Yesterday, I wrote this post about how pointing a finger at Sarah Palin and her hunting-friendly rhetoric was idiotic and ignorant. Since then, I’ve received numerous comments that made me question whether my argument was complete.
I brought up the issue with an Italian small business owner who I happened to run into after reading all your comments. Here’s how it went:
“What do you think about Sarah Palin’s role in the Tucson shooting?” I asked. “I think that everyone should have a right to free speech, so what she said was okay. How about you?”
“At that level,” he told me, “you should know better than to say things like that.” Essentially, when you’re a leader and you know that people are hanging onto your every word, you have a moral and ethical responsibility to refrain from certain language.
“Not long ago in Italy,” he added, “we had someone on the media say that a certain journalist should have a stick taken to him. And what happened? A group of youths ganged up on the journalist with a baseball bat and other weapons and beat him up.” (This isn’t quoted verbatim, but you get the gist.)
Well, hell. The man had a point. In my previous post, I implicitly assumed that if we’re all just smart enough to not take Sarah Palin seriously, and not give her any credit, this thing will blow over.
“We’re all just smart enough” is a bad assumption to make. So let me revise my idea some and share where I stand now, thanks in no small part to your comments and feedback.
The Hitler Lesson
Someone once told me that when Hitler came to power in Germany, his lackeys made sure that every German family received a copy of his autobiography Mein Kampf. They delivered the copies personally, door to door. Most Germans stuck the book on a shelf and forgot about it. Why? Because things were going okay for them. The book was just an accessory. There was no point in reading or thinking too hard about it.
We all know what happened next.
The point is that when something extreme pokes its head over the horizon, you ignore it at your own peril.
I believe that my previous take on Sarah Palin was a little too close to shelving Mein Kampf and assuming everything would continue to be hunky dory on Planet America. So here’s my revision.
Fact: Sarah Palin is a person of power with fans who hang on to her every word.
Fact: Sarah Palin invokes language that could be construed as being violent. “They all say things that are vague enough that they can later deny them,” my Italian friend told me. “Reloading” and “targeting” apply. And, as Thomas Hobbes indicated, language precedes action in politics.
Fact: People in positions of authority have a moral responsibility to say things that are in the best interest of the greater good.
Fact: This rarely happens, because people in positions of authority love power.
Given this, how does a democratic society mitigate wingnuts when they start gaining enough traction to inspire violence? What is our check and balance on political ethics?
We used to have a law against extremist rhetoric in the media, but it was shot down years ago, giving rise to the likes of Glenn Beck. Reinstituting that law and putting legal limits on the kind of language people in a position of authority, as per a preset legal definition, can use, is one option. Instituting something like a Jedi Council on ethics is another, if more idealistic, option.
The Gut Level Security Blanket
I want to think that no matter who you are, you can say what you want. Because we live in a free country with free speech.
While that kind of blanket statement feels good and justified from a personal rights level, it doesn’t acknowledge the increased responsibility that has to come with leadership in a stable and functional society.
When I think about the kind of society where leaders are absolved of responsibility in the name of overarching concepts–of freedom, of gut-level rights–a complex and functional democracy, which by its very nature requires mature discussion, does not come to mind. The leader’s audience may feel morally justified, but because of the leader isn’t getting any kind of proper performance review, s/he can get away with all kinds of mischief.
My Revised Conclusions
a) Jared Loughner remains a rarity in that he took violent action against a particular group of people
b) There is, at time of writing, no direct link between Sarah Palin and his course of action
c) I maintain that smart people should not give finger-pointing myths more power than they deserve, but, since I have to admit that not everyone is smart:
d) Sarah Palin, and any politician or media authority, are leaders. As such, they need to be held accountable for the consequences of their rhetoric, no matter how vague the insinuations may sound to smart people. Because, dammit, we’re not all smart.
e) I currently am not aware of what the accountability structure is for such leaders, and how it is employed. Bottom line: If we want to be a functional democracy, we need to activate it.