Saturday, January 8, 2011

In the Crosshairs

A short while ago, Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords was having a public meeting with constituents outside a grocery store in Arizona when a shooter opened fire. A federal judge, a nine year old child, and several others were killed. Many others lie in critical condition, including Giffords, who was shot in the head.

The shooter was 22 years old.

We can't know (yet, at least) what was going through his head. That said, it is past time for American political pundits to rethink their political rhetoric. Take, as an example, Sarah Palin's rhetoric. I've expressed before on this blog my unhappiness with its pugilistic character, but her recent "crosshairs" campaign has now taken on a terrible new meaning. Gabrielle Giffords was #4 in the crosshairs.

While Palin clearly and absolutely did not intend this to be taken literally, the belligerence of the metaphor has a dark and disturbing potency. At the very least, it has the power to interfere with efforts to promote greater civility and mutual respect in our political discourse; at worst, it contributes to an increasingly polarized and bellicose culture.

When the Arizona governor, Jan Brewer, went on the air to talk about the tragedy, she had to stop to compose herself--because Gabby Giffords was a close friend. The governor is a Republican. Giffords is a Democrat. Partisan affiliations needn't imply animosity.

But more and more, the public discourse is being shaped by the most polarized and polarizing voices. The public hunger for civility and the personal friendships across party lines, while real and pervasive, are increasingly subsumed under a culture of bellicosity. That is, we collectively think of our nation as trapped in a zero-sum struggle between two radically opposed groups, rather than as a nation in which people with different ideas about what is best for the country can sit down and reach workable compromises and even, sometimes, consensus agreements based on shared values.

Such a culture of bellicosity usually doesn't inspire overt violence. But some are psychologically vulnerable, prone towards the extreme bifurcating ideologies exemplified in racism and religionism; and some of those are damaged or despairing enough to look for meaning in an act of brutal violence.

In such cases, when influential figures use their platforms to villify or even demonize public servants for their votes or views on the best direction to take the country, the wrong words at the wrong time can be a trigger.

Those in positions of leadership, those who are looked up to as role models, those who enjoy the media limelight and a national audience, have a special responsibility to choose their words with care: words that encourage civility and respect in the face of disagreements, rather than words which invite viewing politics as war and political candidates as targets to be taken out.

And when those in such positions of influence make a profoundly poor choice, they should apologize without qualification or rationalization.

Perhaps in a tweet.


  1. A friend just shared the following quote. It seems a fitting complement to this post:

    “We need to realize that the rhetoric, and the firing people up and for example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s ‘targeted’ list, but the thing is, the way she has it depicted, we’re in the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve gotta realize that there are consequences to that action.”
    ~~U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords

  2. Very well stated, Eric. I feel we need to begin speaking out much more against all the hate and ignorance that feeds these behaviors. I am often dismayed at how passive, self-focused and not plugged-in people choose to be. We need to focus more on changing hearts and minds in all we do.

    I feel your efforts in this and other posts are an important step in raising our voices in this direction.

    -Hugh Crethar

  3. Sometimes pigs wear lipstick.

    Did GW apologize for his rhetoric? Or Toby Keith? Their followers? I'm not keeping my fingers crossed, and it would mean nothing coming from her smug lips. At most, it would be a sarcastic, responsibility-deflecting disgrace by someone who thinks God is on the side of hatred.

  4. I'm enough of a realist that I don't anticipate that such apologies WILL happen. Apologies are an admission of wrong--and although such introspective consciouisness of sin and subsequent repentance is central to the kind of Christianity Sarah Palin professes to ascribe to, they call for genuine humility and, at least according to the model of politics that Palin lives out, are viewed as politically dangerous.

  5. I agree with you about the sad state of the rhetoric and polarization that dehumanizes, but your request for a Palin apology Seems politically biased. Military metaphors are constantly being used on both sides: Kill the bill, Think Tanks, Right on Target, bombarded the population, heavy artillery, ONward Christian Soldiers, etc.
    Since Obama is THE leader, perhaps he should begin the apologetic conversation by apologizing for his remark that "If they bring a knife to the fight, we will bring a gun"

  6. Hi Anonymous: There is much to be said about all of us refraining from demonizing people who disagree with us, whether on the left or the right. But I think there is a context here that goes beyond the use of military metaphors. A sizable faction of the right in the US these days flirts with actual violent rhetoric, with talk about "2nd Amendment remedies" and quoting Jefferson's Tree of Liberty being watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots in the context of Health Care Reform and the stimulus package. It seems to me there is a difference between that and the kind of military metaphors you mentioned.

