Tag Archives: rhetoric

It’s Not Just Planned Parenthood….

Planned Parenthood. San Bernardino.

America averages one mass shooting every day.  We seem unable to address the paralysis on guns that allows any crank, psychopath or terrorist to acquire instruments of death and destruction, so we discuss every other issue involved, from policing to mental health systems. In the wake of the attack on Planned Parenthood, we’ve focused upon the effects of vitriol, propaganda and reckless accusations.

So let’s “go there.” Does rhetoric really matter?

When we were children, most of us chanted that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” Even in childhood, we knew that wasn’t true; the wounds that leave the most long-lasting scars are frequently caused by insulting or hurtful words. Not infrequently, bodies heal faster than psyches.

There are obvious consequences to toxic and uncivil discourse: when we substitute epithets for reasoned argument, we neither convince nor converse in any meaningful sense. The question we need to confront–the issue that people like Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump dismiss as “liberal bias”–is whether a constant drumbeat of nastiness, prevarication and incitement leads less-than-stable folks to “act out.”

The recent attack on Planned Parenthood is the latest in a string of assaults on that agency that have been encouraged, if not caused, by incessant dishonest and inflammatory rhetoric. A recent attack on a Muslim taxicab driver is another horrifying example.

The passenger began asking the driver about his background, and whether he was a ‘Pakistani guy.’” He also asked the driver “about the terror group ISIS” and mocked the prophet Muhammad.

The driver, who moved to Pittsburgh from Morocco five years ago, told the Post-Gazette that he is three months away from becoming a U.S. citizen. His plan is to bring his wife to the United States and start a family in the country he considers home.

I’m a free speech purist. Both the Constitution and common sense tell me that reducing the level of public bile is not something we can achieve by passing a law.

As difficult as it is, we need to challenge the culture that encourages expressions of bigotry and hate. We need to remind people that it is possible to express a point of view without becoming part of the problem; that it is possible to disagree without lying, slandering or justifying horrific behaviors.

In a more reasonable culture, we might even be able to do something about our ridiculously easy access to guns….



If It Walks Like a Duck, Call it a Turtle

A couple of weeks ago, Catherine Rampell had a must-read column in the Washington Post, beginning with “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me. Tax that feller behind the tree!”

Rampell focused upon the rampant hypocrisy of the “no tax” ideologues:

Jonathan Gruber has been vilified for (among other things) noting the “tortured” way that sections of the Affordable Care Act were written in order to stay in the good graces of both the Congressional Budget Office and the public. But such budgetary gamesmanship has long been an open, and bipartisan, tactic in Washington. When “spending” became a dirty word, Congress phased out earmarks. In their place, it doled out treats to special interests through the tax code, now awarding more than a trillion dollars each year in federal tax breaks, carve-outs and loopholes. Arithmetically, letting someone pay less in taxes is identical to spending money on them, but voters don’t see things that way….

Voters hate taxes and will punish any politician who threatens to raise them (or, in many cases, does not accede to cutting them). But schools, roads, police forces, garbage collection, firefighters, jails and pensions still cost money, even when you cut them back as much as voters will tolerate. So instead of raising taxes, state and municipal governments have resorted to nickel-and-diming constituents through other kinds of piecemeal, non-tax revenue raisers, an outcome that is less transparent, and likely to worsen the economy, inequality and social injustice.

Examples abound. Call it a toll. Call it a fee. Finance local government with smoke and mirrors.

This “no tax” chicanery plays to our worst impulses, the “I’ve got mine, Jack, and piss on the public good” attitudes that have crippled efforts to improve our communities and build a more inclusive, robust public square. But as intellectually dishonest as the “that’s not really a tax” strategies are, they’re a subset of a larger, even more troubling phenomenon: we’ve stripped our language of content.

I’ve frequently noted–in response to overheated rhetoric from the Right–that President Obama really can’t be both a socialist and a Nazi, because those words have meanings, and they are different. (And actually, in a sane world, neither remotely applies to the President, whether you like his policies or hate them.) Science is not a system of “beliefs” equivalent to religion, because falsifiable empirical facts are not matters of “faith.” LGBT folks don’t have “lifestyles,” they have orientations. I could go on and on.

The problem with misuse and abuse of language is that we lose the ability to communicate with each other. When words no longer have generally accepted meanings, we are just making sounds–and when those words are turned into epithets and insults, intelligible conversation comes to a screeching halt.

Language is one of the most important achievements of the human race; it is fundamental to human progress. We jeopardize more than we realize when we debase it.

Walking and Talking

In a speech last week in Washington, D.C., New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sang from the Republican playbook in criticizing President Obama’s recent economic interventions.

