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Sunday, January 09, 2011

On Pretexts and Apologies

Yesterday, in reaction to the breaking news about the murderous rampage aimed at Congresswoman Giffords in Arizona, I was in an angry, reactive mode. That led me to make connections--even accusations, or something close to such--that were not, I would insist, necessarily unreasonable...but which were also irresponsibly quick, direct, and harsh. In doing that, I was wrong. In writing what I did, I became part of exactly what I was truly responding to: not the horrible news out of Tuscon (to which there was only one decent reaction, namely one of mourning and sorrow), but more largely the environment within which this shooting happened to occur. I am torn and frustrated by what I see as the viciousness and foolishness which I hear on the airwaves and read over the internet; I want to dismiss it, but when I hear people calling for "revolution," I start to wonder if they aren't serious, and it makes me wonder if it isn't irresponsible not to get angry and respond in kind. And unless I'm equally serious in what I claim to know, then I should be a lot less quick to come to that conclusion.

Anyway, the fact is I used a tragic event as a pretext to let a lot of my fears and worries run wild. Those fears and worries, I maintain, may not be unjustified; however, using the attempted murder of a congresswoman--an attempt which resulted in the death of six other people--as an excuse to get hysterical about them is. All of which, I suppose, just goes to show why I'm a lowly blogger, while James Fallows gets paid the big bucks:

Shootings of political figures are by definition "political." That's how the target came to public notice; it is why we say "assassination" rather than plain murder. But it is striking how rarely the "politics" of an assassination (or attempt) match up cleanly with the main issues for which a public figure has stood....

[T]he train of logic is:
1) anything that can be called an "assassination" is inherently political;
2) very often the "politics" are obscure, personal, or reflecting mental disorders rather than "normal" political disagreements. But now a further step,
3) the political tone of an era can have some bearing on violent events....[T]he anti-JFK hate-rhetoric in Dallas before his visit was so intense that for decades people debated whether the city was somehow "responsible" for the killing. (Even given that Lee Harvey Oswald was an outlier in all ways.)....

We don't know why the Tucson killer did what he did....But we know that it has been a time of extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery....It is legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between that tone and actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be. At a minimum, it will be harder for anyone to talk -- on rallies, on cable TV, in ads -- about "eliminating" opponents, or to bring rifles to political meetings, or to say "don't retreat, reload."

If it really is the case that one of the consequences of this ugly, evil incident is that people calm down a little bit, that political vitriol may moderate some, then I suppose that would count as a silver lining. There may be some evidence that this will in fact be a consequence; yesterday, a leader of one Arizona Tea Party commented that "When we talk about Barack Obama, we've got to be clear, it's not personal. When we say he's destroying this country we are not saying he's doing it out malicious intent and a desire to cripple us. He has good intentions and he's wrong. I worry when that gets lost."

I wasn't part of that possible moderation yesterday, and I apologize for that. I don't apologize for my worries and fears--I'm pretty sure I can defend them in an argument--but neither would I would expect anyone worried and fearful about the things I consider valuable and worth fighting for to apologize for their views. I know people--good, devout, smart people, some of whom I consider to be real friends--who probably felt themselves caught up in my pretexts and accusations yesterday, and that makes my words all the more in the wrong.

Let me finish by quoting something that another friend, Matt Stannard, who is frankly a lot better at this public communications stuff than I, put on Facebook yesterday:

All ad homs aside: 1. Today was a sad, tragic day. 2. This type of violence happens all the time in many parts of the world; we should oppose it no matter where it occurs. 3. I appreciate that so many friends on all sides have been hanging out here arguing with/against me. To me, a good argument is like a good hug. I really love all of you. Let's all work on making the world more just and peaceful any way we can.



Anonymous said...


As this http://www.csgv.org/issues-and-campaigns/guns-democracy-and-freedom/insurrection-timeline makes clear, your reaction yesterday is entirely justified because this was not an isolated event (even if the actor turns out to be a lone wolf) but part of a systemic event by a coordinated well-funded attempt to delegitimize the government. The Republican parties have had an on again off again relationships with these folks and it's time for them to repudiate them once and for all and knock it off.

Again, this was not an isolated instance, merely the most well-known. Hat-tip to Rick Perlstein.

Western Dave

Rachel said...

Thank you Russell. I think we all feel the same way no matter what side of the political tape we are on. We all want what is the brightest future for our kids, a clean and safe place for them to grow and live. My heart goes out to all those who were impacted by this horrible event. Including the shooters family. How horrible for everyone. My prayers are with those who need healing from this horrible situation.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Dave, I don't disagree at all with the info you're presenting; my point here is simply to acknowledge that, whatever the facts of the matter, the way I said what I said yesterday added to the poisonous atmosphere which angers me, rather than helping to clear it. And that was wrong of me.

Rachel, thanks for the very generous response--you must know that you were one of those I had in mind as I wrote this post, and I really appreciate your kindness and perspective in your comment. We surely disagree on a great deal, but on the most important things--working together to make a clean and safe place for our kids to grow and live--our values are the same. In my frustration yesterday, however justified it may have been, I spoke in a way that didn't support those values, but rather became part of all that undermines them. I need to do better than that.

J. Otto Pohl said...

I think you are being a bit harsh on yourself. Yes, you were a little over the top. However, compared to lots of people you were still very restrained and moderate. But, I greatly admire your quick and honest admission of being wrong. That speaks very highly in your favor of being a man of integrity.

I have been out of the country for a few years and I will say that political violence in the US is thankfully rare. Or it least it is a lot less prevalent than where I was living. I am planning on moving overseas to yet a another foreign country at the end of the month. I hope my future place of residence continues to be politically stable and peaceful.

Rachel said...

One of my blog friends wrote this and I thought it very fitting and touching.

Thanks Enjoying the simple life,

But all I heard and saw were people heading to their political corners and hoping the shooter wasn't one of them, if this was indeed politically motivated. I read ugly comments on news articles where people were already arguing on the political motives of this young man.

Does it surprise anyone that our nation is so quick to argue?

I know there is opposition and it's OK to have views and convictions but without solutions, arguing is just noise. Do you hear it too?

There is a lot of noise out there. I mean you only have to look to your TV at any given day and see the programming full of reality shows with a bunch of people arguing and fighting.
About what, I am not sure but I am sure it's nothing that important.

The only thing I know about the tragedy is that the shooter has problems. And our citizens who wanted to be a part of helping their community, including a federal judge, an engaged man who was to be married next year, a favorite elderly church member, two retired homemakers, and the little girl, are gone. Some of the others are fighting for their lives.

And I hope there is no arguing about how important all of their lives are.