Obama and Palin: Opposing Anthropologies

Two speeches given the same day in response to the shootings in Tucson; one, by all accounts, brilliant, Presidential, conciliatory, the other, by most accounts, petty, small minded and self-serving. And I don’t find too much to object to in President Obama’s platitudinous remarks. But, in each speech there is a certain logical tension worth exploring. Obama says, in the line that has probably received the most attention:

“And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.”

A more civil and honest discourse—either civility and honesty are complementary (if not synonymous) or we would have to choose one over the other, in some cases. The context makes it clear, I think, that Obama would prefer civility, or a particular understanding of civility, over honesty:

“we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American Dream to future generations.”

So, questions about others’ patriotism are declared out of bounds, even if we honestly come by them. Widening our circle of concern is to be preferred over, say clarifying and performing more diligently our existing duties and obligations, even if we honestly believe that too many people have widened their circle of concern so as to infringe upon others’ rights to determine the boundaries of their own “circle.” We are to “expand our moral imaginations” and “sharpen our instincts for empathy,” even if we think it’s enough to be moral, love our friends and families, and follow, intelligently, the rules of a spontaneous market order.

President Obama wants to tell us how to think, feel, and act—we must “thrive together,” as the t-shirt distributed at the speech he gave exhorts. Sarah Palin, meanwhile, unequivocally chooses honesty over civility: “Public discourse and debate isn’t a sign of crisis, but of our enduring strength. It is part of why America is exceptional”:

“No one should be deterred from speaking up and speaking out in peaceful dissent, and we certainly must not be deterred by those who embrace evil and call it good. And we will not be stopped from celebrating the greatness of our country and our foundational freedoms by those who mock its greatness by being intolerant of differing opinion and seeking to muzzle dissent with shrill cries of imagined insults.”

This is an extremely defiant repudiation (or “refudiation,” if we like) of the entire left wing argument regarding the sources of violence such as we saw in Tucson, an argument affirmed in general by Obama even if he rejected, at least implicitly, the more obscene particulars that have dominated the media. Obama wants more speech rules, more guardrails; Palin wants more arguments, more debates, more primaries. Her only rule for “civility” is the founding liberal one: “we must condemn violence if our Republic is to endure.”

There are opposing anthropologies here. For Obama, speech and violence lie in a continuum, and only carefully composed and tightly monitored speech can be removed from a vicious circle of speech in which marking others in virtually any way intiates the descent into scapegoating itself. “Civility” is the name of the process by which elites do the monitoring. For Palin, speech, vigorous, unregulated, “passionate” speech, unafraid of being “mocked” by the guardians of “civility,” is the antidote to violence. Indeed, it may be that the more the speech draws upon metaphors from violence, the more it models the transcendence of violence: “As I said while campaigning for others last March in Arizona during a very heated primary race, ‘We know violence isn’t the answer. When we ‘take up our arms’, we’re talking about our vote’.”

Palin’s speech reaches its logical paradox in its reference to the assault or, as she says, “blood libel” directed against her:

“Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election…But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.”

Well now, how, one might ask, can Palin say that acts of violence begin and end in themselves while, in the very next breath, accusing her opponents of inciting violence? The answer may lie in some implicit distinction between “monstrous” and more “ordinary” forms of criminality, in which case Palin is making a very local point about this particular incident, not about the relation between words and deeds more generally. But that wouldn’t be very helpful—would she then be saying that the Left’s argument about uncivil discourse might hold in other cases? It may be that Palin doesn’t yet have a way of talking about what is central to the kinds of verbal attacks directed most recently against her, but which we can easily recognize as those of White Guilt. Palin, for the Left, represents all that is unmarked in American society—she must be marked. Her argumentative strategy is to recognize this marking, but doing so in the same terms her opponents are using leaves her open to the charge that she also sees “incivility” as a “danger,” and in that case is not better than the Left insofar as she defines “incivility” as partisan attacks against her. Why isn’t blaming the shootings in Tucson on Palin just as “metaphorical” and therefore harmless as asserting that you want citizens to be “armed and dangerous” when they confront their elected officials with facts and arguments? Why isn’t it even beneficial, and to be celebrated as any other discourse driven by what Palin calls our “imperfect passions”? In other words, Palin seems to be tempted (as I think she has at other times) to play along with the Left’s massive inflation of the notion of “incitement” (along with “defamation” and other once strictly legal terms) which has culminated in contemporary hate speech laws.

