Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Blood Libel? Not Bloody Likely

So you have all heard by now that Sarah Palin claimed that those who drew a connection between Saturday's Tucson massacre and right-wing rhetoric are engaged in a "blood libel." What is a blood libel? The term comes from the late middle ages. It specifically refers to the false accusation that Jews used the blood of Christian babies as part of their matzoh recipe for passover. It more broadly refers to the related accusation that "the Jews" were and are responsible for the death of Jesus. A blood libel is not just another word for "false accusation of resopnsibility for murder," however. When abstracted from the context of anti-semitism from which it arose, the "blood libel" could be defined as follows: a false accusation that an unpopular ethnic or religious minority engages in unspeakable, secret crimes employed to encourage hatred of and violence against that group. The first key to understanding the terror of the blood libel is the power relationship: the ability of the majority which controls the public narrative to "libel" a minority. The second key is that the crimes are secretive and hard to prove, so that the accused group is forced to try to "prove a negative." How can Jews prove that no baby blood was used in the matzoh? The third key is that the crime is unspeakable: rather like accusations of pedophilia, the accusation alone creates a permanent stain. Cannibalism used to be like that - less so now because it is viewed rather as fantastical.

First, it is obviously absurd for conservative Christians - or Conservatives of any stripe - who just won the last election to claim such a minority status or victimhood. They are as close to "the majority" as you get in this country. Certainly they cannot be said to be analogues of the Jews at any time.

Second, nobody is accusing Tea Partiers of engaging in regular assassination or such a thing. It doesn't even look like a blood libel. Blood libel is not "guilt by association."

Third, there is no such odiousness about he accusations being made. Liberal commentators, even at their worst, are not accusing right wing commentators of doing unspeakable things like pedophilia or cannibalism.

What is happening is a discussion that we need to have. People show up with guns to Tea Party rallies and mutter about the Second Amendment. Some talk openly about resistance. Militia members prowl around with their guns and their heated anti-government hate and rhetoric. They have dark thoughts about cabals and the need to take matters into their own hands. Conservative groups have helped produce a theory they embraace - entirely false - that the Second Amendment enshrines a right to use violence to resist the federal government if you consider it to be tyrannical. There is a short road from saying that the Second Amendment right to bear arms is about the right to defend society against abstract tyranny to the statement that guns are needed now to defend against this Obama-tyranny now. The more mainstream conservatives don't endorse this Second Amendment construction openly, but they don't engage or deny it either. They want the votes of these extremists, so they won't contradict or condemnt them. And in subtle ways some even knowingly encourage these extremists a little. Coded language communicates that "I'm on your side" even without explicitly endorsing them. Even now we hear condemnations of this murder but not condemnations of the notion that political violence is enshrined in the Second Amendment if you really think the US government is tyrannical and unjust. And what is worse, the rhetoric used by even mainstream conservatives to describe Obama, the Democrats, and Health Care Reform are already every bit as bad as they could possibly be (tyranny, Nazis, communists, gulag). Those are the words that would justify political resistance with violence if taken literally, and if you believe the Second Amendment enshrines violent resistance with guns. That is what they are being called out on.


Dr. Strangelove said...

Honestly, I have felt rather embarrassed by left-leaning pundits during the past few days. No connection of any kind has been found--absolutely none--between the violent, hate-filled rhetoric of the right and this horrible massacre in Tucson. This crime neither calls for nor provides an opening to discuss right-wing vitriol. It just doesn't. And I am disgusted that Democrats would try to score political points in this manner, as many have.

That being said, I certainly agree that the extremist language of right-wing talk radio, FOX News, and certain Republican candidates is indeed a serious problem. But now is not the time to discuss it... Or at least, this is not the right context. If there is anything political we should be talking about, it is how we can prevent troubled loners from buying guns and firing on crowds.

Just to clarify, though, this is no criticism of LTG's post at all. I'm speaking generally here about squawking pundits. By contrast, LTG captures the situation very well and I do not mean to suggest his post is in any way inappropriate.

Raised By Republicans said...

I respectfully disagree with Dr. S that there has been "absolutely [no]" connection made between the hate-filled rhetoric and the general surge in threats to Democrats or to this particular crime. While it is true that we have no smoking gun of the sort where the shooter left a note saying "I did this for Sarah Palin" or something, we do have a victim who was especially singled out by Palin and by her recent Congressional opponent for violent rhetoric. And her office was vandalized during the campaign. She herself expressed concerned about it.

