Sunday's mass shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church raise a difficult question for this country and, subsequently, for the progressive netroots: Will we take a stand against violent rhetoric? So far, the answer is 'Not really.' We need...
Sunday's mass shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church raise a difficult question for this country and, subsequently, for the progressive netroots: Will we take a stand against violent rhetoric?
So far, the answer is 'Not really.'
We need to do better. The progressive blogs need to emphatically condemn violent rhetoric in American politics, and we need to do it with the passionate and unified voice this urgent problem demands.
The Wrong Approach
Knoxville local news reported that gunman Jim Adkisson not only proclaimed in a letter that he was motivated by his "hatred of the liberal movement...Liberals in general, as well as gays," but also police that his home contained copies of books by right-wing pundits Michael Savage and Bill O'Reilly. (link).
In the face of this, the media (including bloggers) must do more than speculate on the link between rhetoric and violence. It must take an emphatic stance against violent rhetoric in American life.
Unfortunately, there is a surprising lack of unity on this issue amongst progressive bloggers.
OpenLeft, for example, posted a timely response to the Adkisson murders on Sunday which connected the problem of email death threats that bloggers regularly receive from right-wingers to the recent tragedy in Tennessee. Unfortunately, rather than using his post to take an emphatic stand against right-wing violent rhetoric, the site took an oddly neutral position (emphasis mine):
These sorts of emails end up in my inbox a couple of times a week. Usually, they are as non-sequitor as any other type of spam, and are unremarkable except as yet another demonstration of certain types of right-wing discourse. The frequency with which right-wing political discussion is laced with threats of fatal violence is rarely discussed, but it appears in my inbox several dozen times a year. Still, it seems mostly to be talk and macho posturing, since politically motivated violence against leftists in America does not appear common. Further, I am pretty sure that most prominent progressives who have a public email receive this sort of email on a regular basis too, and so it seems mostly like widespread eliminationist rhetoric than any actual threats.("Right Wing Emails and the Tennessee Shootings")
Keep in mind that OpenLeft is a hugely influential blog due in large part to the incredible job those bloggers have done building bridges to the Democratic Party establishment and to movement progressive organizations. If we judge a blog's importance by its influence, rather than just by its site traffic, OpenLeft is one of the top 3 progressive blogs. Hands down, it is a great site.
While there is no question that the OpenLeft post condemns the Tennessee killings, its position on right-wing violent rhetoric is ambiguous.
Rather than come out emphatically against violent rhetoric from the right, OpenLeft invites its readers to wonder about the relationship between violent rhetoric and violent action, the implied conclusion being that the jury is still out on the sociology of violent rhetoric, therefore, the problem is not really something worth too much attention.
Again, while the post on OpenLeft will not be read by millions and millions of people, as an opinion-maker website, it has been read by enough instrumental people to have a serious impact. We can safely conclude that as a result of Bowers' post, Democratic members of Congress, progressive activists and organizers at the state-level, and key members of the media will conclude that the progressive blogs are talking about violent rhetoric in the wake of the Tennessee murders, but they are not unified in viewing it as a problem for American politics, government, or Democracy.
On some level, I can appreciate what OpenLeft is saying. I can understand the desire to respond to email death threats from right-wingers by saying something along the lines of 'it's just another kind of right-wing extremism,' and then referencing a few blog posts with the implied message, 'that's someone else's issue...this stuff doesn't really bother me all that much.' The logic I see is one of a refusal to be intimidated by threats and a desire to show that one is not going to be silenced by right-wingers no matter how extreme they sound.
Nonetheless, I do not see the logic of taking that approach right now--directly in response to the Tennessee murders. To be blunt: Innocent people were just killed by a right-winger espousing hatred of liberals as the motivation for his actions, and who had in his home books by the very right-wing pundits who use violent rhetoric to attack progressives on a daily basis. Given all that, it seems more logical to use this moment as an opportunity to commit to something far more emphatic than a less-than-outraged, almost neutral stand on violent rhetoric or, as the case seems here, to respond to the tragic murders by speculating on the connection between rhetoric and action.
The same ambiguity is also common amongst DailyKos and MyDD front-pagers, all of whom tend to ridicule right-wing violent language while refusing to emphatically condemn it.
