Monday, June 01, 2009

Missing the Point

There was a time I had a great deal of sympathy for the Libertarians. Those days are waning.

It doesn't help when they trot out bits of flimsy argument like this article by Brendan O'Neill posted today on Reason Online.

In it, O'Neill criticizes what he sees as the unfair treatment of Bill O'Reilly and other right-wing talking heads who, he writes, have been implicated in the recent murder of George Tiller "in the kangaroo court of liberal opinion." O'Neill argues that, "rather than seeing this dreadful killing as the action of a probably crazed individual, too many liberal commentators are discussing it as the logical outcome of the "dangerous" words and images propagated by O'Reilly and others." O'Neill makes the case that this represents a liberal version of the "'"effects theory,' the idea that certain of speech are so irresponsible and inflammatory that they can easily provoke unhinged individuals to take unhinged actions." This serves, in O'Neill's view, to improperly shift responsibility for violence away from individuals who actually commit violent acts, where he believes it belongs, and onto individuals who, like O'Reilly have merely expressed their opinion on a controversial matter "vividly." Attempting to hold speakers, rather than actors, responsible is unacceptable to O'Neill as it blurs, "the distinction between words and actions" and, in his mind, threatens to create an environment of pervasive censorship. He writes,

To seek to restrict a broadcaster's speech on the basis that it might inflame viewers to do something awful is an insult to all of us, since we're treated as little more than dumb attack dogs that hear "orders" and then carry them out. And to seek to restrict speech on the basis that it might coax one or two unhinged loners to do something awful would be turn society into the equivalent of a lunatic asylum, where everyone watches their words and controls their tone of voice just in case they give a madman the wrong impression.

It is in his repeated invocation of that essential libertarian figure, the individual, that Mr. O'Neill misses the point.

Th danger is not that Bill O'Reilly's rhetoric will somehow turn otherwise safe individuals into killers through the sheer power of its language alone, as if by magic. Nor is it that we must restrict O'Reilly's language because it is dangerous if individual members of some class of people imagined as being especially susceptible to outside influence, like children or people suffering from mental illness, should happen to be exposed to it.

Rather, the problem is that Bill O'Reilly, and many of his fellow "mainstream" public opinion makers on the Right are part of a larger right-wing movement, one that includes violent, extremest elements. Glenn Greenwald and David Neiwart, among others, have done painstaking, remarkable work documenting this movement and how it functions. It is not that O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh et. al. are all part of some literal conspiracy along with men such as Scott Roeder (Dr. Tiller's assassin), or more organized violent elements of the right-wing such as the Militia movement, the Minutemen, or the Klu Klux Klan. Rather, "mainstream" right wing talk TV and talk radio cultivate a sense of shared cultural and social identity with these groups. By adopting the violent rhetoric of these groups, as O'Reilly did when he called Tiller a "Baby Killer" and ranted that the Democratic Governor of Kansas had "blood on her hands," these "mainstream" pundits become part of a larger social formation. They benefit from their participation, as extremists and their fellow travelers make lucrative and devoted fans for their programs. Extremist movements also benefit when national media figures like O'Reilly co-opt their ideas since they gain ideological cover for their positions, and access to huge national audiences.

To put it more briefly, it is not that Mr. O'Reilly's program is the equivalent of Grand Theft Auto, it is that his program is analogous to Radio Hutu.

Thus it is neither Scott Roeder, alleged murderer, nor Bill O'Reilly, public speaker, who are the whole story as individuals, though clearly the law will and should find Mr. Roeder legally accountable for his actions. Rather it is the ways in which the two of them are linked in a larger cultural formation. Doubtless Mr. O'Neill would find this entire line of argument ludicrous and distasteful. For him, the individual is the end all and be all of decision making and agency, whereas I believe human beings exist in cultures that fundamentally shape their actions and beliefs. I leave it to the reader to decide which of our models of human nature he or she finds more plausible.

I will, however, agree with O'Neill about this. O'Reilly should not be censored. Not because it would somehow be unethical, but because it would not work. Using the blunt instrument of the law to drive a movement like this underground without building a strong, broadly based coalition against it would simply leave it to fester, and return even more dangerous. Instead, what is crucial is to make ever more public the links Greenwald, Neiwert and others have found between "mainstream" right wing thought and racism, violence, and other broadly unappealing forms of action, to force those within the movement uncomfortable with murder and hate to reconsider their actions, and to galvanize public opinion against these hateful and ultimately self-defeating ideas.

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