When Lies And Conspiracies Are All You Have To Energize Your Base, Be Prepared For Violence
If a person falsely shouts ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, thereby creating a stampede in which innocent bystanders get trampled, then that person can be held liable, as was decided in the 1919 Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States.
This verdict distinguished between untruthful statements used to incite violence (i.e. falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater) and truthful statements which may also happen to incite violence (i.e. shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater that is actually burning). The former is illegal; the latter is not.
Most of the criticism leveled at the Tea Party over the last two years has been due to the fact their supporters’ threatening and hateful outbursts are largely based on unfounded beliefs fed to them by their leaders, right-wing radio, and the Fox News channel.
After Republican policies failed so miserably under eight tumultuous years of George W. Bush, they have been forced to manufacture lies and conspiracies to outrage, and in turn energize, their base.
When Barack Obama beat John McCain in the 2008 Presidential Election, the right-wing immediately began pushing forward the lie that he was going to outlaw gun purchases. The result was astounding:
According to FBI figures for the week of November 3 to 9 [the week after Obama won], the bureau received more than 374,000 requests for background checks on gun purchasers — a nearly 49 percent increase over the same period in 2007. Conatser said his store, Virginia Arms Company, has run out of some models — such as the AR-15 rifle, the civilian version of the military’s M-16 — and is running low on others.
Such assault weapons are among the firearms that gun dealers and customers say they fear Obama will hit with new restrictions, or even take off the market.
This fear mongering campaign continued unabated into the next year. MediaMatters, at the time, compiled a sample of these lies on “outlawing guns” dating from Obama’s victory through April 2009. Here’s a clip of a Glenn Beck episode embodying this fear mongering.
And sure enough, their falsely “screaming fire” incited its first act of violence when an angry, young, paranoid, conspiracy theorist, Richard Andrew Poplawski, gunned down three police officers and wounded a fourth in Pittsburgh, PA. Here’s how he was described by friends and family leading up to the murders:
He slept with a gun under his pillow in a basement room filled with firearms and ammunition, convinced that Jews controlled the media and President Obama was scheming to take away his arsenal, friends and relatives said Saturday. […]
[Poplawski’s lifelong friend Edward] Perkovic said Poplawski usually was affable and kind, but grew angry recently over fears Obama would outlaw guns. He said Poplawski owned a bullet-proof vest, an AK-47 assault rifle and at least seven other weapons, but obtained the firearms legally.
Tea Party favorite, Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) is a notable for spreading outlandish conspiracy theories. She claimed in the Summer of 2009 that the Obama Administration would use the 2010 Census information for nefarious purposes. She insisted ACORN — a group demonized by the far-right — would be the ones collecting and disseminating the information.
In this footage, Glenn Beck reveals that he fears the Census information will be used to deny gun permits to American citizens, and then Bachmann (his guest) one-ups his allegation, by stating “Here’s the other thing that will happen”, and then explains that the United States government will use the information to put Americans into internment camps, much like they did to Japanese Americans during the second world war.
Bachmann had earlier told Chris Matthews that there was a serious problem with anti-American members of Congress (referring to Democrats), which she said necessitated an investigation by the US media.
Not to be outdone by her fellow Tea Partiers, Sarah Palin — when health care reform was being debated in August of 2009 — spread the fear of death panels amongst her low-information supporters:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”
There was no such provision in the bill, as was quickly pointed out by FactCheck.org. Palin made it up. But other ‘conservatives’ (including GOP leaders and politicians), Fox News, and right-wing radio would not let facts deter them from energizing their base. They began repeating Palin’s lie as a proven fact, over and over again.
These same voices on the Right also began to call the proposed health care reform bill “Socialized Medicine” and a “Government Takeover”. This was despite the fact that a single payer system was NEVER ever on the table, and neither Obama, nor any leader in Congress, had ever proposed government employed health care providers (the end result of a ‘government takeover’). Private ‘For profit’ health care was always, unfortunately, to be the end game in all the health care reform proposals.
However, the ‘death panels’ and ‘government takeover’ lies incited a huge violent frenzy amongst Tea Party thugs, who stormed Town Hall Meetings shouting over all discussions, and intimidating Representatives and their supporters.
