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Varieties of Hatred | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Varieties of Hatred

My new Think Again column is called “The Hate We Tolerate," and it’s here.

And I did this short piece for the Beast called “Was the Arizona Shooter an Anti-Semite?” and that’s here.

I had to cancel the West Coast Kabuki Democracy book tour, owing to the snow, and most of the media appearances have been cancelled or rescheduled owing to the events in Arizona, and so well, I dunno. But you can buy the book here. And there's an excerpt up from the media chapter on Dissent's website, here.

The Jewish film festival began at the Film Society at Lincoln Center yesterday. I went to the opening film, Mahler on the Couch, by Percy Adlon & Felix Adlon, about Gustav Mahler’s relationship with his tempestuous wife, Alma, and his consultations with Sigmund Freud on matters of creativity and passion. And this afternoon I’m seeing Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness by Joe Dorman who made the terrific Arguing the World.

The schedule is here.

Also, on February 10, 11, and 12, the Center for Public Scholarship at The New School presents the 23rd Social Research conference, on “The Body and the State: How the State Controls and Protects the Body.” It will bring together distinguished experts in many different fields to discuss the body as an international human rights arena in which many forces—religion, science, medicine, media, market—struggle for control over policies that regulate our bodies. Didier Fassin will deliver the keynote address on February 10. More information is available here.

Now here’s Reed:

Sticks and Glocks… 

Politics and sports have long shared a linguistic connection in our nation’s discourse. That our Presidential campaign season is also referred to as “the horserace” is therefore no surprise and that the Super Bowl also begat “Super Tuesday” is decidedly no coincidence. But, boiled down to its essence, the underlying rhetorical thread tying these two arenas together is really a penchant for analogies of another, more battle-scarred and bloodthirsty type. The answer to “War (What Is It Good For?)” frequently turns out to be “Metaphor!”

But our fondness for employing violent imagery and war-like connotations in our language appeared particularly unseemly—at least temporarily—after the attempted assassination of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the tragic murders of six of her constituents this past week in Tucson. As is commonly the case these days after such a momentous political event, comity was invoked, civility was championed, compromise was promised and handgun sales went through the roof. (I mean, seriously?!) Of course, at least one of the members of Congress not busy strapping on a Glock decided that perhaps it was a good time to consider “Security for me, but not for thee” legislation. And even Fox News President Roger Ailes advocated for taking a subdued and refreshingly honest approach to covering the fallout from the shooting: “I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually. You don’t have to do it with bombast. I hope the other side does that.” [italics mine] 

Though a part-time employee of Ailes’, Sarah Palin apparently didn’t get his "side's" message and, true to form, came out whinging when critics raised questions about her political action committee’s 2010 electoral targeting map, which had overlaid gunsights onto 20 Democratic Congressional districts, including Giffords's. Displaying their trademark tetchiness, she and other conservative supporters quickly deployed their aggrieved defense mechanisms:

First try: Why, they weren’t crosshairs at all! Really?

Then: “I hate violence.” Hmmmm.

Also: Everybody does it sometimes! Sadly true, but not really an excuse.

Finally, and bizarrely: By criticizing my rhetoric, the media is itself inciting hatred and violence, actions that are metaphorically equivalent to hundreds of years of horrific, Anti-Semitic lies. Wow.

In a contorted attempt at rhetorical jiujitsu, Palin (and others) are arguing that we should reserve the greatest opprobrium not for those who employ and abuse these violent metaphors but for those who question them. As part of their counter-attack, they intentionally conflate criticism with censorship and free speech with freedom from responsibility for one's choice of words and images.

Now, there is a contextual, free-speech defense for using violent, war-like imagery and language that, on one level, I do agree with (minus any egregious and inappropriate dashes of hyperbole added by Palin, of course). And to be fair, there has yet to be any specific evidence presented (and likely never will) that speaks to conservative talk radio, Fox News, Palin or any other Tea Party political figure prompting the deranged gunman to act as he did. So all the right’s talk of “reloading,” being “armed and dangerous,” “Second Amendment remedies” and so on, in the context of the Tucson shooting, could be easily defended as free from blame.

However, there is context and then there is context. This attempted political assassination didn’t occur in a vacuum. It took place in a country that, since the Supreme Court’s Heller ruling on gun rights two-and-a-half years ago, has seen more than 100 incidents involving right-wing calls for open insurrection if not outright violence and mass killing, according to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Placed within this larger context, it becomes completely reasonable to debate the effect all this loaded language emanating from one side of the political spectrum is having on our democracy’s broader political climate.

