Outright Barbarous: How The Violent Language of the Right Poisons American Democracy Having joked less than a year ago about killing Mitt Romney (and his supporters), former Republican candidate for president, Mike Huckabee, has now made light of assassinating Sen....

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 05/16/2008

Having joked less than a year ago about killing Mitt Romney (and his supporters), former Republican candidate for president, Mike Huckabee, has now made light of assassinating Sen. Barack Obama.

According to CNN, during his recent speech at the NRA convention in Louisville Kentucky, the former  presidential candidate offered the following joke in response to a loud noise off stage:

"That was Barack Obama, he just tripped off a chair, he's getting ready to speak...Somebody aimed a gun at him and he dove for the floor." (from CNN

As Huckabee transitions from presidential candidate to media pundit, his habit of joking about political assassination leads many Americans to question the place of violent rhetoric in the speech of high-profile political pundits, as well as the consequences that should result from it.

Legal vs. Civic Questions
Many would argue that joking about assassinating a Presidential candidate falls well within the realm of free speech and should not merit any particular consequences--legal, moral or otherwise.   Indeed, past court rulings on the question of jokes about assassinating a sitting president suggest that it is very difficult to establish any kind of legal culpability in these instances.  The question, it seems, falls down to two factors:  (1) the often 'vituperative, abusive, and inexact,' nature of political rhetoric and (2) the legal difficulty of establishing intent to bring about actual harm in these instances (see Eugene Volokh, 'Jokes About Killing the President' Apr 27, 2005).

Legal questions, of course, are only one aspect of this issue.   In addition to what is permissible by law, Americans are also deeply concerned with whether or not certain kinds of speech tend to undermine the necessary pragmatic nature of our civic process--our ability to turn to the media and to each other to learn what we need to learn in order to achieve our common goals.  When we turn away from legal questions and begin to examine the kinds of rhetoric that may undermine our deliberative democracy, we start to see that Americans are by-and-large opposed to violent jokes and speech tossed out by political pundits. 

And yet despite this opposition on the basis of maintaining a healthy, civic process, violent-rhetoric from high-profile pundits continues largely unchecked.

In 2006, for example, Ann Coulter joked about the need for someone to assassination Supreme Court Justice  John Paul Stevens:

We need somebody to put rat poisoning in Justice Stevens' creme brulee," Coulter said. "That's just a joke, for you in the media. (Coulter Jokes About Poisoning Supreme Court Justice, FOX News)

A trained Constitutional attorney, Coulter understood the legal precedents regarding jokes about political assassination--meaning that she knew how to craft a joke about political assassination such that it would not land her in any kind of jeopardy.  Nonetheless, it is clear that Coulter also know that joking about assassinating a Supreme Court Justice would earn her a great deal of media coverage and have an impact on national debate on abortion.

In a political context where anti-abortion activists have assassinated medical practitioners on the excuse that they were stopping the doctors from performing further procedures, many interpreted Coulter's joke as having contributed to an atmosphere of violence and threat in American politics. 

Citizen Outrage Ignored By Media Companies
Citizens' concerns over Coulter, however, were not in any way heeded by corporate media--both broadcast and publishing--nor by political parties.  Following her remarks, Coulter continued to earn huge book deals and continued to enjoy virtual open access to high-profile broadcast media.

What Coulter and Huckabee share in common is that they both used rhetoric that was legal, but nonetheless toxic to healthy political debate.

When a political pundit uses a high-profile political forum to joke about assassinating his or her political opposition, they result is that deliberative debate shuts down.  Indeed, the response that violent rhetoric elicits in the minds of Americans is not the desire to censor speech in any way, but a call for violent-speech to be channeled towards entertainment where citizens are provided with the resources to make more informed choices about what they will and will not watch or hear.

In the meantime, Mike Huckabee's joke about an assassination attempt on Sen. Obama will lead to the same outcome as Coulter's joke about assassinating John Paul Stevens:  disruption of deliberative debate followed by greater broadcast presence awarded to him by the media.

The outcome should be the opposite: media marginalization instead of aggrandizement.

For joking about the assassination of Sen. Obama, Mike Huckabee should be removed from the rosters of all the various cable and network stations on which he regularly appears.

© 2008 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop

© Jeffrey Feldman 2008, Frameshop

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