Thursday, March 25, 2010

On Language and Violence (The Health Care "Debate")

(image: crusaders killing Jews, 13th c. MS)
I have something to say.

In May 1096, Christians attacked the Jews of Speyer.  The bishop of Speyer protected the Jews & arrested a couple of the perpetrators.  This ended the violence at Speyer.  The Christians, however, moved north, up the Rhine, to Worms and then to Mainz.  They massacred the Jewish communities they found in those cities, over, at least, the protestations -- and armed resistance -- of the archbishop of Mainz.  From Mainz, the Christians split up, with 1 segment moving down the Moselle river valley to Trier and Metz, killing a few and forcibly converting the rest of the Jews in those cities.  The other segment headed north from Mainz to Cologne, where they found that the bishop had moved the Jews out of Cologne & to a number of surrounding communities.  It didn't matter.  The Christians found them and massacred them all. 

After Cologne & Metz, the Christians finally turned towards their ostensible goal -- Jerusalem -- meeting up and continuing eastwards, up the Danube and into Hungary.  These Christians were crusaders.  The attacks upon the Jews of the Rhineland were the beginning of this army's participation in the First Crusade.

Modern scholarship on (and hence popular understanding of) the First Crusade has almost universally "divided" the First Crusade up.  The armies of the Rhineland, who left some months before other western armies containing, ultimately, the "heroes" of the First Crusade (Bohemond, Raymond of Toulouse, Godfrey of Bouillon, etc.), have traditionally been called the "Peasants' Crusade."  Now, a bit more diplomatically, they're termed the "first wave." But this is misguided.  By suggesting that the "Peasants’ Crusade" was something "different" from the "real" First Crusade, scholars are suggesting that the actions of these armies of the Rhineland were not "real" crusaders.  They were inspired by different factors and composed of a different sort of person. Pope Urban II and the better known leaders of the crusading armies are thus, in some sense, exonerated from the troublesome sentiments their words inspired. These massacres, it seems, were all the fault of irresponsible popular preachers and a senseless rabble. 


These armies of the Rhineland, the Christians who marched AWAY from Jerusalem in their quest to attack the Jews, were very much a part of the First Crusade, not some unfortunate byproduct.  They may have left earlier than other armies but one could plausibly argue that that was simply a (poor) logistical decision.  Alternately, one could plausibly argue that those who departed early were more fired by religious zeal, more eager to get to Jerusalem. They may not have heard Pope Urban II preach but few who went to the East actually did in 1095-96.  They almost certainly got the same general message, something we might be able to extract from Pope Urban II's surviving letters -- something about a spiritually-beneficial armed expedition, intended to liberate the Christians of the East from the non-Christians/ pagans. 

One can argue that this message was simply “rhetoric,” that it was all language. But words have meaning.  Language, and the ideas it contains, influences actions. Put another way, words & ideas make people do things.  Words made the First Crusade.  Urban's preaching tour inspired men to leave home, walk 2,000+ miles to Jerusalem, and kill people they'd never met and hardly heard of before. Urban and the rest of his preachers may not have intended for the Jews of Worms, Mainz, and Cologne to be massacred.  But they were.  And they were because of the message that the crusade preachers preached and because of the field of actions that they're language opened for their listeners. The massacres of the Jews were caused by the same rhetoric that caused the massacre of the Muslims in Jerusalem in 1099, at the very end of the First Crusade.


Words still have meaning.  Ideas still inspire action.

In the wake of the vote in the House of Representatives passing health care reform in the US, at least 10 lawmakers who voted for the reform have received death threatsRep. Tom Perriello (D-VA), for example, has been threatened and the gas line to his brother's house was deliberately cut (possibly because the criminal thought it was Rep. Perriello's house).  Bart Stupak (D-MI) and James Clyburn (D-SC) were faxed images of nooses with threats attached.  

Why?  Why the "overheated language?" Where is it coming from?  From top and bottom.  

It's coming from segments (NOT the entire) Tea Party movement that are fundamentally convinced that the actions of Obama and the Democrats are intended to strip away the people's rights, including (importantly, I think) their right to own firearms, and that a legitimate way to resist these government intrusions is with said firearms.  The Dept. of Homeland Security warned of these potential threats earlierThe Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked a 54% rise in hate group growth since 2000.  These are, indeed, radical, fringe groups but ones that have now been co-opted for political expediency. The attack on Rep. Perriello, for example, was likely instigated by a militia leader who is part of his local Tea Party movement.

But it's coming from the top as well: from John Boehner, calling Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-OH) a "dead man" if he votes for health care reform, from Sarah Palin using gunsights to "target" vulnerable Democratic lawmakers, and from Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who stood out on the Capitol balcony to incite the Tea Party protesters during the health care debate by "slapping" a picture of Nancy Pelosi.  

This is not the First Crusade.  But it is a language of violence too. Words have meaning and rhetoric/ language has consequences.  Politicians of all stripes should be wary of making a devil's bargain, using potentially violent fringe groups for political expediency.  These politicians should be aware that if they've stirred up the hornets and set them loose, they -- the politicians -- are ultimately responsible for any "unsavory" activities the hornets might get up to.

UPDATE,  3/26/10:  An incident in Nashville, where an SUV rammed a car with an Obama bumper sticker, even pushing the car into an intersection.  

UPDATE #2, 3/26/10:  Adam Serwer at The American Prospect's (and Ta-Nehisi Coates') ideas on the entitlement in the Tea Party movement dovetails wells with what I'm saying above.  


Steve Muhlberger said...

people who use such violent language don't care very much if there is trouble for other people down the pike. It is other people who have to identify this stuff and do their best to break the momentum early on. This is precisely what you are doing here.

theswain said...

Well said, Matt, thanks.

Lorenzo said...

The US suffers from an excess of political tribalism, including an excess of "vigorous" rhetoric, not limited to one side of politics.

Imagine the outcry if someone released a film based on, say, the assassination of President Obama?

Matthew Gabriele said...

Lorenzo, thanks again. And I see that you read David Brooks... :-)

Anyway, I don't know what your point is here. I guess you agree that the language of violence inspires violence and, hence, shouldn't be tolerated.

Also, to point out that crazies on the left are just as crazy as crazies on the right is no great revelation. But at least compares apples to apples. To my knowledge, you never saw minority leader Pelosi calling anyone a "dead man" or saw Barbara Lee publicly slapping a picture of Bush before a crowd of protesters.

In the US, the Tea Party (and hence, now, the GOP) has welcomed into its ranks a fringe element of the right because of their shared anti-tax, anti-government sympathies. Now, however, the GOP owns their actions.