The Only Animal That Explains Things

It’s an open question as to whether animals think – every dog owner seems to think his dog thinks. It sure looks like it. But dogs have evolved into being good mimics – it affords them regular meals, served just for them without any tiresome scavenging or hunting, and a warm place to sleep. It’s a good deal. All you have to do is present an approximation of your human’s expressions. You become his best friend. He talks to you. Humans are easily fooled. But of course that’s not thinking, depending on how you define thinking. If thinking has something to do with manipulating symbols, arbitrary symbols for what is not there or even what’s wholly hypothetical, and not just responding to immediate signs and immediate signals, then dogs don’t think. They live in the perpetual concrete now. But then a lot of people, not just dogs, do too.

But man is the only animal that explains things – perhaps a bad habit, but there you have it. Rover explains nothing to Fido. These two don’t have the symbolic tools for that, language, an agreed upon series of arbitrary sounds that represent what isn’t there at the moment, or what is possible, or impossible. We, on the other hand, are not trapped in the perpetual concrete now. We tell each other stories – that used to be myths and now it is science – stories that explain the world. We’d like this world to make sense, so we talk about what isn’t there at the moment, but makes everything fall into place one way or another. And we trot out everything from anecdote to hard empirical evidence to tie our free-floating symbolic strings to something like reality. It’s no wonder your dog looks at you quizzically. It is an odd business. But we do trouble ourselves with explaining what perhaps cannot be explained. Dogs accept the immediate world just as it is. We don’t.

And that means we often have trouble with the immediate. Something big happens – say a congresswoman is shot through the head, a federal judge shot dead, and six others around them shot and killed too, by an unbalanced young man who hates abortion rights and is paranoid about government power and obsesses over states’ rights, but not in any coherent way – and that must mean something. It cannot be that it means nothing. It’s not just something that happened in Tucson. We are not dogs. We explain things to each other. After all, that’s the only way we have to fight the obvious fact that it’s quite possible nothing means anything in particular, that the universe might actually be without inherent meaning of any kind. Pascal said that when he looked out at the vast emptiness of the universe he felt fear. Camus and that existentialist crowd suggested we all should admit that the universe is just absurd, and we’d better deal with its arbitrary absurdity and decide, all on our own, what to do with our small lives. But all that is a bit overly dramatic. Mostly the thought is just depressing. And you fight that depression by explaining things, like the immediate event in Tucson that defies explanation.

By the end of the day after the Tucson shootings, beyond the condolences and well wishes, the explanations filled the air, as Steve Benen summarizes:

There’s a contingent that seems intent on trying to somehow characterize Jared Lee Loughner as some sort of liberal, as part of a he’s-not-on-my-team instinct. There’s a larger group that seems defensive about the very idea of associating rhetorical excesses on the right with political violence. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) was asked this morning by CNN’s Candy Crowley about Sarah Palin’s notorious “crosshairs” graphic, and he seemed rather annoyed about the question. Alexander concluded, “I think the way to get away from it is for you not to be talking about it.”

Did the rhetorical excesses on the right cause this, and should we tamp down all rhetorical excesses? Lamar Alexander suggests we just not talk about it – that’ll fix everything.

But Benen notes that one Republican senator, as reported in Politico, didn’t see it that way:

Others acknowledged what they called an unavoidable reality — flamboyant or incendiary anti-government rhetoric of the sort used by many conservative politicians, commentators and tea party activists for the time being will carry a stigma.

A senior Republican senator, speaking anonymously in order to freely discuss the tragedy, told POLITICO that the Giffords shooting should be taken as a “cautionary tale” by Republicans.

“There is a need for some reflection here – what is too far now?” said the senator. “What was too far when Oklahoma City happened is accepted now. There’s been a desensitizing. These town halls and cable TV and talk radio, everybody’s trying to outdo each other.”

The vast majority of tea party activists, this senator said, ought not be impugned.

“They’re talking about things most mainstream Americans are talking about, like spending and debt,” the Republican said, before adding that politicians of all stripes need to emphasize in the coming days that “tone matters.”

“And the Republican Party in particular needs to reinforce that,” the senator said.

Benen comments:

That seems like a fairly sensible approach. But let’s not lose sight of the context – in the 21st century, a Republican senator who wants to convey a basic observation about rhetorical excesses, has to do so anonymously. We’ve reached the point at which a GOP senator wants to say that “tone matters” – but can’t quite bring himself/herself to say so on the record.

That, it seems to me, is about as significant as the sentiment itself.