At this point, the only answer is to look at her much criticized use of the term “blood libel,” and realize that we have a simple question of fact here. Was it a blood libel, or not? If she was accused of having innocent blood on her hands, then there’s the line at which discourse threatens to pass over into violence, because accusing someone of thereby stepping outside of the boundaries of legality and non-violence does lead to the conclusion that only answering the guilty in kind can restore those boundaries. Scapegoating should not be criminalized, but it is wrong; and, Palin would implicitly be asserting, we can recognize it if we are being “honest” (although perhaps not if we are merely worried about being “civil”). Is someone really dishonest enough to say that calling Obama a “socialist,” or that the health care law is “job-killing,” or even questioning Obama’s place of birth or religion, does the same—that is, accuse him of having innocent blood on his hands? I’m sure the answer is “yes”—and that’s a good starting point for vigorous debate that would still eschew the “dueling pistols” Palin refers to in mocking the nostalgia for more civil days. In fact, focusing arguments on what counts as scapegoating, and striving for a minimal account of the same, would provide for an ongoing inquiry into and performance of, “imperfect passion.”

Addendum, 1/15

It seems to me the concluding argument here can be clarified by applying the distinction between metaphor and reference to political discourse.  Whatever plausibility the argument against “heated” rhetoric has derives from the sense that violent metaphors (shooting, killing, targeting, blowing up, attacking, etc., etc.) in political speech have some correlation and, therefore, at least possible causal relationship to actual violence.  I can make my position simpler by saying, as I think is already implicit in my post, that I believe there is no such correlation, much less causation:  zero.  In fact, as I suggested as well, it is more likely that, as I think Palin implies, the relation can be reversed:  the transformation of words denoting violence into metaphors referring to political competition defers political violence, by making the political arena a richer and freer “combat zone.”  That is, you don’t need to step outside of it in order to express your “imperfect passions.” 

In that case, to return to the example I conclude with, the difference between holding Palin responsible for murder, and calling Obama a Muslim, is that the former makes a referential claim, one which could presumably be proven or disproved evidentially or through a demonstrable causal chain; the latter, meanwhile, as a question of faith and therefore, in American public discourse, an inherently “internal” and private issue, is subject to neither proof nor disproof.  Therefore, however vicious the intention behind the claim, however much an attempt to make Obama appear the usurping alien, the claim that Obama is a Muslim functions more as a metaphor than an accusation.  The only thing that would change if one were to make the metaphorical dimension explicit and say, for example, “it’s like we had a Muslim President,” or, as Rush Limbaugh already does, calling him “Imam Obama,” would be a loss of the sense that he is concealing his true faith.  But, while I am no expert in “Obama is a Muslim” political culture, it seems to me that this element, the years long deception which would have to be involved, and which would make Obama’s Muslimness truly scandalous, never seems to be the emphasis.  This is why the “charge” against Obama is subject to ideological revision in a way that the charge against Palin isn’t—one could say, how great it is that we have our first “Muslim President” (just as Clinton was our first “black President”) in a way that one could never say, “it’s great that Palin is a murderer.” (Indeed, other than of dishonesty, of what, exactly, would one be “accusing” Obama the Muslim of?)  So, aside from the extremely relevant fact that no major media outlet or elected official has made this claim (unlike the blood libel on Palin), the respective allegations are qualitatively different from one another.  Even if Obama were a Muslim, or if he really wasn’t born in the U.S., the proper response would still be voting him out of office or, at most, impeaching him; if Palin has been inciting murder, and in a way that makes her untouchable legally, the commensurate responses are very different.

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