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A Climate of Slander

From the Scrapbook

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Liberal pundits suffered a psychotic break last week, metaphorically speaking, of course. When a gunman opened fire on Representative -Gabrielle Giffords and a crowd that had gathered to hear her speak in Tucson, they were certain that conservatives must, somehow, be to blame. So the liberal intelligentsia rushed to erect a gallows in the public square (metaphorically speaking, again) and lined up Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, talk radio hosts, and conservatives collectively for summary execution on grounds that they had created a climate of political hatred and rhetorical excess that had incited murder—not to mention conservatives’ general lack of civility and poor manners in debate.

A Climate of Slander

All of this might have been chalked up to hysterical overreaction at a moment of national trauma. But if that were the case, there should have been some sheepish backtracking and apologizing as the week went by. Because the more we learned about the shooter, the more clear it became that he was mentally deranged, with no recognizable ideological grievance, no affiliation with any political organization, and no history of being influenced by any faction except his own inner demons. Instead he had a schizophrenic’s obsession with Giffords that dated back to 2007 (pre-Obama, pre-Palin, pre-Tea Party), when the congresswoman had been unable to answer to his satisfaction an incomprehensible question that he had put to her at a public forum.

Far from provoking second thoughts among the leftist let’s-have-more-civility-dammit lynch mob, these facts on the ground simply caused their logic for blaming the right to become more tortured. Being a card-carrying member of the American right, The Scrapbook was irked and began doing what irked right-wingers do—compiling a list of offenders for purposes of public flogging and keel-hauling (figuratively speaking, it should be needless to add). But here’s the thing. The list got unwieldy. It grew to the length of a Neal Stephenson novel. So we have whittled it down to a trio of award-winning demagogues, all intelligent enough to be held fully responsible for their own twisted prose.

The bronze medal goes to the New Yorker’s George Packer, who offers a variation on the “fake but accurate” theme. (“Fake but accurate” was a New York Times headline describing CBS’s phony 2004 memos about George W. Bush’s service in the Texas National Guard.) Packer begins promisingly: “Judging from his Internet postings, Jared Lee Loughner is a delusional young man.” Indeed, Packer continues, “It would be a kind of relief if Loughner operated not out of any coherent political context but just his own fevered brain.”

“But”—and you knew there was a but coming—“even so, the tragedy wouldn’t change this basic fact: for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. .  .  . The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point. Whatever drove Jared Lee Loughner, America’s political frequencies are full of violent static.”

There is a perverse honesty underlying Packer’s argument, seen in his admission that the facts are irrelevant to the point he intends to pursue. For this concession to reality, he merits only the bronze.

Our silver medal goes to the Atlantic’s James Fallows, Mr. Civic Journalism himself, for his shameless analogizing of Sarah Palin to the JFK-haters of Dallas in 1963—as if 47 years of liberal fantasies about Texas conservatism causing a Castro-sympathizer to kill JFK justified today’s unhinged liberal attacks on Palin!

The political tone of an era can have some bearing on violent events. The Jonestown/Ryan and Fromme/Ford shootings had no detectable source in deeper political disagreements of that era. But the 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.)

That’s the further political ramification here. 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, including SarahPac’s famous bulls-eye map of 20 Congressional targets to be removed—including Rep. Giffords. 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.

Thank you, Mr. Fallows, for that dispatch from the Slanderers ’R’ Us wing of American liberalism.

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