Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Return to Shame

Violence fueled by fear is a familiar chapter in American history
AP photo of Arizona shooting rampage

American fears and frustrations were ripe for exploitation by the time D. W. Griffith’s film, Birth of A Nation, was released in 1915. The South was still nursing old wounds left over from a lost war that resulted in the emancipation of black people. The North was grappling with new fears with the migration of millions whose skin color represented danger. Griffith’s movie depicted blacks as monkey-like, buffoonish legislators and murderous, dark skin deviants intent on raping white women.

Birth of A Nation, which was the highest-grossing movie of the silent film era, reinforced the tenets of white supremacy by tapping into white insecurity. The Klu Klux Klan’s membership skyrocketed from 5,000 to 100,000, months after the release of a film that depicted the Klan as stalwart defenders of the great white way.

Fast forward 96 years, and we may recognize an anger and fear-based climate akin to the one that tolerated and celebrated the propaganda Griffith promoted.

Although the motivations of Jared Loughner, 22, aren’t known, it’s a safe bet that the warped mind of the man accused of killing six people and wounding 14 others on Saturday, was influenced by something dark and subversive. Authorities said Loughner targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the three-term Democrat from Arizona. She was shot in the head at point blank range while meeting with constituents outside a local supermarket.

Former vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, described Giffords' seat as one of the top "targets" in the midterm elections because the lawmaker supported President Obama’s health care reform legislation. Palin emphasized her point with an illustration of a gun’s crosshairs over Giffords' district. It’s premature to definitively say Palin influenced Loughner.

However, it is way past time to put the brakes on the flammable political and partisan rhetoric that fueling a toxic environment.

Last year, Daniel Cowart, a white supremacist, pleaded guilty to a 2008 plot to behead dozens of black people and assassinate then-presidential candidate Obama. After the passage of healthcare reform last year, a brick was thrown through the office window of Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY). A note attached read: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Slaughter also received a phone message where the word “assassinate” was used to reference the children of “lawmakers who voted yes," on the health care measure.

Since Obama’s inauguration, polls and studies indicate that racial animosity, white supremacist membership, fears of socialism, Muslim infiltration and feelings that the government has gone in treasonous directions were all on the rise. A Harris Poll last year noted that 40 percent of Americans believe Obama is a socialist; about 25 percent likened him to Hitler and 14 percent believe he may be the Antichrist.

We don’t know who these people are but we do know their levels of irrational thought, fear and anger are off the charts. It is in this explosive environment that Rush Limbaugh lampoons Obama as the “magic Negro” and Glenn Beck warns about Obama’s "a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”
Limbaugh, Beck, Palin and other proponents of propaganda are tolerated by most and supported by corporate advertisements and fat, multi-million dollar contracts.
Because the extremists have millions of loyal followers who vote, subscribe to newspapers and support other media outlets, extremism is accepted. Therefore, obliging, media has become an enabler of the venom that exploits the vulnerable American mindset.

D. W. Griffith’s film was released during a time when fear and anger were at a fevered pitch in this country. Fears were amplified by exaggerated media accounts of dangerous migrating blacks. In the first six months of 1919, murderous race riots exploded in 22 cities. Assistant executive secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, listed newspapers as the top contributors to the violence when he wrote; “The long period of race-based negativity in the press inflamed the minds of many people against Negroes.”

To justify its capitulation in the face of vocal tyranny, mainstream media hides behind the banner of “free speech.” Yet, history shows us that free speech wasn’t always extended to individuals who challenged social injustice and threatened the status quo. The media did not genuflect in its effort to marginalize, demonize and rebuke their rhetoric.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said; “sometimes silence is betrayal.” There are millions who, deep down, know we’ve crossed an ethical line. It's hard to ignore the signals that we have traipsed back to a time when hatred, fear and combustible language ignited illogical and extreme reactions and fueled murder and assassination attempts.

We can't ignore that betrayal is our silence. And our silence is our shame.

Freelance writer, Sylvester Brown, Jr., is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.