  7. Anonymous: Fair enough. While I intended Palin's rhetoric is an example of a broader problem, I was also likely more offended by it because it grated against my own political leanings.

    I agree that problematic rhetoric is pervasive on both sides of the aisle. Given this pervasiveness, the demand that everyone who uses such rhetoric apologize for each specific instance may be a bit too much to ask. A general mea culpa along with a promise to do better in the future seems more appropriate.

    But I also think it's possible to identify particularly egregious cases--ongoing patterns of pugnacity whose cumulative effect is particularly bad, or individual cases that are unusually extreme or dangerous. Is it just my political bias that leads me to find Obama's use of the knives and guns metaphors so striking precisely because of hwo UNCHARACTERISTIC it is? And is it just my political bias that leads me to conclude that the "Don't retreat, reload!" and crosshairs images are not at all striking in Palin's case because they are of a piece with the overall tenor of her rhetoric? And is it just my political bias that leads me to see the use of sniper crosshairs linked to actual human names as uniquely dangerous because of the way it can channel the violent impulses of psychologically unhinged people?

    I obviously do have political bias like everyone else, and it may be that there are democtrats I don't know about who are as persistent and egregious in their belligerent language as is Palin. If so, they should apologize for it. But my PERCEPTION, at least, is that this extreme, bellicose rhetoric lies on the outer fringe of the left but has migrated more to the center of the right's rhetoric in recent years.

    Am I misperceiving things? What do others think?

  8. HI Eric: I share your biases. Moreover I think the Tea Party movement flirts with violence in a way that very few leftists these days do. I choose the word "flirt" deliberately. I do not think Tea Partiers are advocating actual violence, but I think they see these times as comparable to the American Revolution--they've made that clear, haven't they? They've also made it clear they see themselves as willing to use armed resistance to oppose tyranny. This seems to me to be similar many in the New Left during the 60s, with their flirtation with Che Guevara and Cuba. Both left and right can be tempted by a fascination with violence, but today it seems to me the problem is much more prevalent on the right.

  9. I'd agree that this is definitely not a "both sides of the aisle" problem, if one sees the vitriol on the right, with guns brought to rallies, extreme statements and signs winked at, unremitting hatred coming from Fox news and the talk shows, etc. This was a question of when, not if. A few months ago, I was watching a right/left panel on health care on the NewsHour, and the Republican spoke the word "obamakill". This was either intentional or Freudian, but either way I found it telling and disturbing.

    If I may put in a word for other themes on this blog, the fate of Representative Giffords has a great deal to do with one's view of brain function. From what I can gather, she sustained a through-wound in her left brain with the bullet entering the back and exiting above her brow. While she will survive, there is a some chance that she will be unable to continue as a Representative, due to the many effects this damage will have on her mind. The damage may be minimal, and some brain functions (sensory, motor) may well be recoverable with time. But it remains that the physical condition of her brain will directly affect her mental condition and prognosis.

  10. Unapologetic arrogance has been the hallmark of her public persona. When Obama took office, I was simultaneously the most hopeful I have been about any political figure in my lifetime, and incredibly fearful for his life. As it turns out, we should ALL be fearful for our lives if our beliefs threaten some people to such an extent that they feel they must "take us out."

    In short: No, I don't think it's bias speaking.

    On a side note, I was wondering if you had any insight into the intersection of religion and self-inflicted violence in the wake of Bill Zeller's tragic suicide:

    I'm not sure if that's something you would post about, but I would be interested in in hearing what you have to say, given your research into both violence and religion.

    His note alludes to many contributing factors, but I cannot help but wonder at the particular effect on the human psyche when your own parents believe you are damned to hell?

  11. Hi Burk: What I am finding very interesting right now is that many of my conservative friends are outraged about how the "liberal" media is blaming them for the tragedy. Liberals aren't saying "see what happens when you oppose the stimulus plan" or "see what happens when you defend DADT". All I've heard from the left is a request that people cool it with political rhetoric that (a) calls your opponents tyrannical enemies while adding (b) the 2nd amendment was enacted so the people could take up arms against tyrants. I do think it'd be bad if all liberals learn from this is "it's all the right wing's fault". We all need to avoid adding to the hate. But there is a difference between harsh rhetoric by itself and harsh rhetoric combined with certain views about the purpose of firearms.

  12. downfromtheledge--Thank you for sharing the link to Bill Zeller's heart-rending final words. As I was reading them, I was reminded of Karl Barth's menacing notion of "Das Nichtige" (the nothingness).

