Last week, when I logged onto Facebook, two stories were near the top of my feed.  The  first was about the plot of at least four U.S. soldiers who had plans to carry out acts of domestic terrorism, including assassination of President Obama, and who had killed a fellow soldier and his girlfriend in order to stop them from reporting the group’s intentions.  Their sated goal:  “To give America back to the people.”

The second story was a post by a friend, a Vietnam War veteran who writes beautifully about his journey through the world, still grappling with PTSD, still seeking peace.  He was very upset to have stumbled upon a grotesque, right-wing image, a variation on the famous Obama “Hope” poster depicting the president hanged in a noose with the word Hope changed to Rope.

I recognize with some amusement that some readers of my commentary will make the mistaken assumption that I am a right-wing conservative, which only underscores for this mostly liberal Democrat just how incoherent political dialogue has become.  When we speak in memes instead of nuance, and when all issues are associatively lumped together, our narrative becomes useless at best, and the raw ingredients for the ambitions of psychos at worst.

For the first podcast on this site, I had the pleasure of speaking to Christopher Dickey about journalism in the digital age, but Dickey is also an expert on extremism, terrorism, and counter-terrorism, having reported on these issues for thirty years.  In a discussion that didn’t make the cut for the podcast, Dickey described the three elements one always finds in the anarchist, extremist, or terrorist.  Neatly packaged into the acronym TNT, the components are Testosterone, Narrative, and Theater; and it is that middle component, narrative, that compels me to focus on many issues in the way I do.

Narrative, as Dickey defines it in this context is “one of oppression, some wrong that is being righted,” and after all, what politically or humanistically motivated citizen does not possess such a narrative?  Doctors Without Borders are righting a wrong, are they not?  But when that sensibility combines with stupidity (testosterone), and egomania (theater), it becomes a volatile mixture that I believe is actually fueled by even relatively innocuous anti-establishment rancor. For instance, what OWS and the Tea Party inadvertently have in common is a generalized agenda of tearing down institutions without envisioning new institutions in their place.  Our critical narrative has shifted so that bad or failed policies within our institutions are not the enemy, but the institutions themselves are.  And we all feed this narrative from our own political points of view, preaching to our own little choirs in cyberspace.

This excellent article in The Daily Beast suggests that the Fort Stewart F.E.A.R. plot is indicative of “rising domestic terrorism,” and the article explains how a DHS report on right-wing extremist organizations was criticized by conservative pundits (and John Boehner) as “an attempt to smear or criminalize right-wing free speech.”  There it is again — the First Amendment being used as an excuse to apply blunt thinking to a complex issue, to capitulate to the notion that we can’t possibly make a distinction between conservative ideas and violent extremists. And perhaps that’s because the narrative of the two is way too similar. I think it’s fair to say that if the voice of the contemporary right wing sounded like William F. Buckley instead of FOX News, these dumb soldiers would have been less likely to hear their misguided sentiments echoed in the mainstream.  That is not a cause and effect assertion. I don’t propose that FOX News causes these acts of violence any more than Marilyn Manson was responsible for Columbine; but the psychotic hears the coded messages he wants to hear; and there is no question that the conservative plank of “small government” has mutated into a more virulent strain of anti-government (often laced with racism).

But I don’t single out conservatives in dialing up the destructive rhetoric.  While liberals tend toward fewer violent metaphors, I do find parallel fear-mongering among my liberal friends. It’s hard to tell the difference, for instance, between liberals insisting earlier this year that the NDAA gives the feds the right to “assassinate citizens in the streets” and conservatives labeling HR347 an “anti-peaceable assembly bill.”  In these instances, everybody has a motive for writing a narrative of oppression, and that motive is often the aforementioned theater itself.  TV, radio, print, and web pundits need to make theater (and individuals want stuff to post on their walls). So everybody adds a little spectacle to otherwise mundane bits of legislation, and we’re off to the races.

I pick these two examples because the rhetoric from both the right and the left on each bill is completely interchangeable. It really doesn’t matter if it’s Glenn Beck or my liberal friends predicting Storm Troopers in the streets. Both are making theater, and I believe both are in some way feeding the very real paranoia of the next violent extremist.  And that brings me back to my underlying point regarding the lens I apply to the issues discussed here. When the narrative coming from opposing sides on a given subject begins to produce identical rhetoric, it’s probably a good sign that we’ve stopped discussing anything grounded in practical or humanistic reality.

© 2012 – 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • I agree with you that both the right and the left can be over-actively hyperbolic. I despise Michael Moore for this reason. He does damage to the causes I believe in by making them into ridiculous exaggerations. I agree with his thesis, yet roll my eyes at what he says. He’s an embarrassment to my politics.

    The crackpots and Chickens Little of the right, though, actually hold political office more often than those on the left — the result of the long demonization of the word “liberal” and its ideals. Socially conservative ideals are better protected by their religious affiliations.

    I, too, am mighty tired of people (or politicians) equating criticism with First Amendment violations. Surely this is just disingenuous deflection, no? Here’s the deal: you get to say whatever stupid or offensive thing you want. That’s your right. Now it’s my turn. I get to call you stupid or offensive. I get to tell you to shut up, write it on a sign, get together with millions of others who also believe you’re an idiot and make you feel like a first rate fool, so you never feel like saying it again. That’s MY right.

    If you feel shamed, or inconvenienced, or upset by my reply, I have not infringed on your First Amendment right. I just used to mine to point out you’re an ass (successfully, it would seem). I can prove it; watch: feel free to say that stupid sh*t again, ’cause I haven’t even started to unpack my adjectives.

    Some folks feel like their right to free speech entitles their speech to be right. We have become a country incapable of public debate. As citizens, we lack the knowledge, the attention span, and the will. Our debate has devolved to ad hominem deflections and exaggerated drama to the point where information simply doesn’t flow. A democracy always has the government it deserves, and America’s ignorance and apathy has gotten us this one.

    Which brings me to this question: If the problem is apathy among the electorate, to what extent is hyperbole a reasonable strategy for political rhetoric? Y’know, just to get ’em engaged….

    • Cat, thanks for commenting and for clarifying the proper plural of Chicken Little. It’s funny, but when I was reading about Dinesh D’Souza’s anti-Obama “documentary” that is currently making a box-office splash of itself, I realized that all of the criticisms I want to hurl at it would generally apply to Michael Moore’s work as well. Just because Moore happens to be a propagandist who is generally on my side of certain issues, makes him no less a propagandist. Hence, not only do I fault his voice in liberal politics but almost more personally, his affect on documentary filmmaking. It’s my belief that doc filmmakers should hold themselves to traditional journalistic standards, although I guess these days it’s enough to hope journalists hold themselves to journalistic standards.

      As I said in one of the essays around here somewhere, the First Amendment gives everyone the right to speak but in no way guarantees that everyone has something to say. Still, you ask a good question about hyperbole as strategy, and I can’t help but wonder cynically whether or not more apathy would be so bad. In other words, if we’ve achieved a Tower of Babel, it might be best if fewer people speak. I think the problem is that we’ve become detached from reality, and the reason for that is central to what I mean by an Illusion of More. More media platforms, channels, sites, etc. means more venues competing for our time and attention. This has led to segmentation, so we have conservative news, liberal news, news for cat people, news for people who bathe with rubber ducks, etc. — and then on social media we tend to preach to our own kind most of the time because we’re not “friends” with the other. This segmentation does lead to a kind of involvement, but I believe it also radicalizes and empowers the most unreasonable voices. And so much for discourse.

      Keep chiming in!


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