Saturday, November 18, 2006

Personal irresponsibility

Well, we've been waiting awhile, but Michelle Malkin has finally weighed in on the matter of the Freeper fan turned domestic terrorist who sent anthrax hoax letters to a bevy of Malkin's favorite liberal targets.

Malkin put up a nonsequitur of a post at her blog, but the meat of her response is contained in one of her Hot Air segments in which, among other things, she proclaims: "I do not condone violence. I have never condoned violence." (Really? What exactly do you call invading Iraq, killing thousands of Iraqi civilians in the process?)

The essence of her argument, though, lies in comparing Chad Castagana, her ardent admirer, to would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley Jr., and herself to Jodie Foster, who you may recall was the object of Hinkley's affections:
I have no idea who this loon is. I do not condone his actions or any actions like his by anyone else.

Uh. Michelle. No one said you did. But as for what you call Keith Olbermann's "flying leap of logic" in making the connection between your rhetoric and Castagana's actions, you continue thus:
It's no different than the hero worship that John Hinkley had for Jodie Foster. It's no less absurd to attribute Castagana's actions to Ann or Laura Ingraham or me than it is to attribute Hinkley's to Jodie Foster.

No, Michelle, what's absurd is you comparing yourself to Jodie Foster.

Or, maybe I'm mistaken. Maybe, somewhere that I hadn't read, Jodie Foster spent several years before the assassination attempt on Reagan demonizing Reagan and other conservatives in the press as the essence of evil itself, and wishing someone would shut him up.

Maybe Foster spent five years before the attempt publicly fomenting hatred of Reagan, labeling him a treasonous bastard and the root of all the nation's ills, and we somehow just didn't hear about it.

Maybe I missed the part where she wished aloud that someone would commit an act of domestic terrorism against him.

Or maybe it was in one of those unpublished scripts for Taxi Driver. Who knows?

What we do know is that, unlike Jodie Foster, the Termagant Triumvirate of Malkin, Coulter and Ingraham have done precisely that for the past five years and longer. Their entire raison d'etre, it seems, has revolved around pushing eliminationist rhetoric aimed at liberals.

And that reason, and no other, is why the domestic terrorism committed by Chad Castagana is connected to them.

As I've said repeatedly, this is not necessarily a matter of legal culpability, because there is no direct connection between their words and Castagana's acts. But because there is a clear, common-sensical connection -- that is, he heard the hatemongering and constant demonization of liberals and rather plainly decided to act upon it -- there is also a rather clear moral culpability on their parts.

When you're in media work -- and especially when you have a nationally prominent platform -- you not only have freedom, you have responsibility. And chief among those responsiblities is not to abuse your power in a way that harms your fellow citizens or inspires others to harm them:
You can use your megaphone to lie shamelessly. You can use it to smear the good name of public officials. You can use it to rewrite history. And you can use it to intimidate the "little people" who don't possess the same kind of power.

Because these potential abuses exist, a sense of ethics is obligatory for anyone who possesses this power. It's why the Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics that abjures such behavior.

Violating the Code won't get you fired per se, but it certainly brings into question your professionalism and honor. It also brands you, forever, as deeply irresponsible.

Particularly when it comes to using that power to attack ordinary citizens and subject them not just to ridicule but actual threats and potential violence.

But just as she has before, Malkin, of course, is running far and fast from this responsibility.

The cop-out that some of these actors might be mentally unstable -- which was evidently the point of comparing Castagana to Hinckley -- is simply another evasion. Because these people never act in a vacuum. There is almost always someone who inspired them.

The case of David Lewis Rice is still stark in the memory of Seattleites, and it is a classic illustration of the problem:
On Christmas Eve 1985, Charles and Annie Goldmark were at home with their sons Derek, 12, and Colin, 10, preparing for a holiday dinner when the doorbell rang. It was Rice, a 27-year-old unemployed transient, posing as a taxicab driver delivering a package. He brandished a toy gun and forced his way into their home, then set about using chloroform to render all four Goldmarks unconscious. He then proceeded to kill them slowly, using a steam iron and a knife that he used to insert into at least one of the victim's brains. Annie was pronounced dead on the spot, Colin pronounced dead on arrival, while Charles died there a short while later; Derek finally succumbed 37 days later.

