A national conversation about the national conversation is a very good idea, but we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t also include a lot of deep reckoning about exactly what the conversation is about. Lost in the discussion is the fact that when we are talking about government, we are talking about expanding or restricting the use of violence. Government embodies violence, and politics is the process of deciding how that violence is to be used.
George Washington said it well, and I paraphrase: government is not reason, eloquence, poetry, or beauty. It is force. Politics fills the air with violence, both real and threatened. It is what governments do. As Roderick Long points out, some of those decrying intemperate rhetoric want to restrict it by (non-ironically) threatening real, non-metaphorical violence against those who use unapproved metaphors and imagery.
Perhaps it would be useful to to include in the national conversation a few words about the propriety of jumping to hysterical conclusions in order to smear those who do not share your worldview and using this hysteria to seize further control over others’ lives, but hysteria sells. So does nostalgia: implicit in this discussion is the idea that there was once a golden age of rational, civil political discourse. As this spoof of the 1800 election shows, however, the classically-educated Founding Fathers were extremely adept at vicious, nasty smears.
Commentators’ responses to the tragic massacre in Tucson illustrate the crude tribalism of partisan politics. Partisans looking to score political points overlooked the fact that people have died and rushed to blame the shooting on the Tea Party. Even though there is no evidence that there is a link between the shootings and the Tea Party movement, Tea Party critics have clung to the notion that their posited connection between anti-government rhetoric and the shootings must be at least probable because after all, it is plausible. For the most part, they have succeeded in shifting the burden of proof in the public mind.
Others have pointed out that vitriolic, violent rhetoric is a multi-partisan indulgence (here are Jonathan S. Tobin, for example, and Nick Gillespie). Steve Horwitz and I have written a few times about the left’s unfortunate unwillingness to take the Tea Party seriously and attribute their discontent to something other than stupidity or false consciousness (1, 2, 3). Even though it is pretty clear that the shooter was not a Tea Party fanatic, it is becoming clear that some commentators are using the shooting as a pretext to further marginalize ideas with which they disagree.
A few months ago, I wrote that I’m a believer in non-violence. The political responses to the Tucson massacre reaffirm this. Even if the shooter were trying to advance a libertarian agenda (and it’s pretty clear that he wasn’t), his strategy would have backfired. As Glenn Greenwald and others have noted, politicians are reacting to the violence by rushing to see which rights they can use violence to restrict.
Calls to eliminate violent metaphors from our rhetoric are laudable. I propose that we go one better and try to eliminate actual violence, real and threatened, from our relations with one another. We began with Washington, so let’s end with him. In his 1796 farewell address, Washington is quoted as saying “[t]he Great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign Nations is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.” It’s wise advice regarding relations between countries. It is also wise advice regarding relations between individuals.
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Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and Assistant Professor of Economics at Samford University.
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