    I talked about that notion a couple of years ago on this blog, but--given my own life history and experience--I didn't think of it in terms of its connection of victimization and the sense of being damaged and broken. What strikes me most vividly about Zeller's tragic witness is how abuse can bring what he calls the darkness (but is clearly the same thing that Barth has in mind) into the very center of one's conscious life, such that the version of Das Nichtige that is so dominant in many people's lives--namely, the existential despair that arises when confronting one's mortality and the boundaries of one's life--is not only overshadowed but presents itself as the only kind of promise or hope one can have: a lesser darkness. Existence is terrible, but at least it has an end.

    And here, I think, the brutal religion of his parents becomes a central feature of his narrative. If religion and God are just names for a different species of violation, a spiritual re-enactment of child abuse and rape with God as the perpetrator, then the sense of hopelessness becomes complete. Not only has this finite life been stripped of any prospect of intrinsic meaning and value, but there is no hope that something mysterious and wonderful lies beyond the strictures of our mortal existence. If there is anything beyond, it's just more of the same.

  13. Keith-

    I understand your point, but you are trying too hard to compartmentalize a problem that is far broader. It isn't just appeals to second amendment "solutions" that are problematic. It is a much broader problem of tone and emotion among the purveyors of right wing views. It used to be on the other side a century ago, with anarchy, communism, and left wing revolt in the air (more in Europe perhaps, than in the US). Now the shoe is on the other foot.

    Conservatives are fighting against the status quo of the New Deal, and the success of progressive government in all its manifestations- military, economic, social, during WWII and thereafter. It is an odd position for "conservatives" to be in, revolting against the status quo. But at least the nostalgia comes naturally, in this case for Victorian verities. And anyhow, they don't even really want to go back there themselves, by my reading.. the ideology just serves as a convenient set of hooks for what I would interpret as their core agenda, which is to perpetuate the growing class distinctions and wealth/power distribution in the US, which are becoming more unequal and more similar to the aristocratic systems that are so amenable to the age-old conservative world view, as well as to the sources of right-wing funding.

    Obviously, I am reading very deeply into this phenomenon. My point is that in a debate where one's actual objectives are not readily uttered or accepted by one's audience, (for example, the destruction of effective government), one naturally turns to alternate forms of discourse that give up on reason and instead appeal to emotion.. the rawer the better. Republicans have gone very far in this direction, joined at the hip as they now are with the shouters at FOX, et al. You will notice that the first thing they did with their post-midterm power was to.. extract lower taxes for the rich. Their actions spoke volumes here, completely tangential to the many ideological props that were batted about for the benefit of the NASCAR / tea party / grass roots set. (And which clearly infected the mind of the shooter in this case.)


  14. So my point would be that honesty is an important ingredient in our process of regaining civility. If Republicans are honest with themselves, they are shilling for the rich, pure and simple. Whether that represents a winning political strategy, I doubt. But it is incumbent on all of us to cut through the crap, use our philosophical chops to identify real premises and goals, (both our own and those of others), and enunciate them clearly, without hiding under ideological tangents and emotional appeals. I know politics doesn't work that way, but I think politics is a continual intellectual battle- between the observers and the practitioners, to discern and reveal motivations and truths hidden under the bunting and the shouting.

    In response, you might say that honesty was not the problem.. the more extreme right wingers were the most honest, perhaps, not hiding anything. But this resembles a problem in religion.. that the moderates give intellectual and social cover to extremists, not understanding that their position may have ceased to be, or was never, moderate. In the case of religion, belief in "whatever rings your bell", when defended as "reasonable" and "veridical", is actually an extreme view, allowing all sorts of intellectual malfeasance. It is all very nice in a well-cultivated Universalist church, but such (lack of) standards fails to make essential distinctions, licensing "true" believers to defend their bells as having been rung by the one true god, selections of the old testament, etc. and so on. The whole intellectual underpinning is faulty.

    Back to politics, the Republican mainstream has headed visibly into rightwing territory, exemplified by its total integration with FOX's low intellectual standards and high emotional appeals to those of a traditionalist temperament. Truly moderate Republicans have been powerless against a tide of extreme rhetoric that seems untethered from a serious governing philosophy or policy. They are swamped by hot-button issues that show more psychological engineering than intellectual work (death panels, no more bailouts, government is evil, baby killers, lower spending and taxes and debt, etc..). They are simply no longer moderate, and deserve a good deal of responsibility for this extremist act, across the modern Republican spectrum. The real question is whether the public that has been so hypnotically, even erogenously, appealed to by the merchants of hate over at FOX, understand the connection. I think the conservative defensiveness you mention indicates that they do. They are petrified that their rhetorical chickens are finally coming home to roost.