But the case is stronger the broader we look. There has been a significant increase in threats against elected officials (mostly Democrats) since 2008 and especially since the Health Reform vote in 2010.

I think it is possible that the rise in violently toned rhetoric from right wing opinion leaders and threats of violence and actual violence are spuriously related to a broader increase in far right opinion or tolerance for violence.

But I think asserting that no relationship exists between the rhetoric and the increasing violence is not well founded.

The Law Talking Guy said...

We don't yet know exactly what Loughner was thinking . We do know that he targeted a Democratic Congresswoman for assassination, and it appears to have at least some political motive behind it. I suspect strongly this will come to be seen as another OKC.

USwest said...

Further proof of why current Airport screenings seem pointless considering the other real dangers out there.

USwest said...

Another OKC? God, I hope not.

Another mawkish display of national tragedy? Let's not exaggerate.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Did you hear Obama's speech last night? Surprisingly moving, I thought. He discussed civility, etc., but I feel he presented a good context for it. He said that the shootings were not related to the political atmosphere, but that we owed it to ourselves to talk about it because that honored the fallen. They had all come together that sad morning, children, Republicans, Democrats, because they believed in our democracy, and it honored them to continue that conversation. I thought he walked a tightrope there and made it across nicely.

Raised By Republicans said...

As President Obama had to say something like that. And I'm glad he said it. Contrast it with the self contradictory defensiveness we get from Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.

But I have to disagree with the President when he says the shootings were not related to the political atmosphere. Unless it comes out that the shooter was motivated by some strange, random thing like trying to impress Jody Foster or something, we have to assume that his choice of a Democratic Congressional Rep for his victim was politically motivated at least in some measure.

What we have seen in the last few years is a constant drum beat of demonization and violent rhetoric from increasingly high profile and "main stream" opinion leaders on the right - directed against Democrats and "liberals." More recently we've seen a rise in threats and attacks against exactly the same people who are singled out in the inflammatory rhetoric.

I don't mean to be confrontational, Dr. S, but I would like here your alternative explanation for these observations and why you seem so thoroughly convinced that no relationship exists between the two.

Is it your position that, as a matter of either principle or theory, broader context of rhetoric and political atmosphere cannot be seen as contributing factors for individual actions?

Dr. Strangelove said...

If Loughner claimed a clear political motive, it would be a different story. But we have not seen that.

We have no indication that Loughner listened to right-wing talk radio or FOX pundits. Some classmates described him very liberal, while others thought he was libertarian--and still others had no idea what to make of him. I've looked at some of his writings... And I must concur with the (vast) majority of commentators who call them bizarre ramblings that show no coherent political philosophy at all.

Moreover, this was no carefully planned or narrowly targeted assassination. In addition to Rep. Giffords (whom he certainly did target) he also shot about 20 other people. The way it looks right now, basically the guy was just crazy.

Violent rhetoric can incite violence, and a toxic political atmosphere can be seen as contributing factor for some individual actions. As we are immersed in the world, so we are affected by it. But it appears that Loughner was living in his own little world.

Raised By Republicans said...

I guess I differ in two big ways and one little way.

First, I discount other people's assessments of political ideology - especially his classmates who may have known him years ago. I've got a lot of experience of talking about political ideologies with college age students and the majority of them really don't have a clue. Complicating this is that the classmates being interviewed are from a community college (and so more likely than usual to not have a clue). Furthermore, young people's political ideologies evolve quickly and can often flip flop wildly from far left to far right (ala Quisling who was ardent Communist before becoming an ardent NAZI).

The other big difference is that I do not focus exclusively on this incident. I see this in the context of a wave of attacks and threats against Democrats in the last two years. It is simply the MOST violent incident in that general category. To be fair, I don't think Democrats would be so upset about the Republican rhetoric if there really were an isolated incident.

The minor difference I have with you, Dr. S, is that I cannot ignore a political dimension to an attack that clearly focussed on a political figure. So far Loughner has said nothing at all so we cannot say he was not motivated politically. For me to accept your view that this attack was completely a-political, I'd have to hear direct comments from Loughner that he was just going to grocery store to shoot people and it just happened that the Congresswoman was there. But there are reports that Loughner knew who Giffords was (it is itself unusual for a person of his age to know who is Congressional Rep is) and that he had attended similar public "meet and greet" functions of Giffords before and expressed negative attitudes about her. His insane ramblings also mentioned Gifford's Congressional district. So I do not believe that he was just randomly selecting victims and one of them just happened to be a Congresswoman.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Let me clarify my comments above. Nobody believes this attack was random or coincidental. As I wrote above, Loughner "certainly did target" Giffords.

