The first year I lived in Italy, a widely respected government minister was assassinated on his way to work. Massimo D'Antona had been walking to work in the morning along via Salaria in Rome when a Nissan van pulled up beside him. A young man exited the van and fired nine shots into D'Antona.
The next day, papers showed photos of his sheet-covered corpse, a limp hand peeking out from beneath the covering just a few inches from a tidy leather bag he used to carry his official papers.
The Red Brigades quickly claimed responsibility and my friends at the time were shocked and even exasperated that left-wing radical violence was still being perpetrated more than 30 years after it had initially broken out during the strikes of 1968.
By 1999 in Italy, the economic grievances of the late 1960s were largely forgotten, but the inflammatory rhetoric of the period still fascinated many young people. The rhetoric of the late '60s in Italy fused hatred of the state with calls for violent action, producing slogans like, "Only violence helps when violence reigns" and "No to social peace in the factories." The most popular song of the period's protests was called La Violenza.
This is only one example, but history is full of instances where violent speech and slogans led to real acts of murder and mayhem.
Closer to home, many can still remember the heated period of desegregation in the South and the vicious rhetoric that accompanied that conflict, when open hatred and a commitment to violence was espoused by the far right across the region. Insults of "outside agitators" and racist epithets were used to solidify the support of mainstream Christians in favor of social segregation. The rhetoric was extremely successful in moving opinion and intimidating dissenters to keep quiet.
That political success for the segregationists came with a human toll. Across the region, thuggish intimidation, church bombings and assassinations were a fact of life. Eventually the climate cooled off, but it took a long time.
Today, America is once again awash in slogans like "take him out" and thinly veiled calls for armed intervention against the state, like Sharron Angle's famous "Second Amendment solution." Government is portrayed in the most vicious and incendiary terms, as when Georgia tea party leader Bill Evelyn denounced our federal system as "tyrannical" in a Nov. 21 guest column in this paper.
In addition, entrepreneurial celebrities like Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and countless imitators move mass opinion not by facts or strength of argument but through cults of personality, exhibitions of emotion and the numbing repetitions of propaganda. Cults of personality spring up around each performer who promotes a glowing personal story of success, often overcoming great personal shortcomings. But despite any faults, success and strength of convictions is supposed to legitimize the celebrity for the public.
Once legitimized by an appropriately winning biography, the celebrity uses all manner of emotional displays to convince the viewer of that his feelings are the right ones and the opposition is ... fill in the blank. He cries pitifully, he screams in anger, he vents frustrations and feigns humility. He knows this is all acting, but like the televangelists of old, he'll use any method to bring his listeners to Jesus. Yet like the same televangelists, his motivation has little to do with what he professes. As salaries indicate, it is all about the money.
Beck has gone further than anyone with play-acting, but he has also made giant leaps into the tactics of psychological manipulation. He has resurrected the ideas of the utopian crackpot Ayn Rand and the conspiratorial writings of W. Cleon Skousen. He fuses the writings of these cranks with his own paranoia to offer a pseudo-intellectual framework for interpreting current events. He creates a political fantasy world where his opponents are not only wrong, but sinister and criminal. Thus, Barack Obama pursues universal health care not from a desire for liberal reform, but as part of a master plan to "take over" the economy.
Beck's innovations have been quite effective because he offers a simplified view of a complex system of power. Then he attacks and charges all the problems of the nation on his political opponents, deftly relieving the viewer of responsibility. Perhaps his most powerful tool is the use of imagery to link his opponents to dictators, Nazis and mass murders. What is the viewer left to think?
He is not supposed to think, of course; he must act. And if the ballot box doesn't render satisfactory results, a wink and a nod lets the viewer know that there are other methods of change one can't mention on the air.
For many semi-educated people, this skillful manipulation has had a powerful effect. It has linked a vague notion of history to general discontent and given clear scapegoats for the current malaise. The short-term success of this propaganda has been an electoral gain for Republicans, but the residue of the toxic waste dumped into the public debate may haunt the party for decades. And long after the celebrities and their employers have been discredited, reason and justice will have to carry on the struggle against hatred and violent paranoia.
The only backstop to viciousness in political debate is public disapproval by decent citizens and clear denouncement by government officials. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Southern opinion did not swing in his favor because of the arguments of the civil rights leaders. The break came when white Southern leaders, mainly city fathers and leaders of Christian congregations, broke their passive silence with calls for peace and order in their communities.
The problem today is not that too many people use bad language, but that too many good people sit quietly, letting bullies and crackpots control the debate.
Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and a Forsyth County resident. His column appears frequently.