable. From homicides and assassinations to riots and open revolts, anger, frustration and powerlessness have always proven to be a toxic combination in individuals and societies. Moreover, the violence can rapidly spiral into a self-escalating phenomenon, as more acts of violence result in further government crackdowns on civil and human rights, creating more frustration that culminates in even more violence, and so on.

As Chomsky also noted, liberal intellectuals share almost as much blame for this situation as do the right-wing pundits. By constraining the boundaries of acceptable debate to a set of options that entirely excludes public engagement and empowerment, "liberal" spokespersons in the media and the academy help to perpetuate an exploitative system and reinforce the sense of powerlessness and alienation that so many people feel. This also lends a measure of truth to the right's claims that liberals are elitists and that their values conflict with those of the majority.

In this context, the violence in Tucson is more than an indictment of the Republican party's right-wing lunatics; it's also an indictment of the Democratic party's equal subservience to financial power, and of the failure of the left to mount a viable challenge to the two-party oligarchy.

Nor should this violence be taken as a sign that the system will necessarily reform itself. While a crisis may create the conditions for a fundamental transformation of society, it does not guarantee that such a transformation will take place, nor that it will necessarily be a positive one if it does.

Whether this growing rage translates into progressive changes or a further descent into barbarism depends on a number of factors, but one of the most important is the presence of a cohesive movement with the power to mount a serious challenge to society's current hierarchy. Although such a movement does not presently exist in the U.S., its genesis can be seen in the growing collaboration between unions and workers' movements and environmental, human rights, and social movements, and in the growing demand for an alternative to free-market capitalism.

While the right clearly has the advantage at the moment, this advantage could easily vanish as the political establishment's refusal to undertake even minimal reforms without capital first engaging in a bitter struggle with the public prompts growing numbers to reject the legitimacy of the current system in favor of something more fundamentally just and democratic.

If cooperation between movements on the left can turn into a genuine political program rooted in the working and exploited classes, then a revolutionary transformation of society may be possible.

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