In all likelihood, Loughner believed he was committing some sort of political act by attempting to assassinate Giffords. When I wrote that Loughner claimed no clear political motive, I did not mean to imply that he asserted no political motive at all--rather that his political beliefs are completely incoherent. Because he is insane.

(And to bring that point home more colorfully, we now have this new tidbit: It seems Loughner recently took a bunch of photos of himself, posing with his Glock over his crotch and buttocks, while wearing a bright red g-string.)

I appreciate your point that any attack clearly focused on a political figure has a political dimension. But that's not enough. The burden of proof still falls on those who claim a link between Loughner's actions and the right-wingers. Unless they unearth some link between Loughner and right-wing organizations, or reading recent right-wing literature, or listening to right-wing talk radio, or watching the FOX channel--and as yet we have found nothing--then we have no right to blame them for inciting it. And there is no cause to place this crime in the context of any other attacks when it appears Loughner was acting completely on his own, echoing only his own reality.

If it turns out that Loughner was in fact strongly affected by right-wing rhetoric--if, for example, he was a Limbaugh junkie--then we will have to face the trickier question of how much the inciters are to blame for what they incite. But for now, I think that is not yet the story.

Raised By Republicans said...

"It seems Loughner recently took a bunch of photos of himself, posing with his Glock over his crotch and buttocks, while wearing a bright red g-string.)"

And this makes him atypical for a Tea Partier exactly how? (just kidding - well, kind of, have you seen the photos of Glen Beck "voguing" with his glock?)

But seriously, I see your point about insanity - I think. But I think you are missing the point that most Democrats are complaining about here. Suppose Loughner is crazy. Now suppose he is bombarded with statements about how this or that politician is evil, a traitor, part of a dictatorial conspiracy etc. Then suppose he went out and shot that same politician in the head. That's what we know happened. I do not think we need to find out he was a Fox news "junkie" to be acutely aware of the accusations made against Democrats by many conservative opinion leaders. Just watching the local news in Arizona would be sufficient for Loughner to have seen/heard these kinds of accusations on a weekly if not daily basis for months on end.

The problem we have now is that Loughner is not actually talking to the public now and the police and his parents are being rather mum about many details not already public because of the internet.

But again, I'd like to underscore that the MAIN reason Democrats have responded so viscerally to this shooting is not because they are cynically trying to score points or because they are just too emotional to grasp the kind of logic you see to this situation. Rather, Democrats see this in a broader context of a series of attacks and threats over the last few years.

Taken that broader perspective, the precise details of this event or any possible specific link between this particular assailant and the violent tendencies of the American far right are partly beside the point.

I suspect we'll have to agree to disagree about this. But I certainly hope I have at least convinced you that Democrats who complain about this are not being cynical or intellectually lazy. And certainly they aren't worthy of your "disgust."

Dr. Strangelove said...

I think I see a place where you and I have different conceptions of the political atmosphere. This might explain where I am coming from more.
You assert that Loughner was "bombarded" by and therefore "acutely aware" of right-wing propaganda. But honestly I don't think we can say that either part of this is true, or even likely to be true.

Most people do not watch or listen to these channels, actually. We tend to interact with other folks who are politically active and interested, but most Americans are not plugged in.
Some recent media statistics are handy. For example, the O'Reilly Factor, which they name the top program in cable, had an average of 3.3 million viewers. By contrast, the Nielsen ratings indicate much larger viewership for ordinary programs and sporting events. (Even Judge Judy gets 6 million.) About half the public claim to watch local TV news regularly, but the Nielsen ratings peg the combined daily audience of morning, evening, and late night local news at no more than 25 million in the best month.

A recent Pew Research survey shows online viewing habits. About 37% of the public report getting news regularly online... Which still means that most people don't. And most of those people get their news from mainstream sources: Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, and AOL together account for almost two-thirds of it. (Fox News is way down at 7%.) For most people who get news online, they see headlines clustered around their portal. Very few read the Drudge report.

So I guess what I'm saying is that the toxic political atmosphere does not actually reach as far or as deeply as one might imagine. Only a small minority of people pay attention to the pundits, and most people do not watch the news much either. For that reason, it is quite reasonable to think that Loughner was not much aware of it. So far as I know, there was nothing in his writings about health care reform, ACORN, or any other issue--there's just a disconnect with reality.

