On Lone Wolves and Dissenters

Travis Bickle is Alive in the Minds of Many These Days. . .

Travis Bickle is everywhere these days. Or so it would seem.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich has apparently found a causal link between populist news commentary and violence in American society, as have many others in recent months:

WHEN a Fox News anchor, reacting to his own network’s surging e-mail traffic, warns urgently on-camera of a rise in hate-filled, “amped up” Americans who are “taking the extra step and getting the gun out,” maybe we should listen. He has better sources in that underground than most.  .  .We don’t know whether the tiny subset of domestic terrorists in this crowd is egged on by political or media demagogues — though we do tend to assume that foreign jihadists respond like Pavlov’s dogs to the words of their most fanatical leaders and polemicists. But well before the latest murderers struck — well before another “antigovernment” Obama hater went on a cop-killing rampage in Pittsburgh in April — there have been indications that this rage could spiral out of control.  .  .

What’s startling is the spillover of this poison into the conservative political establishment. Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan G.O.P. chairman who ran for the party’s national chairmanship this year, seriously suggested in April that Republicans should stop calling Obama a socialist because “it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.” Anuzis pushed “fascism” instead, because “everybody still thinks that’s a bad thing.”

This kind of rhetoric, with its pseudo-Scriptural call to action, is toxic. It is getting louder each day of the Obama presidency. No one, not even Fox News viewers, can say they weren’t warned.

Rich implies that media reports critical of the president and liberal (or statist) policies are contributing to the violent actions of murderers like those who killed the late-term abortion provider Dr George Tiller, and the Holocaust Museum Gunman (and it is really unfair to classify the latter as a right wing whacko, by the way, since he hated Fox News George W. Bush,  Jews, AND neoconservatives).  Rich and others like him are careful to sprinkle their reports with a few “right wings” and “conservatives” throughout their columns or broadcasts for good measure, too.

Amazingly, however, the republic survived two terms of President Bush and Vice President Cheney being the targets of intense media vitriol.

In 2004, the Washington Post (non-derisively, in a matter-of fact tone) reported on a recently published novel whose protagonist was plotting to kill the former President, in fact, a left-wing fantasy about as hate-filled as one can get.

Popular Democratic website Daily Kos’s posters and commenters frequently referred to the former President as “Chimpy McHitler”  or published screeds ticking  off the similarities between the two men. Somehow, despite the poor taste of the Daily Kos writers (and the uncharacteristic silence of the Times editorial page back then), we made it though the dark night.

Last year, in response to the previous administration’s efforts to get a bill passed establishing retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies, Keith Olbermann intoned elegantly,  “”If you believe in the seamless mutuality of government and big business — come out and say it!” he said. “There is a dictionary definition, one word that describes that toxic blend. You’re a fascist — get them to print you a t-shirt with “fascist” on it! What else is this but fascism?”

Nonetheless a scant few months later we had free elections and a peaceful transition of government. Somehow Olbermann’s rants did not lead to the collapse of western civilization, but now Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and anyone starkly critical of the current administration and its policies are going to lead the nation to ruin?

Hardly.

Millions of Americans did not vote for President Obama, and even among those who did, many staunchly oppose the recently passed stimulus plan, the nationalization of GM and Chrysler, the pending climate change legislation, and soon, a proposal for national(ized) health insurance. Count me among them, actually.

To equate legitimate criticism of the government as an enabler of horrific violence, criminality and murder is to de-legitimize dissent altogether. Martin Scorcese and Jodie Foster did not enable Reagan’s would be assassin three decades ago, and Fox News, while it may be lacking in restraint or good taste, is no more responsible for the crackpots who wreaked havoc on their communities in recent weeks than Taxi Driver was for John Hinckley’s irrational behavior.

Recently the President’s press Secretary, echoing a much criticized comment of one of his predecessors, stated that Americans need to be careful about what they say (at the time, Gibbs was cautioning against criticizing the President’s Supreme Court nominee); however, with the nation at war, the economy in recession, and deficits ballooning, is this the time to be judicious in speaking for or against the government and its policies? And if Mr. Rich and his ilk believe now is not the right time to speak out, when will the time ever be right?

Americans may not always be eloquent, or may not always exercise good taste, even those who do not work for Fox News. But they should always be unafraid to exercise their right to speak and be heard, and not fear being tarred in the increasingly irrelevant New York Times as enabling some nutjob’s fantasies.

For the record: I have watched Taxi Driver at least 20 times, and I am perfectly sane. Really. I even passed some government psych tests a few years back.  .  .

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One thought on “On Lone Wolves and Dissenters

  1. Exactly, and well-said. Clamping down on freedom of speech is so much more damaging and detrimental than allowing free speech and running the minute risk that someone, somewhere will actually seize on this as implicit permission to violate social and legal norms and commit heinous crimes.

    Free speech might on the off chance result in criticisms of the government and destabilise its rule, but that destabilisation is well deserved – for the incompetencies of the officials, their lack of foresight, their betrayal of trust and expectations that the public has in them. They should not expect that they could ever expect the rewards for doing something well without expecting the punishment for failing at something else.

    As you said, if not now, then when?

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