The Becking of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

by: OpenLeft

Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 15:00

(By special invitation - promoted by Paul Rosenberg)

By Chip Berlet

Cross-posted from Talk2Action

From a moral viewpoint Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is the victim of demagogues such as Glenn Beck and his allies at Fox News and in the Tea Party Movement. This is not about legal liability but abour moral culpability. This is about a nation that has lost its moral compass.

Some of us progressive writers have been warning about this dangerous trend for several years. This includes my colleagues Fred Clarkson, David Neiwert, Sara Robinson, John Amato, Adele Stan, and others. We blame right-wing demagogues like Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter and a culture that tolerates their vicious targeting of scapegoats.

Now the shootings have created a new word floating across cyberspace: "becking." To be "becked" is to be held up as such an evil and destructive person that someone, somewhere, will interpret it as a call to eliminate that problem through violence.

I made similar assertions after the murder of Dr. Tiller in a post at Religion Dispatches,"Who Will Rid Me of This Troublesome Doctor?": Bill O'Reilly, King Henry II, and George Tiller"
Here is what I wrote then:

On the day Dr. Tiller died, May 31, 2009, Gabrielle Winant on Salon traced O'Reilly's relentless campaign against the murdered doctor. Winant wrote that some of O'Reilly's characterizations of Tiller replicated

    "ancient conservative, paranoid stories: a decadent, permissive and callous elite tolerates moral monstrosities that every common-sense citizen just knows to be awful. Conspiring against our folk wisdom, O'Reilly says, the sophisticates have shielded Tiller from the appropriate, legal consequences for his deeds."

So, concludes Winant: "O'Reilly didn't tell anyone to do anything violent, but he did put Tiller in the public eye, and help make him the focus of a movement with a history of violence against exactly these kinds of targets."

The analysts at Media Matters for America have been forcefully arguing the case against the "Emerging Culture of Paranoia" and the role of "Right-Wing Media" in fostering a toxic climate in which violence is more likely. Media Matters' Eric Boehlert, who suggested after the Tiller murder that "O'Reilly and Fox News will have more right-wing vigilantism to explain," selected some of O'Reilly's most egregious statements demonizing Dr. Tiller.

The attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the killing and wounding of others was denounced by Pima County Arizona Sheriff Clarence Dupnik who said:

When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government...The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country is getting to be outrageous and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry....The vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business ... This has not become the nice United States that most of us grew up in.

Hannah Arendt described the process of demagoguery leading to violence as it occurs in totalitarian regimes ranging from Hitler to Stalin. The demagogue frames the target, but leaves off a direct call for violence. But the message is clear. Unstable people often act first. Political ideologues, however, can be mobilized as the process continues to act as a group. Sara Robinson and I have been tracking the number of political murders since the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Her article with the evidence is here.

The people who "becked" Rep. Gabrielle Giffords began with a premise of dualism or Manicheaism, and then constructed a frame that uses demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism to divide the world into a good 'us' and a bad 'them'.  

OpenLeft :: The Becking of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
Scapegoating is built on top of this dualistic dichotomy. Hannah Arendt discusses how totalitarian movements are built around a central fiction of a powerful conspiracy, (in the case of the Nazis, a conspiracy of Jews which dominates the world,) that requires a secretive counter-conspiracy be organized. Totalitarian groups organize the counter-conspiracy in a hierarchical manner which mimics the levels of membership and rituals of social and religious secret societies.

Arendt explains that average members of totalitarian movements need not believe all the statements made for public consumption, but they do believe "all the more fervently the standard cliches of ideological explanation." If a lie is detected by the mass of people or even the average member, it is dismissed as having been a tactical necessity which only further proves the cunning and wisdom of the leader.

For the elite members, even the basic ideological explanations of the group are not necessarily believed, but are seen as "fabricated to answer a quest for truth" among the lower ranking followers. For the elite, facts are immaterial. Their loyalty is to the leader who embodies truth, and they require neither demonstration nor explanation of the leader's assertions:

Their superiority consists in their ability to dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose. In distinction to the mass membership which, for instance, needs some demonstration of the inferiority of the Jewish race before it can safely be asked to kill Jews, the elite formations understand that the statement, all Jews are inferior, means, all Jews should be killed.

Thus, if liberal Democrats are treasonous and evil, then they should be killed to save the nation.

Arendt argues, "an ideology which has to persuade and mobilize people cannot choose its victim arbitrarily." So something is happening in a society where scapegoating is promoted by demagogues and adopted by a large mass of people, even when there are only a tiny number of persons in the scapegoated group. Scapegoated groups sometimes play some objective role in a real conflict, even when they are innocent of the irrational and fabricated charges used to demonise them.