    That is my view, at any rate- sorry to on so long, but thanks for letting me get it off my chest!

  15. Thanks for the discussion, Eric. The initial reaction was Palin was to blame (among some of my friends). One friend changed his mind when he learned more about the shooter. Some did not.
    Check out the shooters youtube page here:

    After examining it, does your view remain the same? Also, notice the influence of Plato and Wittgenstein in his thinking. :)

  16. First, I want to say how saddened I am by the events that took place last Saturday in Tucson. Now, the shooter you reference in your diatribe has a name. Jared Loughner, by all accounts, seems to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. I would suggest that you find someone with a DSM-IV-TR and read up on what this is exactly before you point fingers at others for inciting the behavior of this individual. Loughner lived in his own strange world, believing that the government was controlling his mind (& ours). Nothing anyone said made an impact on this individual.

    How quick the liberal media & all its minions are to point fingers when it suits their purpose and how quickly they fluff off the hate speech and vitriol that was heard during the Bush administration.

    Again my thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who lost their lives and those still fighting for their lives. God bless them and God bless America.

  17. How did Jared choose her as a target? I haven't kept up with all the updates ... but phew! What a relief that no one is responsible, and there's nothing wrong with the rhetoric or hateful political climate, so now we can all go back to business as usual.

    Sarcasm aside, I thought it was interesting to read a Kennedy perspective:

    What's very sad to me is how far we HAVEN'T come.

  18. Hi, Anonymous-

    If you are right about your diagnosis, that hardly relieves the conservative right of responsibility. Aside from the "mind control" that Mr. Loughner was susceptible to, (currency concerns, government control, gold, guns, all right wing issues), and the target he happened to shoot, there is also the issue of how he came into possession of a gun, and one with such an enormous ammo clip.

    You might make some constructive suggestions about how to improve mental health treatment in our country, and also how to keep guns out of the hands of those with DSM-IV-TR level mental conditions.

  19. Hi Burk

    Let me restate that no one on either side of the aisle is responsible for the actions of someone who suffers from a mental illness. From my research, it appears that Loughner had previously "met" Giffords - I believe in 2007 but don't quote me on the date. At that time he felt slighted by her. Possibly, because of his mental instability, this was the catalyst for his rage against her.

    And, with respect to your comment on guns and your veiled attempt to call up gun control - no one who came into contact with this young an did anything to try and help him. Not his college professor - who said Loughner made him feel extremely uncomfortable and he would not turn his back on the young man. Not any of the other students he came into contact with. Not middle school or high school teachers who said there was something different. Not his parents. So, this individual could have obtained a gun in any number of ways. It is highly unlikely that he was able to "hold it together" long enough to complete the lengthy application required to purchase a weapon.

    So, if you feel compelled to point the finger at someone, point the finger at any number of people who interacted with Loughner on a daily basis but chose to stand by and do nothing. Arizona has a rather "liberal" standing with respect to reporting someone who is suspected of having mental illness. They will hold the individual for 72 hours under observation when such a report is made. To this point, it looks like no one gave a damn.

  20. Anonymous(es): Yes, the growing insights into who Jaden Loughner was do contribute to how we should view this shooting--although many questions remain, including downfromtheledge's question about how Giffords became his target.

    And yes, hateful and violent rhetoric is problematic no matter who uses it. I recall the language used to describe the Bush-Cheney administration from the left as sometimes harsh and even demonizing. This kind of demonization by itself needs to stop on both sides. I was part of a panel prior to the start of the Iraq war in which I fielded audience comments that demonized Bush--and I argued against the appropriateness of such demonization. We can disagree with and condemn in strong language what someone has done without demonizing the person. This is what I was striving to do in calling out Palin in this post.

    What is particularly scary to me, however, is political rhetoric which COMBINES the following: (a) the claim that X is a demon, (b) the injunction that demons need to be taken out (some kind of metaphor of violence), and (c) implied threats of violence against X, however merely rhetorical ("2nd Amendment remedies," bringing guns to political events, signs saying "We didn't bring our guns...this time.") I don't recall this combination being as much in evidence in the left's rhetorical opposition to Bush/Cheney--but I may be misremembering. In any event, it doesn't change the fact that this volatile combination as it is going on NOW should end, nor that Palin has contributed to it (even though her motives had nothing to do with inciting violence). Hopefully she will moderate her rhetoric from this point on.

