The Becking of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 10:20:43 AM EST

From a moral viewpoint Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is the victim of demagogues such as Glenn Beck and his allies at Fox News and in the Tea Party Movement. This is not about legal liability but about moral culpability. This is about a nation that has lost its moral compass.

Some of us progressive writers have been warning about this dangerous trend for several years. This includes my colleagues Fred Clarkson, David Neiwert, Sara Robinson, John Amato, Adele Stan, and others. We blame right-wing demagogues like Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter and a culture that tolerates their vicious targeting of scapegoats.

Now the shootings have created a new word floating across cyberspace: “becking.” To be “becked” is to be held up as such an evil and destructive person that someone, somewhere, will interpret it as a call to eliminate that problem through violence.

I made similar assertions after the murder of Dr. Tiller in a post at Religion Dispatches, “Who Will Rid Me of This Troublesome Doctor?”: Bill O’Reilly, King Henry II, and George Tiller" Here is what I wrote then:

On the day Dr. Tiller died, May 31, 2009, Gabrielle Winant on Salon traced O’Reilly’s relentless campaign against the murdered doctor. Winant wrote that some of O’Reilly’s characterizations of Tiller replicated
“ancient conservative, paranoid stories: a decadent, permissive and callous elite tolerates moral monstrosities that every common-sense citizen just knows to be awful. Conspiring against our folk wisdom, O’Reilly says, the sophisticates have shielded Tiller from the appropriate, legal consequences for his deeds.”
So, concludes Winant: “O’Reilly didn’t tell anyone to do anything violent, but he did put Tiller in the public eye, and help make him the focus of a movement with a history of violence against exactly these kinds of targets.”

The analysts at Media Matters for America have been forcefully arguing the case against the “Emerging Culture of Paranoia” and the role of “Right-Wing Media” in fostering a toxic climate in which violence is more likely. Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert, who suggested after the Tiller murder that “O’Reilly and Fox News will have more right-wing vigilantism to explain,” selected some of O’Reilly’s most egregious statements demonizing Dr. Tiller.

The attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the killing and wounding of others was denounced by Pima County Arizona Sheriff Clarence Dupnik who said:

When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government...The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country is getting to be outrageous and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry....The vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business ... This has not become the nice United States that most of us grew up in.

Hannah Arendt described the process of demagoguery leading to violence as it occurs in totalitarian regimes ranging from Hitler to Stalin. The demagogue frames the target, but leaves off a direct call for violence. But the message is clear. Unstable people often act first. Political ideologues, however, can be mobilized as the process continues to act as a group. Sara Robinson and I have been tracking the number of political murders since the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Her article with the evidence is here.

The people who “becked” Rep. Gabrielle Giffords began with a premise of dualism or Manicheaism, and then constructed a frame that uses demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism to divide the world into a good ‘us’ and a bad ‘them’.

Scapegoating is built on top of this dualistic dichotomy Hannah Arendt discusses how totalitarian movements are built around a central fiction of a powerful conspiracy, (in the case of the Nazis, a conspiracy of Jews which dominates the world,) that requires a secretive counter-conspiracy be organized. Totalitarian groups organize the counter-conspiracy in a hierarchical manner which mimics the levels of membership and rituals of social and religious secret societies.

Arendt explains that average members of totalitarian movements need not believe all the statements made for public consumption, but they do believe “all the more fervently the standard cliches of ideological explanation.” If a lie is detected by the mass of people or even the average member, it is dismissed as having been a tactical necessity which only further proves the cunning and wisdom of the leader.

For the elite members, even the basic ideological explanations of the group are not necessarily believed, but are seen as “fabricated to answer a quest for truth” among the lower ranking followers. For the elite, facts are immaterial. Their loyalty is to the leader who embodies truth, and they require neither demonstration nor explanation of the leader's assertions:

Their superiority consists in their ability to dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose. In distinction to the mass membership which, for instance, needs some demonstration of the inferiority of the Jewish race before it can safely be asked to kill Jews, the elite formations understand that the statement, all Jews are inferior, means, all Jews should be killed.

Thus, if liberal Democrats are treasonous and evil, then they should be killed to save the nation.

