Streams

The Role of Rhetoric

Monday, January 10, 2011

James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, looks at the uses and possible consequences of inflammatory political demagoguery.  Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY 17) joins the discussion.

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Guests:

Eliot Engel and James Fallows

Comments [40]

Jock deCamp from Lower Hudson Valley

The only result that I have observed from this tragic event is additional virtrol dialog from both sides of the aisle, shameless political posturing and other forms of undignified behavior from the press.
It is time for every one to stand back and reflect on the fact that a true democracy is achievable only if we take responsibility for our own actions.

Jan. 11 2011 04:28 PM
ellen from NYC

To Mr. Bad and others who find the power of words less important than the violent actions we see around us in America, I urge them read any of the following: Marc Antony's famous "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech from "Julius Caesar," Knute Rockne's pep talks to his team, Adolph Hitler's speeches and most important of all, Gordon Allport's "On the Nature of Prejudice." No one having read even one of those would ever say " it is not our LANGUAGE but our DEEDS that are informing the actions of these lunatics." Language, rhetoric if you will, is the basis of most actions taken against a group other than your own. Anyone who's had the phrase: "the Jews killed Christ" screamed at them as a child knows how permeable the line between words and violent actions is. The violence we grow up with in our country is in every way a horrible influence. But to paraphrase Frost, if I had to choose between the power of words vs actions, whether on a TV screen or perpetrated by one's government, for their power to influence violence, I'll take words every time.

Jan. 10 2011 02:57 PM

Fallows is wrong about not objecting to the use of "socialism" by Republicans. To him, I assume socialism means the government ownership and control of production and distribution. Maybe even a broader definition of any government controll of industry or finance in some way (EPA, SEC) or government SOCIAL programs like SOCIAL security or food stamps.

But to the less knowledgeable, it's a buzzword meaning government "controlling your life" and "taking away your freedoms." Like with their "death panels". That is exactly why it has been thrown around by the right wing. Why does he think all those other terms (communist, fascist etc.) could be thrown around indiscriminately by the right - because teabagger types actually understand them? Ever hear of the Union of Soviet SOCIALIST Republics?

Jan. 10 2011 12:32 PM
amalgam from Manhattan by day, NJ by night

@ john from office and profwilliams from Montclair -

Fair enough on the rhetoric during the Bush years. Some major differences that YOU TWO are glossing over:

> No assassination attempts on public officials;

> Few (if any) statements by Democratic/liberal/left-wing POLITICIANS of violent solutions/overthrow of the Federal govt. - constant violence-inciting rhetoric by right-wingers, especially during the health care debate and the 2010 election season;

> No MAINSTREAM left-wing rhetoric/agenda/movements to "secede from the union," ala Texas, Alaska, South Carolina;

> No widespread, left-wing anti-govt. militias.

> No talk about and complete devotion to, ad nauseam, the Constitution as the sole source of governmental wisdom in a fundamentalist tradition. This is problematic since one can easily say that someone is crossing the Constitutional line when the complexity is much greater than that simplistic view, which has currently taken hold of strict Constitutionalists (politically fundamentalist) right-wingers.

Guess there are some pretty big differences between the equivalences of hate of the left during the Bush years and the right during the Obama years.

Jan. 10 2011 11:58 AM
Liz from Manhattan

I really hate it when politicians come on to speak about an emotional political issue and use the air time to promote themselves politically. I thought that Engel (sp?) just now spent too much time comparing himself to Giffords and lauding how brave he is. He even dropped his own name a few times. He stole our discussion time.

Jan. 10 2011 11:47 AM
Peter from Brooklyn

Gun control -- why is this not being discussed now?

The second amendment was written to maintain a "well-armed militia." It was not about some absurd "right" to own assault weapons.

Arizona has a self-described "gun culture," and the congresswoman herself owns several guns.

When will someone in Washington make the connection?

If someone wants to own a gun, let them serve in the military reserve. That means 2 weeks a year of basic training, and callup duty for all wars. THAT would be in the spirit of the 2nd ammendment. And perhaps, it would keep guns out of the crazies.

Jan. 10 2011 11:47 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

@ Hugh Sansom

Agreed, hypocrisy is too weak of a word. More like suicidal stupidity. Our government has effectively desensitized all of us to violence, especially the state sponsored kind, sometimes lunatics will feel empowered to act on their own, and why shouldn't they? Do they (the gov) need our consent to wage war against anyone they choose, do they need proof, even a sensible reason? Well than why should anyone else? We wage "war" against drug users, loose confederations of criminals called "terrorists", war is apparently our only approach to any problem in the good ole' USA. The definition of war has been deliberately changed by our government to accommodate their aims, aims only able to be accomplished by violence. In doing so they have sacrificed any moral legitimacy and signaled the same to any wacko who thinks he has to "change things". You reap what you sow.