  21. The deeper question raised by conservatives responding to liberals who have called out Palin for her rhetoric in response to the shooting is this: Did those on the political left jump to the conclusion--perhaps falsely--that Palin's specific rhetoric contributed directly to this horrific act of violence? Were liberals playing the "blame game" as a political maneuver in the face of a national tragedy?

    And is that what I was doing? I could point out, I suppose, that I began my post by noting that it was too early to know anything about the shooter's actual motives, but that the tragedy called attention to our political rhetoric and gave us reason to rethink it. I could point out that I called attention to Palin's rhetorical choices as an EXAMPLE of the kind of thing that is harmful and could trigger unhinged people. I could stress that my point was that Palin's use of rifle crosshairs to "target" political opponents, in combination with her "don't retreat, reload!" mantra, is the sort of eggregiously dangerous rhetoric that is simply irresponsible, whether or not it actually played a role in this shooting. I could point out that in this regard, my post was fairly typical of other "liberal" posts and essay. And I could note that there is a difference between exploiting a national tragedy for political ends and being motivated by tragedy to finally speak out about something one long been upset about--precisely because I haves seen it as flirting dangerously close to producing tragedies of this kind.

    I could say all of that (in fact, I just did), and it would be honest as far as it went. But it would leave something out, namely this: When I heard about the shooting, I immediately thought to myself, "Oh my God, it's finally happened. The FOX News demonizing machine and Sarah Palin's RELOAD rhetoric has finally driven someone over the edge. I've been muttering under my breath about it for a year but too afraid of how my conservative friends would respond to actually take the kind of public STAND I should have taken. And now it's happened." In other words, I DID jump to the conclusion that this tragic act of violence was triggered by the hateful rhetoric of the right. The fact that I didn't SAY this in the post doesn't change the fact that I was thinking it and believing it far before all the evidence was in. And I'm sure everyone who read the post, regardless of my more guarded language, KNEW what I was thinking. And, quite possibly, this belief was mistaken. We'll see.

    But the fact that the public rhetoric has become dangerous and that we must collectively commit to greater civility and apologize for our past excesses--THAT is something I stand by.

  22. I do believe you must either be misremembering" or just having selective memory with respect to the true hate speech during the Bush/Cheney administration. I guess pundits who continued to wish death on Dick Cheney were excusable incidents.

    I do believe that the anger was misplaced in this particular instance by the liberal media. From the sheriff, who is an admitted democrat, to Keith Olbermann (just to name a couple) who made hay during a time of real tragedy. Again, no one forced Jared Loughner to pull the trigger and shoot anyone. Blame should be placed squarely where it belongs. Loughner is responsible for the carnage and no one else. This country has gotten to the point where no one is responsible for anything anymore...everything is someone else's fault and we are all victims. No, the victims in this instance are the innocents who were exercising their right on a Saturday morning & were gunned down by a delusional individual.

  23. HI Anonymous: My memory easily COULD be selective, but I do not remember ANY Democrats running for office who wished death on Cheney (in fact I don't remember any pundits at all saying such). On the other hand there HAVE been Republican candidates who have described the liberals (a) imposing tyranny, death panels etc, while also (b) defending the 2nd amendment SO citizens can take up arms against tyranny. Do you really think that such rhetoric cannot inspire some crazy person to take a crazy action? Do you really think our political discourse is healthy these days? can't we agree that we need to be civil to each other even when we disagree in the strongest terms?

  24. Civility is something that we can all wish for. Unfortunately, when there are fringe groups on both the left and the right it will remain just a wish.

    And, again I must stress responsibility for ones own actions is paramount. Additionally, using terms like "crazy" to describe someone with a mental illness is certainly not very civil.

  25. And now, someone on Twitter has decided to wish death on Sarah Palin. Do I blame the media for this? No, I blame the person who posted the thought.

  26. Obama just demonstrated with incredible leadership exactly why (some of us) chose him; he calls upon us all to BE better people and leads the way with integrity. Americans crave the genuine honesty and respect he exemplifies…so many of us are sick to death of the haters and the political BS and the fakers who try to say all the right words to further their platform…when their real lives betray what a sham it all is.

    We may not be able to stop all the evil in the world, Obama said tonight, but “how we treat one another…that’s entirely up to us.”

    And so I wait for the haters to rip all his words to shreds…

  27. Hi Anonymous: I assure you I was not being uncivil when I used the word crazy to describe Jared Loughner. I do not look down on people with brain disorders or emotional problems. My family has a history of depression a and I myself have suffered from it for a period. I don't see the word "crazy" as any less civil than the phrase "mentally ill". I have a friend who prior to medication suffered a psychotic period of bipolar disorder and he himself referred to that time as his being crazy. But if I offended anyone with my use of the term, I am sincerely sorry.