In our book Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, Matthew N. Lyons and I arrived at the following formula:

We use the term scapegoating to describe the social process whereby the hostility and grievances of an angry, frustrated group are directed away from the real causes of a social problem onto a target group demonized as malevolent wrongdoers. The scapegoat bears the blame, while the scapegoaters feel a sense of righteousness and increased unity. The social problem may be real or imaginary, the grievances legitimate or illegitimate, and members of the targeted group may be wholly innocent or partly culpable. What matters is that the scapegoats are wrongfully stereotyped as all sharing the same negative trait, or are singled out for blame while other major culprits are let off the hook.

Following the shooting of Rep. Giffords we once again heard calls for civility and pundits pointing out that hateful rhetoric is aimed at Republicans and conservatives by Democrats and their lefty allies. This is true, and I do object to liberals who hurl buckets of mud as we on the left are being buried in an avalanche of shit from right-wing demagogues with national television and radio programs, websites, and newspaper columns. The comparison is true in the manipulated facts yet false in the claim of equivalence.

Peter Daou writes about the bogus equivalency between right/left extremism in his post "Gabriel Giffords and the rightwing hate machine." The targeting of political scapegoats in our nation today is overwhelmingly coming from the Political Right. To claim otherwise is a lie easily debunked by even a modicum of research. A big lie.

Imagine we are living in the Weimar Regime and it is 1928. Noam Chomsky has observed that at this point Germany could have moved toward social progress or the Nazi nightmare. Let's not wring our hands and use histrionic language about Fascism marching through the street. Chomsky was talking about that moment in a democratic society when decent people still have a chance to stop the descent into barbarism.

If this is Weimar, then Fox News is playing the role of the Nazi propaganda organ Der Stürmer, and Glenn Beck is cast as either Joseph Geobbels or Julias Striecher.

This is a grotesque exaggeration you say? Clearly Fox News is not Der Stürmer and Beck is neither Goebels or Streicher. True enough. But do we wait in silence to see what happens next in this script?

The view of Streicher and Der Stürmer at the Nuremberg trials:

The crime of Streicher is that he made these crimes possible, which they would never have been had it not been for him and for those like him. Without Streicher and his propaganda, I.E " Der Stürmer", mass murderers such as Heydrich, Kaltenbrunner, Globocnik, Hoess, and even Himmler himself, would have had no one to do their dirty work for them.

In its extent Streicher's crime is probably greater and more far-reaching than that of any of the other defendants. The misery which they caused ceased with their capture.

In 1942 the students who formed the White Rose Society issued a series of pamphlets. Between 1928 and 1942 much had changed in Germany, and these students knew they faced death for their call to conscience.

Here are some excerpts.

If at the start this cancerous growth in the nation was not particularly noticeable, it was only because there were still enough forces at work that operated for the good, so that it was kept under control. As it grew larger, however, and finally in an ultimate spurt of growth attained ruling power, the tumor broke open, as it were, and infected the whole body. The greater part of its former opponents went into hiding. The German intellectuals fled to their cellars, there, like plants struggling in the dark, away from light and sun, gradually to choke to death....

If everyone waits until the other [person] makes a start, the messengers of avenging Nemesis will come steadily closer; then even the last victim will have been cast senselessly into the maw of the insatiable demon.

We who must speak out are not faced with death here in our nation this week. We are faced with our visage in a moral mirror looking back at our conscience which is telling us that we must speak out against the crescendo of totalitarian demagoguery.

We must oppose the becking of our society.

How many more must die before we wake up and put a stop to this terrible trend?

The views here are solely those of the author, and may not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated

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Excellent piece, Chip... (4.00 / 3)
...Too bad this isn't on the NYTimes Op-Ed page. (As if...)

But please Mr. Blades, it can be the front page of the Kos.... (4.00 / 2)


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

[ Parent ]
Differentiating predominant strains of ugly rhetoric on the left and the right (4.00 / 2)
The issue of liberal/rightwing rhetoric was addressed by Dave Neiwert in The Eliminationists. How different?

The increasingly nasty tone of liberal rhetoric in recent years, especially on an interpersonal level, is also important to note. Some of the examples Malkin cites are ugly, indeed, as is some of the bile directed toward George W. Bush in recent years.

However, most of the examples Malkin and her fellow conservatives point to involve anger directed a specific person - most typically, George Bush or Dick Cheney - and often for reasons related to the loss of American and civilian lives in Iraq. Few of them are eliminationist - that is, most do not call for the suppression and eradication of an entire class of people. Rather, the hatred is focused on a handful of individuals.

