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    Wooden Cities

    A quick (and true) parable from history: in 1189, Richard the Lion-Hearted decided that no Jews would be allowed at his coronation ceremony. When some leading London Jews showed up at the door, they were turned away, and when the gathered crowd saw this they concluded that the new King was solidly anti-Semitic and that the best way to celebrate would be to murder as many Jews as possible. Mobs killed almost sixty people and set the city's Jewish ghetto, the Jewry, on fire.

    Of course, 12th-century London was mostly made of wood. It is impossible to burn only one neighborhood in a wooden city, and before morning a decent sized chunk of the city was on fire, too.

    I think about that story from time to time, and more often lately, because it's a story about how uncontrollable civil violence becomes. You cannot burn one neighborhood and not the adjoining neighborhoods. You cannot start a fire and give it a list of people it should burn or not burn. Once it starts it is outside of your control. Political violence works the same way, through a political version of the same physics: once it starts it is difficult to stop. It spreads rapidly and unpredictably. It is in no one's control. It claims victims on every side, and innocent bystanders too. Everybody lives in a wooden city.

    There has never been left-wing violence without right-wing violence in this country, never right-wing violence without left-wing violence. There was abolitionist violence as well as pro-slavery violence, anarchist violence and authoritarian violence, anti-civil-rights and pro-civil-rights violence. You can't read the history of Bleeding Kansas honestly and divide the killers from the martyrs along ideological lines. They go together. And once the violence begins, the violent make common cause against the rest of us, prolonging and intensifying the bloodletting as much as they can.

    Am I saying that the violence was equal on both sides? No, and I am not the least bit interested in going through the box scores of old massacres. Am I positing moral equivalence for people on either side of these historical debates? No, because it's irrelevant. The fire doesn't care who's right. Am I ignoring who started the bloodshed in which case? Yes, I am, and so should you, because once the fire starts it's going to burn the just and unjust alike. The question is not who started it, but how to keep it from starting.

    There is one civil peace, a single domestic tranquility, which protects us all. It is easy to disrupt and hard to restore. When it is disrupted, no one is safe. Every act of left-wing violence endangers people of the left. Every act of right-wing violence endangers people of the right. There is no safety but public safety.

    The air in this country has been thick with inflammatory words since before the last election. It leaves an odor in the air, like gasoline soaking into rags. And when public figures speak of caution, some take that as partisan, or even as a provocation. That response strikes me as eerily disconnected from reality. The civil peace protects all equally, and if your political opponents want to preserve it, you should help them.

    Still worse is keeping a selective list of partisan grievances, reciting a litany of all the horrible things the other side has done to your side lately while discounting the behavior of your own lunatic fringe. This accusatory stance can only hasten conflict, and never help to avoid it. And why does it matter if the "other side" has left more oily rags on the floor than your side? The question is how many oily rags pile up, not who does the piling, and you can only reduce the pile by reducing your own share of it. Throwing down more rags because "they" left even more is just self-destructive.

    And discounting crimes against one's ideological opponents because the criminal was a lunatic or a loose cannon or not a "real" member of your movement is simply weak. The violent always come from the deranged and fanatical and weak-minded, especially during the build-up to a conflict. The fact that Abraham Lincoln didn't personally murder anybody in Kansas didn't calm anything down. Your side doesn't get to use the "just a nutjob" excuse because the other side's nutjobs won't honor it.

    Progressive bloggers can discount the freak who bit off that tea-bagger's finger (!) and the freak who killed the poor demonstrator with the pro-life sign, claiming they "don't count," but there are people who are carrying around real or virtual press clippings of those events, building up their rage and justifying future acts of violence. They are counting those people. Conservative bloggers can claim that neo-Nazis like the one who shot up the Holocaust Museum "don't count" as conservatives, but the leftists most likely to commit atrocities count him. Every one of these people leaves another oily rag on our collective floor. Saying that we didn't put it there, and aren't responsible for removing it, is no help.

    Civil violence is a lowest-common-denominator thing. The addled and hopeless are disproportionately attracted to it, and they are the primary audience for provocations. When a politician speaks in a way that reasonable people would only take as hyperbole or gamesmanship, that's not enough. What matters is how your speech is misunderstood.

