Friday, January 14, 2011

On Debating Our Debate

From Paul Waldman at The American Prospect:

As we debate what kind of rhetoric is and isn't objectionable, it would help if we could make some specific distinctions and keep some important things in mind. To that end:

Every gun metaphor is not created equal. Military metaphors infuse our talk about politics; the only thing that comes close is sports. The word "campaign" only relatively recently began to be used to refer to politics; its original use referred to military endeavors. But there is a difference between using metaphors that invoke violence ("We're going to fight this battle to the end!") and using rhetoric that invokes violence specifically directed at your opponents (like this), or even speaks literally of people arming to take on your opponents or the government (like Sharron Angle's infamous discussion of "Second Amendment remedies" to not getting the result you want at the ballot box). One is perfectly ordinary; the other ought to be condemned.

The fact that someone criticizes your rhetoric doesn't mean they're "blaming" you for the Arizona shooting. Right now, Sarah Palin's defenders are angrily denouncing people for "blaming" her for the shooting, because people have pointed to her now famous crosshair map of candidates she was targeting for defeat in 2010, including Gabrielle Giffords. But no one is saying this guy committed his massacre because he looked at this map. What people are saying is that this kind of thing goes too far. Certain things contribute to an atmosphere in which violence becomes more likely; criticizing those things doesn't mean you've said that in the absence of one particular statement or Web posting this event wouldn't have occurred.

If you think your rhetoric is above reproach, you have an obligation to defend it on its merits. Naturally, many on the right are going to attempt to turn the criticism of them around on the left: See how they're playing politics! But if you think it's perfectly fine for you to say what you've been saying, explain why. Attacking the motives of those criticizing you doesn't qualify.

Asking you to tone it down is not censorship. Over at Slate, Jack Shafer defends inflammatory political speech by saying, in part, that "any call to cool 'inflammatory' speech is a call to police all speech." As someone who has spent many years tangling with conservatives over their rhetoric, I've heard this argument a million times. When you criticize some talk-show host for something he said, he inevitably responds, "You can't censor me!" The First Amendment guarantees your freedom to say whatever idiotic thing you want, but it doesn't keep me from calling you out for it. No one is talking about throwing anyone in jail for extreme rhetoric, but we are talking about whether people should be condemned for certain kinds of rhetoric.

The rhetoric of violence is not the only kind of rhetoric that encourages violence. The apocalyptic rhetoric we've seen from some on the right, most notably Glenn Beck, should be part of this discussion too. When Beck portrays Barack Obama as the head of a socialist/communist/Nazi conspiracy whose goal is the literal destruction of America, he is implicitly encouraging violence. If that really were the nature of the administration, and our liberty really were on the verge of being snuffed out, violence would be justified.

If you're going to say "Liberals do it too" then you ought to provide some evidence. No one disputes that there has been a tide of extreme and violent rhetoric from some quarters of the right in the last couple of years. But any journalist who characterizes this as a bipartisan problem ought to be able to show examples, from people equal in prominence to those on the right (i.e. members of Congress, incredibly popular radio hosts, etc.) who have said equally violent and incendiary things. "Harry Reid once called George W. Bush a liar" doesn't qualify, nor does a nasty comment some anonymous person once left on a blog.

The Geography of Gun Deaths

The Atlantic is carrying a fascinating study breaking down where people are shot to death and correlating that geographic distribution with other factors.

Wiederaenders: Sparring over bills is not the norm

In dashing off his Friday column, Tim writes a confusing bit:

Something I really liked in Tobin's comments was that the bill was "expedited, but mostly was a part of business as usual at the Legislature, where most bills are bipartisan."

See, when legislative debates appear to be problematic or contentious, they "are the most difficult issues and are not nearly as popular, as it likely should be."

This is difficult to parse, but what I get from it is that Rep Tobin told Tim that "most bills are bipartisan," and that a quick and efficient legislative process is "business as usual at the Legislature." And Tim thinks this is great.

This is either willful misunderstanding or obfuscation. A large number of votes in the Leg are minor housekeeping and ceremonial matters that no one cares about and get done pretty quickly -- unless a Speaker or President decides to hold up all bills for some arbitrary reason, as happened last year. This may be what Mr Tobin refers to, in a statistical sense. Many bills don't get through the first stage of the committee process. The remainder are generally contentious and usually partisan, and those are what we hear about in the news. That's where the long knives come out. Any legislator worth her salt will line up cosponsors on the other side of the aisle, that's given. Does that make the bill "bipartisan"? It's a semantic choice.

What we do know, in any case, is that the road is never smooth for legislation that matters. Either Tim heard Mr Tobin wrong, or Mr Tobin was again shoveling the sort of odious dark matter for which he's become famous.

Incidentally, one good reason legislation does not normally pass through this quickly is that there's no time for legal vetting and really thinking the thing through. From what I've read about the funeral-protest bill, it seems unlikely to survive legal challenge. Is that efficient use of legislative time?