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Words on Fire

posted: 10.29.13 by Donna Winchell

Democratic Representative Alan Grayson of Florida reminded us recently of the inflammatory power of language–and images–when he compared the Tea Party to the Ku Klux Klan in an email sent out by his campaign. He did so visually by replacing the “T” in “Tea Party” with a large image of a burning cross, dredging up memories of one of the Klan’s infamous ways of trying to terrorize blacks. The caption read: “Now You Know What the ‘T’ Stands For.” He made the comparison explicit when he wrote, “The Tea Party is no more popular than the Klan.” When confronted with the content of the email, rather than apologizing, he defended himself by stating, “[T]here is overwhelming evidence that the Tea Party is the home of bigotry and discrimination in America today, just as the KKK was for an earlier generation. . . . If the hood fits, wear it.”

Few people alive today have any pleasant memories associated with the image of a burning cross. Even the generation that most of our students belong to, who know of the KKK and their actions largely from textbooks, are well aware of the negative connotations associated with the name and the image.

Grayson is also playing on the emotions of his audience with the analogy he is trying to establish between the bigots of the Klan and members of the Tea Party. Is there any validity to the analogy? His contention is that Tea Party attacks on President Obama have been racist, including the recurring claim that he is Muslim, “despite all evidence.” Grayson also fell back on the two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right fallacy when he told the HuffPost that the Tea Party’s “record of racist outbursts at rallies earned it the ignominious distinction.” He contended that when Obama visited his home in Orlando, Tea Party protesters shouted “Kenyan Go Home” and on other occasions have chanted, “Bye Bye, Blackbird” and have carried posters saying, “Obama’s Plan: White Slavery,” “Imam Obama Wants to Ban Pork,” and “The Zoo Has An African Lion, and the White House Has a Lyin’ African.” If these claims by Grayson are true, the Tea Party seems guilty of using its own inflammatory language, but the validity of the analogy ends with the violence and terrorist tactics of the KKK.

This story is also an example of how the decision as to what to include and what to leave out is a part of argument. For three of the four major networks, the decision was not to cover the story of Grayson’s email at all.

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