12 August 2009

Speech Acts & Politics ~ Right Wing Lunacy from Sea to Shining Sea

Posters comparing Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler are taped
to a table at a town hall meeting on healthcare in Alhambra,
California. Photograph © Danny Moloshok/Reuters.

William Kostnic wears a 9mm pistol as he stands outside
a town hall meeting on health care held by Barack Obama.
Photograph © Joel Page/AP

In U.S. politics it is typically the case that when one party starts calling another fascist or nazi (Thanks Jonah Goldberg!) you can feel certain that political discourse has reached its nadir. Well, no longer. American conservatives have taken things one step further. In the interest of free and open discussion they've begun bringing guns to political meetings. And this is not an isolated practice. The nutters are inciting violence and threats and the Republicans - elected official who have taken an oath to serve the country - are countenancing that behavior. I am waiting for one single Republican elected official to denounce the practice of bringing guns to political meetings - which after all are meant to foster discussion.

Of course, Kostnic and his racist ilk have a god given right to bear arms. According to the news reports Kosnic was standing on the grounds of a church. And, of course, pastors have been encouraging parishioners to exercise their god given right during church services too. But the members of lynch mobs throughout U.S. history have simply exercised their god given right to bear arms as they subverted the rule of law. Where have we witnessed this intersection of right wing paranoia, gun toting and Christianity before? Think KKK.

But let's assume that Kostnic was just engaged in political theatre - of course he'd never actually use the pistol to shoot an elected official or a fellow citizen! Right. Let's think about what wearing a gun does to political discussion. When we speak we are engaged in action of a particular sort. What is the difference between a threat, a warning and a prediction? Speech act theorists tell us that in large measure the difference will reside in the institutional context within which a given statement is uttered. If I am in church or a town meeting and express my views that is one thing. If I do so while wearing a fire arm it is quite another. And right wingers who claim they cannot see that are either being disingenuous or are ethically defective. Nothing I or an elected official could say to Mr. Kostnic while unarmed is a threat to him. So even if he has a right to bear arms in self-defense, by wearing this gun to a political discussion he is essentially stating that he has not got an argument (or the ability to articulate one) that will counter those offered by the folks who disagree with him. And he is signalling strongly the sort of behavior to which he plans to take recourse.

According to the report in The Guardian local police officials insisted that Kostnic was doing nothing illegal. It would be nice to think that Kostnic is so literary or so legally well-informed that he knows just how to stop short of overt threats. I'm not betting on either possibility. You? If, even without a gun, I verbally threaten the President or a Congressman or a Senator I can, I suspect, be arrested. The local police seem to be blind to the ways Kostnic and others like him are escalating conflict and, by acting in a threatening manner, inciting violence. Are we to conclude that the local police are either disingenuous or morally defective too?

The right-wing nutters are not sentient enough to be ashamed of the behavior Kostnic and many others have engaged in. But witnessing it makes me ashamed. Not afraid, Bill Kostnic, ashamed.
PS: You can find the stories from The Guardian that accompanied these images here and here.

PS2: Lest you think that Kostnic is alone, follow the links from this post at Huffington Post. The only difference in the Kostnic case is that he showed up at a meeting with the President instead of with a Congressional representative.

Labels: , , , ,


Blogger Tom White said...

More lunacy. I read this today and the worrying thing is I am not shocked or surprised. I just find it astounding that this behaviour is tolerated, legally allowed and even encouraged. Does the U.S. need another presidential assasination, let alone the hundreds of monthly killings intentional and accidental of everyone from small children in their homes to students in classrooms, drug dealers on the streets and Police Officers doing their duty to realise that guns are not beneficial to a positive and progressive society. It is saddening and sickening.

12 August, 2009 23:55  
Blogger Unknown said...

"Let's think about what wearing a gun does to political discussion"

I talk with my friend while we are hunting. we both carry shotuns. we discuss politics. You wait for us to start shooting each other, yet nothing happens. Nearly everyone in the countryside has a gun. Rural areas are much safer than cities I assure you that. This says much more about you and your personal necrosis than anything else.

"Nothing I or an elected official could say to Mr. Kostnic while unarmed is a threat to him."

Obama can say something like this:

"I will relieve you of your hard earned money to spend in a way I see fit, without your consent, and for things you morally oppose. I will seize your guns, since it is a means of resisting my hegemony. I will name any of your protest as "Un-American", and I will keep you under surveillance. If you seek to
exercise your 1st, and 2nd amendment rights in my presence, you will be arrested."

-Lizzy Kassavich
(You can go ahead and report me to the whitehouse for surveillance now, I wouldn't expect anything less in this new Orwellian world)

13 August, 2009 00:10  
Blogger Stan B. said...

This country is wavering from the ridiculous: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/08/12/stephen-hawking-enters-us_n_257343.html

-to the outrageous:

13 August, 2009 01:39  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I have nothing against your chatting with friends while hunting - although it might scare away the game. My grandfather always told me that you had to be quiet while hunting or fishing. What I object to is your using your fire arms to try to intimidate other people. That is what is going on here. And your hypothetical does nothing to mitigate that. Sorry.

