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Stephen Eric Bronner: "More pernicious is their integration not only of the Tea Party but those even further to the right. The approving winks that the Republican leadership casts at those whose resentment against 'the system' - or, better, progressives within the system - is impossible to ignore. Their irresponsibility is all the worse given the way in which resentment is now reaching a boiling point."

A child is fitted for a new Klan robe, 12/10/09. (photo: Anthony Karen)
A child is fitted for a new Klan robe, 12/10/09. (photo: Anthony Karen)



A Shameful Inheritance:
On the History of Political Violence in America

By Stephen Eric Bronner, Reader Supported News

20 January 11


Reader Supported News | Perspective


Petition: Congressional Action on Political Violence Advocacy


uch has already been written about the crazed gunman with anti-government views, Jared Loughner, whose attack in Tucson left 6 dead including Federal Court Judge John Roll, and 19 wounded including moderate Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Judge Roll was an opponent of conservative anti-immigrant policies and Rep. Giffords had voted for healthcare. That was apparently enough to induce payback. Right-wing media pundits were quick to note that this was an isolated incident. As usual, however, they made little reference to context: Arizona was the last state to treat the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a holiday; its most important national politicians have been Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Senator John McCain, who served as arch-conservative presidential candidates for the Republican Party in 1964 and 2008; and its anti-immigration, anti-welfare and anti-union policies are notorious nation-wide. Arizona symbolizes the conservative mainstream that has been contaminated by the far right. Its politics also are heir to a long-standing reactionary tradition that is blossoming once more in the United States.

Establishmentarian thinking lies to present the United States as a non-ideological, pragmatic, society. Sometimes driven to the left, other times to the right, it always ultimately reaffirms its reliance on what the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger termed the "vital center." Nothing could be further from the truth. Ideological divisions have always run deep - very deep - in the United States. Racist, anti-government and anti-union violence have either together or in combination been part of the country since its founding. Religious intolerance and genocidal eradication of Native Americans preceded slavery. Abolishing slavery required a civil war, the bloodiest of all our wars, which began with the Confederate attack in 1861 upon the federal government armory at Fort Sumter South in South Carolina. Organized terror maintained Jim Crow until people of color gained the vote in 1964 (!). Pitched battles between companies and unions, meanwhile, dotted the twentieth century, while the civil rights and poor people's movements were confronted with violence from their inception. Then, too, there is the tradition of political violence abroad that reaches back over Afghanistan and Iraq to El Salvador and Vietnam, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Philippines, the Spanish-American War of 1898, and the Monroe Doctrine of 1812 that justified countless US interventions in Latin America. For many, however, this is too abstract. Better to make political violence more "human" by fastening on the political assassinations of major figures like King and the Kennedys - and the attempted assassinations of Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

Not all of this can be blamed on the political right - but most of it can. The culture of political violence is part of the culture of America, and it has been poor people and people of color who have paid the highest price: notable is the extent to which the African-American community - the principal target of violence - has turned its back on political violence. Poverty is less the cause of political violence than the existential despair of those threatened by the most progressive tenets and possibilities of modernity. There is a reason why political violence has primarily (if not exclusively) flourished in the more traditional non-urban parts of the country like the South and the Midwest. What Richard Hofstadter once called the "paranoid style" has usually been directed against advocates of cosmopolitan values, democratic reform, and social equality. Liberals, socialists, free thinkers and - of course - intellectuals, are still seen as enemies of the "real" America: or, better, an imagined community composed of small towns whose citizens are white, straight, virtuous, friendly and - of course - Christian. That paranoid style has been expressed by the "know-nothings" of the 1840s, the Ku Klux Klan, the "America Firsters" who often preferred Hitler to Roosevelt, the partisans of Joseph McCarthy, as well as the "silent" majority of the 1960s and the "moral" majority of the 1980s. The paranoid style has been unrelenting in its appeal. It took hold once again with the anti-Muslim rhetoric that initially followed 9/11, simmered during the two terms of President George W. Bush, and then exploded with the right-wing populist upsurge that produced the new cult surrounding former Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin (who put Congresswoman Giffords in the crosshairs of a rifle sight on her Facebook page), a host of wildly successful hate-filled and neo-fascist media commentators of whom Glenn Beck and Michael Savage are only the crudest, and - of course - the Tea Party. The media fascists defend their racism in the name of civil liberties, which they always seek to deny their opponents, even as they call for "revolution" - though, naturally, always a revolution that will leave their own privileges intact. Explicit calls for violence by the political mainstream of the Republican Party are rare. More pernicious is their integration not only of the Tea Party, but those even further to the right. The approving winks that the Republican leadership casts at those whose resentment against "the system" - or, better, progressives within the system - is impossible to ignore. Their irresponsibility is all the worse given the way in which resentment is now reaching a boiling point.

Centrist Democrats have not been as hard on those legitimating the far right as they should have been. Reactionaries were undoubtedly emboldened by their politics of consensus and compromise that have come under withering attack from the radical left. Blaming these centrist-liberals for the current cultural state of the nation, however, is as misguided as blaming Social Democrats rather than Nazis for the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Communists in 1928 termed them "twin brothers." Trotsky responded if there are two enemies, one with a knife and one with a gun, then first take out the guy with the gun. There is something to be learned here. Critique of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party is warranted on a number of grounds. But there is also the need for a broad form of solidarity. Not all those who oppose a more radical commitment to the poor and working people are the same. The proper tone - or progressive style - that expresses critical solidarity is necessary for dealing with Obama. Politics calls for setting priorities. It also calls for drawing distinctions not only between political policies, but cultural styles and values. There has been too much, if not sympathy, then, "understanding" for right-wing rage by elements of the left. Violence against doctors performing abortions, against homosexuals, against minorities, and now against liberal politicians has become a fact of life. Too often, it goes unreported. Such violence must be understood in conjunction with ever more acceptable anti-immigrant, racist and homophobic rhetoric. Neo-fascist ranting about alien, socialist and communist infiltration has also so deeply insinuated itself into our cultural and political life that one would need to be a fool to ignore it. Paranoia has become almost acceptable. Death threats have proliferated against leading left-wing intellectuals like Frances Fox Piven, Cornel West and others. There is too much talk of "understanding" the rage on the right by elements of the radical left. It would be nice if the political and media representatives of the political right evinced a bit of responsibility with respect to the rhetoric that they employ. It also would be nice if those on the far left emerged from the cloudy twilight in which all cats are gray. Until that happens, however, it is time to withdraw that fashionable sympathy and understanding from the proponents of what is actually an old-fashioned paranoid and provincial reaction. Even more contempt, however, should be shown to the hypocritical establishment of the Republican Party. The influence of their words on the violence of our time may be indirect: but it is undeniable. There is such a thing as indirect influence. What one reaps is, indeed, what one sows. The real enemy of liberty, civility and democracy is never hard to find.


Stephen Eric Bronner is the Senior Editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture as well as Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Director of Global Relations at the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution and Human Rights at Rutgers University. He is a Contributing Editor for Una Citta.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

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