In the past ten days, as Limbaugh and Palin and other tighty-righties have tried to argue that their words don’t have consequences, reality keeps getting inconveniently in their way. Case in point: Several local Republican leaders have resigned in Arizona, citing threats from Tea Partiers. Anthony Miller, who was the chair of the GOP in Arizona’s Legislature District 20, stepped down along with three of his deputies a few hours after Gabrielle Giffords was shot. (LD20 includes parts of Tempe and its environs, so it’s not Giffords’ territory.)
The first and only African-American to hold the party’s precinct chairmanship, Miller said he has been called “McCain’s boy,” and during the campaign saw a critic form his hand in the shape of a gun and point it at him.
“I wasn’t going to resign but decided to quit after what happened Saturday,” Miller said. “I love the Republican Party but I don’t want to take a bullet for anyone.”
The word “boy,” of course, is a racist epithet when aimed at a black man. Don’t let anyone tell you this has nothing to do with race. And if that example is too nebulous for you, listen to what the L.A. Times reports Miller heard at a campaign meeting:
“This old guy says, ‘There’s Anthony. Get a rope.’ I turned around and said, ‘If you get a rope, get one for you and get one for me too,’ ” Miller recalled.
Ultimately, Miller said he quit at his wife’s urging:
“Sorry today my wife asked me do I think my PCs [precinct committee members] will kill me. I am done,” Miller texted to a committee associate. “I am done.”
“These people are crazy,” he said. “If somebody’s that mad at you, who knows what they could do?”
In his resignation letter and subsequent letter of clarification, Miller emphasized that his distaste for the animosity and infighting was a much bigger factor in his decision than any concerns about potential violence.
But [former communications director Jeff] Kolb, who has moved to another state for his wife’s job, said the level of rhetoric was escalating to an uncomfortable degree.
“I’m not worried. Nobody’s going to drive 900 miles to come track me down,” he said. “But were things escalating out of control? I would say yes.”
Maybe this is just normal political infighting on steroids. But when the rhetoric becomes so heated that people can’t be sure they’re safe, it’s time to ask where free speech ends and hate speech begins. Maybe it’s also time to ask – as Badtux did a few days ago – whether general threats should still be protected speech. Specific threats are illegal, but general ones (like “all illegal immigrants should be shot”) have been permitted and protected since the Supremes handed down Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969. That decision would have to be somehow rolled back. Quoth Badtux:
If outlawing advocacy of violence, as EVERY SINGLE WESTERN DEMOCRACY did after the events of 1939-1945 where some German dictator used violent speech to incite his people to exterminate most of the ethnic minorities of Europe, is “tyranny” — does that mean that only the United States is free, and only since June 9, 1969? Or are you saying that, unlike every other citizen of a democracy on this planet, Americans simply can’t handle such a ban on violent speech? If the latter, why do you hate America?
Badtux notes that countries who criminalize violent rhetoric actually have a more vigorous, less lap-doggy press than the U.S. (see the British example). Having lived in Germany for a decade, I’ll second that.
I’d also add that free speech is supposed to shore up democracy. When it starts to undermine democracy, we need to ask where the line lies between “mere words” and speech-acts that themselves constitute a form of violence. Wherever it lies, it’s hard to deny we’ve crossed that line and landed squarely on the dark side.
Limbaugh’s billboard in Tuscon, courtesy of Copyranter. The billboard was taken down rapidly after the attack on Congresswoman Giffords and her constituents.