Taking A Step Back

I’ve spent the past few days reading media reactions to the shooting in Tucson. There have been many calls for more civility, for more gun control, and better treatment of mental disorders, but I haven’t seen much in the way of accepting responsibility. I am not looking for the Sarah Palins of the world to take responsibility for the shooting; I doubt any rational person, once they put aside their emotional response to the shooting, would accuse her or Fox or anyone like them for causing this incident. What I have been waiting for is someone to step back and say, “Hey, maybe we should tone it down.” And while I’ve certainly seen such calls, the New York Times editorial staff wasn’t exactly a case study in excessive rhetoric prior to the shooting.

Much to my surprise, I found what I was looking for on Matt Taibbi’s blog today. The post can be read here. For those of you unfamiliar with Taibbi, he writes Rolling Stone’s political affairs column and is one of the more bombastic liberal commentators out there, though he is far from being a partisan Democrat; you’re as likely to read him attacking the Democrats as the Republicans and he is perhaps most well known for his attacks on the excesses of Wall Street.

Now, Taibbi, to the best of my knowledge, has never engaged in violent rhetoric, unless we’re counting comparing Goldman Sachs to a vampire squid as inciting violence. Rather, he is guilty of what so many commentators have done in recent years: excessive rhetoric demonizing their opponents. That being said, Taibbi is rather tame by Fox News standards; there’s a difference between claiming members of both parties are unfit to govern and claiming that the Democrats are destroying our country.

But Taibbi is, to the best of my knowledge, the only member of the media to step forward and say, “We should be held to a higher standard.” Whether he reverts back to bombastic rhetoric remains to be seen. But the fact that he was able to say that he was guilty of behaving irresponsibility. This is a step above what we’ve come to expect of most of the members of the media and our political leaders, who all seem to be in a rush to blame anyone but themselves. In fact, the only politician I can really remember taking responsibility for something going wrong is the President.

Taibbi’s post is, I think, what we want from the media and politicians. Or at least, what the rational centers in our brains want. He acted like an adult, taking responsibility for his past mistakes, regardless of the fact that they had absolutely no connection to what happened in Tucson. Somehow I doubt many other opinion makers will do the same. If anyone knows of a similar statement, please post it in the comments. I think we all know that most of the people who have used irresponsible rhetoric will continue acting like children, shifting the blame to their critics while never acknowledging their own mistakes.

Taibbi’s post touches on why we won’t see many like it. The reason we hear this rhetoric, from the media and from politicians, is that there is a market for it. Pundits and politicians are selling a product, and partisanship is in heavy demand these days. In the end, it is us, the consumers and voters, who are responsible for the violent rhetoric we hear. If we were not energized by it, increasing media profits and voting turnout, the pundits and politicians would not use it. I personally would like to live in a society where it is unacceptable for politicians to use the rhetoric of violence, where doing so would effectively end their political careers, but that’s not going to happen. In the wake of the shooting, CBS conducted a poll asking whether violent action against the government was ever justified. In April 2010, the percentage of respondents who said yes was 16%. After the events in Tucson, the number stayed level at 16%. This should be troubling to anyone who values living in a republic.