Politics: Nasty, brutish and short
Point-counterpoint: Little the better for anything else
In the wake of Tucson, there’s been a lot of talk about violent rhetoric in politics. Trust me: Divorcing politics and violence is impossible – politics is violence. It’s been that way ever since some dude in Babylonia thousands of years ago said to his buddies – probably after a really long day made worse because brewing beer back then was a crapshoot so it sucked much of the time – said, “I hate being an early agriculturist, let’s make some weapons and get these chumps to do all the work for us.”
That’s how government got started, and that’s pretty much how it is today. Back then, of course, the services provided by the government were more along the lines of “Hand over your bushel of grain or the king will be upset. If the king gets upset the gods get angry and if the gods get angry everyone will suffer – especially you.” There was also some defense provided, although this was occasionally more of an inherent obligation to the community. In some ancient societies, armies were medieval Halliburtons.
The really strange thing, though, is not that politicians want to tone down violent rhetoric, they really want to water-down anti-government rhetoric. Politicians love militaristic metaphors – that’s why we have wars on drugs, poverty, terrorism, cancer and crime. Presumably we’ll get a “War on Violence” in the near future, because I honestly doubt anyone in government is intelligent enough to appreciate the irony.
We in the news media love those kinds of metaphors, too. So reformers are always “crusading,” rivals are always “rattling their sabers” and headlines about contested probate judge elections will always be some variation on “battle of wills.”
More importantly, the talk about rhetoric is always directed squarely at one group: conservatives. Take this editorial from The Boston Phoenix, “Desert Storm: How the GOP and the Sunset State nurture the lunatic fringe.” The title alone should make it clear just what writer David Bernstein wants to get across, namely that conservatives are insane. The article was written soon after the Tuscon shootings, so it would be unfair to criticize him for things that subsequent information rendered moot.
Nevertheless, his article is packed with turns of phrase such as, “This is typical of how ever-deeper levels of lunacy get introduced to conservatives.” One section is headed “Rally ‘round the nutjobs.” Honestly, it’s not surprising that conservatives feel threatened with liberals saying they’re insane all the time. It might even be a self-fulfilling prophecy, where liberals have told each other that conservatives are crazy so often that they’ve convinced themselves it’s true. But the worst thing Bernstein wrote is this: “Comparisons of dangerous rhetoric of the left and right miss the underlying fact that, in today’s American landscape … there is little or no extreme-left equivalent to the gun-fetishism, government-hating, racist, anti-Semitic extremes of the right.”
In general, it’s just not true. Although the most violent acts have been carried out by far-right supporters, the extreme left is just as violent and has been for longer than the right. In fact, the very first leftists, led by Maximilien Robespierre, orchestrated the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Anarchists carried out bombing campaigns in 1919 and an anarchist is believed to have thrown the bomb that led to the Haymarket Riot in 1886. “Today’s American landscape” has been shaped by these events in ways we don’t recognize.
More recently, the Weather Underground actually issued a declaration of war on the United States government while radical leftists such as Sam Melville and Jane Alpert lobbed bombs around the country. Then there was the famous “Battle of Seattle.” G-20 protests always result in riots elsewhere; we’ve been fortunate in the United States that they haven’t been as bad here. Just last year UMass prevented United Freedom Front leader, Ray Levasseur from speaking at the university.
Also last year, Joseph Stack flew a plane into an IRS office in Austin, Texas and decried capitalism in his suicide note. Later on, a man named Jamie Lee took hostages at Discovery Channel headquarters in Maryland because he thought the channel was anti-environment.
It’s true that Timothy McVeigh killed more people in a few minutes than all the far left groups of the 1970s combined, but that only means that he was convicted and executed while Levasseur was merely exiled to Maine. I know I wouldn’t want to be executed, but I’ve never been to Maine so I can’t say whether permanent residency there would be agreeable to me or not.
Ignoring leftist violence, like Bernstein does, is irresponsible. We live in an age when political violence is more visible than at any other time in history and there is no indication that this will change anytime soon. Ignoring any of it will only convince its perpetrators that more is needed to get our attention.
Matthew M. Robare is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.