    Does it matter whether or not public figures intend to provoke violence? Well, to go back to my original story, Richard the Lion-Hearted never intended to start a pogrom. Of course not. He was an anti-Semite, but certainly didn't want any anti-Semitic bloodshed inside his kingdom. He was actually furious (he needed England's Jews to help finance his crusade), and did his best to stop the violence. But he could not. It spread to other towns and cities: to Norwich, to Lynn, to York. What Richard intended was not the point.

    Dozens died in some towns. Hundreds died in York. It went on for months, well into the spring of 1190, like fire carried on a dry wind.



    If I may pick at your analogy a bit (your underlying point is sound), it's not so much about preventing fires from starting as it is from denying them fuel when they invariably do start. (Your symbolism of oily rags captures this excellently.) So, for the London example, what was the bigger problem (leaving the moral side out of it): denying Jews entry into the coronation, or buidling the city largely out of wood? Consdier that even if the fires hadn't been started deliberately, it was only a matter of time before a fire was accidently started.

    If I consider forest fires, one reason they're worse now then they were 100 years ago is exactly because they're rarer. There's more kindling. Extending the analogy, perhaps this could suggest that we encourage frequent, small, disagreements where we can honestly air our grievances with "the other side". As for everything else you've written, I'll reiterate that I agree, for the most part, with what you've written.

    Nebton, the fire thing is only an analogy. Every city is "made of wood," even the suburbs.

    I don't agree that more frequent small fires would prevent conflagrations; that is pressing the metaphor too far, too literally, and our history argues against it. Calling each other traitors and liars in the Capitol buiilding, or in the newspapers, hasn't led to clearing the air. It's led to more name-calling and more violence, in a cycle. The free-wheeling behavior of Congressmen attacking each other by word and deed in the 1850s didn't lead to reconciliation. "Getting it out" isn't healthier. It just brings more and more of it out.

    "Airing grievances" isn't so much the goal. Resolving conflicts is. Those are different, and usually diametrically opposed, communication strategies. What the country needs is reasoned debate, in which each side agrees that we acnolwedge certain shared goals, accept certain facts as facts, and accept an agreed-upon process to work through disagreements. We already have that, if we'd simply use it.




    I agree with you in everything except analogy. :)

    My emphasis was on "small" rather than "more frequent". Perhaps I should've added the word "controlled", as in "small, controlled fires". When I say "airing grievances", I mean as a part of a reasoned debate. What doesn't help is when the grievances are imagined, invented, and/or exaggerated.

    As an example, consider the 8 years prior to Obama. We needed the ability to vent then, and people who disagree with us need the ability to vent now. There were crazies on our side then, just as it seems the majority (but not all) of their side is crazy now. (Note to A-man: I'm not making an equivalency here.) The key is to keep the venting healthy and productive.

    Good post, good doctor. It adds an important distinction to the McArdle debate the other day, whether violence by "the deranged and fanatical and weak-minded" is the responsibility of the movement to which they attach themselves too. The answer, I think you are suggesting, depends on the leaders of the movement. To the extent that the leaders fan the flames, to use your analogy, they bear responsibility for provoking the violence even if they don't actually condone it. Allow me to add the implicit corollary: to the extent that the violence is unrelated to the the actions and statements of the leaders, they are not responsible.

    Thus, King Richard bore responsibility for the pogroms not because the perpetrators were his subjects but because he demonized Jews, thereby encouraging the violence. Similarly, an extremist Sunni imam who rails against satanic infidels bears responsibility for 9/11 even if he denounces the attack, but a moderate, peace-loving imam does not.

    This standard is obviously a vague one, but I think that it allows us to find agreement on the matter. Am I misinterpreting you?

    No, you've got it. In fact, my position makes no sense unless publuic figures can be judged for how responsibly they deal with those questions.

    Demonizing one's political opponents isn't murder one, but it's like manslaughter. Not premeditation of a death, but risking someone else's life through reckless disregard.

    Although I'd also add that the "nutjob excuse" is ineffective in practical politics. It's more important, for every reason, to keep your own lunatic fringe calm than it is to try disowning them after the fact.