Rights cost money. So do all sorts of political institutions. Courts, for instance, cost money - hence require taxes. I don't think a lot of what happens n courts is what I should be paying for either. Unless you have some plausible libertarian utopia to spell out, you are on thin ice here too. There are a lot of things that the government does that I don't like and surely don't think I should pay for. But I am not toting my side arm around to make that point. As my sons were taught in kindergarten - 'use your words!'

You have first amendment rights. But not to yell fire in a dark crowded theater. Bringing guns to town hall meetings is the equivalent.

The right Kostnic is exercising is his right to be stupid. He is doing a great job.

Thanks for your comments.

13 August, 2009 08:38  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

PS: Lizzy - I live in a rural area. Whether it is safer than the city is an empirical question. Whether that has anything to do with the pattern of gun ownership is an act of faith on your part. And I do not have anything against my neighbors having guns or hunting or whatever. Kostnic was not going to be hunting in town yesterday - or was he? He has a aright to carry a large zucchini in his pocket too. Doing so would have made mo more sense that his carrying that weapon.

13 August, 2009 08:41  
Blogger John said...

Mr. Kostnick is obviously missing quite a few brain cells in the judgment department. When the president makes a public appearance, the venue is crawling with Secret Service agents. They are already investigating about 30 death threats against Obama per day, a 300% increase from the bottom of the Bush years. The Secret Service is very dedicated and, given what is happening, no doubt a bit on edge. They are also heavily armed and very skillful at using their shootin’ irons. Someone who shows up at a presidential even wearing a gun is going to attract attention, no doubt Kostnick’s intent. Attention from the press is one thing, but attention from several dozen nearby Secret Service agents is another. Had Kostnick so much as touched that pistol, I’m guessing he might well have seen his last sunrise.

As for threatening congressmen or presidents, you CAN be prosecuted and at minimum you WILL be investigated. There is some unarmed first amendment case law on this, Notably Watts v. U.S. Mr. Watts was addressing an anti-Vietnam War rally on the day before he was to report for induction. He said “the only man I want to have in my gun sight is LBJ.” Since he was not armed at the time, and was never in the vicinity of the president, the Supreme Court ruled that his utterance was constitutionally protected hyperbole. Notice that this ruling is context dependent. Watts beat the rap, but a credible threat will get you some serious prison time.

Several years ago, one our local whack-jobs uttered a threat against President Bush on our local cable access channel. The Secret Service paid him a visit. No further action was taken, but they do investigate these things.

13 August, 2009 10:13  
Blogger Unknown said...

It is obvious this fool intended to make a veiled threat of insurrection against the Obama/congressional government he despises, like right libertarians will do.

However, if he was violating no law, we cannot simply assert that police should take it upon themselves to arrest people whose conduct they disapprove of, simply because they wear badges and carry guns. Not if we are to be a nation of laws.

I do wonder, though, had a leftwing protester appeared at a Bush rally wearing a pistol and carrying a provocative sign what might have happened to him?

Any guesses?

14 August, 2009 02:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's plenty of vitriol for Obama from the hard left. His presidency is going nowhere.


17 August, 2009 13:55  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Vitriol is one thing, but I don't recall a single story about left-winger nutters showing up with guns to public meetings.

I don't much like Obama. I think he has proven to be just the sort of middle of the road politician I've always thought he was. (And he is middle of the road - on health care single payer was never on the agenda; on the wars he has done nothing remarkable; on our torture policy he wants to 'move on' without bothering to discover what we are moving on from; on 'defense of marriage' he is solidly with the evangelicals ...etc, etc,).

But I didn't call Bush or his minions Nazis (even though the resemblance was clear) and I never felt like I needed to carry my sidearm to express my views.


17 August, 2009 16:27  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't mean to equate the left with these gun slinging lunatics; my bad if it came across that way. It just seems to me that Obama is a disaster. I've never seen a wider gap between a politician's promises and his actions. The guy is either a fraud or just pathetically weak.

17 August, 2009 17:17  
Blogger VQ Bubba said...

In a nation of nearly 300 million, there are plenty of nutters to go around. Maybe you didn't compare Bush to a Nazi, but it's a suggested search when you type Bush N in google (e.g. http://instapunk.com/images/bush_hitler02.jpg).

As for chilling effects, same thing. My dear old mom was assaulted by a code pink activist for daring to listen to a speech by a US Senator on the Mall in D.C. When she was even more flagrant with her civil rights and showed up at the miscreant's trial, she became the focus of blogosphere slander and threats - to the point that said dear old mom became a right-wing nut, in the eyes of those on the left, by undergoing firearms training and purchasing a handgun to protect herself in bucolic rural America.

I think that the lesson is simply that "nutters" abound regardless of political ilk.

20 August, 2009 08:52  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

No denying that there are left wing nuts too. But in the current context they are not carrying deadly weapons. And as far as I know, while the code pink crowd may be impolite they don't pack sidearms.

As for Nazi analogies, they are dubious regardless of who is making them. JJ

20 August, 2009 09:40  

Post a Comment

<< Home