Sunday, January 9, 2011

Extremism at Fever Pitch (Let's Tone Down the Rhetoric)


By now, nearly everyone in America has heard of the tragic shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords by 22-year-old Jared Loughner at a busy grocery store in Tucson, Arizona where the Congresswoman was meeting with constituents.

Loughner also murdered six others and wounded fourteen more, including Federal Judge John Roll and a 9-year-old girl. The search continues for a second man who may have aided Loughner.

Nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who was born on Sept. 11, 2001, had just received her first Holy Communion at St. Odilia's Catholic Church in Tucson, Catholic Diocese of Tucson officials told The Arizona Daily Star. The Arizona Republic reported that Christina had just been elected to student council at her school.

Giffords remains in critical condition and we certainly hope that she pulls through and makes a full recovery. Sadly, the innocent people that Loughner killed do not have that possibility.

Motive - A Second Civil War?

It goes without saying that this shooting is a terrible tragedy that could not have come at a worse time in our politically polarized culture.

Details have emerged that Loughner has had behavioral issues and encounters with the law before. Most likely, he suffers from a form(s) of mental illness and we don't knew yet whether he was ever diagnosed with a mental disorder and/or received treatment. More will obviously come out in the weeks and months ahead. Although an unstable mental condition may indeed predisposed Loughner to violence, what was it that motivated him to act against U.S. Rep Giffords?

For now, we don't know exactly why Loughner targeted Giffords, but what is disturbing is that Loughner had posted several anti-government statements to his Facebook page, including this one:

"I know who's listening: Government Officials, and the People. Nearly all the people, who don't know this accurate information of a new currency, aren't aware of mind control and brainwash methods. If I have my civil rights, then this message wouldn't have happen (sic)."
It may be that Loughner, like other like-minded extremists, believe that a violent act against the government by their hand will precipitate a second civil war between conservative so-called "patriots" and the federal government (including anyone who disagrees with them). This was the motivation of Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols when they detonated a huge bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, killing 168 innocent people, including 19 children under the age of six.

Other self-described "patriots" and Christian warrior types inspired by the notion they are living in the End Times seem more prepared than ever to precipitate the conditions they believe are necessary for the Second Coming (The Family - Pursuing God's Will or their political will?). Instead of working to bring about the change they wish to see through peaceful means, the answer of patriots and Christian warriors is vitriol, threats and sometimes violence. When our culture was more civil, we could dismiss those at the polar extremes of political thought as outliers and not be taken seriously. However, decades of divisive rhetoric has dug a trench so deep between Americans that we can no longer brush aside the extremists or ignore the impact of those who create a tone and culture that encourages them.

Tone Down the Blowtorches

There's a groundswell of dissatisfaction among both the right and the left in America, but instead of building bridges those with the ears of millions of listeners leverage that dissatisfaction to further anger and inflame passions. Why? Because it is an effective way to build and grow an audience for generating greater advertising revenues.

For example, in just the past few months I have anecdotally heard callers on talk radio shows in Denver say that we need a "revolution" to stop "them" from hurting "us." On the Peter Boyles show on 630 KHOW one morning approximately three months ago a caller was lamenting the passage of the healthcare bill and was afraid that the country will keep going down the current path until "blood is spilled." Separately, on the Mario Solis-Marich show on 760 AM in Denver, a caller called upon Solis-Marich to lead the revolution against the right! Solis-Marich was intelligent enough not to indulge the caller, but the point is that "extreme" on the right and left poles is becoming the new normal.

The talk show and cable news blowtorches on the right will, and should, be scrutinized for the style and ferocity of their anti-government tirades. Extremist language and ascribing ill intentions to political opponents with honest differences has become routine on both the right and the left, but the far-right has taken special aim at Democrats in the most virulent way.

Don't believe it? Then watch the America Rising ad that become a viral Internet sensation among the right-wing during the recent mid-term elections. The ad is incendiary in labeling Democrat politicians as communists, using the imagery of the Soviet Union to cast Democrat politicians as Marxists, which is simply not true if one knows anything about the Bolshevik Revolution.

Far-right extremism during the mid-term elections reached absurd levels. For example, Tennessee Congressman Zach Wamp, a Republican, called for the secession of the state he represents from the United States because of the new healthcare law. As reported by CNN, Wamp said:

"I hope that the American people will go to the ballot box in 2010 and 2012 so that states are not forced to consider separation from this government."
Extreme rhetoric and the use of war analogies has now entered into the otherwise clear-headed, analytical world of business. In a televised town hall meeting with president Obama the interviewer quoted Steve Schwarzman, co-founder of Blackstone Group, one of the largest private-equity firms in the world, when describing his firm's struggle with the administration over increasing taxes on investment firms like his said:

“It’s a war. It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”

No, it isn't. Tax policy is nothing like war at all. A proposal to raise taxes on carried interest is in fact nothing remotely similiar to an armed invasion by a nationalist army who have come to physically murder, rape and oppress their neighbors. Taxes on carried interest is absolutely the farthest thing away from violent combat, especially in a system where the checks and balances of the separation of powers continue to work (albeit imperfectly and not always timely).

Popularizing war analogies further divides and polarizes Americans. The extreme rhetoric emboldens people not just to stand up and voice their opinion, but it encourages and validates language and opinions that are at a minimum disrespectful ("Your President is a Dirtbag") and at the worst, divisive and even seditious.

The call to arms from right-wing talk radio, cable news and rich Wall Street CEOs has pulled Americans apart at exactly the wrong time. These communications leaders have a moral responsibility to use their influence, wealth and position to solve problems - not divide and conquer.

Political commentators, entertainers and politicians alike have done enough to poison our culture. Kindly take a deep breath, turn off your ideological blowtorches and tone it down.

Common Sense, Common Ground

True patriots love their country AND their countrymen. Responsible communicators need to begin working as hard to find common ground between Americans has they have to sow the seeds of division. Instead of casting their countrymen in the image of history's worst villains, extremists on the right and the left must publicly recognize that in a free-market society and economy, policy differences can exist that do not make their opponents evil or ill-intentioned.

Rebuilding a culture of achievement can't be done when Americans are continually classified, labeled and categorized into "us" and "them." Political commentators, business people, politicians and others continue to describe opposing non-violent proposals, views and actions as assaults and attacks in an ideological "war" on whatever it is they happen to be in favor of.

The only solution that those at the polar extremes have is to name-call and impose their wills upon each other. That is not possible, nor is it right.

Here's a quick and easy way to make things more civil - bring God into the room with you. When I was a kid, I always spoke differently when my parents were around than when alone with my friends. To achieve our national aspirations, we must go about arguing and debating in a different way - one that respects civility and our inherent divinity as children of God. Elevating our discourse to solve problems at the levels of values, principles and spirituality really can change the way we talk. If we knew that our Father was in the room, on stage or beside the microphone with us as we spoke and debated with each other, then perhaps we would speak in different and more inclusive tones.


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