Jan. 10 2011 11:44 AM
Liz from Manhattan

I really hate it when politicians come on to speak about an emotional political issue and use the air time to promote themselves politically. I thought that Engel (sp?) just now spent too much time comparing himself to Giffords and lauding how brave he is. He even dropped his own name a few times. He stole our discussion time.

Jan. 10 2011 11:39 AM
Dorothy from NYC

Here's an idea: Why don't we just stop selling guns to crazy people?

Jan. 10 2011 11:39 AM
Edward from NJ

@profwilliams/john from the office, the reason you remember the existence of the movie "The Assassination of GWB" is not that it was a box office hit but because there was widespread conservative outrage about it's existence. If someone had killed President Bush shortly after that movie was released, I'm sure it would have been heaped with blame.

Jan. 10 2011 11:35 AM
Hugh Sansom

Quite something to hear Eliot Engel talk about terrorism given his years of support for Israeli war crimes in Palestine, his support for American war crimes in Iraq.

The sheer hypocrisy of Americans on this is breathtaking.

Jan. 10 2011 11:34 AM
Henry from Katonah

About the caller who thinks congresspeople don't me people who disagree with them.
My former congressman , John Hall , 19th district , would only announce his appearences one day ahead of time. At his events, he would be rudely harrassed by right-wingers and be defended by most others.
At the time , I thought his practice was unnecessary, but now I have to wonder if the congressman's personal security was a consideration.

Jan. 10 2011 11:34 AM
Jeff from Brooklyn

If Sarah Palin's rhetoric shouldn't be interpreted as being "out-of-line", then why is her team deleting her tweets? What is really scary is going on her facebook page and seeing what some of her supporters are saying. If you keep refreshing, you can see what people are saying on both sides... prior to instant deletion.

Jan. 10 2011 11:33 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

To all the people complaining about "violent rhetoric":

What a red herring, it's just a transparent ploy to redirect attention from ourselves and our collective responsibility for the society we live in and for what our country is doing both within our borders and inside the borders of other lands. The average American taxpayer likes to point to all his "tough talk" or alternately "peace talk" as a way to take credit for the policies of any of the "elected" government which are obviously completely out of their control. This is a mass delusion which some people can laugh off but other people are profoundly disturbed by - when you combine a disturbed mind and a sick society you get these nut jobs who think they have to "take action". They are essentially children acting out what they see as legitimate use of force, mostly because our government no longer legitimizes the use of force, merely restating the fact of it as necessary - just like this guy.

Jan. 10 2011 11:30 AM
urbangranolagirl from Jersey City

You can't yell falsely yell "FIRE!" in a crowded theater. In the polarized political climate that exists, one might want think carefully about the impact of their words. I offer the following quote:

"The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."

--Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Schenck v. United States

Jan. 10 2011 11:28 AM
Fran from LES

Many on the left have been warning against this since the election. The media and outrageous right has blood on their hands.

This is terrorism fueled by vitriolic propaganda.

Jan. 10 2011 11:28 AM
CL from New York

In my opinion, this discussion about "tamping down" language is both silly and dangerous. The murders in Arizona are a direct result of lax gun control laws. There can be no disputing that. A previous guest (McCarthy) commented that denying mentally ill persons access to guns is not a solution because that is "not how are system works." The fact that our system "works" this way is precisely the problem. Another brilliant observation from one of our political "leaders."

Jan. 10 2011 11:24 AM
john from office

The difference is that the Crazy white guy kills because he is crazy. The Islamic zeolot , kills for his god. Both you cannot reason with.

Jan. 10 2011 11:23 AM
profwilliams from Montclair

"john from office" makes the point that liberals ALWAYS ignore- the heated rhetoric during the 8-years of Bush was hateful and over the top. Yet, Liberals never seemed to care (because they agreed with it?). The Bush assassination movie was never held up as a tool that a deranged person might use to commit a crime.

But Palin's map? THAT is a problem.

Jan. 10 2011 11:22 AM
a g from n j

to be young, gifted, white, and crazy.........
we better hear, what is behind so called crazy,or, we risk losing our country to anarchy and madness. it it horrible what happened. it is "crazy" to not look beyond the crazy.

