Words and Deeds

The spotlight on the grief and mourning following Jared Loughner’s attack in Arizona creates an opportunity for people who want attention.    What they do with the opportunity depends upon who they are and what they want.  And the subsequent reactions to speeches and statements are every bit as important as the speeches, statements, and actions themselves.

Fred Phelps and his Westboro Church announced their plans to protest at nine year old Christina Taylor Green’s funeral, bringing their message of God’s contempt for America because of our moral failings, particularly tolerance of homosexuality.  This is already a well-practiced routine for the tiny Westboro group.  (We’ve talked about them before, far more than I expected when I started this blog.) Arizona quickly passed a law creating a 300 foot buffer zone around such funerals, and Arizonans quickly began organizing to provide a human buffer surrounding the mourners and keeping the Phelps family out of view.  Westboro decided to forgo the demonstration in exchange for radio air time for the church’s views.  Mike Gallagher, a conservative radio host, announced that he would give the Phelps family time in order to keep them away from the mourners, calling his decision a “no-brainer.”  This is how blackmail works.

Sarah Palin released a video of nearly eight minutes, commenting on the tragedy. It was an odd speech, which seemed to focus more on the tragedy of Sarah Palin’s vilification by media and pundits than the shooting in Tucson.  It was also an odd speech in that Palin emphasized that words, at least her words, don’t provoke actions.  She then condemned media comments on her language, even as her staff noted to reporters an increase in threats against Sarah Palin–presumably a response to the media’s criticism.   This is, she asserted, “blood libel,” a phrase which provoked a new round of criticism all by itself.

So how do words matter?  Few people are likely to change their minds, one way or another, about homosexuality or Sarah Palin in response to any round of comments.  But rhetoric can make an issue seem more urgent, more promising or threatening, and encourage others to enter the fray–talking, marching, contributing, or more.

Shifting the spotlight from the shooting to herself hasn’t seemed to work very well for Sarah Palin, whose comments have engendered far more criticism than support.   (Samples here, here, and here.)  So far, her supporters include only some of those who usually support her: conservative bloggers, radio and television personalities, and people who generally fill a larger share of the comment sections in news stories than they have this time.  Notably missing are mainstream Republican politicians who, perhaps, see something noxious that might be contagious.

Palin’s video probably didn’t put off people who were already committed to her; it probably did intensify her opposition.  Perhaps most significantly, it seems to have given conservatives with misgivings about allowing the former governor to represent the right in public debates reason to step back for a moment.

(In the wake of the shooting and the comments, a “string of Republican” leaders have resigned their party positions, citing hostile criticism and threats from tea partiers.)

Pundits and political entertainers in the media win by polarizing, playing to their base.  Successful politicians need to do some of this, keeping the true believers engaged, but they also need to reach out to others beyond their core constituencies.

Ronald Reagan gave his conservative base plenty, both in terms of policy and rhetoric, but he would tack back from time to time, projecting optimism and geniality.  Candidate Barack Obama found something to admire in Reagan, much to the discomfort of liberal supporters, who say he should be doing more to identify political enemies and rally the faithful.

But not now, and not in Arizona.  President Obama filled his Tucson speech with details of the six lives lost,  offering politics that were notably vague and aspirational, and winning some accolades from conservatives who don’t often praise this president.  As example, National Review’s Rich Lowry wrote:

…President Obama turned in a magnificent performance. This was a non-accusatory, genuinely civil, case for civility, in stark contrast to what we’ve read and heard over the last few days. He subtly rebuked the Left’s finger-pointing, and rose above the rancor of both sides, exactly as a president should. Tonight, he re-captured some of the tone of his famous 2004 convention speech. Well done.

There’s absolutely no reason to think Lowry’s fundamental take on Obama’s politics and policies has changed but, at least for the moment, the intensity of his opposition softened.

Words matter.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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One Response to Words and Deeds

  1. Philip Cohen says:

    I love how Palin said the House reading the Constitution was not “just symbolic.”

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