Can Representative Governance Survive the Growth of Eliminationist Rhetoric?

Dr. Robert D. Crane

Posted Jan 11, 2011      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Can Representative Governance Survive the Growth of Eliminationist Rhetoric?

by Dr. Robert D. Crane

    Sheila Musaji’s updated article, “Hate Rhetoric is Escalating into Violence”, cites hundreds of cases of vitriolic hatred against minorities, including Muslims, and a new surge in violence.  It culminated this weekend in the attempted assassination of an Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle
Giffords for being too liberal and in the murder of an Arizona chief justice who supported her at a public gathering in a shopping mall.

    Congresswoman Gabriele Giffords has been described as a gutsy member of an Arizona synagogue led by a rabbi who is a member of Ohalah, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal.  Its purpose is to replace baseless hatred with baseless love, as described by Arlene Goldbard, the Chairperson of Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Shalom Center, dedicated to tikkun olam, “to mend, repair, and transform the world”.

    A quick read through Sheila’s burgeoning evidence of this new trend in American life raises the question why this strange phenomenon of sociopathic phobias, both group and indivivdual, is occuring now.  Unemploymenti is one answer, but we have had unemployment before and much worse during the Great Depression.  End of the world religious groups may be another cause, but we have always had such groups. 

    Two major factors for the rise of extremism and violence are not merely a growing existential fear of the other but the extremism in normal political punditry and the multipling effect this has in the internet.

    Those commentators who are most guilty of extremist rhetoric defend themselves by saying that 22-year-old Jared Loughner, the Arizona mass murderer who almost succeeded in assassinating the Democratic Congresswoman Gabriele Giffords and succeeded in killing the chief federal judge of Arizona, John M Roll, and six of the twenty or so people nearby, was merely a lone demented individual, thereby implying that the growing incivility in political posturing poses no threat to democracy and indeed is protected by the American Constitution..

    In April 2009, summing up the run-up to the election of 2008, the Department of Homeland Security warned in an internal report that right-wing extremism was on the rise with a growing potential for violence.  It is logical that such extremism affects not merely members of organized hate groups but also lone individuals who see and read the same propaganda.  Such political extremism, protected by American freedom of speech, also serves to recruit unstable persons to join such groups.

    On his op-ed column in the New York Times of January 10, 2011, entitled “Climate of Hate”, Paul Krugman reported that the surge in threats against members of Congress has tripled since President Obama was elected.  He writes, “A number of the people making those threats had a history of mental illness — but something about the current state of America has been causing far more disturbed people than before to act out their illness by threatening, or actually engaging in, political violence.  And there’s not much question what has changed.  As Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff responsible for dealing with the Arizona shootings, put it, ‘it’s the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business’.  The vast majority of those who listen to that toxic rhetoric stop short of actual violence, but some, inevitably, cross that line”.

    He concludes, “It’s important to be clear here about the nature of our sickness.  It’s not a general lack of “civility,” the favorite term of pundits who want to wish away fundamental policy disagreements.  Politeness may be a virtue, but there’s a big difference between bad manners and calls, explicit or implicit, for violence; insults aren’t the same as incitement.  The point is that there’s room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isn’t any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary.
And it’s the saturation of our political discourse — and especially our airwaves — with eliminationist rhetoric that lies behind the rising tide of violence. ... If Arizona promotes some real soul-searching, it could prove a turning point.  If it doesn’t, Saturday’s atrocity will be just the beginning.”

    The second threat to civilization is the freedom to incite toward violence through the internet.  The internet serves to incubate violence-prone extremism as a mass phenomenon leading to crimes against humanity.

    Anyone who hangs out in e-groups, which generally are more civil than other outlets, can observe that civil discussion does not remain civil very long.  When the polemic reaches a certain point, many people merely leave to get away from it all, but others leave in order to join groups that agree with their extremism.  This happens again and again, so one winds up eventually with a lot of splinter hate groups, each one competing to be more violent than the others. 

    The internet was supposed to bring greater knowledge to everyone and therefore greater objectivity, but instead it seems for many people merely to help them find other extremists, who then support each other in becoming even more ignorant and more extremist. 

    Even if the number of extremists may not be growing, the extremism of the extremists is.  Even a small extremist group can peddle its wares worldwide through the internet and gain mutual support for acting out its vitriol eventually with weapons of mass destruction.  The danger is that once violence becomes endemic, then the number of extremists, and not merely their extremism, may grow exponentially. 

    Alternatively, might this backfire when “moderate” extremists see where it is heading?

    How much violence, however, is needed for a reaction against it?  Would the murder of a Muslim or a Jew a day be enough, or would we need a movement of minutemen for one a minute?  This would greatly overtax the ability of any government to stop it, but any government would have to try. 

    Unfortunately, democracy is a fragile flower.  It grows only in good soil.  Since dogmatic religion is blamed for every ill in society, perhaps it is time to rehabilitate enlightened religion as the only cure.