Too Late For Neutral
To put this in different terms, the key, front-page bloggers in the progressive netroots who have not yet come out emphatically against right-wing violent language--who are not yet ready to say that violent rhetoric from the right is a problem in contemporary American politics--they are behind in doing so.
The vast majority of bloggers, albeit not necessarily the most influential bloggers, have already taken a stand against violent rhetoric because they are forced to take that stand every day.
This emphatic stance against violent rhetoric was posted by Feministing.com over a year ago and is a good model of the kind of stance that all bloggers should have already taken by now:
In light of Kathy Sierra having to cancel her speech at ETech because of death threats, I just want to say that I completely agree with her and Lindsay and Zuzu, that death threats towards bloggers is NOT protected speech. They say it all so go read it. But I want to add Feministing has gotten its share of threatening emails and it is very upsetting.
When I was presenting at SXSW, one of the questions discussed was how safe can we make online communities for diverse voices and is it possible? Some people believe that everyone should be able to say what they want, but somethings are just not O.K. Threatening women or people of color for voicing their thoughts, concerns and opinions is NOT O.K. It is an old, tired and paranoid brand of racist misogyny and we are not going to put up with it.
It is so unfortunate that someone would have to cancel a speaking engagement because stupid trolls were so threatened by a women talking tech.
Another example from the same incident from Majikthise:
Female tech blogger cancels keynote amid death threats
Sad news: Tech blogger Kathy Sierra canceled her scheduled keynote adress at ETech because she was facing a barrage of online death- and rape threats. Over the past four weeks Kathy has been targeted for a barrage of increasingly credible threats of physical violence. In her post, Kathy reports that she has contacted the appropriate authorities and that they are taking her complaints seriously. I'm saddened to hear that another woman has foregone another opportunity because of misogynist intimidation.
I want Kathy to know that her colleagues in the feminist/lib-left blogosphere are pulling for her. Thanks to zuzu and Dr. Sox for voicing their support.
Even before the Tennessee shootings, bloggers in the progressive netroots should have converged on a collective and emphatic outrage at right-wing violent language. Instead, key front-pagers on the most high-profile progressive blogs have not stepped up and spoken clearly on this issue.
For these core parts of the progressive netroots, the issue has been and continues to be urgent enough to take an emphatic stance:
When female bloggers get an email from a right-winger threatening to rape them for something they wrote, the reaction is to take it seriously and call for it to stop--always.
When gay or lesbian bloggers get an email from a right-winger threatening to sodomize them for something they wrote, the reaction is to take it seriously and call for it to stop--always.
When African-American bloggers gets an email from a right-winger threatening to lynch them for something they wrote, the reaction is to take it seriously and call for it to stop--always.
In other words, the not take an emphatic stand against violent rhetoric on the basis of questioning the link between words and action is to overlook the actual persistent, poisonous impact violent rhetoric has on the very public sphere bloggers seek to revive and maintain.
Wondering about the link between violent rhetoric and violent action is interesting and it is important, but it's not a substitute for the issue at hand.
The question is how violent rhetoric undermines our entire system of government, which is based on a civic sphere that can only function if a certain kind of talk is maintained. Even if it does not result in murders, it is corroding our public sphere. And it is that corroded public sphere that gives rise to violent acts with either overt or tangential political aims.
America does not need to descend into widespread political violence before it is incumbent upon all voices in the media and the political establishment to emphatically speak out against violent rhetoric.
The time to speak out against violent rhetoric in a strong and unified voice is before the country descends into physical violence. Before, not after.
Therefore, the time is now for the most influential progressive bloggers to recognize that violent rhetoric is a persistent problem--a real and damaging force in our system of government that has gained in intensity since 9/11, but has much deeper roots in the history of right-wing rhetoric in this country.
Now is the time for influential progressive bloggers who have not done so to put up a post that is 100% and clearly against violent rhetoric, and to state emphatically that it is an intolerable threat against women, gays, lesbians, people of color, and anyone else who voices their political views.
Now is the time to strongly state that everyone in the netroots should work together to curb this problem.
That is the kind of strong message we need from front page bloggers in response to a right-winger walking into a liberal church and killing people after leaving a note saying he hates liberals and gays.
The leaders of the netroots communities that give us all a place to participate must come together and stand united on this issue.
© 2008 Frameshop, Jeffrey Feldman