Outdoors enthusiast Sarah Palin, who sees sport in blasting wolves with assault rifles from helicopters, surely knows the practical message of iconic fictional character Smokey The Bear: “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
Whether Momma Grizzly can really see Russia from her home in Alaska, as she once claimed, she certainly can see the clear meaning of Alaska Statute Section 41.15.110 titled “Uncontrolled Spread of Fire; Leaving Fire Unattended.”
Under a provision in that statue section, a person is guilty of a misdemeanor if they neglect “to make every effort possible” to extinguish a fire they’ve knowingly set.
Now former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is not guilty of literally starting wildfires in the forests around her beloved Wasilla home. But she is complicit in figuratively firing up the dry tinder in America’s forests of political discontent with incendiary rhetoric delivered with the clear intent to inflame.
What else describes Palin repeatedly calling political opponent Barack Obama a “terrorist” during the Fall 2008 presidential campaign – a characterization carrying incendiary overtones in America’s post-9/11 climate.
Flicking off criticisms about her inappropriate campaign rhetoric, Palin knowingly fired opposition to President Obama’s health-care reform telling supporters to “reload” not retreat – slick phrasing embedding incendiary reference to firearms.
And dumping hot cinders on civility, Palin put gun sight cross-hairs on a map targeting twenty Democratic members of Congress to be unseated.
Irrespective of Palin’s indignant claim that such imagery is harmless political hyperbole the cross-hairs graphics were as ominous as incendiary.
One of those Congress members put in Palin’s cross-hairs, of course, was Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was critically wounded during that recent massacre where a crazed gunman killed six and wounded 14.
That Tucson shooting rampage is not an isolated act in America’s tinderbox political arena, where right-wing anti-government adherents repeatedly engaged in shootouts with police last year in incidents that included a March 2010 shooting at the Pentagon, a May shooting near Memphis and a July shooting in California.
It is no coincidence that President Obama has been the target of more death threats than any president in American history, according to the Secret Service.
That at least some of those threats against the President result directly from the charged anti-Obama rhetoric comparing him to Hitler and calling him un-American is as certain as the connection Smokey the Bear draws between reckless conduct and ruinous forest fires. A forest fire destroys whether it starts from accident or arson.
Months ago Congresswoman Giffords stated the obvious about Palin’s now infamous cross-hairs map in words that should resonate for conservatives who are fond of mouthing platitudes about accepting personal responsibility.
Giffords said people who do things like that have “got to realize there’s consequences to that action.”
Palin’s defiantly denies that her incendiary rhetoric has even a remote connection to the conflagration underlying politically related violence like the Tucson massacre – which is political due to the targeting of a member of Congress…irrespective of the political persuasion of the alleged shooter.
Palin’s denial led blogger and university finance professor Dr. Boyce Watkins to compare her stance to gangster rappers who “use public platforms for personal benefit, yet neglect any responsibility for the negative outcomes of their words.”
If words have no meaning, as some assert in the wake of the Tucson shootings, then why did the new Republican majority in Congress quickly change the names of some congressional subcommittees, eliminating long-established words like civil rights, civil liberties, labor and family support from those subcommittee titles?
Language in that Alaska statute dealing with forest fires answers Palin and other right-wingers’ who advance the facile my-rhetoric-but-not-my-responsibility rationale.
One section of the statute states that the “escape of the fire is presumptive evidence of negligence by the person responsible for starting the fire.”
In fairness to Palin and her incendiary accomplices, from Beck to Gingrich to Limbaugh and beyond, there is an unindicted co-conspirator in America’s current combustible climate of political hate speech: the news media.
Coverage practices by the news media that are frequently sensationalistic and routinely shallow provided oxygen that fuels heated political rhetoric. This ‘oxygen’ facilitates the predominately right-wing rhetoric flaring from smoldering into flaming fury.
Although pillorying the news media is standard practice for Palin, the mainstream news media quickly came to Palin’s aid after the Tucson shootings with pundits and talking-head hosts pushing the message that a defensible distance exists between incendiary rhetoric and deadly results.
A Washington Post editorial warned against “the temptation” to read broader political meaning into the acts of the Tucson gunman, while a former Post media critic, Howard Kurtz, now with a popular internet political site The Daily Beast, blasted any linking of Palin’s words to the shooting as a “sickening ritual of guilt by association.”
Apparently many political pundits, highly-paid for their experience-based insights, lack the intellectually honest eyesight of the woman who published an October 2008 letter about McCain-Palin campaign scare tactics in a leading North Carolina newspaper.
Her letter stated, “I fear the inflammatory rhetoric may unhinge someone, who, regardless of party affiliation, will use these remarks to take matters into his own hands to ‘keep America safe.’”
The news media’s main complicity in this over-heated political climate is more omission than commission.
Yes, of course the media can and should cover the utterances of public figures like Palin. But the media also have a responsibility to provide the public with context.
For example, when Palin and her confederates regularly rail about the “dangers of socialism,” the news media have a duty to provide a counterpoint by presenting real socialists.
Candidates from three socialist parties campaigned for the White House in 2008. Why do the news media fail to regularly utilize any of those candidates for discussions about what socialism really means?
Gloria LaRiva, the 2008 presidential candidate of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, is articulate and actively engaged in numerous social causes – apparently meeting criteria required for corporate television news programming.
Socialist parties, after all, regularly participate and have run governments in Western European nations that are America’s NATO allies – nations that are democracies, that have thriving economies and in some cases better living standards than we have here.
As the news media covers every utterance of a Palin, it shirks coverage standards like those suggested in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics which call for practices supporting the “open exchange of views,” and for diligently seeking out subjects of news stories “to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.”
While America reflects on the Tucson shooting, let’s remember too that a danger to democracy larger than the rants of a Palin or Limbaugh is limiting diverse viewpoints in the mainstream media “marketplace” of ideas.
Restoring a semblance of civility to America’s current coarse climate of political discourse requires expanding information inherent in viewpoint diversity, not any damping down the First Amendment rights of a Sarah Palin (even if Palin continues to irresponsibly exercise those rights.)