All this fanatical behavior (based entirely on lies) lead fact checker Politifact.org to award Sarah Palin’s ‘death panel’ statement as “Lie of the Year”:
“Of all the falsehoods and distortions in the political discourse this year, one stood out from the rest,” writes Politifact.com, the non-partisan, Pulitzer Prize-winning site run by the St. Petersburg Times. Palin’s “assertion — that the government would set up boards to determine whether seniors and the disabled were worthy of care — spread through newscasts, talk shows, blogs and town hall meetings.”
For those who might have been wondering, the runner-up for “Lie of the Year” went to Glenn Beck — also instrumental in spreading Palin’s ‘death panel’ lie — for claiming “that John Holdren, a science adviser to President Barack Obama, proposed forcing abortions and sterilants on the U.S. population”.
Third place for Politifact.org’s “Lie of the Year” was “a claim [made] by conspiracy theorist Orly Taitz that Obama was born in Kenya” and therefore ineligible to be President of the United States. Her lie launched an entire “Birther” movement which is hugely popular within the Tea Party set. Here’s a clip of an audience of wing-nut Birthers literally domineering a Democratic representative’s Town Hall meeting.
One common element amongst all these egregious lies by the far right — used to drum up support for what would otherwise be unpopular positions — is that they are conspiratorial in nature. They are based on an underlying fear that those in government — namely, anyone left of center, who disagrees with their inflexible ideology — are illegitimate, have stolen ‘their’ government, and are out to take away rights that they believe are accorded to them by the Constitution.
These conspiracies provoke fear, anxiety and fury, which ultimately creates an extremely toxic political environment. Though it may be the perfect recipe for energizing the right-wing base, it also unfortunately can unleash violence from mentally unstable, hyper-paranoid, gun-owning individuals — ironically, those most likely to buy into fantastical Tea Party conspiracy theories.
And at the same time these propagandists stoke their supporters’ fury with blatant lies, they simultaneously use gun-rhetoric, gun-imagery, and make veiled threats towards their perceived ‘enemies’ at every possible opportunity.
TeaParty.org founder, Dale Robertson, who helped start the Tea Party movement nearly two years ago in Houston had this warning for Republican leaders in January 2010:
“We are turning our guns on anyone who doesn’t support constitutional conservative candidates”
Sarah Palin’s local newspaper, The Anchorage Daily, along with many prominent voices in the media have been voicing concerns about Sarah Palin’s gun-rhetoric for as long as she’s been on the national stage:
“RELOAD!” Sarah Palin shouted at right-wing supporters via Twitter on Tuesday after President Obama signed the House health care bill. On her Facebook page, she posted a U.S. map with crosshair targets in states where she’s planning to campaign against moderate Democrats who voted in favor of the health insurance overhaul. “We’ll aim for these races,” she wrote, in the “first salvo” leading up to the midterm elections. […]
Tea Party candidate Sharon Angle also leaned heavily on gun-rhetoric when running against Harry Reid. She hinted at the possibility for gun violence in the event she didn’t win the election:
In an interview she gave with conservative talk show host Bill Manders earlier in the campaign, Angle conspicuously floated, once again, “Second Amendment remedies” to deal not just with the supposedly ever-growing “tyrannical” U.S. government, but to replace her now general election opponent: Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Huffington Post is now reporting that firearms manufacturer, Palmetto State Armory, has commemorated “Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) health care reform-era “you lie” interruption of President Obama by engraving “You Lie” on a new, limited edition line of assault rifle components. You couldn’t make this stuff up!
Essentially, these right-wing voices provide a litany of lies which prey upon their followers’ deepest fears, and then they use gun-rhetoric and gun-imagery as if to suggest a violent course of action might be required in ‘getting their country back’.
After falsely screaming ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater for two years now, is it any wonder that when a Democratic Congressperson gets shot in the head by someone who comes across as delusional, as fixated on the written word of the constitution, and as emotionally invested in conspiracies, that the entire country would naturally assume he’s just another wing-nut Tea Bagger, and blame those same right-wing personalities — the ones who push the lies and conspiracies and use gun-rhetoric — for having likely incited his shooting rampage?
Fox News President Roger Ailes, more or less, conceded this point when he admitted to asking those at the Fox News network to “tone it down” in the wake of the Arizona shootings:
“I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually,” the Fox News president said. “You don’t have to do it with bombast. I hope the other side does that.”
The Truth About Democracy: It’s Only as Reliable as Our News Programming
Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.
