There have been many op-ed pieces in the aftermath of the Tucson, Arizona shootings at a political event. None of these have been more absurd than the piece written by Jack Shafer of Slate.com on the day after the shooting.
From its title – In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric – and its subtitle – The awesome stupidity of the calls to tamp down political speech in the wake of the Giffords shooting. – to its poorly chosen defense of vitriol and hatred, Shafer may have written the worst exposition I have ever read from a libertarian. That’s quite an accomplishment.
Shafer states the issue quite clearly in the first paragraph.
“The attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and the killing of six innocents outside a Tucson Safeway has bolstered the ongoing argument that when speaking of things political, we should all avoid using inflammatory rhetoric and violent imagery.”
It goes downhill from there.
He quotes Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County.
“I’d just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they are-how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
Shafer then analysis the sheriff’s words. The writer addressed five points as he saw them. Let us analyze each of those points.
Shafer wrote, “Embedded in Sheriff Dupnik’s ad hoc wisdom were several assumptions. First, that strident, anti-government political views can be easily categorized as vitriolic, bigoted, and prejudicial.”
This first point makes it clear that Shafer has no intention to deal with the sheriff’s words in an honest way. He turns those words around so he can accuse the sheriff of claiming that “strident, anti-government political views” are “vitriolic, bigoted, and prejudicial.” The sheriff said just the opposite. Sheriff Dupnik clearly stated that the offense is vitriol, not anti-government speech. Everyone is free to criticize the government. However, when that criticism reaches the level of vitriol when it begins to talk about, as the sheriff said, “tearing down the government.”
I’d like to use an analogy to make what Shafer is trying to do here more clear. If the sheriff had said, “Rotten food makes people sick.” Then Shafer would have said, “The sheriff said food makes people sick. He wants people to stop eating.”
Shafer’s second point is equally disingenuous. “Second, that those voicing strident political views are guilty of issuing Manchurian Candidate-style instructions to commit murder and mayhem to the ‘unbalanced.’ ”
Here Shafer is arguing that unbalanced people cannot be motivated by the words of others. Does he really want to present this as a valid argument? He tries to cover himself by creating a strawman in the form of “Manchurian Candidates”. Is the writer seriously trying to claim the sheriff thinks there are people out there that have been programmed to kill on command? This is example number two of the writer’s intellectual dishonesty.
It is only on the third point where Shafer has some legitimacy. “Third, that the Tucson shooter was inspired to kill by political debate or by Sarah Palin’s “target” map or other inflammatory outbursts.”
Even here, however, the writer puts words in the sheriff’s mouth. Sheriff Dupnik did not claim this particular shooting could be blamed on the rhetoric, although he obviously implied that it might have.
The fourth point in this op-ed is just as intellectually fraudulent. “Fourth, that we should calibrate our political speech in such a manner that we do not awaken the Manchurian candidates among us.”
Again with the “Manchurian candidates”. And is the writer really trying to say we should try to incite unbalanced individuals to violence?
It is with his fifth point that Shafer really jumps the shark. “And, fifth, that it’s a cop’s role to set the proper dimensions of our political debate. Hey, Dupnik, if you’ve got spare time on your hands, go write somebody a ticket.”
The writer has just used over three hundred words to complain about the sheriff’s audacity in pointing out the hatred and vitriol used in political speech in this country. And his conclusion? The sheriff should shut up. Are you kidding me? You are going to argue the answer to what you see as an assault on free speech is to muzzle the other person’s speech? I can’t think of a better way to invalidate your whole argument.
The piece doesn’t end with the five points.
“For as long as I’ve been alive, crosshairs and bull’s-eyes have been an accepted part of the graphical lexicon when it comes to political debates. Such “inflammatory” words as targeting, attacking, destroying, blasting, crushing, burying, knee-capping, and others have similarly guided political thought and action. Not once have the use of these images or words tempted me or anybody else I know to kill. I’ve listened to, read-and even written!-vicious attacks on government without reaching for my gun. I’ve even gotten angry, for goodness’ sake, without coming close to assassinating a politician or a judge.”
Once again, the writer ignores the sheriff’s words and creates another strawman. Or is he telling us he and his friends are some of the “unbalanced persons” the sheriff mentions?
This next paragraph is a perfect example of a typical libertarian argument. It totally ignores reality.
“From what I can tell, I’m not an outlier. Only the tiniest handful of people-most of whom are already behind bars, in psychiatric institutions, or on psycho-meds-can be driven to kill by political whispers or shouts. Asking us to forever hold our tongues lest we awake their deeper demons infantilizes and neuters us and makes politicians no safer.”
