Beyond the initial, senseless tragedy of innocent people murdered by Jim Adkisson in a Tennessee church, two disturbing facts about the killer were brought to light by the Knoxville police. Fact one: the police found a four-page letter written by...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 07/30/2008

Beyond the initial, senseless tragedy of innocent people murdered by Jim Adkisson in a Tennessee church, two disturbing facts about the killer were brought to light by the Knoxville police.

Fact one:  the police found a four-page  letter written by Adkisson in which he cited his hatred for 'the Liberal Movement' as motivation for the crime.

Fact two:  the police found various writings by right-wing pundits known for their violent rhetoric on TV and radio present in Adkisson's home, including books by Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, and Bill O'Reilly.

Both of these facts touch on issues of law, politics, and more broadly: civil society.  And while it may be easy to say that the letter is more relevant than the books, there is a strong case to be made that the presence of right-wing books in the  house of a self-proclaimed murderer of liberals not only touches in some way on the horrific crime committed, but also invites a broader discussion about one of the most important topics in contemporary America.

That topic is:  Violent rhetoric and its destructive impact on America's civic life.

Violence vs. Violent Rhetoric: the Physical Body vs. Civic Body
A basic distinction will be helpful in order to see the significance of right-wing literature in Adkisson's house.  In order for the American democracy to work, two types of bodies must be functioning well--must be 'healthy.'

  The first body is physical.  If you make a fist with one hand and gently tap yourself on the chest, you will quickly discover the physical body.  This is the easy body for us all to see and understand.  Likewise, it is easy for most people to understand that if the physical body is injured or--as in the Knoxville tragedy--murdered, then any role in a democratic system comes to an end.  The old political joke makes the point better than any anthropologist could,'Dead people don't vote--except in Chicago.' The logic in the punchline,  of course, is that if a dead person is found to have voted,  it is not a sign that he system is working, but that the system has given in to corruption.

  The second body is political and, because it is not tangible, much harder to conceptualize.  In fact, it's not really a 'body,' but we use the 'body' metaphor to help us understand what this abstract thing is.  It is the civic body, the collection of all individuals in a given system engaging in the various acts that maintain our system of self-governing.  If we were born in Jefferson's time, the easiest way to see that civic body would be to walk down the street and join your 20 neighbors at your local village meeting or pick up a broadsheet newspaper.  Nowadays, the easiest way to see the civic body is to tune our television set into a political talk show. The civic body is primarily a place where people share ideas and information in conversation, the purpose of which is to know what we need to know in order to make the decisions necessary to do what needs to get done. 

  Whereas blood runs in the veins of the physical body, the veins of the civic body are filled with a certain kind of talk: an open and ongoing conversation.

  Now, what we can see right away is that these two bodies are completely dependent on each other.  If typhoid breaks out or a flood destroys a town, nobody will be around to participate in the conversation.  Likewise, if one person acts in such a way so as to prevent others from speaking, no matter how healthy people are physically, the civic body collapses.

  If the physical body comes under threat on a large enough or meaningful enough scale, the result is an almost immediate shift in the nature of American democracy.   If enough people's homes are destroyed by flood or fire, or if a loved community leader is assassinated or imprisoned, the result is often a collapse in civic stability. 

  What is rarely discussed, however, but is absolutely essential to understanding the current state of American democracy, is that the same kind of shift happens if we the civic body is undermined--in particular if the kind of conversation running the civic body changes from a free and open exchange of ideas and information to one marked by violent rhetoric, violent ideas, and violent behavior.

  When the dominant conversation in the civic body shifts from pragmatism to violence, the state of American democracy shifts, too.  Rather than turning to civic space to communicate ideas, learn information, and work collectively to solve problems, a civic body marked by violent rhetoric becomes an arena driven by the need to vent frustration, enforce opinion, and eliminate rivals.

Violent Rhetoric: Poison in the Civic Body
Taken as a whole, violent rhetoric poisons the civic body, thereby undermining the fundamental dynamic of American democracy: people engage in an ongoing conversation for the purposes of getting things done.

Interestingly, the civic body is not such a fragile flower as many people believe.  It can tolerate a certain amount of violent rhetoric from individuals and still maintain its overall health.   The problem is not from violent rhetoric communicated from one individual to another individual, per se, but from violent rhetoric from one person amplified in such a way that it reaches millions of people all at once:  broadcast media.