Unfortunately, this is not a new debate. Indeed, the American tradition of campaign mudslinging and political violence is as old as the Republic itself. Case in point, Alexander Hamilton, who in 1804 was famously gunned down in a duel by Aaron Burr, the sitting Vice President, after he supposedly slandered Burr at a political gathering in New York. Not to be outdone, President Jefferson, wary of Burr’s greater ambitions, later dropped him from the ticket and attacked his character with this devastating, violence-laden soundbite: “I never thought him an honest, frank-dealing man, but considered him as a crooked gun, or other perverted machine, whose aim or shot you could never be sure of.”

That’s why I’m skeptical of these appeals for “restoring civility” that pundits and politicians, including our President, trot out after these tragedies. It’s an easy, intellectual dodge, a way to avoid making hard decisions about what we value more in our democracy. It’s also why the nastiness and amped-up, violent rhetoric always returns, because it was ever thus.

Rather than empty platitudes and meaningless bipartisan Congressional resolutions, a better recourse to the tragedy in Tucson would be to commit to taking actual steps toward improving our political discourse. Since we can’t legislate the tenor of our political debate, we can at least mandate that we know as much as we can about who’s behind the voices. Forget civility, it’s this principle of transparency, which was seriously undermined a year ago by our conservative Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, that is in dire need of restoration in our democracy. After all, does anyone honestly believe that the Founders would have been satisfied with a national election where one-third of the spending by outside political advocacy groups—amounting to $132.5 million—involved organizations that don’t have to disclose their financial backers? (An amount that is sure to skyrocket in 2012 if left unchecked.) Although I’m not convinced legislation like the DISCLOSE Act ultimately goes far enough, I’d submit that it’s ability to rein in the growing influence of the unseen hand on our democracy would be a good first step and a positive way to honor Rep. Giffords’ ongoing struggle.

After all, when increasingly negative and incendiary claims can be outsourced to just a few anonymous donors who, in turn, are able to deluge the marketplace of ideas, our democracy becomes even more vulnerable to misinformation and manipulation, an ominous phenomenon this University of Maryland study found evidence of this past election. The price of speaking out is supposed to be free in our democracy, but when money increasingly equals speech the cost of doing nothing can grow unacceptably high. But in a nation that currently displays no willpower for reining in the physical tools used to perpetrate political violence, leveling the playing field in terms of knowing more about whose words may be fomenting it will have to suffice. 

The Mail

Bill Doyle
Valparaiso, IN

Hello Eric,

I was going to write to your blog about the good columns of late, and especially to share with you my affection for the late great Alan Sherman.  But then I woke up for the night shift to today's dreadful news from Tuscon. During the bizarre summer of automatic-weapons-at-public-gatherings, I sent you a comment about the dangers inherent in parading around with weapons in crowded places full of adults, children, vehicles, bicycles, etc.  I first saw it as a safety issue, since when you have weapons around you must assume that some day one of them will go off.  I also felt that this childish and dangerous behavior with weapons threatened the rights of everyone at such a gathering to peaceably assemble, and to meet with their representatives in a public space to redress their grievances.  Why should anyone have to feel even remotely in danger in order to exercise their First Amendment rights?  You might as well carry around cans of gasoline in a public venue as carry a weapon, and I stated then that these Second Amendment spectacles were in direct conflict with the primal American right of peaceful association and expression.

And now it has happened, and among the dead is a nine-year-old Girl who should never have experienced anything but curiosity, joy and satisfaction in exercising her rights as a citizen.  The new leadership in Washington has been talking a lot about the Constitution this week.  Well those killed and wounded today are guaranteed life and liberty by that Constitution, but those rights are deemed secondary to the Second Amendment (as interpreted by extremists).  And the wise command to promote the general welfare is a permanent underling to the dictates of property.

I have been around tough people my entire life, and I have been working since I was 16 in places that would have these Tea Partiers puking into their luch boxes, if they could carry one.  I am sick to death of fools who think that a weapon makes them tough, or a bankroll makes them wise.

A final irony, by Colonel Bateman's leave.  God speed to you and your Outfit Sir, and your last message was wise and heart breaking. My nephew and Godson ("The Sarge") has been serving his 2d tour in the Sangin region of Afghanistan (looking for IEDs).  He is close to his leave, and near a base where he could call my Sister today.  They spoke for ten minutes, and then she said he called right back and said, "Mom, turn on the TV!"  And that's how my Sis found out about Tuscon--from her Son, a soldier of the empire, calling from an outpost to report bad news from home.  God help our Republic.

