Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Voices, Violence and Vocations

Impelled by religious zeal, a man commits an act of terrorist murder, targeting an individual he deems responsible for the slaughter of innocents. The charge follows: through the use of extreme language activist organizations, news outlets--the very opinions and beliefs they espouse--provoked the violence. By implication (or direct inference) these beliefs are discredited not by logic, fact or argument, but by an act of violence. Not content with the widely held view that the violent act should not be allowed to advance its ends, those with opposing ends determine it should advance theirs. Opportunism attaches to outrage. The shock of an act of violence magnified by social effect and media ubiquity becomes transformative after all, defining the limits of speech and, as necessarily follows, thought and action.

This process played out yesterday regarding the murder of an abortion doctor, as the sustained smirk occasionally punctuated by conspicuous displays of sanctimony that is MSNBC's typical news block gave way to sustained sanctimony occasionally punctuated by conspicuous displays of smirking. Whether or not this outrage is authentic is beside the point; when the personal outrage of the primped and powdered set of the nightly newscast became operative our society and its discourse became a measure more juvenile (it is not the authenticity of individual emotion that determines whether or not it is unseemly, it is the venue). It was the first indication I've had yet that Rachel Maddow (who's been otherwise exemplary in, for instance, holding the Obama administration accountable for its promises) was capable of anything other than her standard expression of vapid, self-satisfied ridicule (is this some Alinsky-ite strategy?). I'm not being facetious when I say it was touching; nonetheless, it was entirely inappropriate. It would be progress of a sort, however, if she retained a trace of that solemnity for her on-air persona in the future.

The act described in the first sentence above has happened not once but twice in the past two days. Will FoxNews, for one, follow reports of today's lone Islamic terrorist with a similar display of accusatory outrage? I think I haven't the stomach for any more cultivated outrage (Fox's daily, default level of bombast already beats even yesterday's orgy of righteous anger from MSNBC). I'm certain many have already pointed out the similarities between the two murders. I'm less confident many will draw the right conclusion--that speech must be defended above all, and violence can't be allowed to determine our laws or morals. Whether or not the murderers were right about the injustice they perceived is irrelevant. How one reacts to these crimes seems determined above all by point of view; but when murder or violence is the case, there can be only one point of view.

But this much too must be acknowledged: enough violence will determine the measure of our liberty whether we like it or not. Popular will, and panic, will ensure that. The decade has taught us nothing less. We've only had a taste of the repressive measures the consenting governed will be willing to impose upon itself. Violence works, and sometimes in very small, highly focused applications. Not to achieve the ends of its actors, for these questions will still be determined by the competition of popular and factional wills and that cruelest factor of all, expedience; no, violence works to degrade our freedom generally. It works to limit our very thoughts. Enough of it, enough of the terror it inspires, enough of the attendant opportunistic outrage of the politically engaged, and the limits will come, in gradually increasing severity. They're already at the border.

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