  This is why the threat violent rhetoric poses to American democracy did not really appear until the advent of large scale broadcast technology--radio.  With the rise of television and the accompanying industry of mass-scale book sales, individual sources of violent rhetoric have reached the point where they overwhelm the civic body. 

The poisoning and subsequent collapse of the civic body from violent rhetoric initially takes the form of a shift in the way people talk and, but quickly gives way to a shift in how people act. 

When violent rhetoric saturates the civic body via the media and other broadcast sources, people stop exchanging information, start hurling opinion.  The dominant questions,'What is the information? What is the history? What is the goal?' gets displaced by the monolithic imperative, 'Do I agree?'

Civic identity shifts when the conversation shifts. 

In a healthy civic body, an engaged citizen is someone who learns and analyzes information, examines problems, and formulates solutions.   In a poisoned civic body, an engaged citizen is someone who offers opinions, expresses disdain for different opinions, and gathers with like-minded people to oppose those who differ in opinion.

O'Reilly's Violence: Theory, Metaphor, Performance With this broader distinction in mind, it  is important to note that Bill O'Reilly's work poisons the civic body with three distinct kinds of violence that he broadcasts via TV, radio, and large-scale book sales.

First is O'Reilly's violent theory. To see O'Reilly's violent theory, one need only crack open a copy of Culture Warrior.  In that book, O'Reilly claims that the United States is engaged in a 'war' between traditionalists and progressives. O'Reilly offers this broader theory as the explanation for the kind of work he does--including both is on-air persona and his writing.

Second is O'Reilly's overuse of violent metaphor.  Everything that O'Reilly writes is framed through metaphors of war, boxing, and physical confrontation.  Watching O'Reilly on TV or reading his books, one can hardly find an idea that is not presented in violent metaphoric terms.

Third is O'Reilly's signature violent style of performance.  In many ways, O'Reilly's popularity is due to his ability to play act violence or near violence on TV in a way that is credible.  In the 1980s, there were many TV personalities whose talk shows often erupted into fights or thrown chairs. O'Reilly uses the same tools, but on a much more sophisticated level--often leaning forward in his chair with violent gestures towards his guests.  To detractors of O'Reilly, this behavior is often critiqued as childish.  To his supporters, it is exhilarating.

From Frustration to Violent Habits

O'Reilly's books and broadcasts are significant in the Tennessee murder because they are part of a broader media market that undermines the civic body and turns individual frustrations into violent civic habits.

In learning of Adkisson's hatred for 'the Liberal Movement' and his collection of right-wing books,  one is struck by the sheer amount of right-wing punditry that advances a similar logic of liberals destroying America--and pushes the idea that the destruction of liberals is a logical response.

The overlap between the style of talk, the intellectual themes, and the performance put O'Reilly and Adkisson in a disturbingly common arena.

That arena can be described as a place where civic actors turn their frustration into violent habits--into violent expression, violent theories, and violent performance.

The broader issue, of course, is not whether Bill O'Reilly's book--and Michael Savages' book and Sean Hannity's book--caused Jim Adkisson to pick up a Remington shot gun and kill members of a Tennessee church who he perceived as worth of death because they were liberals.   The more important question is how Bill O'Reilly's work--layered as it is with multiple forms of violent rhetoric and performance and broadcast to levels that it impacts millions of lives daily--has contributed to a fundamental collapse in the civic body.    And once that collapse happens, violent results follow.

'Take a Stand' Against Right-Wing Violent Rhetoric
What Americans should demand coming out of this Tennessee shooting is not just more compassion towards other citizens, but that the American media 'take a stand' against right-wing violent rhetoric.

We should also demand that the conversation that results form this demand not be undermined by small talk about people being nice to one another.  Certainly, manners are important, but the larger problem is not individual acts of hate or intolerance--even if those are often the acts that result in so much pain.   The real issue is a privately held media  industry that amplifies violent rhetoric and broadcasts it so much that the result is a poisoning and collapse of our civic body.

By calling for a return to a healthy civic body, we can do our part to honor the victims of the Tennessee tragedy last week.

© 2008 Frameshop, Jeffrey Feldman

© Jeffrey Feldman 2008, Frameshop

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