Sunday, January 9, 2011
January 9, 2011: Words Will Never Hurt Me?
On November 21, 1963, the day before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, numerous copies of a flyer featuring Kennedy’s picture (arranged like a mug shot) and titled “Wanted for Treason” were distributed in Dallas (most likely by members of the John Birch Society). Many of the seven (almost entirely inaccurate and ludicrously extreme) “treasonous activities against the United States” that the poster attributes to Kennedy feel, to be blunt, as if they could and perhaps have been written in the last year or two about Barack Obama with virtually no changes; but while those echoes have a great deal to tell us about our contemporary moment and its historical origins and connections, they’re not my main point here. Instead, I think the flyer helps us to contextualize Kennedy’s assassination, to realize that—whether or not Oswald had the slightest thing to do with the flyer or had even seen it or anything like it—Kennedy was governing in an era of increasingly unhinged and explicitly violent (if we remember the penalty for treason) right-wing rhetoric, published and circulated en masse, for purposes that can at best be called divisive.
Today was supposed to be the first of my weekly (Sunday) posts on some of my different academic works in progress, and I look forward to sharing that work as a new component of this space and will definitely be starting that weekly series next Sunday. But the assassination attempt on Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords—an attempt that may well prove successful for the Congresswoman, who remains in critical care, and that has already killed at least nine people (including a Federal Judge and a young girl) and wounded many more—compels my attention here. This is neither a contemporary nor a political blog, and obviously there are plenty of such spaces (including one of the best out there right now, Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish) covering this story with the depth and sensitivity and nuance that it requires. Moreover, it’s not at all clear yet, if it ever will be, exactly what motivated the shooter in this incident, and I don’t want to suggest that he was necessarily driven by any particular political ideology. But on the other hand, I think that one problem with seemingly “lone wolf” assassinations (like Oswald’s of Kennedy) is that the dominant narrative can make it far too easy for us to elide the culture of extreme and violent oppositional rhetoric (as in the Kennedy flyer) in which the lone wolf committed his or her crime.
Which is to say, it’s not, to my mind, either-or. There are those assassins who are obviously and centrally driven by specific historical and social contexts, such as John Wilkes Booth in his murder of Lincoln; and there are those who are pretty clearly just plain nuts, such as John Hinckley in his Jodie Foster-obsessed attempt on Reagan. But in many—if not most—cases, an assassination represents a combination of these two factors—an individual who is sufficiently detached from normal reality and society to commit such an act, within a historical and social climate that fosters violent perspectives and responses and attacks on political figures. Was Giffords’ shooter influenced by the map on Sarah Palin’s website featuring key “targeted” Democratic Congressional districts (including Giffords') with gun crosshairs over them? Did he know that Giffords’ Tea Party-endorsed opponent in the recent election was an Iraq War veteran who featured a fundraising event where supporters could come out and shoot an M16 to “help” unseat Giffords? Does he have any connection to the multiple times her office has been vandalized and/or she has received death threats after the passage of the health care reform bill, a bill for which she voted and to which Sharron Angle and others were in part referring when they spoke of “2nd Amendment remedies” if elections don’t do the job (and Giffords did indeed win re-election)? The overt answer to all of those questions might well be no, but I believe we cannot and should not attempt to understand his actions without at least some awareness of and engagement with these contexts.
Heavy and potentially divisive stuff, I know, and mainly right now I’m mainly just hoping like hell that Giffords lives, that no one else dies as a result of this horrific shooting, and that there are no more stories like this for a good long time. But the current quantity and volume of extreme and violent rhetoric (almost all from the right, it must be said) makes me pretty pessimistic about that last hope—and makes me want to remind us all that, when it comes to assassinations and political violence, there’s not nearly so much of a gap between the words and the sticks and stones as we often remember. More tomorrow, on a very different kind of social and political violence and its aftermath.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The anti-Kennedy flyer: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_9ks36c549BI/TBcBkSggxfI/AAAAAAAABck/QJOn2dl72Sg/s1600/Wanted_for_treason.jpg
2) Giffords’ website’s official biography: http://giffords.house.gov/about/
3) OPEN: I’m not going to ask for any one kind of response or relevant link, but will just stress that—as is always the case, except for the guest posts!—this is my analysis and voice, and I’d be very very interested to hear any and every other one.