What We’re Talking About

We’ve all been in long arguments when both parties suddenly discover that they’re talking about entirely different things – your angry wife suddenly realizes you’re talking about Emma Goldman, not her mother. Use too many pronouns and that can happen – one should be specific. Or you suddenly realize your wife is really mad at Woody Allen, not you. How do these things happen?

But we all know the answer to that. Neither party was being clear. And both parties made quick assumptions to fill in the gaps, as anyone naturally would. And no one meant to mislead anyone. It’s just that most people aren’t very good at expressing themselves, and of course thought that English class, from seventh grade through the end of high school, was a hopeless joke, or some sort of sadistic punishment devised by nasty adults who hated them, and hated everything. Who needs it? And there’s a mistake, and we end up communicating with each other in a kind of shorthand. Oh, you know what I mean. When someone says that you probably don’t – and they don’t know what they mean either. It’s a wonder we understand each other at all.

And this week the right is mad at the left because they think the argument that Jared Loughner shot Gabrielle Giffords, and a federal judge and eighteen other people, because he understood Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck told him to do that, is both stupid and insulting, and dangerous. But who said that? That wasn’t exactly the argument.

But what is the argument? Those on the left have been unclear, and it may be time to clarify things. The idea is that what Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and others of that sort have said is dangerous. And look what happened – but no one is talking incitement or encouragement, much less planning it all on their part. It’s something else, although Glenn Beck not that long ago called on members of the armed forces to the United States military to choose sides in the revolution that he insists has begun:

The revolution has begun – I never thought I would say those words, but I understand that it has today.

The people you’re up against have buried themselves in our government and they have been wearing masks for a long time, but they’re about to take those masks off and understand, they want control of every aspect of your life because the world is about to change. And while they try to convince you that it’s not, it is and they know it is. They want to control every aspect of life to make society more just, but from their perspective.

I showed you last night, I told you that if I were going to take over the world, because that’s what “Forbes” said that Soros said of me, that I was going to start some dictatorship because you’re too stupid – two years ago, as I was trying to figure out how far along are they, I put a list together and this is just some of them. If I were going to take over the United States, what would I need? What would I need to do?

Well, you would have to control the financial sector. They did it with a financial bill. They control everything in the financial sector. You’d have to control health care, who lives, who dies. You’d have to control industry. That could be done through the financial sector, it can be done through taxes and it can also be done through bailouts, just taking them like GM.

You would need to control the military. This one is really tough because the military is not going – they protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Please, dear God, if you are listening to me in any part of the world, and you are military, please, dear God, please remember your oath to the Constitution of the United States because this is the only piece they can’t get.

Beck is essentially pleading to the military to remove Obama, suspend elections and impose martial law and take over the country, so we’ll all be free again. And that’s odd. But he didn’t call for one of his millions of followers to step up and shoot a pleasant and somewhat right-of-center Arizona congresswoman to move the revolution along. He often says stock up on guns, God and gold – chaos and the final apocalyptic struggle, to take back America, is coming – but he’s not terribly specific. But that last adjective fits – terror and the terrible are in the very air we breathe, or so he says.

But he didn’t say go out and assassinate anyone, nor did Sarah Palin. But that’s not the problem. Jacob Weisberg in this item finally makes that clear – “anti-government, pro-gun, xenophobic populism made the Giffords shooting more likely.” And that’s the problem – making something more likely. Liking obscure atonal modern German opera – and saying so – does not mean people will think you’re quite strange. It just makes it more likely.

And Weisberg frames it nicely:

There’s something offensive, as well as pointless, about the politically charged inquiry into what might have been swirling inside the head of Jared Loughner. We hear that the accused shooter read The Communist Manifesto and liked flag-burning videos – good news for the right. Wait – he was a devotee of Ayn Rand and favored the gold standard, so he was a right-winger after all. Some assassinations embody an ideology, however twisted. Based on what we know so far, the Tucson killings look like more like politically tinged schizophrenia.

Ah, politically-tinged schizophrenia – neither side can say the guy is a product of the other side. There was a real mess of nonsense in this guy’s head, and that’s that. David Brooks has argued that – and Brooks is a sensible and pleasant and moderate fellow, after all. It was all the mess in that guy’s head – no more than that.

But Weisberg argues that it really is appropriate to consider what was “swirling” outside Loughner’s head:

To call his crime an attempted assassination is to acknowledge that it appears to have had a political and not merely a personal context. That context wasn’t Islamic radicalism, Puerto Rican independence, or anarcho-syndicalism. It was the anti-government, pro-gun, xenophobic populism that flourishes in the dry and angry climate of Arizona. Extremist shouters didn’t program Loughner, in some mechanistic way, to shoot Gabrielle Giffords. But the Tea Party movement did make it appreciably more likely that a disturbed person like Loughner would react, would be able to react, and would not be prevented from reacting, in the crazy way he did.

It’s all in the context:

At the core of the far right’s culpability is its ongoing attack on the legitimacy of U.S. government – a venomous campaign not so different from the backdrop to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Then it was focused on “government bureaucrats” and the ATF. This time it has been more about Obama’s birth certificate and health care reform. In either case, it expresses the dangerous idea that the federal government lacks valid authority. It is this, rather than violent rhetoric per se, that is the most dangerous aspect of right-wing extremism.

