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Sudsy Wants You to Join the Oregon Commentator

No. [updated 06/11/09]

I’ll confess: until a few days ago, I’d never heard of Dr. George Tiller. I’m basically pro-choice, but the abortion issue is just not one that I follow particularly closely. While I’ve heard of (and very much dislike) some of the more notorious anti-abortion groups like “Operation Rescue”, my general sense is that most people on the pro-life side of the debate are fundamentally good people who simply have different values (on this question, at least), than I do.

But my intent is not for this post to muse over whether abortion is right or wrong — so please keep your comments on that issue to yourself; no one here cares what you think about it, so I’ll just delete those that try to turn the comments section into an abortion screaming match.

What I want to talk about instead is identity politics, the flawed notion of collective responsibility, and attempts to shape the narrative by seizing on events like the murder of George Tiller and using them for political gain.

I got the idea after reading a frankly embarrassing article by Kari Chisholm posted at Blue Oregon, in which the author blames the rhetoric of anti-abortion activists for Tiller’s assassination:

But let’s be clear about something: if you’re going to repeatedly say that a doctor performing a legal medical procedure is committing “murder” and engaging in a “holocaust”, then you shouldn’t be surprised when one of your more motivated supporters actually does something about it. After all, if you’re convinced that someone is committing “mass murder”, then killing him is a perfectly logical thing to do.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Dr. Tiller was first shot back in 1993 – shortly after Bill Clinton was elected president; and again, in 2009, shortly after Barack Obama was elected president. It’s after Democrats get elected that the right-wing rhetoric ramps up to insane levels.

While his assassin bears the ultimate responsibility for his death, the activists and advocates who blithely toss around phrases like “mass murder” and “holocaust” bear responsibility too. Words have consequences.

It’s not enough to denounce the assassination. It’s time for anti-abortion activists and other conservative leaders to renounce the use of rhetoric that incites terrorism and violence. [emphasis added]

Chisholm has employed this tactic of assigning collective guilt before, most notably in an April article in which he demanded that Oregon Republicans publicly denounce the actions of Richard Poplawski, the guy from Pittsburgh who killed three police officers, asking:

Will the responsible Oregon Republicans denounce these dark demons that stoke the fires of revolution? Will they work to calm the fears of grassroots conservatives and pull them back from the lunacy of the violent fringe? [emphasis is Chisholm’s]

Such demands are, on one level, little more than attempts to capitalize on spilled blood for political gain. Chisholm would undoubtedly reject the notion that eight years of the left calling George W. Bush a “mass murderer”, “the world’s #1 terrorist”, “a threat to world peace”, a “usurper”, a “tyrant”, and all the rest would have made an attempt on Bush’s life “a perfectly logical thing to do.”

Likewise, one suspects that Chisholm would refute the idea that all Muslims are somehow responsible for the murder of a soldier in Arkansas because Saudi clerics often employ violent rhetoric (or, for that matter, that leftists are to blame, because radical “anti-war” protesters encourage killing American soldiers as a means to stop the war).

I’m guessing that he would probably also deny that apocalyptic global warming stories and “raping the earth” and “destroying the planet” rhetoric has any inspiratory effect on the radical environmentalists who spike trees and commit arson.

And that’s fair enough. I don’t believe any of those things either. Like Tiller’s assassin, arsonists, tree-spikers, and insane Muslim converts who murder soldiers are individuals who make individual choices. Blaming it, as Chisholm does on overheard “rhetoric” is the equivalent of arguing that playing DOOM and listening to Marilyn Manson caused Columbine.

On another level, though, Chisholm’s rhetoric represents an attempt to frame Tiller’s assassination in terms of identity.

As in the case of all collectivist ideologies, racism included, identity politics conceives of individuals as part of an undifferentiated group — class, gender, race, etc. — to which are attributed certain common traits. Moreover, the politics of identity has little room for nuance. A “white person” is a “white person” regardless of whether that person is Australian, Russian, American, or Swedish.  The end results of this kind of thinking usually deals in little save caricature, with the aggrieved pitting themselves against an undifferentiated mass of oppressors. The stream-of-consciousness babbling of campus personalities like Diego Hernandez and the screeds of any one of a number of “We must close the border and stop the brown invasion!!!” idiots are the pitiful results of such thinking.