In contrast, right-wing rhetoric has been explicitly eliminationist, calling for the infliction of harm on whole blocs of American citizens: liberals, gays and lesbians, Latinos, blacks, Jews, feminists, or whatever target group is the victim du jour of right-wing ire.

Again, these are predominant strains - wingers are certain capable of individual focus (Obama and Goerge Soros) and liberals are capable of eliminationist-leaning rhetoric (sweeping indictments of all 'elites' - though I'm risking false equivalency here because I've not heard anybody dogwhistling for violence against elites), but on balance Neiwert has got it right.

The MSM has tagged Independents the party of swing-voting 'centrism.' If Democrats no longer represent your liberal values, show America there is still a Left by registering for another left-aligned party.

This Reflects An Underlying Difference In Logic (4.00 / 1)
Conservatives tend to blame people for problems in the world--as typified by a few recent diaries I've done on conservatives' ideological approach to crime.  They see people as acting because of innate good or bad character.  Of course, the social science evidence of the past 50 years is overwhelming that situational factors are far more impactful than dispositional factors, so conservatives are (once again) wrong on the facts. Liberals tend to think more in terms of whole systems--character plays a role, of course, but so does the social situation.

So it only makes sense that conservatives would blame individuals and then readily generalize to all individuals who share certain characteristics: hence eliminationism.  And it only makes sense that liberals would tend to focus more precisely on the specific contexts--individuals and their surroundings--as well as the more general contexts that those specific contexts exemplified, reinforced or shaped.

There are many different cognitive factors that feed into this, but one that I've talked about a lot over the years is Kegan's levels of cognitive development.  The level 3 functioning of most conservative ideology actually devolves to level 2 under stress fairly easily--the level at which explanations in terms of "durable catagories" (such as "evildoers") come to the fore.  Liberals tending to function more on level 4 have a lot farther to fall before they reach the level where that sort of explanation appeals to them.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Once upon a time on the left... (4.00 / 1)
..there were the fantasies of Seeräuber Jenny, and the not-so-fantastical horrors of collectivization and the Cultural Revolution, not to mention legions of wannabe revolutionary elves like the Brigata Rossa, or our own Mark Rudd and Bernardine Dohrn.

Left, and right need considerable qualification, it seems to me, before they can be reliably plugged into formulas like Kegan's. In our present context, you're undoubtedly right, but....

[ Parent ]
100 Years Ago (0.00 / 0)
The world was full of blatantly anti-democratic elites.  The majority of European workers in many countries couldn't vote--even the males.  And the elites were A-OK with that.  So in that objective condition the idea of class war a a shooting affair was not just a wild-eyed delusion--especially when the capitalist alternative turned out to be that uber-slaughterhouse known as WWI.

The Weathermen were a tiny handful of backwards-looking romantics, who couldn't even capture the leadership of a badly crumbling SDS.  So, no, I don't think they're realistically comparable in any way.

But thanks for mentioning it, so I can say my piece.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Mmm.... (4.00 / 1)
How doesnullnullone tell the difference between a romantic and a member of the revolutionary vanguard? Objective conditions?

Well, maybe so. No, more than maybe so, but seems to me that in psychological terms, there's a continuum, and at some point the analysis which allows us to distinguish means and ends, the rational and the irrational, has an obligation to explain how it is that good and evil can spring from the same human sources, and can, in fact, be indistinguishable -- even if one believes in the justice of committing to this or that jihad.

When all is said and done, there is, it seems to me, equivalence of a kind in the extremes of human behavior, regardless of the of the justice of the causes which which give rise to them in particular instances.

[ Parent ]
Pretty Simple (4.00 / 1)
From one angle, at least:  When ultimate sources are realistically grounded, so that changed circumstances lead to changed conclusions, then there is sanity, even if people resort to terrible means.  Normal human sanity means, for example, that only something like 15% of soldiers fire their weapons at enemy combatants in battle, and that more than 90 days in combat & they start going crazy. It means that people feel remorse at killing another human being, even if it really is unavoidable to protect innocent life.  It means all manner of semi-equivalent things, that yes, we may be forced to do things that make us hate ourselves, but we do hate ourselves as a result, and must do some sort of penance in order to be able to live with ourselves.

So it is that a slave revolting, and fighting for their freedom, might legitimately have no question of the justice in killing to escape from slavery--and be perfectly justified in doing so.  And yet, still, feel some remorse, some regret that a child has lost a parent as a result. This is a state in which I might not want to advocate violence, but would find it impossible to morally justify standing in judgment of another.