“We don’t have an income inequality problem,” Christie blustered. “We have an opportunity problem in this country because government’s trying to control the free market. We need to talk about the fact that we’re for a free-market society that allows your effort and your ingenuity to determine your success, not the cold, hard hand of government determining winners and losers.”

Aside from the somewhat bizarre assertion that we don’t have an inequality problem, most Americans (this one included) would agree with that basic assertion. Assuming a level regulatory playing field—a set of rules ensuring that everyone “plays fair”—the market should be the arbiter of business success and failure. We regularly quibble over the need for some of those rules, but it’s a rare politician or citizen (Republican or Democrat) who advocates government control over the economy.

Of course, there’s talking the talk and there’s walking the walk.

After his speech, Christie returned to New Jersey and signed off on a government regulation that blocks Tesla from selling its cars in the state. According to Slate Magazine,

The rule change prohibits automakers from selling directly to consumers, as Tesla does. Instead, it requires them to go through franchised, third-party dealerships, as the big, traditional car companies do. In other words, it requires that the middle-men get their cut. The Christie Administration made the move unilaterally, via the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. It was urged on by lobbyists for the state’s existing car dealerships, which fear the competition. The upshot is that Tesla will be forced to stop selling cars at its two existing dealerships in the state, and drop its plans to build more. It’s unclear what will happen to the employees of those dealerships.

There’s socialism, and then there’s corporatism and crony capitalism.

There’s rhetoric, and then there’s reality.




The Language of Crazy

For the past several months, in these and other columns, I have tried to explain (to myself as much as to my readers) the rising tide of anger and vitriol that seems to have engulfed our country.

I’m not naïve, and I’ve read enough history to know that we haven’t suddenly been uprooted from some past Garden of Eden. There have been plenty of other angry times in our nation’s history; the Civil War was the worst, but hardly the only example. In my own adult lifetime, Martin Luther King, JFK and his brother Bobby were all assassinated. The Sixties gave us the Weathermen and the Yippies, the Chicago police’s display of brutality at the Democratic National Convention, the Kent State massacre and the Watts riots. (It wasn’t all Woodstock and “Flowers in your hair.”) A complete list would fill this newspaper and then some.

But there was something really chilling about the news that an Arizona Congresswoman was shot through the head in an attack that killed several others—including a nine-year old child and a federal judge. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was holding a “Congress on the Corner” event at a local supermarket—one of those predictable, “keep in touch” “meet and greet” events that politicians routinely sponsor—when she and the others were gunned down in broad daylight. As I write this, the Congresswoman is in critical condition following brain surgery; her survival—and if she does survive, her condition—remains in doubt.

In the aftermath of this horrific episode, the national conversation has focused on whether the debased nature of our political rhetoric encouraged a mentally unstable person to take violent action.

Congresswoman Giffords was one of twenty Democrats who had been “targeted” during the off-year elections by Sarah Palin. Palin’s webpage had featured photos showing each of the twenty as seen through crosshairs on gun-sights. (Not surprisingly, Palin quickly removed the page, and scrubbed the inflammatory photos.)  The language employed during the campaign by Representative Gifford’s Tea Party opponent was filled with gun imagery and dark allusions to “Second Amendment remedies.” And who among us did not see the earlier coverage of unhinged people brandishing guns and screaming obscenities at Town Hall meetings about health care reform?

For those who refuse to believe that language has consequences, think about the gay youngsters whose suicides have followed repeated taunts of “faggot,” and other homophobic slurs. Think about the generations of GLBT folks who stayed far back in the closet as a result of the constant, offhand dismissal of gays and lesbians as somehow less than human, less than “normal.”

I am not suggesting that intemperate language “created” this tragedy. There are plenty of other cultural culprits, beginning with the zealots who believe that any restriction of the right to carry a gun, no matter how reasonable, is part of a communist plot. Indeed, last year Jan Brewer, the intellectually-challenged Governor of Arizona, signed into law a bill that lifted all restrictions on the right of Arizona residents to carry concealed weapons. One of the restrictions eliminated by that measure was a requirement of a background check that might have kept a mentally troubled individual from carrying a handgun.

But while violent imagery and intemperate language don’t cause such acts, they absolutely do contribute to the creation of an environment within which the unthinkable becomes just another possibility, where violence becomes a viable option to be explored, and where grievance—real or imaginary—justifies barbarism.

When this sort of rhetoric is employed in the service of bigotry, and a seething, resentful anti-intellectualism, as it currently is, we should not be surprised when violence erupts.

It creates, as they say, a perfect storm.