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January 15, 2011

Political climate in America is our beast

By David Pearlman

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"In one of the most beautiful films ever made, Jean Cocteau's 'Beauty and the Beast,' a young woman is held captive in a chateau by a man who wears elegant lace shirts and speaks French in a husky, passionate voice. The young woman is clearly attracted to this philosophical and aristocratic beast/man until the night she hears grunts and shrieks from the front lawn. She discovers her host, her captor, gnawing on a stag he has just trapped. Repelled by the carnage, La Beaute reproaches La Bete, but his reply is quick and honest: what did you expect from a beast? It is at that moment that the lace shirts and husky voice begin to pale on La Beaute and she begins to plan her escape."

Thus began a Nov. 15, 1982, article by New York Times sportswriter, George Vecsey, ("The Beastliness in Boxing"), as boxer Duk-Koo Kim lay in a coma following a bout against Ray Mancini. Kim would die from his wounds two days later.

This past weekend's abominable shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona begs the same question. What do we expect from the beast that is the political climate in America since Barack Obama, our first black president, took office? The nation has reacted in horror to this tragedy, but as politicians on the right and left are decrying extremism on both sides, those of us who have lived through too many assassinations and shootings know that these expressions of horror are simply too little, too late. What can we expect when former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin posts a map on Facebook that targets 20 representatives for defeat, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., with the symbol of the circle and cross hairs over their states, and then "tweets" to supporters, "Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: 'Don't Retreat, Instead -- RELOAD!' Pls see my Facebook page"; and later refers to this as her "bullseye" list? And now her office is claiming that the gunsight cross hairs "could have been surveyor's symbols."

What do we expect when Florida talk show host Joyce Kaufman, who was offered the job of chief of staff for Republican Congressman Allen West, gets so fired up at a Tea Party rally that she makes the statement, "If ballots don't work, bullets will?" And what can we expect when Republican congressional candidate Sharron Angle defends her statement, "if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies," and follows that, seemingly by way of explanation, with, "I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out."?

And what has gone wrong when a Topeka, Kan., Baptist Church distributes a flier proclaiming, "thank God for the shooter -- 6 dead … Your Federal Judge is dead and your (fag-promoting, baby-killing, proud sinner) Congresswoman fights for her life. … WBC (Westboro Baptist Church) prays for your destruction -- more shooters, more dead carcasses piling up. …"? Why are we so shocked when we have institutionalized all types of bigotry and hate and threats of violence?

Yes, I've heard all the "free speech" defenses of this outlandish rhetoric, and no one is more enthusiastic a supporter of the First Amendment than I am. But having the right to incendiary speech does no more to excuse it than having the right to a concealed weapon makes it prudent for anyone to exercise that right, as was the case with Jared Laughner in a parking lot outside a grocery store in Arizona last weekend. Where have we gone as a country when this sort of vitriol is dismissed as having nothing to do with the actions of deranged fanatics?

I agree with the statement used as a defense on "Meet the Press" last Sunday that "no reasonable person would see Palin's map or Angle's comments as reason to commit violence." But it's not an adequate defense of that type of speech by public figures who know their words will be blasted across the airwaves of our 24/7 news cycle. We're not so concerned about the effect this hateful speech has on reasonable people, are we? It is true that "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart is a comedian, but his "Rally to Restore Sanity" was certainly no joke. It's beyond time for us to come to our senses as a nation. It's time for our public figures, our shock jocks and talk show hosts -- for all of us -- to plan our escape from the beast of prejudice and hate and intolerance that we live with today.

David Pearlman is a freelance writer who lives in Cooperstown.