Man walks into a column, no.3: Freedom

This post was written by Phil

The links between right-wing rhetoric and the murderous acts of Jared Loughner are tenuous at best. But the hatred that dominates so much of political discourse in the US really does seem different to our own both in its prevalence and its force. Why is this?

It’s tempting for a Brit, a European, to feel smug about the apparent brutality of life in America at times like these. But acts of political violence and hatred are to be found here too. Upon hearing that members of a Kansas church planned to picket the funeral of a nine-year-old girl were you left thinking: that sort of thing could never happen in this country? But were the plans made by a different religious group to stage a protest along the same route in a Wiltshire town used to mark the death of fallen soldiers so very different?

The tone of mainstream media comment, on the other hand, really does mark the US out as being in a different league. As revolting as the Richard Littlejohns of this world can be, even the nastiest Daily Mail columnist wouldn’t have the courage to invoke Nazi death camps or talk of God ‘washing this nation with blood’, as Fox News talkshow host Glenn Beck feels able to.

But it would be a mistake, it seems, to suggest that this is an exclusively right-wing phenomenon: as TIME correspondent David Von Drehle points out, statements from those on the left of the spectrum such as ‘Mission accomplished, Sarah Palin’ are hardly anti-inflammatory (President Obama even dabbled, once saying that if their opponents brought knives to a fight, the Democrats should bring guns).

The reasons for the nastiness of America’s political discourse are undoubtedly multifarious and complex, but I’d argue that there are three that must surely feature prominently in any explanation. 

First, the United States is a vast, messy compromise of a place, borne out of still comparatively recent (at least in European terms) internecine conflict. States many times larger than most countries guard their independence judiciously and see Washington as a remote and meddlesome place. 

Second, the only thing able to unite such a coalition was an artefact of both stunning elegance and hopeless imprecision: the US Constitution. By enshrining in its first amendment the fundamental right to freedom of speech – maintained time and time again as capable of trumping almost everything else – it’s very difficult to legislate for civility. 

Third, with the partial exception of the internet, American mass media is, like everything else in the world’s biggest marketplace, dominated by big, big money, and commodified to hell. In a maelstrom of channels and voices, it’s no surprise that extremism and demagoguery win out. 

So when all is said and done, perhaps what’s most remarkable is that, in the face of these structural and overwhelming odds, the US hasn’t ground to a standstill of infighting and name-calling. The Republican Party is, of course, still holding out hope…

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