Joanna Weiss

It’s not the violence; it’s the insurrection

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / January 11, 2011

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PERHAPS WE really have seen the end of the gun metaphor in political life — or, at least, between now and the next election cycle. Maybe, in the wake of the shooting in Tucson, no one will put target symbols on congressional maps anymore, or talk about “reloading’’ after political defeat. Maybe talk show hosts will try to sound more peaceable; Keith Olbermann has even apologized again for saying, in 2008, that someone might have to “take [Hillary Clinton] into a room and only he comes out.’’

It’s all very nice, this pacifist talk, but it’s also completely meaningless. Sane people understand that a gun sight on a map is a metaphor (and not a “surveyor symbol,’’ as Sarah Palin’s spokeswoman tried to argue last weekend). Sane people use “crosshairs’’ in conversation without thinking it’s a call to arms. The main thing we seem to know about Jared Loughner, the suspected Arizona shooter, is that he isn’t sane, and from what we know, he was less interested in Glenn Beck than “Mein Kampf.’’

But if people are going to take this opportunity to soul-search, they might as well talk about the real problem with today’s political discourse: not the language of violence, but the language of insurrection. The notion, perpetrated by certain talk-show hosts, that we’re teetering on the edge of a coup. That our president wasn’t born in America. That an incremental change in the way health care is delivered — the wisdom of which is open to legitimate debate — is a plot to deprive Americans of their freedom.

“To prepare soldiers to go to war, you’ve got to dehumanize the enemy, because that’s the only way to kill people,’’ notes Leonard Steinhorn, a communications professor at American University. “What we’re in the process of is either dehumanizing or de-Americanizing one’s opponents.’’

American political rhetoric has never been gentle, and as everyone from Jon Stewart to Rush Limbaugh has pointed out, plenty of ugliness comes from both sides. But it’s hard to deny a recent ratcheting-up of fear — whether you think it’s because demagogues do well in stressful economic times or because there’s a black man with a Muslim-sounding middle name in the White House or because there’s so much money to be made in talk radio and 24-hour news.

The sad thing is that the purveyors of today’s conspiracy theories — the successful, rich, influential ones, at least — are smart enough to know what’s real and what isn’t. Beck and Limbaugh are performers, and if they believe a third of what they say on the air, I’d be shocked. Their goal isn’t to advance political ideas; it’s to maximize ratings, sell books, stay in the forefront of the public conversation.

And they understand that fearmongering gets better ratings than measured debate. CNN is already thinking of booting Kathleen Parker from the ratings-challenged talk show “Parker Spitzer,’’ another sign that the network’s strategy of forging a calm middle ground is failing in the marketplace.

In all likelihood, her replacement will be someone more headline-grabbing and headache-inducing — however much the general public says it’s fed up with angry talk. Maybe politicians, who have to appeal to a broad audience, will find themselves under pressure to tone down the rhetoric in the next year or two. But the talking heads have no such incentive. Their responsibility is to the bottom line.

So the conversation on right-wing talk radio yesterday was little surprise. Limbaugh warned that liberals would use the Arizona shootings as an excuse to “take take away as many political freedoms as they can manage.’’ Beck warned Sarah Palin to get protection for her family — because “an attempt on you could bring the Republic down.’’

Then he launched into one of his trademark paranoid reveries, musing about what might happen in the aftermath of the shootings: “One side will kill and then the other side will have to pay back, and before you know it, everyone is killing and not sure why anymore . . . The question is, how many believe the worst can already happen?’’

Just enough, it seems, to make Glenn Beck a star. Which makes it highly unlikely that anything will change.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at