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When Radicalized Political Rhetoric and Anti-Intellectualism Meet

Anthony Samad: Free speech is one thing. Symbolic speech is covered by the First Amendment, but don’t say your coded messages don’t have anything to do with violent consequences.

A chilling silence is taking place around the mass shooting tragedy that occurred at an Arizona Congresswoman’s constituent town hall rally in Tucson. Six people died and 14 others were wounded in what appears to be a random shooting by a mentally unstable student. Everyone is searching for motives and looking for answers. Some want to say it is Arizona’s pervasive “gun culture,” but Arizona’s gun-mania is no more pervasive than in Texas, or California, or New York, or Tennessee -- places where other high profile shootings (killings) of political figures have taken place.

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Others want to say America is just a less tolerant, more violent culture now that the video game generation has come of age. There might be some truth to that. But some have also pointed to the extreme political discourse that took place during the health care and mid-term election debates. American political discourse has gotten more than disagreeable. It has gotten downright uncivil. The same kind of incivility that brings about civil war, ten-year massive resistance movements, and even racially charged “days of optimism,” as some now call the Reagan Revolution. This may be a significant clue as to what happened, and one we need to highlight as an emerging issue in our highly conflictive society. The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others is an example of what can happen when radical rhetoric meets anti-intellectualism.

The “uncivil discourse” has gone beyond the “I don’t like you, you don’t like me - let��s agree to disagree” dialogue that takes place in the civil debate of issues. The radicalization of political opposition has taken such an ugly turn that no healing takes place after the election is over. The Republican Party, and its Tea Party offshoot, took a “don’t retreat, reload” mantra into the post 2008 election era that was branded with “get your gun and rebel” rhetoric. Before President Obama took the oath of office, the fourth quarter of 2008 was in near depression, except for gun and ammo sales that were at a ten-year high, driven by the “Obama is going to take our guns” rhetoric.

Former Vice Presidential Candidate, Sarah Palin, decided to resign from office and continue her “pop culture” persona, branding herself as a rifle-toting, moose-shooting “hockey Mom” who has more social dysfunction going on in her family than any you’d find in any urban city in America. She literally is a walking reality show. Sarah Palin has replaced George W. Bush as the quintessential anti-intellectual in our less-than-intellectual society.

You have to admit that a society whose high school graduation rates are challenged by its dropout rates isn’t exactly prone to being considered one of higher thinking, in advancing the best interests of the total society. Yet, Palin’s dumbed-down radical rhetoric resonated with large anti-intellectual segments of the Midwest and Southern parts of the country that did not vote blue in the last election, for racial reasons, not acknowledged, but clearly in evidence.

Hard economic times make us all susceptible to scape-goating. Thus was born the Tea Party Movement, the latest iteration of “States Rights” movements that pop up every 50 years or so. Both major parties have acknowledged that Tea Partiers are a “rag tag” group of political extremists, ideologues and fringe element activists, and yet Republican wannabes for President in 2012 have made Tea Party events a “must stop” on their campaign routes. Protest for the sake of protest only because progress has advanced for the sake of progress. Palin is their poster girl. This time, Palin’s “tough talk” has created a situation that we all know isn’t totally faultless in the Tucson tragedy when you consider that Giffords was on a Palin “hit list.”

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Last March, the Tea Party began publicizing that it would be seeking to “take out” Democrats who voted for Health Care reform in conservative states, Palin, telling tea partiers, “don’t retreat, reload.” Palin posted on her website a “hit list” of 20 Democrats targeted for defeat in November. Giffords was #4 on her list. Each “target” has a crosshairs symbol on their face. A crosshair symbol is a gun or rifle scope. It implies someone has a gun on them. Symbolism communicates non-verbal language. When combined with incendiary language, an anti-intellectual zealot could interpret the language and symbolism to mean more than just putting someone out of office.

Giffords was successful in retaining her seat but received threats. Palin denies having anything to do with inciting the shooting and stated that this is nothing more that liberal media spin.

Oh really? American history is fraught with violent acts that were precipitated by hateful, radicalized rhetoric. Coincidentally, the crosshairs target map on Palin’s website has been taken down. Republican ideologues like Rush Limbaugh are putting their relativist spin on it, but the bottom line is that political disagreement shouldn’t be infused by radical symbolisms of violence. America had a problem when the Panthers did it. The Panthers may have espoused “kill whitey” but none of them ever shot a congress person. The rhetoric was dangerous during a dangerous time in America, when America was killing black political leaders. What is the Tea Party’s rhetorical rationale? They have none, beyond ideological extremism.

Free speech is one thing. Symbolic speech is covered by the First Amendment, but don’t say your coded messages don’t have anything to do with violence consequences. Many times they do, when people think they’re doing the will of mass sentiment. Defending oneself is one thing; using guns to assault others is another.

Anthony Samad

In this instance, the gun symbolism and the “gun talk,” when combined with an anti-intellectual following, certainly can’t be ignored as a possible cause.

>Anthony Samad

Republished with permission from The Black Commentator