But Rice wasn't just a deranged loony -- though he probably fit that description too. He also was a deranged loony who had been set into action by the malicious lies of a group of right-wing haters, whose venom became his inspiration, as the HistoryLink piece explains:

David Rice, a former steel worker from Colorado, joined an extremist group in Washington called the Duck Club. Although the Duck Club was almost defunct, the Seattle chapter still functioned. The group convinced Rice that Charles Goldmark was Jewish and a Communist. (Charles Goldmark's parents, John and Sally Goldmark, had won a highly publicized libel case in 1964 when they were accused of being Communists.)

As James Aho described it in his book This Thing of Darkness:
... Ed Fasel [fictitious name] was head of the local Duck Club chapter. It was from Ed that Rice received the tragic misinformation that Charles and Annie Goldmark were leading Seattle Communists. In the course of discussions concerning local subversives and crooks who were presumably frustrating Rice's efforts to secure a job, Fasel, mistaking Charles for his father John, related to Rice that the Goldmarks had been investigated and that Charles was "regional director of the American Communist Party." Rice took this to mean that Charles was the "highest obtainable target I could reach, the greatest value informationally." After handcuffing the Goldmarks, Rice intended to interrogate them about the next person in the conspiratorial hierarchy, possibly to preempt at the last moment the impending invasion of alien troops [a conspiracy theory to which Rice subscribed, not entirely different from the "Reconquista" theory that Malkin promotes].

What occasioned Fasel to dredge up a name associated with an event that had occurred two decades previously in another part of the state? In a Seattle Port Commission election during the summer of 1985, one of the candidates was Jim Wright, a Republican. Wright's campaign manager was none other than Ashley Holden, a defendant in the Goldmark trial. [Holden had been a leading torchbearer in the McCarthyite "Red fever" that swept Washington state in the late 1940s and '50s, and had been one of the people who falsely accused the Goldmarks in print of being part of the Communist Party.] Upon discovering this unusual link, the Seattle media jumped on it, and the name "Goldmark," with its unfortunate connotations, "got out again," to use one informant's phrase.

In my interview with him, Holden convincingly insisted that he knew nothing of the Duck Club nor any of its members. "I deplored the murder," he said. "There is no question," he went on, parroting local wisdom, "Rice was demented."

Ashley Holden offered the same lame defense as Malkin. So did "Fasel," whose real name was Homer Brand. But everyone in Seattle knew what they had done. There were no legal consequences for them, but there were social consequences. The men were moral lepers, and were shunned by decent people thereafter to the end of their lives (Holden died in 1994; Brand just died this year at the age of 78.)

But Malkin wants us to think that her hatemongering has no effect on her audience. She tells her Hot Air viewers:
Bullcrap. I don't have readers and I don't have acolytes. I have readers and I have audience members who think for themselves and who are responsible for each of their own actions.

Sure. We're all just independent actors. And Mohammad Atta was just responsible for his own actions too, right? No one else?

How about Naveed Al Haq? When he went on a shooting rampage at the Jewish Federation in Seattle, Malkin was eager to blame it on Muslim hatemongers. Indeed, she eagerly posited that a whole panoply of shooters was actually the work of a larger Muslim conspiracy.

Yet the reverse logic is what Malkin uses in denying any responsibility in this matter, saying that Olbermann is using "the most desperate rhetoric to discredit and stifle our voices" and claiming he was trying to "slime me as some sort of domestic terrorist". (Actually, Michelle, he was trying to slime you not as a domestic terrorist, but as someone whose reckless rhetoric helped set one off. Accurately, too, I might add. Which makes it precisely a non-smear.)

In both the Hot Air segment and the responsive post at her blog, she mentions the matter of Oklahoma City and Timothy McVeigh:
As I note, speciously blaming conservative pundits for domestic terrorism is old hat. Remember when the left blamed Rush Limbaugh and talk radio for the Oklahoma City bombing?

It wasn't just the left: it was, quite specifically, President Clinton. And it's worth remembering exactly what he said:
In this country we cherish and guard the right of free speech. We know we love it when we put up with people saying things we absolutely deplore. And we must always be willing to defend their right to say things we deplore to the ultimate degree. But we hear so many loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other. They spread hate. They leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable. You ought to see -- I'm sure you are now seeing the reports of some things that are regularly said over the airwaves in America today.

