by Jay Johansen | May 7, 2010
In April, 2010, Arizona passed a law to crack down on illegal immigration. Al Sharpton, President Obama, and other liberal leaders harshly criticized this law, calling it racist and anti-American.
Then protests against the Arizona law turned violent. Protestors in Santa Cruz smashed windows and set buildings on fire. Protestors in San Francisco assaulted three counter-demonstrators. Protestors carried signs picturing the governor of Arizona as Hitler and calling for the overthrow of the Aermican government.
Sharpton and Obama must share in the responsibility for this violence. No one is saying that they actually supported the violence, but their harsh and inflammatory rhetoric was bound to incite extreme elements. They knew, or should have known, that this was a likely result.
The people who engaged in this violence took to the ultimate extreme an idea advocated in the months and years before these demonstrations by an increasingly vocal minority. Criticism is part of the lifeblood of democracy. But we should remember that there is a big difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedoms and the public servants who enforce our laws. As we exercise the right to advocate our views, and as we animate our supporters, we must all assume responsibility for our words and actions before they enter a vast echo chamber and reach those both serious and delirious, connected and unhinged.
Do you find the above paragraphs convincing? Or is this a totally unfair criticism?
Whether or not you agree with Sharpton and Obama, surely they have the right to express their opinions on political issues. Even if it's true that the demonstrators were inspired or encouraged to engage in violence by something they heard Obama say, their actions are not Obama's fault. To say that Sharpton and Obama should shut up because some extremist might take something they say and go out and riot is totally unreasonable. It is an attack on free speech.
Except ... except this is exactly what liberals are saying about conservatives. The last paragraph above is taken from an op-ed by Bill Clinton in the April 19, 2010 New York Times. After bringing up the Oklahoma City bombing, he wrote, "They took to the ultimate extreme an idea advocated in the months and years before the bombing by an increasingly vocal minority: the belief that the greatest threat to American freedom is our government, and that public servants do not protect our freedoms, but abuse them." The rest is a set of direct quotes. Clinton, of course, was not talking about anti-Arizona immigration law protestors, but about "anti-government" protestors. He was deliberately vague, but it's pretty clear he was talking about conservatives in general and almost surely about the Tea Party people in particular.
You might be tempted to say that there's a double standard here. When a left-wing extremist turns violent, no one blames responsible left-wing political leaders or activists, or says that they should tone down their harsh rhetoric. But when a right-wing extremist turns violent, somehow every right-wing political leader and commentator shares the blame, and they are told that they should just shut up lest they incite further violence.
You might be tempted to say this, but you'd be wrong. To date the only violence at Tea Party protests has been left-wing violence against the Tea Party people. Liberals refuse to accept responsibility for actual violence committed by extreme liberals, but they demand that conservatives take responsibility for hypothetical violence that they speculate might some day be committed by extreme conservatives.
© 2010 by Jay Johansen