Jan. 10 2011 11:19 AM
Hugh Sansom

James Fallows has _defended_ the most hate-filled speech of The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, so his ever-so-reasonable comments on hate speech doesn't ring honest or insightful.

Let's remember the Atlantic's record on Iraq -- appalling. Let's remember the Atlantic on the Israel lobby -- appalling.

James Fallows was an apologist for atrocity in both cases and others. He has no credibility at all.

Jan. 10 2011 11:19 AM
bob from huntington

regarding your mention of paul klugman's use of the phrase "eliminationist rhetoric,"
who was the pol in the last election who made reference to "second amendment solutions" to contentious issues?

Jan. 10 2011 11:19 AM

It appears that this guy was living at home. What kind of home was it and where are his parents? There will always be a lot of dangerous, irresponsible rhetoric around. Many of the politicians use it as well. The parents could have mediated this in the home or frankly, could have contributed to this guy's frame of mind. There has been a real lack of news regarding the suspect's parents and home life.

Jan. 10 2011 11:17 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

@ Bearded Coach Yoda from Murray Hill

"Meg Wheatley has spoken of our language being polluted by military-speak for years now since we went to 'war' in Iraq and how it introduces the acceptance of violence and inures us to it and its imagery."

Wow, talk about putting the cart before the horse - very, very dim. I would guess that the endless, unquestioned, illegal waging of war and state sponsored violence just MIGHT ACTUALLY BE WHAT IS "inuring" us to the pain and suffering of "others", rather than just the discussion of it? Eh? Maybe? .... Duuurrrr

Jan. 10 2011 11:17 AM

So if this guy turns out to be unbalanced does that let the right wing rhetoric machine off the hook? And then we go throught the usual hysteria about gun rights. And in the end, nothing changes. Very sad for our country.

Jan. 10 2011 11:16 AM

First they came for the abortion doctors, then they attacked a holocaust museum now they’ve started to killing democratically elected representatives.
What’s next? When will we wake up?

Jan. 10 2011 11:15 AM
sylvia from New Jersey

Language - verbal or symbolic - shapes reality.
What is the reality that rifle crosshairs and "Don't retreat, reload" shape? It does not sound like peaceful discourse to me.
As far as I am concerned, the language that has been used by politicians and pundits alike over the past three or four years has shaped a reality in politics that speaks to a lack of educated democratic understandings.
We are better than the realities that have been shaped by people who decide to use their popularity/power to further their own egos at the expense of the reality of a substantial, educated democracy.

Jan. 10 2011 11:15 AM
john from office

Words do matter, but they should matter no matter where they come from. Do you remember the play the assasination of George W. Bush, the left defended the play with great passion. Lets be fair in our condemnation.

Jan. 10 2011 11:15 AM
Mary Hunt from Peekskill

I felt the most telling comment came from the mother of the nine year old killed who clearly connected the death of her child to the general atmosphere of violence and intolerance in American culture.

Jan. 10 2011 11:15 AM
Bruce from New Jersey

I think that the right wink has sponsored the following violence:

o Assasination of Barnet Slepian

o Invasion of a Florida County Office during the 2000 recount

o Approval of Torture.

o The 2nd Amendment Solution of Sharon Angle

o Threats against Federal judges starting in the 1990's

o The militia movement

The republicans don't reject it and they benefit from it.

Jan. 10 2011 11:13 AM
Bearded Coach Yoda from Murray Hill

Words matter. Language matters. How we communicate matters. Meg Wheatley has spoken of our language being polluted by military-speak for years now since we went to 'war' in Iraq and how it introduces the acceptance of violence and inures us to it and its imagery. The political right employs terms of violence and weaponry and destruction of 'enemies' in wanton manner. Now it is clear a celebrated victim predicted the consequences of stirring these dangerous feelings with unbridled harmful speech. What is the difference in the Muslim Imams stirring hate and violence and our radio and TV personalities on the right doing so? They both manipulate language and twisted beliefs for their purpose.
I laud the Sheriff who spoke out, criticizing his own citizenry, and speaking to the rhetoric in the national and local media. Put a silencer on Palin.

