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January 18, 2011

Designated Villains and the Tea Party

Ace already noted the clumsy CNN report attempting to link contemporary "hate rhetoric" with violence that occurred during the civil rights movement. This is old hackery, so thoroughly debunked it's hardly deserving of reply at this point. Suffice it to say, I kept waiting for the piece to explain what "hate rhetoric" is and how it is a sign or cause of impending violence, either in the 1950s and 60s or in the past few years. Alas, I waited in vain because the "reporter" never got around to clarifying the supposed topic of the piece.

That's because the real object isn't to examine "hate rhetoric", whatever that is. It's to call the Tea Party racist. Again. This type of slime job relies on several techniques common to bad fiction, but the central trope is the Designated Villain.


The Designated Villain, like its counterpart the Designated Hero -- about which I wrote here in relation to the President -- occurs when an author violates the "Show, Don't Tell" rule. A character is treated by the author and the other characters as the villain of the work even though the character hasn't actually done anything to justify this treatment. Quite simply since the protagonists oppose him, he must be the bad guy, even if all his evil occurs off screen and is barely mentioned. The villainy has to be assumed by the reader.

Like the Designated Hero, the Designated Villain is very much present in modern reporting. Fortunately, unlike fiction in which the reader has no choice but to accept the assumptions made by the author, we do not have to accept the assumptions of reporters. Here are just a few the CNN reporter uses to designate the Tea Party as the villain of both the Tucson shooting and, illogically, racist violence that occurred fifty years ago:

She said she saw hundreds of Tea Party members shout down Giffords at a town hall meeting. She saw scores of ordinary Arizonans openly carry guns around town. She noted the rising ethnic strife.

There are five assumptions here (go figure, there are only three sentences). The first is that Tea Party members "shouting down" a Congresswoman is "hate rhetoric." But even more fundamental than that is the question of whether that event, the shouting down of Representative Giffords, even occurred. I spent some time on Google looking for news or video suggesting that she had been shouted away from the podium or otherwise had her views suppressed during town halls and couldn't find any. But see here and here for some characteristic exchanges at town hall events questioning Giffords' support for the proposed healthcare reform bill.

Please, please, please click the second link and watch the whole thing to see the Tea Partiers asking Giffords not to treat them like "a mob" and Giffords talking about the Tea Party and swastikas. That's how far from reality the CNN reporter wanders. Rather than shouting her down, the Tea Partiers tried to get her to state her positions and treat them with respect. In return, she slandered them with a Nazi comparison.

The third assumption is that carrying guns is somehow bad, a common one among liberals. This is paired with the idea that the bad guys carry guns. Unsaid and apparently forgotten because it undermines the reporter's point is that civil rights activists relied on firearms for protection in the 1960s. They recognized the danger they faced, and armed themselves for protection and quite openly let others know that they were armed.

Finally, the reporter references "rising ethnic strife" which, to be honest, I'm puzzled by. What ethnic strife exists in Arizona right now? Certainly not what existed in the South during the civil rights movement. Rather, this seems like an oblique reference to the Arizona immigration law. Because apparently, assumptively, enforcing immigration law and supporting border security is just like firehoses, bombs, and lynchings or something.

Then, after all those assumptions, the reporter (really, an author of fiction now) reinforces the designation with a convenient quote:

"I told people, this is the new Mississippi," Hayden said. "This is where the focus of the resurgence of right-wing hostility is located."

Nothing in the first blockquote leads to the conclusion in second...but only if you recognize the assumptions that are made. I guarantee you that liberals, the reality-based community, would nod along with those two paragraphs as if they made perfect sense.

Then there's this:

Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, said the recent political tone "takes me back to that period in the civil rights movement when we were called un-American."

Lewis, who was beaten in Selma, Alabama, while leading a civil rights march, said rhetoric turns dangerous when groups go beyond the war analogies common in political speech and imply their foes are enemies of America. During the health care reform debate, some leaders called their foes "un-American" and "socialists," he says.

Again, there are a couple major assumptions here. First, the author and, apparently, Rep. Lewis, wants the reader to believe that the Tea Party using "hate rhetoric" called opponents "un-American" and "socialists." Setting aside whether either is "hate rhetoric", yes to the latter, but let's go to the record on the former. Calling their opponents "un-American" in an op-ed for USA Today is none other than then-Speaker Pelosi and then-Majority Leader Hoyer. Lewis either doesn't know that or conveniently forgot it. The author doesn't correct or even note the misperception and, of course, it's entirely possible that the author doesn't actually know the truth either.

Some additional slurs used during the healthcare debate that are conveniently forgotten by the CNN author: "the mob", "terrorists", "racists", "fascists", "like the KKK", "evil-mongers", "they want to kill the president", "traitors", "Neanderthals", and "tea baggers."

This is the problem with designating a villain outside of fiction. The assumptions necessary to make it work depend on the reader to be utterly ignorant of reality. In the real world, charged political rhetoric is common and rarely leads to violence. But to liberals, it is a feature of "right-wing" political speech and someone always ends up getting hurt. Evidence? No evidence required, this narrative has already been written. If President Obama is the hero, then ipso facto the Tea Party is the villain.

That's why the racism card is played so frequently these days. It's not because, as liberals would have it, there are more racists in America these past two years than in the eight before that. It's because the Designated Hero is a black man. Ipso facto, the Designated Villains must be motivated by racism. Writers (and leaders and voters) are fundamentally lazy and it's easiest to fall into convenient narratives, particularly when the media are so provocatively implying the racism narrative with every piece of "reporting."

This article is no different:

Hartford said it's virtually inevitable that rapid social changes in America -- electing the first black president, the influx of Latino immigrants -- will be accompanied by violence.

"There is almost always an undercurrent of violence in this country that emerges as a reaction to the advancement of a despised minority's rights," Hartford said.

Whoa. Does he really think that blacks are a "despised minority" in America or that Obama's election is a "rapid social change"? And anyone who believes that we're seeing an "influx of Latino immigrants" has conveniently forgotten the amnesties in the 1980s and is apparently ignorant that the U.S. is seeing net negative illegal migration at the moment. Again, these are vague assumptions, conveniently embedded within a quote so the author can just slide them into his piece and move on. In reality, black politicians of national (and even international) stature stopped being a novelty long ago. That's not "rapid social change." But note that here we are again, somehow -- without even a shred of evidence to connect recent violence to conservatives or the Tea Party -- talking about violence from the political right.

That's the take-away: the Tea Party is the villain because that's what the story says, dammit, that's why. The Tea Party is violent because this story demands a violent villain to contrast with the author's peaceful Designated Hero. The Tea Party is racist because that's their designation. Didn't you read that they're opposing President Obama? Ipso facto, racist, violent villains.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 07:15 AM

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