Truly? “Only the tiniest handful of people … can be driven to kill”? Is he really unaware of the 20th Century examples, such as Rwanda where talk radio hosts inspired the violence? By my count, there more than 100,000,000 people died during the 20th Century from political violence. That doesn’t even begin to cover all of the pogroms against Jews in Medieval Europe or the recurring violence that is unleashed on ethnic groups, such as the Roma.
Shafer’s next paragraph is also quite a work of wonder.
” The call by Sheriff Dupnik and others to take our political conversation down a few notches might make sense if anybody had been calling for the assassination in the first place, which they hadn’t. And if they had, there are effective laws to prosecute those who move language outside of the metaphorical. I can’t be overly critical of the sheriff. After all, he’s the one who has spent his career witnessing how threats can turn into violence: gang wars, contract killings, neighborhood rows, domestic disputes, bar arguments, and all the rest.”
It seems Shafer’s uninformed state extends to political rhetoric in this country over the last few years. He missed or has forgotten the shouts of “kill him” at Palin rallies. He also must have missed the many references to “2nd Amendment solutions” or the signs at political events that read, “We came unarmed – this time.”
That paragraph isn’t notable simply because of his limited remembrance of events. It is also notable for his acknowledgement of the sheriff’s more intimate knowledge of violence and what inspires it. He even admits here that, “threats can turn into violence”, which moves me once again to wonder what problem he has with the sheriff’s words.
Perhaps there is something in the remainder of this essay that truly explains his outrage at the sheriff’s objection to vitriolic speech. Maybe in this next paragraph –
The great miracle of American politics is that although it can tend toward the cutthroat
and thuggish, it is almost devoid of genuine violence outside of a few scuffles and busted lips now and again. With the exception of Saturday’s slaughter, I’d wager that in the last 30 years there have been more acts of physical violence in the stands at Philadelphia Eagles home games than in American politics.
So much for the hope for rational thought and discourse. He just reaffirmed his selective memory and detachment from reality. He apparently missed the violence of the last two years. Leaving aside this most recent violent event where six people died and thirteen more were wounded, there are still several acts of violence and death that can be related to politics.
Shafer apparently missed the deaths of Pittsburgh police officers who were shot by a man who feared the government was going to take away his guns. He also seems to have missed the shooter who walked into a Universal Unitarian church in Knoxville, Tennessee. That shooting, by a man who said he wanted to kill liberals and Democrats, resulted in two deaths and seven more wounded. There was also the man in Oakland, California who shot two policemen when he was stopped while on his way to shoot up the Tides Foundation. The shooter claimed to have been inspired by Glenn Beck. And let us not forget the shooting death of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas.
I’ve only touched on some of the acts of political violence in the last couple of years. While I know Philadelphia fans have a bad name, claiming they have done worse than these acts of violence is quite a stretch.
C’mon, Shafer. You are getting paid to write this chit. Surely you can do better than this.
“Any call to cool “inflammatory” speech is a call to police all speech, and I can’t think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power.”
Oh, my aching head. This is just plain stupid. Asking for people to be more civil or to tone down their rhetoric is a call to police all speech? I’m having a difficult time thinking of something to say in the face of such stupidity. Or is it intellectual dishonesty?
There is only one paragraph left for Shafer to redeem himself…
“Our spirited political discourse, complete with name-calling, vilification-and, yes, violent imagery-is a good thing. Better that angry people unload their fury in public than let it fester and turn septic in private. The wicked direction the American debate often takes is not a sign of danger but of freedom. And I’ll punch out the lights of anybody who tries to take it away from me.”
“Better that angry people unload their fury in public than let it fester and turn septic in private” You mean angry like Jared Loughner, Jack? He sure unloaded his fury in public.
Jack, Jack, Jack… It’s no wonder I have such a low opinion of libertarian thought if this is the best it can give us. This reminds me of those on the right who argue that there have been times in this country where politics has been more vitriolic than it is today – “The wicked direction the American debate often takes is not a sign of danger but of freedom.”
Over and over, I hear from the right that there was a time when a senator was beaten with a cane on the senate floor. Well, we know how well that turned out, don’t we? Five years after that incident, the country was split in half and engulfed in a war that would lead to the death or wounding of more than one million men out of a population of twenty-three million. Does it have to come to that again before we can agree to voluntarily tone down the rhetoric?