Arendt argues, “an ideology which has to persuade and mobilize people cannot choose its victim arbitrarily.” So something is happening in a society where scapegoating is promoted by demagogues and adopted by a large mass of people, even when there are only a tiny number of persons in the scapegoated group. Scapegoated groups sometimes play some objective role in a real conflict, even when they are innocent of the irrational and fabricated charges used to demonise them. In our book Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, Matthew N. Lyons and I arrived at the following formula:

We use the term scapegoating to describe the social process whereby the hostility and grievances of an angry, frustrated group are directed away from the real causes of a social problem onto a target group demonized as malevolent wrongdoers. The scapegoat bears the blame, while the scapegoaters feel a sense of righteousness and increased unity. The social problem may be real or imaginary, the grievances legitimate or illegitimate, and members of the targeted group may be wholly innocent or partly culpable. What matters is that the scapegoats are wrongfully stereotyped as all sharing the same negative trait, or are singled out for blame while other major culprits are let off the hook.

Following the shooting of Rep. Giffords we once again heard calls for civility and pundits pointing out that hateful rhetoric is aimed at Republicans and conservatives by Democrats and their lefty allies. This is true, and I do object to liberals who hurl buckets of mud as we on the left are being buried in an avalanche of shit from right-wing demagogues with national television and radio programs, websites, and newspaper columns. The comparison is true in the manipulated facts yet false in the claim of equivalence.

Peter Daou writes about the bogus equivalency between right/left extremism in his post "Gabriel Giffords and the rightwing hate machine." The targeting of political scapegoats in our nation today is overwhelmingly coming from the Political Right. To claim otherwise is a lie easily debunked by even a modicum of research. A big lie.

Imagine we are living in the Weimar Regime and it is 1928. Noam Chomsky has observed that at this point Germany could have moved toward social progress or the Nazi nightmare. Let’s not wring our hands and use histrionic language about Fascism marching through the street. Chomsky was talking about that moment in a democratic society when decent people still have a chance to stop the descent into barbarism. If this is Weimar, then Fox News is playing the role of the Nazi propaganda organ Der Stürmer, and Glenn Beck is cast as either Joseph Geobbels or Julias Striecher.

This is a grotesque exaggeration you say? Clearly Fox News is not Der Stürmer and Beck is neither Goebels or Streicher. True enough. But do we wait in silence to see what happens next in this script?

The view of Streicher and Der Stürmer at the Nuremberg trials:

The crime of Streicher is that he made these crimes possible, which they would never have been had it not been for him and for those like him. Without Streicher and his propaganda, I.E " Der Stürmer", mass murderers such as Heydrich, Kaltenbrunner, Globocnik, Hoess, and even Himmler himself, would have had no one to do their dirty work for them.

In its extent Streicher's crime is probably greater and more far-reaching than that of any of the other defendants. The misery which they caused ceased with their capture.

In 1942 the students who formed the White Rose Society issued a series of pamphlets. Between 1928 and 1942 much had changed in Germany, and these students knew they faced death for their call to conscience. Here are some excerpts.

If at the start this cancerous growth in the nation was not particularly noticeable, it was only because there were still enough forces at work that operated for the good, so that it was kept under control. As it grew larger, however, and finally in an ultimate spurt of growth attained ruling power, the tumor broke open, as it were, and infected the whole body. The greater part of its former opponents went into hiding. The German intellectuals fled to their cellars, there, like plants struggling in the dark, away from light and sun, gradually to choke to death….

If everyone waits until the other [person] makes a start, the messengers of avenging Nemesis will come steadily closer; then even the last victim will have been cast senselessly into the maw of the insatiable demon.

We who must speak out are not faced with death here in our nation this week. We are faced with our visage in a moral mirror looking back at our conscience which is telling us that we must speak out against the crescendo of totalitarian demagoguery. We must oppose the becking of our society.

How many more must die before we wake up and put a stop to this terrible trend?

The views here are solely those of the author, and may not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated.

These are things that have happened to me, and almost all of my friends believe because of my speaking out.  Some of the people on this blog have seen the evidence of these (at least of the burned shop and the graffiti), and I can only say that my family has spoken of being pressured HARD to shut me up.  I've also been the subject of hostile preaching from at least a couple of the local megachurches.

Even my parents believe that I've suffered because I've spoken out against the dominionists and the direction in which this country is heading.

I think that for many of us, it is not that far to being a "facing death" type situation.  I think the "gunshot in the night" or the "firebomb in the night" may not be that far off.  I've limited my writing to this blog and a couple of other venues, because of the concerns of my friends and fear of the dominionists.

I expect it to get worse, MUCH worse.  I expect liberal churches to be attacked with even more frequency and violence (remember the UU church that was shot up), I expect even more vitriol and hatred spewed from the pulpits of the Religious Right.  I expect legal battles over the separation of church and state to become common, and the dominionists to start changing and using the laws to force their religion on the rest of us.

The increase in violations of the separation of church and state are already happening in this area, and the politicians are moving towards school vouchers and other dominionist goals.