  28. Hello all

    An outsider's question from the other side of the world, which I hope doesn't appear inappropriate.

    From this perspective the polarity of US politics is striking. I can think of a number of Western elections recently where the complaint has been how similar the two main contenders have been. In New Zealand it is an almost accepted side effect of democracy, the two sides drawn inexorably toward the middle ground as they court the undecided swing vote that will inevitably decide the outcome.

    Clearly there are many factors that create your particular brand of partisan politics; from history, to voter turnout, size, diversity, election finance rules and many more. But if you had to nominate one factor that most perpetuates this state of affairs, what would it be?


  29. fromtheledge...I do hope you include "haters" from both sides.

    And, I do applaud Mr. Obama for asking us all to be better people. Because when we draw closer to God and ask his guidance in all things we truly can become a better people.

  30. Hi Bernard: I have a story about why the US is so polarized. Like all stories it's an oversimplified story. But there is something to it.

    We are polarized because of the way we had and the way we ended slavery in the US. Slavery brought our nation to Civil War which is about a polarized as you can get. After the war, during the Reconstruction period, things were still polarized, the traitorous and defeated Confederacy hated the Union. Eventually, Reconstruction ended and the US government allowed to return former slaves to second class citizenship. This ended the political polarization in the US (except for African/Americans who didn't count politically in the segregated South)

    So, along comes the Civil Rights movement, and back comes the polarization. The Democratic Party coalition of economic liberals and racist southerners fractured when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. This drove Southern Whites into the Republican Party, but it also inspired all kinds of other oppressed groups (women, gays, anti-war students) to fight for their rights, which began the culture war. From their politicians like Ronald Reagan (later and more explicitly Newt Gingrich) stoked the fires of the culture wars to gain political advantage.

    The End.

  31. Yet again, nothing but data that perpetuates the idea that White
    Republicans are nothing but a bunch of racist haters. Guess you chose to forget about the polarization that took place during the Revolutionary War.

  32. Eric,

    Just lost a short comment above and can't find a way to repost...

  33. Hi Anonymous:

    1. About the Revolutionary war. That was before the beginning of my time line. I am not saying that there wasn't any polarization prior to the aboltion/slavery/civil war era. I am talking about the CURRENT polarization which I argued IS a legacy of slavery.

    2. I did not make the broad brush claim you suggested. I know lots of Republicans who are non-racists. But it is indisputable that the segregationists in the South moved to the Republican Party after the Civil Rights bills were passed. And Nixon USED this fact to gain support, following the Southern Strategy of the arguably racist Pat Buchanan.

    All of this is history and I'd say no objective observer could deny that the racism played a big part in the switch in party identification in the South. The Southern Democrats HAD been the party of segregation while most of the national party looked the other way. When the Democrats started supporting integration, the south abandoned it. I was there. I remember people complaining that the Democrats only wanted to help the n-words. That doesn't make all Republicans racists, but in america now it is more likely that a person harboring anti-african american sentiment (or anti-mexican sentiment, or ant-gay sentiment, or anti-muslim sentiment) will be a Republican.

  34. (repost)

    Hi Bernard,

    I am also an outsider (closer geographically but from a different culture and language) and find this extreme polarization very striking. If you've not read it, you might be interested in Paul Krugman's column in today's (Friday) New-York Times. I think he addresses the question you ask. His take is somewhat related to what George Lakoff writes about in Moral Politics.

    Whether this is accurate or not, however, I am in no position to tell.


  35. Paul Krugman is nothing but a hack, so nothing he has to say holds any credibility. He most certainly has an agenda and it is not in the best interest of this county.

    Next, the assertion that racists abandoned the Democratic party after the Civil War is almost as absurd as some junk that comes out of Krugman's mouth. The Democratic party has had a strangle-hold on the south for an extremely long time. Having grandparents who were Yellow Dog Democrats, I know of which I speak. And, if it wasn't for the plantation mentality of the vast majority of the southern democratic party, blacks and hispanics would not feel the need to cling to them so closely. But, I guess they have learned generationally not to bite the hand that feeds them.

  36. Hi Anon:

    1. Paul Krugman (Nobel Laureate) is NOT a hack at all, but you are entitled to your wrong opinion:-)

    2. I must not have been clear. I didn't say that racists abandoned the Democratic party after the Civil War. I said the southern democrats became Republicans after the CIVIL RIGHTS ACTS were passed. That's a historical fact. I looked back at my post and I believe you didn't read it carefully, since I didn't say what you said I said.