The first decade of this new century will be remembered by many as a time when a significant segment of our society became incapable of differentiating news from propaganda. This phenomenon has endangered the very fabric of our democracy. The founding fathers of our country worried incessantly about a misinformed electorate, which led many—most notably, Thomas Jefferson—to advocate for a public education system. He hoped this would serve as a form of insurance policy for our fledgling democracy, whereby the masses could be counted on to formulate rational, well-informed opinions, which would propagate into the public square, and ultimately shape our national legislative agenda.
If only they could see us now—here, in the 21st Century—where a significant percentage of citizens rely on the likes of the Fox News Channel for their news information. I suspect Jefferson would like a chance to revisit and remedy the incongruencies which exist between unrestrained freedom of speech and a viable, sustainable Democracy.
It’s perfectly acceptable for news commentators to lean right or left, and to even articulate and promote their own personal opinions to the masses. Spirited political discourse is essential to the democratic process, because it fosters competition between opposing ideologies in our so-called ‘marketplace of ideas’. When this competition is waged in an honest manner—meaning their opinions are supported by facts—then the different ideologies can be fairly contrasted, and a majority of the public will likely draw rational conclusions.
But what happens when a self-proclaimed ‘news network’ consistently lies to its viewers as a means of promoting its own rigid political ideology? These viewers—whose numbers have proven decisive in elections past—are not exposed to a marketplace of ideas, but propaganda. Lies—being reported as facts—are indeed perilous to our democracy, because they often prohibit the best ideas from becoming policy. A mislead citizen cannot be counted on to participate rationally in the democratic process. Over the last decade, this phenomenon has jeopardized both the national security and the fiscal health of the United States.
University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy (PIPA) conducted a study on public misperceptions, from January 2003 through September of 2003, leading up to and beyond the invasion of Iraq. The study revealed that those who identified Fox News as their primary news source were significantly more likely to have misperceptions (80%), while those who signified NPR or PBS were least likely (23%). 55% of both CNN and NBC viewers held misperceptions, as did 47% of those who relied primarily on print sources.
Shockingly, nearly half of all Fox News viewers incorrectly believed that evidence existed which linked Iraq to Al Qaeda. This helps to explain the grand illusion held by many at the time that Iraq was complicit in the 9-11 attacks. And as one might predict, the study showed a direct correlation between misperceptions and support for the Iraq war. Only 23% of those who held no misperceptions supported the invasion of Iraq, whereas 53% of those who held one misperception supported it, 78% of those with two misperceptions supported it, and 86% of those with three misperceptions supported it. Thus, the most misinformed citizens largely supported the invasion of Iraq, while the best informed citizens opposed it. This misinformation campaign used to sell the war has cost us dearly: thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, nearly a trillion dollars in U.S. national debt, thereby surpassing the entire expense of Vietnam.
We now find our nation engaged in another major policy debate: how to reform our broken health care system. Fox News commentators have, for months now, been fueling some of the most outlandish lies in an effort to sabotage the President’s plan. The most egregious one being the allegation that the President was proposing ‘death panels’ to kill off our elderly in an effort to reduce health care costs. And, once again, their viewers appeared to swallow these new lies—hook, line, and sinker. The question we must all confront is this: How can our democracy work in an environment where lies—espoused by those entrusted to report news—continue to sway our nation’s course of action on issues as important as these?
I propose we grant the Federal Communications Commission new oversight responsibilities—ones which empower it to investigate the validity of ‘facts’ being reported by news broadcasters. They already police broadcasters for programming obscenities. Give them the authority to review dubious statements made by news personalities—as flagged by viewers and listeners—to render judgment about the truthfulness of these statements, and to force the offending news broadcasters to correct their misinformation during their next broadcast. Could there be a better deterrent against propaganda masquerading as journalism?
Commentators’ opinions—no matter how extreme—should remain immune from oversight. This isn’t about silencing dissenting opinions. But news information being reported as ‘facts’, should in fact be, … well, facts! Our country needs a public, non-partisan news fact-checker more than ever.
Our goal, as a nation, should be to create a healthier and more sustainable democracy. Only when presented with truthful information, can the U.S. electorate be relied upon to make rational choices which serve our nation’s best interests. Considering the dishonest discourse which now dominates our airwaves, is it any wonder our country has lost its way?