There’s been a great deal of commentary about the attempted assassination of Congresswaman Gabrielle Giffords and the deadly rampage that followed, with some eager to pin blame on pugnacious conservative rhetoric, and others denying the link.
At The New Republic David Rieff offers a sharply worded intervention. “There is really no doubt that the apocalyptic rhetoric that is the common currency of the Becks, Palins, Limbaughs, and worse has the potential to make unstable people murderous.”
Perhaps. But I find myself thinking that the pervasive violence on movies, TV, and in computer games offers a far more likely source. We live in an era in which fantasies of death and destruction are commonplace in mainstream forms of entertainment. Quentin Tarantino’s movies traffic in highly eroticized images of violence that make the rhetoric of conservative talk radio seem positively bland.
That said, I’m not happy about the verbal violence of political discourse. We are social animals with social instincts, and we take pleasure in the excitation of those instincts, as Goebbels and Hitler knew so well. I remember listening to Michael Savage a few years ago, thinking that he has mastered the art of providing his listeners with the political equivalent of pornography.
Political pornography is not limited to the Right. The Left does not rely as much on the pleasures that come from feeling one’s anger stimulated and affirmed. Instead, the preferring feeling is one of superior disdain, which explains part of the appeal of Colbert, Jon Stewart, and a certain senator from Minnesota. This sentiment of disdain, which is pleasurable to feel because it gives encourages a sense of justified dominance, probably does not encourage violence, but it does contribute to the tendency of people on the Left to dismiss and ignore their fellow citizens.
The man who killed in Tucson (whose name I’m determined not to remember) seems to have been mentally ill. It’s probably unwise, therefore, to draw general conclusions from his murderous actions. In fact, his mental instability tempts me to point out that the Left has generated rhetoric that has underwritten all sorts of violence perpetrated by seemingly sane people who style themselves “revolutionaries.” But I’ll leave that aside.
More germane, I think, is the general way in which the rise of political pornography on the Left and Right (motivated by the fact that, like erotic pornography, it sells) tends to make public life crude and ugly.