    3. The phrase "plantation mentality" of african/americans contains just a bit of racism. You would never use that phrase to describe the loyalty of union activists to the democratic party, for example.

  37. I forgot...Krugman is NOT a hack because he espouses the political ideology of the left and spouts his opinion as "news" as often as he can.

    Certainly racists did not leave the democratic is rife with them. However, I would love to see your research and statistical analysis of southern democrats going to the republican party after the Civil War. Really? From what I have been able to ferret out with respect to republicans, democrats and the Civil War Era it is actually that southerners blamed the republican party from the north for all of their "problems" so why in the world would they flock to such a thing?

    And, finally, I take exception to your suggestion that by making use of the term "plantation mentality" with respect to the leaders of much of the current democratic party that I am utilizing a racist term. And, with respect to union members - those used by their leaders - well if the shoe fits...

  38. Sorry, I meant to say Civil Rights Act. But, if southern dems abandoned the party in the numbers you suggest, then please tell me how in the world a democrat was able to get elected, much less have a stronghold on southern states until the late, great Ronald Reagan?

  39. Hi Anonymous: It was a process my friend. The old confederacy was practically alone in voting for Barry Goldwater, and it wasn't because they were against Medicare. The old confederacy voted overwhelmingly for Nixon and George Wallace, rejecting the Democratic nominee Humphrey by landslide margins. I won't count McGovern in 1972 because nobody voted for him. The Dems regained a bit in 1976 with favorite son Jimmy Carter. I could go on if you like. In regular races, more and more segregationist Democrats became Republicans from 1964 onward. But I think you missed part of the thread of my story. On the other side you had the Civil Rights movement inspire liberation movements for other groups: women, gays, other minorities, the anti-war movement etc. The rise of those groups brought about a reaction from people who were opposed those causes, thus laying the foundation the culture war. I remember clearly the adults around me saying things like "the should have shot a few more hippies in Kent State, that'll teach 'em a lesson". And there was no hiding the fact that opposition to welfare in the south where I lived had a whole LOT to do with race, leaving a legacy of opposition to welfare and government safety in the south today (it's not the case that most southerners are principled small government libertarians, they have no problem with government intervention in the lives of Muslims for example)

  40. I thought this was where people were discussing whether or not Sarah Palin was the reason Jared Loughner went on a shooting rampage.

  41. Keith...I think many adults during the 1960s had problems with the "hippies" and what happened at Kent State because, you must remember, many of them served during WW1 & WW2. So, to them, demonstrations against the war were not looked upon to kindly. They were from an era where patriotism was a virtue and service to country was not looked upon as a negative thing.

    I refuse to discuss ideology with regard to what southerners do and do not believe with regard to the role of government and Muslims. To imply that most southerns are not principled or in favor of small government excepting for certain instances shows a narrow mindset.

    I am pretty sure the vast majority of southerners have no qualms about welfare to help those who find themselves in a bad situation. But, to perpetuate welfare generationally helps no one. Through education we can work to break the debilitating cycle that some find themselves on. While there are probably a few who are content to subsist on welfare, there are many more who would love to break away and claim their place in society.

  42. On the contrary, maryhadalittlelamb, this seems to be where people would like to accumulate evidence demonstrating the pointless political arguments people in our country thrive on, at the cost of constructive work aimed at solving problems. Obama's call to rise above the pettiness has fallen on deaf ears, it would seem.

  43. Whether or not Obama's call to rise above the cruel speech that seems to have invaded many sectors has fallen on deaf ears remains to be seen. Unfortunately, what I have found to be true is those who are the shrillest are those who are the most deaf when it comes to civility.

  44. Hi Anon:

    You wrote I think many adults during the 1960s had problems with the "hippies" and what happened at Kent State because, you must remember, many of them served during WW1 & WW2. So, to them, demonstrations against the war were not looked upon to kindly. They were from an era where patriotism was a virtue and service to country was not looked upon as a negative thing.

    My point exactly. I am not saying the anti-hippies were wrong to be upset (although I WOULD be saying they were wrong if their anger was because people dared to protest the Vietnam War, and I DO say they were wrong to be satisfied that some hippies got killed). I am saying that things might have been less polarized had the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights era had not been necessary. Breaking the law in a society has a negative effect ON the society, I'd say, which is why those who choose to use civil disobedience have to weigh the cost. Slavery led to Jim Crow led to civil disobedience led to excesses in the anti-war movement I am suggesting. The excesses helped lead to the culture war and the consequent polarization. That is my hypothesis which I admitted up front was an oversimplification. But I was not blaming Republicans for the polarization (except for Newt Gingrich). (continued next post)

  45. Continued to anon:

    As a person who spent his first 28 years in the south, I recognize there is a diversity of opinion IN the south. However from my experience visiting family recently I found a pretty large number of people who were irrationally anti-Muslim. In the town where my dad lived, there was a small Sudanese Muslim community who wanted to build a worship center. There is absolutely NO reason to object to this, but a large contingent of the locals did object nonetheless. About welfare? Of course they only object to people "taking advantage", that's what was said back when I lived there too. But I lived there and I KNOW there was a racial aspect to their objection.