Chisholm’s gormless screed, for its part, treats conservatism as a unified whole. It demands that not only the pro-life movement (itself hardly a cohesive group) apologize for the murder of Dr. Tiller, but that all conservatives admit that they bear some responsibility for his death, just as his previous harangue required Oregon Republicans to engage in ritual self-flagellation over the Poplawski affair.

Others have gone one step further, declaring that it’s no surprise that a “white, male Christian” was the murderer. In a different situation, that sort of statement might be called “profiling” and would result in a lawsuit (substitute “black male”, “gang violence” and “the drug trade” in the appropriate places to see what I mean). The double-standards that often accompany identity politics have been covered elsewhere on this site, though, — and recently — so I won’t go into that.

In identity politics, individuals are often held accountable for the actions of other people in their “group” to whom they have absolutely no real connection or commonality. We therefore end up with grotesque stereotypes like “all black people are destitute criminals”, “all gay people are pedophiles”, “all white people are racists”, “all Muslims are terrorists”, “all Jews are greedy Zionists”, and so on. Once again, we see the vast differences among members of identity groups being erased.

In politics, that can be an advantage. There is no one “conservatism”, of course, but it’s a simple enough trick to act as if there is and then treat that “conservatism” as being indelibly linked to violent anti-abortion activists, which is exactly what Chisholm has attempted to do.

He’s not a stupid fellow and he knows as well as anyone else that most people who might describe themselves as “conservative” have little truck with extreme anti-abortion activists and even less tolerance for people who use their beliefs as an excuse for violence. What he’s attempting, in his clumsy and somewhat obvious way, is to create a narrative about the anti-abortion movement in particular and conservatism in general. He’s essentially demanding that anti-abortion activists engage in self-censorship to avoid “encouraging” murder. He’s also implying that conservatives in general need to apply similar pressure to the pro-life movement to avoid the perception of sympathy for violent extremists, even if none actually exists.

The point is not merely to shame conservatives into bowing and scraping for forgiveness for things they haven’t done. The point is to take certain kinds of speech off the table and force opponents to modulate their rhetoric to “progressive” norms or otherwise run the risk of being accused of “sympathizing with domestic terrorists”, “stoking the fires of revolution”, or some other such absurdity.

The Commentator itself has frequently been the target of similar efforts, repeatedly being called “racist”, “sexist,” or “homophobic” for content that campus “progressives” found objectionable. Like the de-funding attempts which used such complaints as their foundation, Chisholm is attempting to silence debate. Unlike the ASUO’s control of the Commentator‘s purse strings, however, he has no power to force the anti-abortion movement to close up shop.

What he can do is try to force his political opponents to shut up by disingenuously conflating them with violent extremists. Once that ground has been ceded, it’s exceedingly hard to re-take.

When Chisholm says that “words have consequences”, he’s not talking about some deranged psychopath deciding to kill someone because of what he heard on the radio. He’s talking about what happens if the guy on the radio doesn’t start conforming to his definition of acceptable discourse.

“Fairness doctrine” anyone?


Matt Lewis over at Bloggingheads.TV notes the same thing. (pertinent clip starts around 10:50)


Unsurprisingly they’re at it again. I left the following comment:

Well, if we’re to take Kari Chisholm’s theories of collective conservative responsibility for random acts of violence seriously (that is to say, as something more than a cheap attempt to use corpses as puppets with which to attack political foes), we must make efforts to see von Brunn’s views in the same light. With the revelations that von Brunn may have had the Weekly Standard in mind as a target and his well-documented hatred of “the neocons” (according to Ben Smith at Politico, ‘[i]n one essay, Von Brunn attacked “JEWS-NEOCONS-BILL O’REILLY,”‘) it’s incumbent upon us to take into account the possibility that progressive rhetoric helped drive this man to murder, isn’t it?

After all, we’ve had eight years of hysterical — and often hateful — “rhetoric” about the crimes of the neocons and the blood they have on their hands due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which von Brunn was opposed to.