Michael S. Haugen
New Richmond, WI

Dear Eric:

As a loyal reader of your blog and your contributions to The Nation, I want to thank you for providing me with a consistent source for thoughtful commentary and refreshingly clear writing. I don't read your stuff because I always agree with your analyses, rather, I read you because I trust you. Your intellectual honesty allows me to contemplate arguments which confront my own preconceptions but not always without a high level of exasperation...and such it is with your piece in "The Moment" about your getting hit by trucks going in both directions when writing or speaking about Israel and the Palestinians.

My level of exasperation approached "critical mass" when you described The Nation interns' inability to provide an answer to the question "what do you do now?". It would appear to me that the interns were questioning your criticism of The Nation for blaming Israel "...for every aspect of the conflict" and you answered them with a tangential question of: "Yes, but what do you do now?".  The Nation questions the powerful bully for abusing its weak neighbor and you want to answer with the question "yes, but what are you going to do about it?". That is exasperating to me.

I certainly understand or at least try to understand the difficulty American Jews have in  dealing with the problem of criticizing the government of Israel or some of its political factions without criticizing Israel's existence. In this case, however, the responsibility to criticize  Israel's behavior can not be avoided with the admonition of "a pox on both your houses".  In fact, the responsibility to criticize Israel's continued occupation of Palestine and the murder of Palestinians falls most heavily on American Jews.

So, if this old broken down, retired Norwegian American can figure this out, why can't you? Thank you for indulging my exasperation, I will continue to read with great interest the glimpses you give us into the soul of the American Jewish intellectual.

Ed Tracey
Lebanon, New Hampshire

Professor, a few years back (and in a different venue) you wrote of the classic material that Jorma Kaukonen performs (solo and with Hot Tuna) and wondered what all the fuss was about the Jefferson Airplane?

Besides the obvious answers - that it's unclear whether he'd have reunited with his childhood bandmate Jack Casady, nor certain that the two would have the opportunity to be signed by a major label (and thus come to our attention) - listening to the recent release of the final October 1966 performance with singer [Signe Anderson] reminded me of why that band mattered.

I know, I know: the pretense (especially after they hit stardom) could be annoying, and the morphing into Starship was literally that: veering off into space. Contrasted with the classic blues: it was very topical and not always enjoyable.

But at its best - and yes, when the Jorma/Jack faction was the feature of their songs - well, if you were to give "Volunteers" a listen, I think you'd say it holds up well (not to mention the fiery "Bless its Pointed Little Head" live album). Yet even in the more folk-rock (pre-Surrealistic Pillow) show on this new release: you hear the risk-taking that these two men specialized in ... that perhaps just doesn't lend itself to their vision of classic blues? I had forgotten about it, until this new disc came my way.

In the original "Rolling Stone Album Guide" the reviewer I liked the least was Paul Evans; he criticized groups such as the Moody Blues yet waxed as 'rap auteurs' the Beastie Boys (even indicating the album at which "they began playing their own instruments" ... good grief). But he did note one thing accurately: citing Jorma & Jack as "a ferocious guitarist, and the most dexterous US bassist" - yet adding one might not know that listening solely to Hot Tuna recordings.

I should probably add that this is more applicable to Jack than Jorma. It was said that in a Fillmore-era multi-band jam he could carry all of the other bassists; one reason why he was an early role model to me on that instrument. Alas, his 2003 solo album "Dream Factor" was a pleasant album yet - as the All-Music Guide's Hal Horowitz wrote - "those anticipating this legendary bass player's long-awaited solo debut to showcase his considerable instrumental abilities will likely be disappointed".

In sum: for all of the reasons stated, it was good for both men to have been a part of the Airplane and - despite its shortcomings - the best of the band's output merits its R&R Hall of Fame induction.

Steve Milligan
Colorado Springs CO

Doctor,

Having spent some time living and working in Denmark, I can vouch for the fact that it is a country that works very well, and yes, it is true:  the Danes are generally happy and very proud of their country.  It is also true that their system of taxation is  quite oppressive by our calculus.  If you buy a car, you will effectively buy it twice--the second time in taxes.  Nobody is particularly thrilled about paying so much, but I've yet to meet a Dane who doesn't think they get their money's worth.  Any politician (right or left) who suggested paring back the social safety net would not be elected dog catcher.

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