[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
In the days since the massacre in Arizona, the mainstream political media (and much online discussion) have zeroed in on one question: Did the uncivil political discourse (with violent imagery) of the Glenn Becks, Rush Limbaughs and Sarah Palins of the world create an environment that encouraged or allowed an unhinged character to go on a shooting spree aimed at a Democratic congresswoman.
I would like to focus on a related question: Are the right wing pundits telling the truth?
The reason for my approach is that whether or not the toxic political environment influenced Jared Loughner, it is important to recognize that for the last two years, the right wing media has employed a concerted strategy to elicit in their listeners/viewers anger and a sense of delegitimization of the government (whether literally, in the form of the birthers, or ideologically, with false claims of socialism, or in practice, with false accusations of unconstitutionality and corruption that fly in the face of history and the record). And to do so largely by making baseless charges.
And when I listened and read as these right wing purveyors of venom rejected the claim that their incendiary rhetoric might have spurred an unstable individual to action, I was struck by how, once again, their approach to the issue was to make baseless charges rather than engage on the issue.
For example, Rush Limbaugh declared: "At no time has anybody ever called for violence. ... We've never subtly promoted it."
But it was just one year ago that Limbaugh said (in reference to the economy):
"This government is governing against its own citizens. This president and his party are governing against us. We are at war with our own president. We are at war with our own government."
Want a more recent example? On January 10, 2011, after the shooting, Limbaugh said this about claims that violent right-wing rhetoric might have influenced Loughner:
"Don't kid yourself. What this is all about is shutting down any and all political opposition and eventually criminalizing it. Criminalizing policy differences at least when they differ from the Democrat (sic) Party agenda."
So Limbaugh asserted last year that the government is at "war" with the American people, and he claimed days ago that the Democrats want to criminalize dissent. (Remember, Limbaugh is the guy who, in 1995, predicted a "second violent American revolution.") He urges his viewers to recognize that the president and his government aren't legitimate. That is not promoting violence?
And these are hardly isolated incidents. Rather, the use of this kind of baseless violent and anti-government language is part of the regular, day-in-day-out approach of these right-wing leaders. Some examples (there are tons of others):
- On June 10, 2010 Beck passionately warned his viewers that former radicals who want to "eliminate 10 percent of the population" (he makes it clear he means kill people) and "overthrow" the "United States government" are now working in the Obama administration so they can carry out their desires (charging that Obama is more corrupt than Nixon).
- If Palin's cross-hairs map and "reload" comment don't bother you, how about when she spoke at a Tea Party event in February 2010 and said: "America is ready for another revolution" (which, given the context, carries a specific connotation and certainly subtly condones violent reprisals against the government).
- Andrew Breitbart's blog (on March 10, 2010) wrote that the president was "the suicide-bomber-in-chief" who wants to "blow up the capitalist system from within."
- Sharron Angle, a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat, happily endorsed "Second Amendment remedies" and implied that an armed revolution may be necessary.
These examples represent a tiny drop in a much larger bucket.
My point is simply this: These leading right-wing figures regularly engage in rhetoric with the intention of rousing listeners to believe the government is illegitimate and dangerous. Sometimes the approach is to use threats of imminent government aggression (e.g. Beck's warning about mass murders and Limbaugh's prediction of government crackdowns on dissent), while other times they use language to promote the idea that the conflict is a violent one (e.g. Limbaugh's "war" comment). And they do so using baseless claims.
When Limbaugh says he (and Palin and others) does not incite listeners or encourage violence (overtly or subtly), he is engaging in pure fiction. When Palin lectures on how debate during elections is good and then people look for common ground after the election is over, she's right, but it's also hypocritical, since it's not how she practices politics (or, more accurately for her, media punditry).
So these leaders can't have it both ways. If Beck, Limbaugh and Palin want to say that Loughner was a mentally ill individual who acted based on his own demons, and the incendiary language of right-wing media figures had no role, I encourage them to make their cases forcefully in front of the American people. While I believe that constant warnings that the government is illegitimate and planning totalitarian actions (murders, media clampdowns) can have an effect, there is certainly merit to the argument that crazy people will do crazy things.
(Although any fair argument on the issue has to go beyond this one incident to include the string of violent acts and threats directed at Democrats since President Obama took office.)
But what these right-wing media figures can't honestly claim is that they are not engaging in violent and delegitimizing rhetoric. Actually, I find it especially cowardly that Limbaugh would spend a chunk of his show on Monday slinging blame everywhere for Loughner's actions (including heavy metal music, rap music, parents, etc.) and accusing Democrats of being happy about the massacre, but he didn't have the balls to stand up for what he does. If he really had any integrity, he would have defended his rhetorical style.
The implications of a right-wing media system that masquerades as journalism without any commitment to the truth is one of the biggest threats to our democracy. So in the aftermath of the Arizona tragedy, I couldn't help but zero in on the right wing lies rather than focus on the incivility.
I admired President Obama's speech yesterday in Tuscon, but rather than learning a lesson about civility from this tragedy, I hope we learn a lesson about truth. Debates on how we should conduct our political discourse are great. But these debates need to be on the facts, not on made-up fantasies and defensive lies.