Jan. 10 2011 11:11 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

How can any intelligent person possibly point to violent analogies (which permeate our culture, right down to our most benevolent impulses, i.e. war on poverty/cancer/etc) and not recognize that it is not our LANGUAGE but our DEEDS that are informing the actions of these lunatics. Our country is steeped in state sponsored violence, hostile to peace, hostile to equality, hostile to justice and ultimately hostile to the truth. This is a sick, belligerent culture with no hope or will to change track. This country is impervious to invasion by dint of two vast oceans, surrounded by eminently weak, friendly neighbors and with a nuclear insurance policy strong enough to annihilate any hostile foreign country, even one as large as China or Russia if they ever thought to challenge our sovereignty militarily and yet we spend more than the rest of the world COMBINED on our weapons and pet wars, waged against people with no governments or governments that never declared war on us all while speaking out both sides of our mouth about freedom and justice, while the House of Saud, Mubarak and scores of other friendly dictators and vicious regimes (columbia/isreal is a good example) enjoy our financial and military aid and good political relations. We are afflicted with the sickness of all stale empires, that we will finally turn on ourselves. Get used to this, it will be a fact of life until we reign in our endlessly bellicose way of life! A permanent state of war informs all of our thinking, you cannot ignore it, it finally overtakes the weak minded this is what happened here.

Jan. 10 2011 11:08 AM
a g from n j

so many people are tip-toeing around this event in arizona. i ask the following,if this guy had been part of a left of center enviro-terror group,would the media,center and right[where is the left,chris hedges and a few other brave lonely souls] have not jumped down this guy like it was nobodys business? in the end, it is about, whose corporate ox is being gored, isn't it? one mans evil, is another corporations crazy.

Jan. 10 2011 11:06 AM

is this the kind of 2nd amendment remedy to losing an election that some in the GOP wished for?

Jan. 10 2011 10:58 AM
Amy from Manhattan

CREDO Action, the activist arm of CREDO/Working Assets, the progressive phone/credit card co., has an online petition to Sarah Palin:

"Threats of violence have no place in our democracy. Renounce the use of
shooting images in political rhetoric immediately, and stop using your
platform to promote and validate violent calls to action on the right."

The petition is at http://act.credoaction.com/r/?r=6817&id=14885-71368-t00jcRx&t=31, & you can add your own message to it.

([Yes, I checked w/Brian's screener to make sure it was OK to post this.)

Jan. 10 2011 10:55 AM
Tara from NYC

I think the larger issue is access by average citizens to semi-automatic weapons. The person who shot congresswoman Gifford was deranged and would have found justification for his actions regardless of what others have said or not said. However, he should not have had the ability to obtain the type of weapon that by design is intended to kill as many human beings as quickly as possible!

Jan. 10 2011 10:39 AM
kali from nyc

previous caller was exactly right: all countries have nutsos and lunactics and mentally instable people, but, thanks to the right-wingers and gun fanatics in this country, they can very easily obtain lethal weapons.. this is simply not worthy of a democracy, a civizled country... wonder when Americans will wake up to this uniquely American collective madness and totally irrational policies toward guns...

Jan. 10 2011 10:29 AM
Burtnor from Manhattan

Let’s be clear. The problem is NOT political partisanship, but demonization of opponents, violent imagery, and a "climate of incitement." Candidates talk about “lock and load,” “don’t retreat, reload,” “second amendment remedies," “Democracy watered by the blood of patriots,” the government is “evil” and must be brought down. Gunsight crosshairs on political maps, ads featuring assault rifles -- all from the right.

Guns plus mental illness plus inflammatory, violent rhetoric = tragedy. Why must we assign blame to only one factor? We can and must address all three issues.

Jan. 10 2011 10:26 AM
NYC Librarian from NYC


To make sense of the issue of damaging political rhetoric, it's necessary to evaluate what had come from the right and from the left. This means getting away from the "false equality" which is going to say "sure, there is rhetoric like this on both sides".

Well, there is no doubt that there is rhetoric from the left which might be tasteless or stupid, like the casual use of "fascism" as a term of criticism - but any objective review of the use of violent and gun-related rhetoric will have to find that the right is where the problem is happening.

However, politics will probably prevent this obvious conclusion from being reached.

Jan. 10 2011 10:24 AM
NYC Librarian from NYC


To make sense of the issue of damaging political rhetoric, it's necessary to evaluate what had come from the right and from the left. This means getting away from the "false equality" which is going to say "sure, there is rhetoric like this on both sides".

Well, there is no doubt that there is rhetoric from the left which might be tasteless or stupid, like the casual use of "fascism" as a term of criticism - but any objective review of the use of violent and gun-related rhetoric will have to find that the right is where the problem is happening.

However, politics will probably prevent this obvious conclusion from being reached.

Jan. 10 2011 10:23 AM

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