Problems start, however, when we falsely imagine ourselves to be in such a situation, when we are actually safe in our little cocoons, merely imagining being there.  A small fraction of the millions who marched against the Vietnam War and for Civil Rights ended up pushing themselves over that edge.  In contrast, the Tea Parties as a whole live 10 feet over the edge.  Big difference.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Nihil obstat (4.00 / 1)
Yes, that's pretty much how I see it. And the corollary question, of course, is how the Tea Partyists or the Weather Underground, for that matter, come to see what they see when the rest of us see something else entirely. We're back where we started, almost as though we never left.

And no, it isn't simple -- at least the mechanisms involved aren't. But more about that later, right?

[ Parent ]
Enough navel gazing on the left: WE DIDN"T DO THIS (4.00 / 2)
How many left-wing shoot 'em ups were there in the Bush years????

How much violent revolutionary rhetoric was there in the Bush years???? If there was anything serious, it was certainly NEVER reported in the media, who fell totally in love with violence and hatred of the government once Obama was elected.

Is Alan Grayson saying, truthfully, that the Republican health care plan is to die early anything like Sharron Angle calling for 'second amendment remedies' if her candidates lose? Come on. I have never heard a single 'liberal' -- who after all are the ones trying to hang on to the idea of the LAW because it is the fact that we govern ourselves by making the laws we obey -- demand violent retribution for those who disagree.

Trying to make people critical of a president's values and his actions the equivalent of someone who deliberately sprays a crowded room with a Glock is completely ludicrous, especially one who tries to kill an elected representative at point blank range, and who kills a little girl, a congressional aide, and a federal judge in the process!

When I was growing up, no one in public life was permitted to speak so coarsely and in such an inflammatory manner as they are now. When the media started the romance with violence in the late 60s and 70s they did us  a great harm. They love the over the top violent incitements that the Tea Party and their horrifying town hall behavior brought us. (Had anyone ever heard of doing this before the Koch Brothers and Dick Armey loaded the 'guns' of the Tea Party with this idea?)

I am frustrated and angry (4.00 / 2)
Still every MSM report HAS to do the false equivalency game.  COWARDS.  F*cking cowards is what they are.
They compare Alan Grayson calling people on the right "taliban" to Palin putting crosshairs of a gunsight on a map, to saying "don't retreat, reload".  HUH?   They call a democrat shooting at a BILL, a piece of paper to candidates calling for "second amendment remedies"?  to saying "I want my constituents to be armed and dangerous?"  

What the hell is wrong with these people?  Oh yea they are owned by the corporations, those "people" who don't give a damn about justice, about morality.

I am so angry at how the cowards in the MSM are behaving I can barely speak rationally.  They need to be called on this.
And my hope is that guilt envelops Palin, Limbaugh, Angle, Bachmann, Beck and all their listeners and supporters. I hope the spirit of that innocent girl, her beautiful hopeful face haunts them all.

Well, in response to your incisive line, (4.00 / 2)
"what matters is that the scapegoats are wrongfully stereotyped as all sharing the same negative trait, or are singled out for blame while other major culprits are let off the hook,"

I would just say that occurs to me that the primary goal of this stoking of hate and anger is not strictly the physical elimination of someone like Giffords, although unquestionably the indifference towards the patently obvious potential for such acts is nothing short of sociopathic. I'm thinking, though, that the elimination of Giffords and co. is in a sense incidental, and the primary goal of the unrelenting stoking of anger by Beck, Palin, etc. is to obviate the rational, critical thought required for effective participation in the political process. Anger is a blinding emotion, and it's been shown again and again, in studies of its impacts on individual relationships, to void the possibilities for effective communication and exchange. And as you point out, there is a fundamental singularity to it- it's by its nature a wall from other people and from the collation of ideas.

So really the idea here, it seems to me, is to sweepingly eliminate the possibility of effective thought and reasoning and action in a wide range of people There really isn't that much interest in the lives of Giffords or any other target, per se, one way or another. Her death isn't in of itself terribly relevant to them. What is interesting them is stoking irrationality and inefficacy among a tremendously wide swathe of citizens, at all costs. They're fully aware of the potential violent consequences of their stoking of hatred, but in fact it isn't individual (horrific) action that's being sought here so much as individual inaction. At least in any remotely effective sense. Citizens are rendered unable, by their own relentlessly blinding, recurrent anger, to properly act with their own interests in mind. And that's what matters to the Palins, Becks, etc.


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