Of course Benen has acknowledged that given the apparent mental instability of the suspected shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, it’s possible we may never fully understand why this shooting happened. But even so, people do look for explanations:

It seems there are two main, big-picture observations that are being bandied about. The first is that this is an excellent time for political pugilists to appreciate the power of language, and come away from this tragedy exercising better judgment. There’s a level of toxicity in our discourse just isn’t healthy, and it tears at the societal fabric that holds the country together.

The second is that Loughner, by all accounts, is clinically ill, and what might set off an armed mad man is necessarily unpredictable. To this extent, the political/rhetorical environment isn’t to blame for yesterday’s events; the sickness of a disturbed young man is.

But he argues that the two points aren’t mutually exclusive:

The first point is that too much of the rhetoric from prominent political figures – including that of candidates for public office and elected officials – has pushed the envelope to the breaking point. The remarks have been common enough that the examples come to mind easily – “reload” – “armed and dangerous” – “Second Amendment remedies.” We shake our heads in disgust, but it doesn’t stop the language from metastasizing like a cancer.

And Benen cites George Packer:

This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national television programs.) And it has gone almost entirely uncriticized by Republican leaders. Partisan media encourages it, while the mainstream media finds it titillating and airs it, often without comment, so that the gradual effect is to desensitize even people to whom the rhetoric is repellent. We’ve all grown so used to it over the past couple of years that it took the shock of an assassination attempt to show us the ugliness to which our politics has sunk.

And that leads Benen to his second point:

The shooter may have been politically motivated, in the sense that the assailant targeted a political figure, but Giffords probably wasn’t shot because her attacker disapproved of the individual mandate in the new health care law. Loughner appears to be “conservative” only in a loose sense – he hates abortion rights, is paranoid about government power, and obsesses over states’ rights – but given his madness, he doesn’t necessarily fall along the traditional left-right spectrum. The truly crazy rarely do.

But my fear is the latter observation will somehow mitigate the former. We may come to a point fairly soon at which the investigation of yesterday’s massacre is complete, and we learn that the shooting was “just” the result of psychotic madman. “Oh,” some might say, “then the political climate is irrelevant; violent rhetoric in the mainstream is inconsequential; and everything’s fine.”

But he asserts that everything isn’t fine.

Of course there’s this stirring defense of Sarah Palin from Howard Kurtz:

I hate to say this, but the blame game is already under way.

It began within hours of Saturday’s horrifying shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and nearly 20 others, even before the gunman was identified.

One of the first to be dragged into this sickening ritual of guilt by association: Sarah Palin.

And Kurtz doesn’t like that:

Here we go again in Arizona, as people with political agendas unleash their attacks even before the victims of this senseless shooting have been buried. I find it depressing beyond belief.

This isn’t about a nearly year-old Sarah Palin map; it’s about a lone nut job who doesn’t value human life. It would be nice if we briefly put aside partisan differences and came together with sympathy and support for Gabby Giffords and the other victims, rather than opening rhetorical fire ourselves.

That’s what Benen was talking about – violent rhetoric in the mainstream is inconsequential and everything’s fine. Well, humans explain things, and that’s one explanation.

But Andrew Sullivan will have none of that:

I have yet to read or hear anyone who has both decried the violent rhetoric of the Palinite right and who doesn’t also feel sympathy for the victims of this mass murder – so one of Kurtz’s straw men disintegrates upon even momentary reflection. But here’s the important point: when public officials are gunned down in public, it is deeply relevant to figure out why, and to ask questions and seek answers immediately. Those questions and answers will inevitably involve politics. To describe this process as “sickening” is a bizarre view for a journalist.

And then there’s the second straw man. No one is saying Sarah Palin should be viewed as an accomplice to murder. Many are merely saying that her recklessly violent and inflammatory rhetoric has poisoned the discourse and has long run the risk of empowering the deranged. We are saying it’s about time someone took responsibility for this kind of rhetorical extremism, because it can and has led to violence and murder.

So the woman is not an accomplice to murder, but there are the facts:

Palin singles out Giffords as a “target” for attack, illustrated by cross-hairs in gun sights, and urges supporters to “reload”. This is pointed out at the time and Giffords herself worries that it took things over the edge. Palin had a chance to apologize or retract or soften the rhetoric. She did nothing of the kind. An individual subsequently guns Giffords down. What more, in many relevant respects, do we need to know than this? Any humane person who had published the kind of material Palin published and used the language she did would surely now regret it. Well: does she?

But Kurtz also said this – “Palin’s kind of rhetoric is highly unfortunate. The use of the crosshairs was dumb.”

Sullivan:

So should Palin accept some responsibility for the violence of her rhetoric and imagery – even though no one is saying she ever wanted any actual harm to come to Giffords? By Kurtz’s own logic, yes.

