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Two Hundred Years of Dangerous "Spin" - nhpeacenik
Two Hundred Years of Dangerous "Spin"
DNA isn't the only thing that spinsLast Thursday, I heard a fascinating radio interview with Daniel Rasmussen, the young author of a book about the largest slave rebellion in US history, which took place in the vicinity of New Orleans in 1811, involving several hundred slaves briefly taking over multiple plantations and using professional military tactics, inspired by the success of a similar revolt in Haiti. Rasmussen emphasized the fact that, after the revolt was brutally suppressed, the event was effectively taken out of the official consciousness of the nation almost immediately by what we would now call "spinning" it in the media. The leaders of the rebellion. which was well planned and skillfully executed, were portrayed in the media as "ruthless brigands", that is, as lone evil people conspiring against civilization, worthy of the vicious executions they received. One effect of the rebellion seems to have been the cementing of a permanent bond between the slaveholding French-speaking aristocrats of the area, who had formerly opposed the perceived US colonial subjugation of Louisiana, with the US army, which promised to protect them from further organized insurrections; this, in turn contributed  to the US "victory" in the battle of New Orleans the following year. To all appearances, the failure of this rebellion played a part in shaping US imperialism and exceptionalist political philosophy that we experience today, while being left out of history books almost entirely. The revolt was, according to the media of the day, not at all political, but merely an act of organized criminality carried out by innately bad people who were known criminals. This spin was imparted by a press that was clearly owned and run by the same powerful factions that supported the slave system in New Orleans and elsewhere in the US.

A large part of US political discourse seems to have as its goal a kind of selective amnesia for seminal events in our history, with anything that tells a different kind of story about the country's past being dismissed as unimportant or irrelevant to the forward march of a glorious civilization. The stories of the "Indian Wars"John Eliot's multiracial social experiments, the Bisbee Deportation, Shay's Rebellion, the slaveholding of the majority of the "Founding Fathers" are presented as side issues that have now been made completely irrelevant by subsequent events. Assassination attempts on presidents and other public officials are officially presented as the unfortunate acts of lone disturbed individuals, ignoring the collective and political actions  that paved the way for them.  Politicians dismantle the physical and scholarly evidence of, for example,  Jimmy Carter's White House solar panels and Henry Ford's collaboration with anti-semites and fascists, permitting the pretense that US industrialists have never supported fascism and that renewable energy has always been and must always be considered impractical.

I couldn't help seeing the "spin" in regard to the shootings in Tucson as a preparation for ignoring the devastating effects of the militarization (or militia-ization) of our national discourse, the justification of lethal violence as a superior alternative to non-lethal political conflict. It is a very short step from being a country that sees invading a foreign country, killing thousands (or millions) of its citizens as a justifiable way to win an international political argument or a president who claims the right to order the extra-judicial assassination of any person labelled as a terrorist, to a party or faction that sees killing its political opponents as a justifiable way to win a political argument. In both cases, the people who do the actual killing are not the partisans or strategists, but "apolitical" young people who have been exposed osmotically to the propaganda of those partisans.

Even news analysts whom I greatly respect have tended to speak of the Tucson shooting last week as non-political. They say that since the shooter may have suffered from schizophrenia or brain damage and was clearly confused and out of touch with consensus reality, his act had no political content and was merely the arbitrary and tragic act of a lone person. Some argue that the only root causes that should be discussed are the recent weakening of gun-control measures such as the Brady Bill and the closing of most of the nation's mental hospitals in recent decades. Some right-wing commentators call Jared Loughner a "liberal" because he read the Communist Manifesto and supported a literacy campaign at the local library; I find these arguments unconvincing in the extreme. Commentators on the left could point out that  his reading list also included "Mein Kampf", but that would be equally irrelevant.

I believe that, while the shooter may have been confused about his own political orientation and motives, the act was nevertheless political. It is relevant  that he had attended rallies featuring Congresswoman Giffords before, that he and Giffords mutually subscribed to each other's YouTube postings, and that he apparently regularly read blogs posted by at least one right-wing conspiracy theorist and incorporated ideas from those blogs into his own rambling writings. My assumption is that it is hard to expose oneself to the thoughts of one right-wing pundit without absorbing the media milieu within which that pundit operated. As I  see it, he was plugged in to the propaganda machines of US politics and was almost certainly  exposed to the not-so-subtle statements by right-wing pundits and politicians that congressmen who voted for the Obama health care bill, opposed the Arizona anti-immigrant legislation, favored same-sex marriage, favored legal abortion or opposed tax cuts for the super-rich  were violating the fundamental laws of the land and deserved to be killed (the pundits generally substituted a graphic image, code-word or phrase for "kill", such as  "subject to second-amendment actions by citizens", "remove" or an image of gun-sights) if they were not removed from office in an election or by impeachment immediately. Loughner apparently  felt himself to be an aggrieved citizen who had been wronged by the government (the Pima College administration) and who was empowered by the second amendment and the gun laws of Arizona to carry out his civic duty and kill one of the erring politicians. In one early account of the shootings, I read that he had called out the name of some of the people he shot, showing that he knew who they were; I have not read any retraction of this. If he called out the congresswoman's name as he shot her, his act can certainly not be considered impersonal, and I assert that it can't be called apolitical either.

It is important that we not allow the spin now being placed on this horrible and possibly pivotal event in this country's history to blind us to the underlying facts about the extremely dangerous political trends that made it possible and likely. This is no more the work of a disturbed loner than the 1811 revolt was the work of common criminals. The poisoned atmosphere of these times is comparable with that of the slavery-based ethos of the early 19th century. The participants in the 1811 revolt knew what they were fighting for, their freedom,  and that they were probably sacrificing their lives. The Louisiana plantation owners in 1811 knew they were fighting for their economic interests and were willing to personally commit atrocities for those interests.

Ours is a more cowardly and less honest age. We need to look clearly at whose interests are served by the "spin" that advocates political violence and the increasing use of military means to replace politics. Once we see the truth, we need to speak out , not just with calls for "civility" but also with legislation and street activism to reverse these trends.

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