We have the long-time pastor of the President of the United States publicly blaming “the Jews” and AIPAC for estranging him from his longtime friend (“Them Jews ain’t going to let him talk to me. I told my baby daughter that he’ll talk to me in five years when he’s a lame duck, or in eight years when he’s out of office…”).

And what of the loud voices on the “progressive” left who routinely decry the control that the “Zionist Lobby” supposedly has over the American government?

Is it not out of the question that Von Brunn might have listened to some of that “rhetoric” (to say nothing of some of the “9-11 truth” nonsense that he, along with elements of the far-left, evidently subscribed to) and decided to act upon it? After all, if people who buy into Chisholm’s thesis — that the rhetoric of “the right” is sometimes to blame for acts of violence — consistency demands that they admit to the possibility of “left-wing rhetoric” provoking the same.

And if consistency is off the table, the “Blue Oregon” can’t really be seen as anything more substantial than a somewhat more professional version of “Free Republic”, which itself only really exists to launch crazy rhetorical bombs as “the liberals”.

In any case, if you ask me, it’s all nonsense. The idea that “rhetoric” — from the right or the left — is is to blame for murder is utterly asinine. It may be comforting to think of the world as being composed of groups of undifferentiated collectives that can be held responsible for the purported crimes of members of their “group”, but we all know well enough that it doesn’t really work that way.

As such it’s disheartening to see people at Blue Oregon repeatedly deploying the cheap device of “collective guilt” as a way of bludgeoning their political opponents whenever a fresher pile of corpses becomes convenient.

To claim that “conservative rhetoric” is in any way to blame for this tragedy (or the assassination of Tiller, etc.) is as absurd and childish as blaming DOOM and Marilyn Manson for Columbine or violent rap lyrics for gang violence.

I know you guys know better, and you ought to feel ashamed of yourselves for trying to capitalize on dead people to score political points. Because that’s what this is about. It’s not about grieving for the dead, commemorating a tragedy, or re-evaluating the wisdom of some months-old controversial government report.

It’s about Blue Oregon writers making damned sure their readers think of “Republicans” and “conservatives” every time the name “von Brunn” is mentioned.

  1. Matt says:

    I think this is an excellent post, Vincent. I think people on both the left and the right are often too quick to expand blame beyond its reasonable bounds when it suits their purposes, and often this kind of logic has had tremendously disastrous consequences. This is not to say that groups may not bear collective characteristics; that can send you down a road into a messy kind of moral relativism. But to imply those collective characteristics always incorporate to all of the group’s members is one of the most spectacular but oft-practiced fallacies of our time.

    An interesting discussion to this effect can be found at the Pew Research Center, where they tried to statistically dismiss the notion that America is composed of two easily simplified ideologies. I think this sort of sub-fragmentation could break down all the way to the individual person as well, but the important lesson I found in the Pew study is to realize that political bases are often composed themselves of broad-stroke coalitions of sub-ideologies, which are also broad-stroke associations of relatively (though never perfectly) like-minded individuals.

  2. Rockne Andrew Roll says:

    “Chisholm would undoubtedly reject the notion that eight years of the left calling George W. Bush a

  3. Rarian Rakista says:

    As a progressive pro-lifer I can say that this is how many extremist pro-choicers on the progressive side talk about the pro-life movement behind closed doors until they realize that 30% of the people they meet even amongst the hardcore left are pro-life in this day and age. It makes for some drama let me tell you when someone shouts at you that you can’t be progressive without being pro-choice. It unnerves me when any group threatens violence against a whole group of individuals under the delusion that a few traits or opinions is enough to dehumanize 1000’s or millions of human beings, be they abortion doctors or the unborn.

    People that usually make this mistake are older than 30 and do not realize the massive shift of the abortion debate is not happening where they are shouting but on social networking sites, twitter and billions of SMS messages and they are losing a lot of ground to well organized youthful pro-lifers.

    Listening to the pro-choice movement lately is like listening to the last few true out and out racists on talk radio in the late 90’s. When they seized on every bit of violence started by African-Americans as proof of their ‘violent nature’. Go to a pro-choice rally and a pro-life rally and count how many people are under 20 and you have the answer to who is going to win.

  4. Vincent says:

    Wow, classy.

  5. Sakaki says:

    Chisholm needs to be forcefully liposuctioned.

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