And it’s not like she doesn’t know. On her Facebook page, the faster the angry comments appear the faster she takes them down. “YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE, YOU EVIL WITCH” – gone in three minutes. “I can’t believe you don’t have the leadership of intelligence to tell your people that putting crosshairs on people incites violence.” That was gone in two minutes, “THEIR BLOOD IS ON YOUR HANDS” – gone in three minutes. She knows.

Of course there’s Erick Erickson – CNN pays him big bucks to give the view from the right and he’s on three or four times an hour each day. And at Red State he offers this:

By perpetuating the lie – by even treating it as a legitimate topic of consideration to revisit the accusations of violence and hate the media tried to run with prior to the November election – that the right and the tea party incited this evil act, the left and media may very well incite violence against the right.

Yep, they may have to arm themselves, or take preemptive armed action, or something. They are the real victims here, or something. CNN has some odd pundits under contract. But man is the only animal that explains things. It’s no wonder your dog looks at you quizzically.

And as for the explanation that there’s nastiness on both the left and the right, see Andrews Sullivan on that:

Yes, I used those words to delineate the corrosively caustic and eliminationist rhetoric that can fuel disturbed individuals like Jared Loughner. I did so because it is stupid to deny the vitriol that swamped George W. Bush during and after the recount and then the Iraq war. And there is a defense of heated rhetoric here: what language are you going to use when a president institutes torture or goes to war on empirically false pretenses?

But… I do believe that the delegitimization and demonization of Barack Obama are in a different league and define the right in ways in which Bush hatred never fully defined the left.

And Sullivan also cites George Packer here:

For the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words “treason” and “traitor.” The President isn’t a big-government liberal – he’s a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He’s also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor. Even the reading of the Constitution on the first day of the 112th Congress was conceived as an assault on the legitimacy of the Democratic Administration and Congress.

Sullivan:

There are exceptions – Congressman Alan Grayson comes instantly to mind; even irony didn’t quite undermine the totality of Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World”; the “Bushitler” stuff was vile, and I said so at the time. But the level of animus toward the new president and anyone supporting him reached preposterous proportions at the beginning of this presidency; the gracelessness from the Congressional leadership on down, from “You lie!” to “death panels” and “palling around with terrorists” … this is a real problem in a country with its fair share of disturbed individuals and much more than its fair share of guns.

The Palin forces – who have fomented this dynamic more viciously and recklessly than any other group – are reacting today with incandescent rage that they could even be mentioned in the same breath as this act of political terrorism. That’s called denial. When you put a politician in literal cross-hairs, when you call her a target, when you celebrate how many targets you have hit, when you go on national television and shoot guns, when you use the language of “lock and load” to describe disagreements over healthcare provision … you are part of the problem.

So here’s his idea:

What we need now is a presidential speech that can affirm the positive aspects of robust debate while drawing a line under the nihilist elements of personal and ideological hatred. But it is clear to me at least that if American politics is to regain its composure, the forces of Palin and what she represents must be defeated. Not appeased or excused for, but defeated in the derelict public square of what’s left of our common discourse.

John Dickerson wonders about that:

Is this a moment for the president to give a big speech? The suggestion feels old-hat. We turn to the president for everything. Gene Healy’s book The Cult of the Presidency starts by poking fun at Mike Huckabee’s promise to lead a “revival of our national soul” if he becomes president. If that’s included in the job description, argues Healey, everything is. More relevant to this moment, perhaps, is the fact that President Obama’s status as the nation’s top Democrat might make it hard for a lot of people to hear what he says.

But he’s with Sullivan and Packer:

The idea that the left and right have both use violent images suggests a false equivalence. A few scattered examples from Democrats can’t match the power of gun imagery on the right or the regular use of incendiary language about tyranny and insurrection. Politico’s Jonathan Martin pointed out that Palin herself referred to the cross-hairs on her map as a “bull’s-eye.” But that doesn’t mean Glenn Beck or Palin are to blame for this shooting.

But a big speech seems absurd now:

Any speech now, from the president or a top Republican, would have to go beyond merely saying, “Tone down the rhetoric.” This doesn’t mean that sanitizing political speech is the answer. Passion is inevitable and even necessary. (Besides which, there’s no workable way to tamp it down. You can’t station a TSA agent at the front of every debate.)

Still, thinking first in terms of restraint rather than attack, in crafting a political message or in a political debate, might mean taking a breath before you assume the worst about your opponent’s motives. It might mean a pause to consider the danger of your own knee-jerk view of their ideas. Maybe they’re actually capable of reasonable thought.

Maybe, or maybe not – we may be beyond that now. See the opening sentences of Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy:

Undoubtedly something is about to happen.

Or is it that something has stopped happening?

Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?

That too is an explanation. It will do.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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