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In Blaming Sarah Palin, We Give Our Violent Culture a Pass

4 years ago
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The late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously preached that culture is more important than politics. He was talking about the success of a society, but I can't help but think that the aphorism is especially apropos now.

We are a culture that fetishizes violence. Look anywhere, and you'll see it. It's in our language, our sports, our entertainment, and yes, our political rhetoric.

And it's probably true that -- as many have recently speculated -- violence-laced rhetoric or images might be enough to inspire someone who is already mentally unstable to act out.

The underlying violent culture is, I think, much more important than our political rhetoric. (Yes, some would argue that politics is just a reflection of the culture, but Moynihan saw a separation, and I agree.)

Yet it is ironic that the same people who typically mock the notion that violent movies, music or video games could influence behavior seem to think a former governor of Alaska's PAC could do so.

So far, of course, there is zero evidence to suggest that Jared Loughner -- the man charged with shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others -- ever saw Palin's now-notorious map, or was, in any way, influenced by her. (That didn't stop some, seeking to score cheap political points, from immediately blaming her.) Moreover, there is (as of now) no evidence that anybody's political rhetoric triggered this horrific attack.

Still, the finger-pointing has fueled a hot topic: examining how heated political rhetoric might have caused this tragedy.

While such rhetoric may be a problem, the alternative is arguably worse. What is the opposite of heated political rhetoric? Political apathy -- or, on the extreme end of the spectrum, censoring political speech.

Political speech is, and ought to remain, the most protected speech (that's part of the reason I would say this shooting was an attack on democracy itself).

And speaking of censorship, while our nation debates whether to blame Sarah Palin for something she had no connection to or responsibility for -- there once was a time when it was clear that pop culture actually did lead to an assassination attempt on a U.S. president.

John Hinckley
, of course, was inspired by Travis Bickle -- the title character in the 1976 movie "Taxi Driver" who tried to kill the president. Hoping to impress Jodie Foster (who was featured in the movie), the deranged Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan in 1981. But I don't recall political pundits blaming Robert De Niro (who played Bickle) or Martin Scorsese (the director) or Foster. (I'm sure some cultural conservatives did blame them, but the media did not.)

(While I oppose censorship, responsible adults -- movie and music producers, and yes, politicians -- should police themselves and, for the good of America, tone down the violence. Ultimately, it comes down to this: Do you want your life's work to be a force for good or evil in the world?)

In the end, though, I believe in personal responsibility. Blaming the political milieu -- or "Hollywood" (or whatever) -- does not absolve the one man who was allegedly responsible for the heinous act in Tucson. But when we're searching for a reason to explain such madness, I would argue that culture, is, in fact, more important than politics.
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36 Comments

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Tom'bing

I'm not attacking any one here no more than talk show host's today go on rampage attacking every one and every thing their ego minds's conjure. I like the truth and I believe the truth is Limbough and Palin are two political goof's who neither one put's their mind into gear before they speak. Any thing talk show hosts, not leaving out the Media can conjure that is sensational reading, truth, or fiction, fill's bank account's. They aren't selling truth, nor moral's, they're selling sensational new's. and damn the effect it has on the general public. So lately, we're seeing some very ill effects the wrong new's has on the public in violent behavior and outright mayhem in scattered instances !...

January 11 2011 at 1:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rlgoff

excellent article, Matt. this takes a legitimate, logical approach to the influence of society on behavior and attitudes. the same people who want to silence limbaugh, palin, beck, etc., should also be screaming to end the violence from Hollywood's movies and rap music...

January 11 2011 at 12:07 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
gglhill

The U.S. Secret Service disagrees with your theory. Sarah Palin blamed by the US Secret Service over death threats against Barack Obama http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/sarah-palin/3405336/Sarah-Palin-blamed-by-the-US-Secret-Service-for-death-threats-against-Barack-Obama.html The attacks provoked a near lynch mob atmosphere at her rallies, with supporters yelling "terrorist" and "kill him" until the McCain campaign ordered her to tone down the rhetoric.

January 10 2011 at 2:24 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
breezy62253

Too many have ratcheted up the vitriolic rhetoric lately and they ALL need to be reflecting on what part their actions may have in this event in order to prevent another. Everyone has a responsibility along with their right to free speech. We have our own who are too willing to "take up the cause" believing it gets them their ultimate reward or glorification same as a suicide bomber. There's plenty of room for free speech without inciting or encouraging violence.

January 10 2011 at 11:54 AM Report abuse +13 rate up rate down Reply
kmartkmart

If we're going to censor anyone, let's make sure we're consistent and censor everyone equally. If we're going to inhibit anyone's speech, let's make sure we're consistent and inhibit everyone's equally. If we are going to promote liberty, let's make sure we're consistent and promote it equally.

January 10 2011 at 11:38 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
whiteraain

It's not about absolving the killer or censoring politicians; the author is creating a straw man argument. Palin's violent rhetoric is a manifestation of our violent culture. So when people call her out for inciting hateful acts, it's the same as putting our culture to task for its hateful and violent tendencies. No one's getting a pass. It's about understanding how culture influences killers, and how we may work to stop things like this from happening in the future.

January 10 2011 at 11:05 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
brianfejer

The U.S. Secret Service disagrees with your theory.

Sarah Palin blamed by the US Secret Service over death threats against Barack Obama
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/sarah-palin/3405336/Sarah-Palin-blamed-by-the-US-Secret-Service-for-death-threats-against-Barack-Obama.html
The attacks provoked a near lynch mob atmosphere at her rallies, with supporters yelling "terrorist" and "kill him" until the McCain campaign ordered her to tone down the rhetoric.

January 10 2011 at 10:22 AM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply
klovepr

It's refreshing to see the voice of reason here instead of blind political rhetoric. When I first saw the comments blaming Palin and politics, my immediate thought was that the problem is MUCH more closely linked to the everyday violence we are exposed to in the media. Kids in particular are bombarded with Hollywood stereotypes that glorify violence (think Rambo), and video games are rife with weapons.

January 10 2011 at 10:02 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
Welcome Mr. Robb

Each one of us is a part of the culture and the culture represents us all. If our individual contibution to [politcal] culture is a violent one then we are actively contributing to the violence in our said culture. Conclusion: Sarah Palin is responsible in-part to what happened to Gabrielle Giffords!

January 10 2011 at 9:52 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
elkhartbiker

Congratulations to Matt Lewis for his sensible analysis of this tragic incident. Violence has been in our DNA since day One. Should we do everything possible to control it? Of course. That's what civilized society's do. But to blame the actions of a nut job on a political thought is ludicrous.

January 10 2011 at 9:37 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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