An Open Letter to David Horsey

Dear Mr. Horsey:

I would only suggest that there is something amiss about this whole debate when you find yourself compelled to disclaim that “the fact remains that nothing has proven anybody’s words inspired Jared Loughner’s actions”.

I would ask everyone to stop and think for a moment. At the core of the question about violent right-wing rhetoric is an issue we’ve been tolerating in these United States for longer than I’ve been alive (thirty-seven years). Indeed, I’m sure if I looked back beyond the advent of rock and roll, I could find the same arguments.

In the 1970s, some conservatives fretted that an anti-cocaine song would turn children into Satanists. Yeah, I know, it sounds strange, but the band Styx still gets mileage out of that one whenever they play “Snowblind”. Peter Gabriel, the guy who wrote “Here Comes the Flood” and “Solsbury Hill”—both of which rely heavily on Christian themes—was Satanic. And listening to his music could turn a teenager Satanic.

By my time as a teenager, the PMRC was in full effect, and the going presumption among the would-be censors was that a teenager was not smart enough to listen to rock and roll without killing someone. A song about the dangers of alcoholism was sued because a teenager killed himself. On the censors’ hit list were bands that recorded songs including overt Christian messages; the heavy metal band Savatage once sang, “We should have listened to what Christ had to say”, and in 1991 released an album that included prayers to God for guidance, redemption, and healing: “Sweet Lord Jesus, heal my soul.” And yet they were included in the censorial wrath.

The idea, of course, was that glamorous musicians singing controversial lyrics could “influence” children into new boundaries of acceptability. It even went so far that some would even deliberately misrepresent lyrics in order to frighten parents; e.g., a man named Bob Larson once mangled a Dio song (“All the Fools Sailed Away”) in order to represent it as dangerous to children, and he had a problem reading liner notes, having once denounced as encouragement to murder one of Anthrax’s paeans to Stephen King (“Misery Loves Company”).

Okay, so the teenagers are too dumb to listen to music without becoming freaky Satanic murderers, but Bob Larson isn’t smart enough to read the liner notes?

One would think things came to a head in Florida, when an attempt to prosecute a man for selling a music album made it to federal court before the county’s case came apart. But several years later, states moved to suppress Marilyn Manson concerts because the music offended Christian tastes.

And the same goes for literature. At the turn of the new century, one of the most protested library books was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The children’s classic was repeatedly denounced for its advocacy of witchcraft (three women representing human incarnations of stars), lesbianism (three elderly women living in the same house), and … communism. Apparently, reading a blatantly anti-communist book written for children is going to turn a child into a communist. Despite the contradiction, we still see that same device of influence at play.

In the twenty-first century, there actually have been burnings of Harry Potter books. You know, the whole influence thing: It might turn children into witches.

The last twenty years have seen an increased focus on homosexuality. And here we encounter the conservatives’ influence argument again: If we normalize or legitimize homosexuality, good straight kids will think it’s okay to be gay, and … well, they’ll turn gay.

Over and over again. Elections have been won and lost on this argument, and prosecutions attempted. Public entities have moved against the U.S. Constitution for the sake of this argument. It has had profound implications, including effects on education and health discussions.

At least sixty years.

Then again, some of the reviews of Mary Shelley and Lord Byron in their day are pretty entertaining to our modern sensibilities.

It’s been going on a long, long time.

And a couple weeks ago, in the wake of a stunning tragedy, it was time for the argument’s proponents to face up to its implications.

They have fled that argument. It should not apply to them. And, presently, it seems they’re winning that point.

Does that mean the last sixty years of the influence argument have all been a lie?

Okay, fine. Now, let’s do away with it.

The reality is not a matter of influence. It is a question of boundaries.

I’m aware that leftists like myself have a long history of vitriolic rhetoric. But at no point has any of that ever been legitimized. The right-wing rhetoric, however, has been received by press and public alike as if it is somehow more acceptable—though nobody can explain why. We hear this sort of talk from a former vice-presidential candidate. From congressional candidates.

As a society, we have redefined our boundaries of acceptability. And while I cannot claim to have a definitive answer, it seems to me that the pertinent question about violent, right-wing rhetoric is to consider whether and how that redefinition might have played into whatever choice Jared Loughner might have made.

We’re never supposed to voice the question, though. Not even when a tax protester flies a plane into a building, nor if someone allegedly upset by the liberal destruction of America sets out to shoot up the ACLU or Tides Center.

Nor when someone who is already upset by a politician’s failure to answer his question to his satisfaction shoots that politician sometime after Sarah Palin targeted her and encouraged her Twitter followers to reload.

Okay, we get it. The influence argument that has hurt so many people over the course of decades applies to everyone except conservatives. It would be unfair to hold them to the very standards they advocate, wouldn’t it?

It seems quite clear that the public discourse is focusing on the wrong question. I only wonder to what degree that is deliberate. Certainly, it makes sense for conservatives to attempt this sleight of tongue, but why is everyone letting them get away with it?

Give it a couple months. The influence argument that conservatives have pushed for longer than I’ve been alive, that they suddenly don’t believe in, will be back soon enough. We will most likely hear it in gay rights issues, that heterosexual teenagers can be influenced to become gay simply because society isn’t mean enough to homosexuals.

And when that happens, we’ll all have to make up nice things to say, because being honest and telling them to go screw their screaming hypocrisy just isn’t civilized.

I can only urge that people stop letting conservatives set the agenda for this discussion. Quite clearly, they are trying to escape themselves.

And beyond the clear hypocrisy and the partisan debate it brings, there is something greater to pursue—a restoration of a small portion of our vital integrity as a culture and nation. That is, either the influence argument is correct, and conservatives owe the nation some semblance of sanity about their rhetoric; or else it is—as we suspected thirty years ago when everyone was freaking out about music—false, and therefore needs to be abandoned entirely.

And while many of my liberal and leftist neighbors will insist on making some sort of argument, they do need to remember that the naked argument about influence is one we’ve already been through and rejected many times over. True, one of my conservative neighbors has gone so far as to argue that since Loughner wasn’t a member of the Tea Party, he couldn’t possibly be influenced by their rhetoric. And it’s true that one ignores observable reality in asserting that one who is not an active adherent, participant, or subscriber to an idea cannot be influenced by it. But no. Jared Loughner did not aim to assassinate a targeted member of Congress on Sarah Palin’s say-so. The question is whether or not the redefinition of societal boundaries of acceptability in order to legitimize the right wing’s vicious and violent rhetoric had any effect on Loughner’s decision.

The answer cannot be presupposed. But the question needs to be asked, and if we leave the discussion at “the fact remains that nothing has proven anybody’s words inspired Jared Loughner’s actions”, we’re missing the point.

Don’t think I’m going to stop reading anytime soon; you do excellent work, and are one of the region’s treasures. It’s just that I happen to disagree this time, and I think it’s really, really important.

We have a chance, as a nation, to find a glimmer of hope in this tragedy. The question remains whether we are willing to harvest that fruit. Robyn Hitchcock once sang, “God finds you naked and he leaves you dying. What happens in between is up to you.”

And whether or not we can find any shred of redemption in what has happened is entirely up to us.

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