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Response to Krugman’s Claim About Violent Rhetoric (Updated)

John on March 27, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Here is the core of yesterday’s Paul Krugman tirade:

John Boehner, the House minority leader, declared that the passage of health reform was “Armageddon.” The Republican National Committee put out a fund-raising appeal that included a picture of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, surrounded by flames, while the committee’s chairman declared that it was time to put Ms. Pelosi on “the firing line.” And Sarah Palin put out a map literally putting Democratic lawmakers in the cross hairs of a rifle sight.

All of this goes far beyond politics as usual. Democrats had a lot of harsh things to say about former President George W. Bush — but you’ll search in vain for anything comparably menacing, anything that even hinted at an appeal to violence, from members of Congress, let alone senior party officials.

He notes four incidents and makes two claims about them (that it goes beyond the usual and that elected Democrats never did it). Let’s take each incident in turn:

  1. Armageddon – As I pointed out here, this does not go far beyond politics as usual. In fact, Chuck Schumer (and many other Democrats in Congress) were saying similar things a few years ago. So this one fails both of Krugman’s claims.
  2. Nancy Pelosi in flames – This frankly doesn’t come close to the level of violence aimed at Bush during his presidency. There are endless photo streams of protests signs with Bush as Hitler. It’s not beyond the usual, such as it is these days. Whether this sort of thing was ever done by the DNC I can’t say. I don’t keep up with their output.
  3. The “firing line” comment – As I explained here, this is not a “death threat” as the DNC tried to claim. It was clearly a reference to the November elections and the RNC mantra “Fire Pelosi.” It’s also not outside what Democrats have done before if the anti-Bush article in the LA Times headlined “White House Firing Line” by Dianne Feinstein is any indication.
  4. Sarah Palin’s map – The map was an illustraton that went along with three paragraphs that make clear this was about elections, not incitement to murder. Because this has received so much attention, let me examine it more closely… [Update: See here.]

Here’s what Sarah Palin wrote:

We’re going to fire them and send them back to the private sector…Come November, we’re going to print pink slips for members of Congress as fast as they’ve been printing money….We’ll aim for these races and many others. This is just the first salvo in a fight to elect people across the nation who will bring common sense to Washington.

Along with this was a US map which had cross-hairs showing the districts of 20 congressman from conservative districts. The words “aim” and “salvo” in Palin’s description certainly are military metaphors. So do these words in combination with the map demonstrate a malevolent intent? Do they go beyond the usual bounds of political discourse? Is she letting slip the dogs of war?

There are dozens if not hundreds more examples just like this from every news outlet under the sun (including Krugman’s own NY Times). This sort of language is a normal part of political discourse practiced by journalists everywhere.

What’s not normal is to take metaphorical language out of context and suggest the author was recommending actual violence. To show how easy this is to do, consider the following statement:

The insurance industry is rolling out the big guns and breaking out their massive war chest to marshal their forces for one last fight to save the status quo…

That was President Obama in his weekly address dated October 17th, 2009. You can watch him say it on the White House website here. No one believes that the President is secretly recommending violence against insurance companies. We understand this as a military metaphor for a lawful, political struggle. In short, Palin’s statements (and even the map as an extension of her speech) were not out of the usual bounds of political discourse. [Update: See here for proof.] And since Palin holds no elected office her statements are not those of “members of Congress” or “party officials.”

All of the incidents Krugman points out fail to meet either one or both of his claims for them. What really holds this list together is the pre-determined narrative that he and the NY Times have been pushing since last Summer, i.e. right-wing extremists are a threat whether in the streets or in the halls of Congress. This may bring Krugman pleasure, but it’s not reality.

Addendum: How could I have forgotten this:

“If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” Obama said in Philadelphia last night. “Because from what I understand, folks in Philly like a good brawl. I’ve seen Eagles fans.”

Of course he was only Senator Obama at the time. Still, Paul’s thesis fails again.

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