Well, people like that who want to share our freedoms must know that their bitter words can have consequences and that freedom has endured in this country for more than two centuries because it was coupled with an enormous sense of responsibility on the part of the American people.

If we are to have freedom to speak, freedom to assemble, and, yes, the freedom to bear arms, we must have responsibility as well. And to those of us who do not agree with the purveyors of hatred and division, with the promoters of paranoia, I remind you that we have freedom of speech, too, and we have responsibilities, too. And some of us have not discharged our responsibilities. It is time we all stood up and spoke against that kind of reckless speech and behavior.

If they insist on being irresponsible with our common liberties, then we must be all the more responsible with our liberties. When they talk of hatred, we must stand against them. When they talk of violence, we must stand against them. When they say things that are irresponsible, that may have egregious consequences, we must call them on it. The exercise of their freedom of speech makes our silence all the more unforgivable. So exercise yours, my fellow Americans. Our country, our future, our way of life is at stake.

As I pointed out awhile back:
Of course, Clinton did not name anyone, even though the voices he probably had more in mind were those belong to the likes G. Gordon "Head Shots" Liddy and some of the more vicious Patriot types like Chuck Harder, who constantly hawked Patriot conspiracy theories outright, alongside a full dose of rhetoric about the violent resistance of federal agents. But in fact Clinton used very general terms probably because he recognized the reality as well, which was that characters like Limbaugh and his fellow movement arch-conservatives have been irresponsible as well -- perhaps not to the same degree, except for the fact that the reach of transmitters like Limbaugh is so massive.

And the bitter truth, for people like Limbaugh, is that Clinton was right: Words have consequences. When you carefully tailor memes and ideas that promote an essentially extremist worldview to fit a mainstream audience, you're spreading poison into the community that can have extremely violent consequences. Anyone who's read American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing has a pretty clear picture of how closely McVeigh's hatred of the government was fanned by both extremist and mainstream voices. And it was to all these voices which Clinton alluded.

Limbaugh's protests notwithstanding, it is not hard to see that while, of course, Limbaugh cannot be blamed directly for Oklahoma City, neither can he be wholly absolved. Whining does not relieve him from the responsibility for his words. Timothy McVeigh, and the wave of Patriot domestic terrorists who followed him, did not occur in a vacuum. They were creatures in a milieu in which Limbaugh and other ostensibly "mainstream" media, political and religious figures helped transmit and reinforce extremist ideas that, when nursed with a violent predisposition, became extremely volatile in real life.

... If nothing else, Oklahoma City should at least have been a signal to Limbaugh that it was time to tone down the rhetoric, to stop demonizing government employees and federal officials. That, as we have seen, has never occurred. Anti-government bile is still a constant of his radio rants, as anyone reading the transcripts at Web sites like Rush Transcript can see for themselves. ...

However, since the election of George W. Bush, Limbaugh's anti-government venom is largely reserved for liberal officials. In general, Limbaugh has now shifted his focus from demonizing the government to demonizing anything liberal. Of course, this sentiment has always been part of his schtick, but in recent months he has been stepping it up another notch. Not only are liberals to be opposed politically, they are in fact treasonous. This was explicit in his attacks on Sen. Tom Daschle, the leader of the Senate Democrats, and was a continuing theme as antiwar protests grew in volume and intensity, referring to dissenters as, among other things, "anti-American, anti-capitalist Marxists and Communists."

This is extremely dangerous talk, and not merely because it is divisive. It actually threatens to simultaneously harden the growing alliance between extremist and mainstream conservatives, and create a milieu in which violence against dissenters becomes acceptable. It is when we see this kind of coalescence that we are in real danger of seeing fascism blossom in America.

Unfortunately, people like Chad Castagana have inched us all a little farther in that direction. And for that, we can thank a lot of people who have contributed to a larger atmospher of hatefulness and venom directed at American liberals. Foremost among them is Michelle Malkin.

That's so because Malkin, and Coulter, and Ingraham, and the bulk of the rabid-right pundit class, are all fundamentally irresponsible. We know that. So in the end, it's really no surprise that they should run from any responsibility for it as well.

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