...I’d argue that tone is overemphasized in these conversations about political discourse, while substance is mostly ignored.Yow. In fairness, I should note that (I believe) Conor is a conservative (just a sane one), so I suspect he'd draw different conclusions from this than I. But sticking to just what he said: word.
What if we took the opposite approach? I don’t think that Sarah Palin bears any responsibility for the shooting in Arizona, or that her rhetoric is the most egregious you’ll find on the right. I don’t have any problem with her poster putting various Congressional districts in cross-hairs. It’s a commonly used visual metaphor, for better or worse, and the substance being communicated is basically that the GOP wants to take back or “target” certain seats. The “tone” is arguably extreme, but what’s being said, the ultimate message, is perfectly acceptable: beat these people at the polls.
In contrast, Palin’s remarks about death panels communicated an untruth: the notion that Barack Obama’s health care reform effort sought to empower a panel of bureaucrats who’d sit in judgment about whether an old person’s life would be saved or not. That is the sort of thing we ought to find objectionable, even if the substance is communicated in the most dry language imaginable, because were it true, radicalism would be an appropriate response. “They’re going to start killing old people? We’ve got to stop this!”
Since Barack Obama took office, prominent voices on the right have called him an ally of Islamist radicals in their Grand Jihad against America, a radical Kenyan anti-colonialist, a man who pals around with terrorists and used a financial crisis to deliberately weaken America, an usurper who was born abroad and isn’t even eligible to be president, a guy who has somehow made it so that it’s okay for black kids to beat up white kids on buses, etc. I haven’t even touched on the conspiracy theories of Glenn Beck. The birthers excepted, the people making these chargers are celebrated by movement conservatives – they’re given book deals, awards, and speaking engagements.
If all of these charges were true, a radicalized citizenry would be an appropriate response. But even the conservatives who defend Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, D’Souza, McCarthy, and so many others don’t behave as if they believe all the nonsense they assert. The strongest case against these people isn’t that their rhetoric inspires political violence. It’s that they frequently utter indefensible nonsense. The problem isn’t their tone. It’s that the substance of what they’re saying is so blinkered that it isn’t even taken seriously by their ideological allies (even if they’re too cowardly, mercenary or team driven to admit as much).
They’re in a tough spot these days partly because it’s impossible for them to mount the defense of their rhetoric that is true: “I am a frivolous person, and I don’t choose my words based on their meaning. Rather, I behave like the worst caricature of a politician. If you think my rhetoric logically implies that people should behave violently, you’re mistaken – neither my audience nor my peers in the conservative movement are engaged in a logical enterprise, and it’s unfair of you to imply that people take what I say so seriously that I can be blamed for a real world event. Don’t you see that this is all a big game? This is how politics works. Stop pretending you’re not in on the joke.”
But ultimately, I think that in Conor's post is the reason that Ezra Klein's thoughtful self-reflection about his own rhetoric is unwarranted: the substance matters, and not just the rhetoric. Still, while I think he errs (fundamentally) in applying the thought to his own rhetoric, this point is still well expressed:
Many of us have known people who, after watching a loved one die of an awful disease, have begun taking better care of their own health. It's not that they were at risk of whatever killed their relative. But the awful experience focused attention on how they were living their own life. That's how I view the situation we're now in. Did the talk of "Second Amendment remedies" and "armed and dangerous" resistance lead anyone to pick up a gun and start shooting? It didn't. But seeing what an unbalanced person might do if convinced of the need for a violent remedy has been sobering.
Other things I read on the massacre that said things that struck me:
* James Fallows on political assassinations
* Mark Kleiman on the role the end of a gun-control provision played in the scale of the horrors in Arizona. (In the NYT, Gail Collins made a similar point.)
* Digby on where the line between just heated rhetoric and beyond-the-pale extremism should be drawn.
* Steve Benen on the fact that a Republican Senator felt a need to hide behind anonymity when making an anodyne point about some right-wing rhetoric going too far.