When we call the dominionists for the evil they do, we are not throwing mud (even when we call them evil, because what they advocate and do IS evil).  I've only encountered on person (supposedly) on the left who advocated violence, and I suspect that person to be acting as an agent provocateur.  We KNOW the dominionists are teaching violence - remember the talk of the Phineas priesthood and "Jesus Camp with Guns"?  We're in a fight for our freedom and our lives, and it's being thrust on us by the dominionists/Religious Right/whatever you want to call them.  Sadly, their attitude makes the whole fight an "us vs them" situation.  There can be no compromise with someone who doesn't accept anything less than complete victory (and I would argue any compromise means we loose freedom anyway).

The only legitimate weapon we have is our voice, but it's not being heard.  Maybe this horrible episode will get people to start listening.  I hope so.  It's bad enough that what we've gone through happened (and I believe that even our economic situation is tied to my resistance against the dominionists), and I would hate to think that what we've gone through is for naught.

by ArchaeoBob on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:04:56 PM EST

I am not in a position that people would do this to me, but I share your concerns. BTW, I am not the first person to think so, but Rupert Murdoch appears to be playing the role of Alfred Hugenberg.

by khughes1963 on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:58:33 PM EST

On the news this evening, they had an interview with a politician who had a tea party logo on the wall who was decrying the language that brought about the shooting, followed by a video clip of a democrat (RIGHTLY) describing the Republican health plan as "Die quickly if you get sick" (or something like that).  The news service tied the two together in a single segment which I found very offensive.

They're blaming liberals already, and I expect the hateful rhetoric from the right will continue (while they blame the left).  They don't like us telling the truth about them!

Regarding the clip?  As someone who has experienced the reality of the medical system in this county as how it treats the poor - the characterization is 100% accurate.

by ArchaeoBob on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 09:23:35 PM EST

Which news?  Fox news?  Another network?  Local news on a station affiliated with some network?  If so, which one?

I am VERY sorry to hear about the harassment you've endured.  Thank you for keeping up the fight, in spite of it.

by Diane Vera on Mon Jan 10, 2011 at 12:16:49 AM EST

"Bay News 9"

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Jan 10, 2011 at 12:20:28 AM EST

And it can easily cross the line to incitement. That is the problem stopping it when it crosses that line. O'Reilly did but nothing happened to him did it? Beck all the time prefigures his enemies as evil incarnate and will stop at nothing to destroy our country. Even as he and his ilk support those like the Kock's who support him who want to bring down our secular Republic and replace it with a laissaze faire for all for corporations with a veneer of theocracy for the rest of us in our future. That must not happen. But we don't want to become our enemies to do it. We need to be better than them. We must not adopt their tactics for fighting fire with fire burns down everything, saving nothing. We are in a dilemma because they have the organization, funds, personnel and the ruthlessness we must not employ. What can we do?

by Nightgaunt on Mon Jan 10, 2011 at 12:42:20 AM EST
We speak out and stand up and do what we can. History records whether or not we prevailed; history judges whether or not we resisted.
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Mon Jan 10, 2011 at 09:35:05 AM EST
We need to speak out.  Walkaways NEED to tell their stories so people will learn how horrible those types of churches really are.  People with knowledge about church (and preacher) wrongdoing need to let others hear about it.  The only thing that will stop them is exposure and people learning what is really going on in this country.

However, sometimes the rules people apply make it more difficult.

I contacted the local paper about being able to post some of my letters to the editor as "anonymous" (because of the things that have happened).  They said that they would only publish letters as anonymous if there was a clear threat of violence or retaliation from the publication (such as whistleblowing).

They refuse to accept that speaking out against the dominionists DOES constitute a danger, even though I told them what had happened to us.  In fact, they suggested I write a letter about how it feels to be harmed because of exercising freedom of speech.

I might still do that, because of the attempted murder of representative Giffords and the murder of Judge Roll.  However, I am uncomfortable because I know the dominionists would probably retaliate, and I think we've been put through enough already.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Jan 10, 2011 at 11:32:00 AM EST

Right-wing demagogues may be skirting the law on incitement of hate crimes, but they have no constitutional right to be unopposed. Given their murderous intent, the worst response is appeasement, such as when Obama selected Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inaugural. The next worse is overreaction, such as when AG Reno stormed Waco. Perhaps this massacre will help reorient AG Holder. Maybe he can even see the irony in the Justice Department focus on harassing peace activists while allowing a culture of violence to go unrestrained. Then again, like his boss, he probably views Quakers as more of a threat to America than Christian Patriots.

by Jay Taber on Mon Jan 10, 2011 at 12:56:23 PM EST

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