    I realize I might have come off as being a tad bit antagonistic (I get really drawn by the need to play devil's advocate), so as a peace offering, I offer you this piece. Here's a salient quote:

    Everyone's outraged all the time. Why are you outraged? There's war -- there's always been war, as long as most of us have been alive. There have always been people being abused, there's always been horrible things in the world. Why are we outraged? We should just be quiet and figure it out, and work it out together. ... There's no solution in Washington as long as people are shouting like that.

    Ah, nebton, don't worry. It's no big deal.

    But comparing me with Dave Matthews ... them's fightin' words.

    Joe Scarborough, it would seem, agrees with you:


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    So, I don't like "guilt by association", but I do think that the good Doc and Scarborough both make a point that if someone from "your side" does/says something truly unconscionable, then you need to call them out on it.

    Now, here's the devil's advocate: how well did Obama do (or should he have done) at distancing himself from the actions of Ayers (which admittedly happened a long time ago), or the words of Rev. Wright?

    Just to be clear, that's a two part question, possibly out of order, so I'll ask it again and switch the order: (1) Should Obama have distanced himself from the actions of Ayers and the objectionable words of Wright (or were their objectionable words of Wright), and if so, (2) How well did he do at it?

    As a I recall, a future Secretary of State gave him a rather public dressing down on the proper way to both reject AND denounce such behavior.

    You know, I despise Ayers, both for his crimes as a Weatherman and for his unrepentant pride in those crimes. But I couldn't be the least bit interested in Obama denouncing, renouncing, rejecting or repudiating them.

    Ayers's crimes are very clearly in the past. Obama was never in danger of inciting more violence from the Weather Underground. So tut-tutting over Ayers's past was merely symbolic. I am not interested in symbolic speech or historically-correct speech. I'm interested in speech that prompts or tends to prompt action.

    I object, to the extent I think about, to Ayers's original reintegration into progressive political circles in Chicago. I think that until he publicly renounced his own crimes, at the very least, he should have been turned away as a pariah. But that decision was made without me, long ago. And it was also made well before Barack Obama turned up in Chicago. (I also despised Strom Thurmond, but I didn't expect all of his fellow Republican Senators to ostracize him throughout the 1990s.) Obama entered a Chicago where Ayers was peaceably doing good works, and where he was already a fixture on charitable boards. Should Obama not have served on the board of the Woods Foundation because he objected to the presence of Ayers? I don't think so.

    That's a long answer. Here's the short one: I'm interested in how speech affects civil peace in the present, and in the imminent future. I'm not interested in historical grievances.


    Considering these issues arose during the heat of campaigning, Nebton, Obama was just about pitch-perfect. His initial attempt in the "race" speech to cut Rev. Wright some slack was masterful -- as good a political save as Nixon's "Checkers" speech. The Wright issue was totally defused -- or would have been if Wright had stuck to the unspoken deal and kept a low profile. When Wright opted to go loudly public once more, Obama had no choice but to denounce him. But in both instances, he came off as a man of judgment and compassion. In mid-campaign, that's all that counts.

    With Bill Ayers, the issue was far simpler. Obama's links to him were very tangential, and the public never bought into the smear. Obama did the only thing he could do, which was to denounce the radical militancy of the Vietnam era.

    I must say that Ayers himself behaved better than Wright, taking a bullet for the cause through his self-imposed silence. I do believe in rehabilitation and redemption, but on top of that it's worth noting that Ayers was never convicted of any crime. He has never expressed remorse because he continues to believe that trying to stop the abominable Vietnam War justified his group's campaign of symbolic terror. I marched peacefully against that war (never even getting arrested) and didn't approve of the Weathermen's actions. Still I understand theirs was a moral decision. Not necessarily right, but taken on principle.

    Well, I'm glad. The more conservatives do t defuse the craziness, the better.

    It's fascinating how uncomfortable Mika and the others look as Scarborough keeps talking.

    Beck's "rodeo clown" metaphor is also wild ... since rodeo clowns intervene to defuse violence themselves, to distract the angry bull while riders get away. Beck is a rodeo clown who deliberately antagonizes the bull and lets it out of the chute ... worst rodeo clown ever.

    Now you're confusing me. Is it a metaphor or an analogy? Did someone, like, say like? :P

    Irregardless (I just love using that non-word), I agree completely with what you're saying about the rodeo clown anaphor.

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