    Now I do want you to know (if it weren't obvious already) that I am quite far to the left. So feel free to consider that when you evaluate my subjective judgments. But I try to be as fair as I can. I think my analysis of the polarization and the political views in the south are reasonably accurate. All of us have prejudices and it's often easier for other people to see them than for us to see them in ourselves. That applies to me too, but it also applies to the folks in the south.

  46. Hi Anon:

    You wrote: I forgot...Krugman is NOT a hack because he espouses the political ideology of the left and spouts his opinion as "news" as often as he can.

    Your convincing sarcasm has changed my mind; I guess Krugman really IS a hack:-)

  47. Hi downfromledge, about "pointless" political debate. The President appropriately asked us to stop the hatin' and discuss our disagreements like decent people. But people disagree on basic principles and IMO it's a mistake to imagine there's this "solution" to our problems we could come up with if the politicians would just stop being so partisan. Theoretically we all want the same thing--we want the best for our country. But we don't agree on what that is. Politics is how democratic societies deal with those differences.

  48. ummm....thanks for the patronizing little mini-lesson?? whatever it is you want to hear that will make you feel as though you've won so that the endless back-and-forth having very little to do with whether Palin-esque rhetoric is productive or dangerous can cease...please insert here________________.

    unsubscribing from follow-ups.

  49. Your article is very thoughtful and suggests we examine our collective conscience. Words are as much weapons as weapons themselves. It was very disheartening to see Ms. Palin on television the same day as our President again avoiding any sort of humility or even compassion for the victims. These are very scary times for our nation. Those of us who are aware must rise above the hateful rhetoric and employ compassion at all times.

  50. Thank you always for your compassion, Eric. You will probably never know how far reaching your words and actions reach. Know that they do. Namaste!

  51. To be fair to a thread of discussion that emerged in these comments, I should note that my concern about the bellicosity of political rhetoric very naturally inspired a question about the reasons why there is such polarization in American politics (since it isn't this way everywhere). As such, the discussion that ensued was not wholly off topic--but it does seem that this is one of the questions about which the left and the right are polarized.

    It is hard for all of us who are part of this dynamic to escape it entirely, and I know from experience that when I get caught up in it, it's hard to avoid prickliness, defensiveness, name-calling, throwing blame (at the other side), etc.

    And I think that even as I was striving to call attention to this dynamic in my original post, I was not entirely free from it's influence--which is probably part of the reason why the ensuing discussion became less civil than I would like conversations on this blog to be (although I also encourage those who participate in discussions here to take responsibility for their own contributions).

    We need space to be able to criticize views we think are wrong and practices we think are harmful--and the call for civility is not a call to refrain from such critical engagement across party lines. It is, rather, a commitment to focusing on *reasons* why we disagree while avoiding ad hominem attacks ("this person is wrong because he's a hypocrite"), name-calling, sarcastic put-downs, demonization of those with a different view (which isn't the same as offering *reasons* for thinking the view itself is highly dangerous), etc.

  52. Eric-

    Your note with respect to your immediate response to this episode was very interesting and understandable. Clearly this was shared with many people and has been explained to various extents by subsequent deeper commentators, though the exact connection between the shooter's intellectual and emotional miasma with the larger social currents remains unclear if not tenuous.

    Nevertheless, this is an area where our intuitions are very powerful- far more veridical than they might be for conclusions about cosmic structure, hidden realities, and other more or less scientific claims. Intuition is quite clearly evolved / honed to assess our social setting. This is where it shines, and indeed a cognitive problem that many atheist posit is that intuition points us to explain all sorts of mysteries via social mechanisms that may not actually be appropriate.

    Our mutual social sensitivity is highly tuned, and I don't believe that we are very far off base to draw a connection between the emotionally charged rhetoric on the right and the particular form that the paranoid style takes right now among those who might be termed the canaries in the coal mine of our collective unconscious.

    Nailing this intuition down more thoroughly would require knowing more about the paranoid schizophrenic mindset in general and how it processes the zeitgeist, which is something that is probably very far from a science.