“Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?”
With these lines the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats wondered about his portion of moral responsibility for the suffering and death caused during the Irish War of Independence. Many years before the 1916 Rising, during a period of intense personal nationalistic fervour, he had written a play called Cathleen Ní Houlihan, the message of which could be interpreted as a call to armed resistance against British control of Ireland, and which was performed in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
Those familiar with the course of Irish history at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century would probably counter that Yeats had a somewhat inflated sense of his own importance and significance – at least with respect to nationalist circles in Ireland at the time – but his lines came to my mind when I heard of the shootings in Tucson, Arizona last Saturday.
The blogosphere, the internet and the media (both in the USA and worldwide) are today full of discussions about the role the present culture of political debate in the attack on Congresswoman Giffords and the killing of six other people, including a nine year old girl. In particular, the language and rhetoric of the political right, personified above all by Sarah Palin, has come in for criticism. Attention has been drawn to her “Crosshairs” advertisement and her tweet referring to it specifically in last year’s election campaign: ‘Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: "Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!" Pls see my Facebook page.’ This is presented as the most prominent example of many instances of extreme rhetoric targeted against President Obama and the Democrats, since the elections of 2008, some of which have described Obama’s Health Care project (and other administration projects) as Second Amendment questions. Given that the right to bear firearms is seen in America as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution, such phrases can be understood as incitement to armed resistance, even if those making them formally deny that such is their intent.
Those who know me or who read this blog regularly will know that I am no great fan of Ms. Palin and the political right in the USA (or anywhere else, for that matter). From all the evidence which has been presented up to now, the killings on Saturday were the work of one isolated, extremely disturbed individual – a car crash looking for somewhere to happen. Every society has its share, unfortunately, of such nuts. It can, of course, be argued that they are more prevalent and have it easier to express themselves in a deadly fashion given the whole gun culture in the USA, something which is hard for most of the rest of the world to understand, but I don’t want to go there; in my experience, the firearms issue is one about which it is very difficult to discuss rationally with the majority of Americans anyway. So the indignant replies of right-wing supporters of Ms. Palin, defending her from charges of co-responsibility for the attack would seem to be justified. Loughner was deranged, a typical amok killer, exceptional only in the fact that he could be apprehended before he managed to kill himself or get himself killed. This kind of thing happens, the silicon chip inside his head got switched to overload, no-one else is responsible.
And yet … The fact remains that he chose to attack Congresswoman Giffords, who had been one of those “targeted” by Ms. Palin (and who had specifically protested about just that targeting) and whose office had already been attacked, and that six others had to die because she was selected by the twisted reasoning of the attacker as his goal. And, perhaps even more significantly, this attack by (probably) a madman on a politician happens before a backdrop in which metaphors of violence and war have become increasingly popular and common in public political discourse, particularly from the right in the wake of the Democratic victory of 2008.
Don, a friend of mine from Texas who describes himself as a conservative, has assured me in the past that such rhetoric is simply part of a rambunctious political culture traditional in America and that (most) people are intelligent enough not to take it seriously. And it is indeed true that politicians the world over have a strong tendency to the inflation of language. So we have the phenomenon my fellow blogger Susan referred to recently as “the war on nouns.” There’s the war against terror, of course, and the war on drugs, but we’ve also had (this one more generally from the left) the war on poverty. Of course, it’s not so easy to win a war on a noun, but that’s another matter. Still, it is my impression – and it’s a view I’ve also heard expressed by many others, American and non-American – that there is a different quality to the language which many on the right have been using towards Obama since he began to campaign for the presidency and the Democrats in general, and that quality is best described with the word “hatred.” Hatred is a very dangerous emotion in public discourse. It is infectious. It sets aside a basic attitude of respect for others, for the possible sincerity of their positions, for the presumption of their integrity, for their right to their opinions. And the distance from hatred to violence is small.
And if it is not hatred, then it is the language of hatred and this is, in some ways, even worse because it is cynical and manipulative. Perhaps it is a reflection of our age that hyperbole has become commonplace and that it is no longer possible to win attention with measured speech. We are confronted with sensation at every turn and have become jaded as a result. So it no longer means anything to say, “I think my opponent is mistaken in some of his positions,” no, instead one has to say, “My opponent is a liar whose positions are anathema to everything decent people stand for.” And then when some misguided crazy actually takes what I say literally and goes off and kills my opponent, I defend myself by saying, “I really only meant that I disagreed with him, I didn’t want anyone to kill him!”
And this is the position in which Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and others find themselves and where the question Yeats asked himself comes into play. The kind of access they have to the public media gives them immense power over the formation of individual and collective opinion and power always has the corollary of responsibility. Think of the well-known story of Henry II and Thomas à Beckett, and imagine the king giving a present-day press conference after the murder in Canterbury Cathedral:
“Even if we didn’t always see eye to eye, I had the greatest respect for Archbishop Beckett and condemn his murder completely. When I said, ‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’ I was simply expressing a feeling of personal vexation and giving voice to the hope that he would give up his political opposition to me. I never meant for him to be killed and I certainly never ordered anyone to do so.”
Demagoguery is reprehensible because it appeals to the baser instincts of those who are addressed by it, but it seems to me that demagoguery and cheap sensationalist media tricks have become all too common in contemporary political discourse. Palin’s “Crosshair” poster is a typical example of this. I don’t believe for a second that Sarah Palin wanted anyone to shoot Congresswoman Giffords but the imagery the poster used was cheap, offensive and irresponsible and the argument some of her supporters are currently using to claim that the symbols are geological rather than those of gunsights is grotesque and in appalling taste. So although she never meant to incite a lunatic like Loughner, nevertheless Ms. Palin could well take a little time to think about issues of power and moral responsibility and will hopefully moderate her language and imagery in the future.
And perhaps in this context we could also think a little about the whole way we organise our political structures. We base them around competition, around parties, on principles like winning and losing. We set up a basic dialectic but, instead of solving problems in a dialectical fashion by achieving a synthesis which incorporates the best of both positions and transcends their opposition to each other by going beyond it, we simply say that one side wins and the other loses. There’s something seriously questionable about a system which makes something wrong simply because the other guy says it’s right – but that’s the basis of the form of democracy most countries have given themselves.
Parliaments evolved as an alternative to having people literally fight over things, so there’s a large element of formalised, unbloody war as a method of conflict resolution to them. We can go beyond this – and have done in many other areas. Imagine a business run by a board of directors who had to face a shadow board of directors who spent four years criticising everything the board did as a matter of principle, until the shareholders met again to elect a new board! Personally, I’d like to see more constructive consensus between politicians, governments trying to access all the human resources and creativity available to them in order to govern well, elected representatives looking at the issues involved and discussing ways to reach optimal solutions in the interests of all those they are representing rather than beating up on each other. So that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not vanish from the earth. But yes, I’m a bit of an idealist. And even at that, I’m not holding my breath.