One last thing... I want to apologize a bit and make clear that when I said I was "disgusted" by certain people, I was not talking about those who merely felt that Loughner was warped or encouraged by the political atmosphere. Your position is reasonable--I just don't agree :-) I meant to talk only about those politicians and pundits who had tried to leverage that to score political points. In that regard, I suppose I am cynical enough to think that most of the "outrage" from the politicians and pundits against the right-wingers was less than genuinely arrived at.

Raised By Republicans said...

"Just watching the local news in Arizona would be sufficient for Loughner to have seen/heard these kinds of accusations on a weekly if not daily basis for months on end."

I agree that he probably did not watch CNN or Fox all day - but he was an unemployed young person who had been kicked out of community college so he certainly would have had the opportunity to do so if he had wished. But as I said, watching local news and reading local newspaper comment sections online would be enough to expose a person to the kind of toxic atmosphere we are talking about. And as you point out, that is how most people get their news (i.e. local news media of various kinds).

I'm glad you now can see that most Democrats are upset out of genuine motives.

Raised By Republicans said...

BTW, I have to wonder if you would be so prone to cynicism about the motives of people being outraged about this if we were talking about the murder of a prominent Gay activist by a Loughner-like person at the height of the prop 8 campaign.

My political identity is largely wrapped up in being a Democrat. When Democrats are the subject of a constant drone of violent rhetoric I feel personally threatened to some extent. It makes me especially sensitive when a prominent Democrat is shot in the head in that context. I think many Democrats feel that way.

So I guess I'm saying I don't think your cynicism is justified even if you disagree with the thinking behind the outrage.

Dr. Strangelove said...

To the extent they are reliable, the numbers I quoted indicate that most people don't watch the local news regularly, and most people don't read local newspaper comment sections online at all.

And even if Loughner watched the news regularly, that is not sufficient. Mere exposure is not acute bombardment or inundation. Our crummy local "news" programs rarely carry much actual news reporting anyhow. Most of their broadcasts are devoted to sensationalist blather about the latest supposed crime wave, the daily sex scandal, or the county spelling-bee champion.

The most we can assume is that Loughner probably saw the news on occasion. That does not meet the burden of proof to establish some link between toxic politics and the shooting. It is not even close, in my opinion.

To answer your second comment... Yes, I would be equally prone to cynicism if the victim had been gay. And I do not like that you accused me of being a hypocrite. I am a proud Democrat too, you know. And pretty much all of us--not just Democrats--were genuinely upset and outraged by the shooting.

(By the way, I listened to KCRW's "Left, Right, and Center" last night. If you are not familiar with the program, this won't mean much, but all four commentators agreed rather emphatically that there was no known causal relationship between the toxic political atmosphere and the shooting... And that this spurious claim did not aid the liberal cause.)

Raised By Republicans said...

Dr. S. I didn't mean to accuse you of being hypocrite. I'm sorry you took it that and I apologize for offending. All I meant to point out was the possibility that your political identity may have more salience on your identity as a Gay man than on your affiliation with one political party or the other. I was just trying to point out that we have complex identities and we are more sensitive to perceived threats to those aspects that are most salient.

My impression of your political identity has always been that are you more of a progressive leaning independent than a partisan Democrat. I'm sorry for the misunderstanding.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Thanks, RbR. And I appreciate what you were trying to say. That makes sense.

The Law Talking Guy said...

To me, it is extremely salient that Loughner took his shots at Giffords rather than McCain or Brewer. One must assume that the killing of a politician by someone without personal motives (i.e., someone who didn't know them personally) is political in the first instance. And it is also no surprise to me, a Democrat, that a person who gets really into guns ends up targeting a Democrat. Gun nuts aren't liberals. This is not an accident either.

My first reaction was something like: "This is what happens when the right wing spends a year claiming that Democrats are enemies of humanity, Nazis, communists, and creating gulags. Some people take seriously the idea that they are under threat from Democrats." I still think that's what we're going to find. This unemployed loner was told that the government was the reason for his problems, that it was tyrannical and wrong, and that gun violence is an acceptable response to tyranny.

Raised By Republicans said...

60 Minutes had a story about him Sunday evening. They seemed to be making something more like Dr. S's point, that Loughner (and they went further to say all assassins) are fundamentally a-political and commit their crimes for entirely personal reasons known only to themselves. But at the same time, they described Loughner as someone who was increasingly obsessed with his dislike for Giffords. He was also obsessed with what he imagined were government infringements of his constitutional rights and, significantly, with hand guns.

While I will certainly grant that Loughner was not right in the head, like LTG, I find it impossible to completely dismiss these obsessions as the random flotsam of a deranged mind alone.