For some reason, as I consider the shootings Sunday morning at the Unitarian church in Knoxville, I keep thinking back to the late Jerry Falwell, and his remarks after September 11, 2001 when he blamed liberals for the terror attacks. I don’t want to sound like Jerry Falwell, but I can’t help wondering if he bears some responsibility for the Knoxville shootings which apparently were motivated in part by the shooters hatred of liberals.
Jerry is not alone, of course, and bears no direct responsibility, but I am wondering who demonized liberals over the past 30 years so much that a desperate, unstable, bitter man might choose to take out his frustrations on a congregations of strangers known to him only by the epithet, “liberal”?
I think back to one of the signature moments of the 2004 presidential debates when George Bush responded to one of John Kerry’s positions by saying, “there’s a word for that: it’s called liberalism.” He spat out the last word as if it he’d been sucking on lemons.
When powerful people cast such aspersions so often that a word becomes like a scarlet letter, how surprised should we be that the targets of the words become, eventually, the targets of more lethal weapons?
Of course, liberal leaders over the past 30 years bear a burden as well for failing to counter the verbal attacks with strong defense of a governing philosophy that gave us social security, Medicare, Medicaid, voting rights and fair housing laws among other accomplishments. Too often, in the face of a mainstream media machine that happily plays along with the conservative noise machine, liberal leaders have been too timid to respond.
Meanwhile that media machine seeks the lowest common denominator and reports political discourse as if it were a sporting event. Campaigns become horse races and issues become political footballs. Never mind that there are real losers when health care systems fail to cover tens of millions of Americans or when U.S. military might is brought to bear or when gays and lesbians are denied basic civil rights. Rather than serious conversation about real solutions to genuine problems, political discourse is reduced to sound bites.
Eventually, partisans on both sides get lost in the media miasma that they helped create and all of politics becomes nothing more than scoring points. So the nation is divided into red and blue as if we were girding for another civil war, never mind that we are often talking about the slimmest of margins at the polls and differences among neighbors at the street level.
When the rhetoric is hijacked by fierce and angry partisans, it becomes all too simple to demonize any supporter of a candidate or position with which you disagree. Most folks confine their shouting to the echo chamber of left- or right-wing web sites. You do not have to scroll through too many entries in the comments sections of such sites to uncover seething anger.
In that uncivil discourse Dubya is still stealing elections and Obama is a Muslim. It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m an Obama supporter. The woman who cuts my hair doesn’t trust Obama, but I trust her with sharp implements next to my throat. We can talk with each other about political differences without calling each other names. We don’t have to lose sight of our common humanity, and of our common deep self interest as Americans: to enjoy the unalienable rights with which all of us have been endowed.
The divides between left and right are properly differences over the political paths and strategies we believe will best secure those rights to ourselves and our posterity. Those distinctions are significant and where we fall on that spectrum says a good deal about how we conceive of the “all” of “all men are created equal” or the “we” of “we the people.” The balance between the individual and the collective is worthy of continuing political contest.
But when we fight, instead, over who is in and who is out of “all” or “we,” the differences in strategies of finding the most auspicious balance become deep divides that throw the entire polis out of balance altogether. Historically, that’s the point when conservative demagogues demonize some as outsiders whether they be racial minorities, women, sexual minorities, immigrants. Those on the political left have historically been those arguing for broadening the definition of “all” or “we” to include those marginalized outsiders.
That’s what the Unitarian congregation in Knoxville has been doing for years.
It is not a Rodney King moment. It is not time to plead that we all just get along. It is, rather, time to insist that those who would erect walls around we the people to keep out those who have not yet found their place cease their fulminations against those of us who want to tear down such walls.
You can argue about the proper role of walls and the timing of putting them up or tearing them down. You can argue about the proper path for including previous outsiders into the commonwheel. You can certainly argue about the most fair and efficient means of providing public service to all of us.
However, calling those who disagree with you unpatriotic, ungodly or un-American not only deepens and hardens our differences, but it also invites violence. Even Jerry Falwell recanted.