And one must be clear:

Often the two issues are blurred together, because if government is illegitimate, rebellion is an appropriate response (hence the Colonial costumes). Conservative entertainers like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin like to titillate their audiences with hints of justified violence, including frequent reminders that they are armed and dangerous. Palin went so far as to put a target on someone who subsequently got shot.

But Weisberg argues that whether or not the man who fired the gun was inspired by Palin isn’t the point. The point is that you shouldn’t paint targets on people – it’s just a spectacularly bad idea. Whether a lazy metaphor or a sly joke, it communicates more than you suspect. Wasn’t anyone paying attention in English class?

But Weisberg is also concerned about how the right’s ideology regarding guns enabled Loughner:

Tea Partiers often frame the right to bear arms as a necessary check on federal despotism. “You know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies,” said Sharron Angle of Nevada, who nearly defeated the majority leader of the U.S. Senate in neighboring Nevada. In practical terms, easy access to firearms empowers extremists and crazies to challenge government authority at whim. The National Rifle Association position that any attempt to regulate the ownership of firearms is a violation of the Constitution has prevailed both politically and through the courts. That means that there are few things simpler than for someone to walk into a sporting goods store, as Loughner apparently did, buy a dangerous weapon, and carry it concealed to political meetings. How should politicians protect themselves from nuts with guns? By arming themselves – of course. Absent permissive firearm laws, nowhere more lax than in Arizona, Loughner might still have been able to get a gun. But he couldn’t have done it quite so easily.

The move to fully arm all congressmen and congresswomen is being proposed – and Arizona’s gun laws are a joke – so Weisberg is onto something. The local zeitgeist down there is kind of nutty, and not that local. And then there’s something else that isn’t internal to Jared Loughner:

First you rile up psychotics with inflammatory language about tyranny, betrayal, and taking back the country. Then you make easy for them to get guns. But if you really want trouble, you should also make it hard for them to get treatment for mental illness. I don’t know if Loughner had health insurance, but he falls into a pool of people who often go uninsured – not young enough to be covered by parents (until the health-care bill’s coverage of twenty-somethings kicked in a few months ago), not old enough for Medicare, not poor enough for Medicaid. If such a person happens to have a history of mental illness, he will be effectively uninsurable. To get treatment, he actually has to commit a crime. If Republicans succeed in repealing the Obama health care bill, that’s how it will remain.

So the point is that Beck and Palin and the Tea Party did not cause the Tucson events – but the politics at issue increased the odds of something like it happening.

And Weisberg wraps up with this:

It was in criticizing writers on his own side for their naiveté about communism that George Orwell wrote, “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.” Today it is the right that amuses itself with violent chat and proclaims an injured innocence when its flammable words blow up.

But that happens when you think you’re arguing about one thing and you aren’t being clear. The argument presented to the Tea Party right is not what they think it is. Those on the left might have been clearer about that.

But if you want to get more subtle there’s David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars for 2010-11. And he says of course this was political – he’s not impressed with what he calls the phony debate about assassins like Jared Loughner. And he opens with this:

In the Fort Hood shootings of November 2009, the right was quick to link Nidal Malik Hasan to terrorism, while the left insisted he was merely deranged. The reactions to the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six others this weekend offered a mirror image: Many on the left blamed right-wing political extremism, while conservatives insisted that Jared Loughner, the alleged killer, was a lone lunatic, without political motivation.

If a whiff of political opportunism clings to both these sets of reactions, it’s because the categories that we use to explain political violence draw bright lines where none really exist.

It seems you also should have paid attention in history class:

Throughout history, political assassins – even the most clearly unhinged among them – have possessed political motives. That doesn’t mean that Tea Party-style rhetoric incited Loughner. But his choice of targets – an officeholder, not a post office or a mall – can’t be dismissed as arbitrary. The problem lies in the artificial distinction we routinely draw between political and psychological motives.

And he refers to 1843, in Britain, and the case where a fellow, trying to kill Prime Minister Robert Peel, instead murdered Peel’s secretary. That set the precedent, the insanity defense. The House of Lords developed rules for accepting claims of insanity – there were instances where mental disability meant that the accused did not know “the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, he did not know he was doing what was wrong.” And those are still the guidelines now, even for assassinations:

When John Wilkes Booth, a vehement defender of the Confederacy, murdered Abraham Lincoln, virtually everyone agreed that he acted for political reasons. He was part of ring that also targeted Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Although historians have debated the precise nature of Booth’s motives, few have doubted that he did so to aid or redeem the Confederate cause.

In the late 19th century, however, psychiatry began influencing criminology. The new approach to crime and the law created more opportunities for insanity defenses – in not only the courtroom, but also the court of public opinion. What began to emerge was today’s sharp distinction between political assassination (which was deemed “rational” and the expression of an ideology) and derangement (the condition of an isolated individual).

So consider this:

When Charles Guiteau shot James A. Garfield in July 1881, his sanity was a central point of contention. It was obvious that Guiteau targeted Garfield for political reasons. Deeply invested in the outcome of the 1880 presidential election, he grandiosely expected to be recognized for a pro-Garfield pamphlet he had written, even though he had no significant connection to the campaign. That he wasn’t appointed minister to Austria or some other office prompted him to beseech the White House and the State Department repeatedly for a position, to no avail – leading eventually to his decision to kill Garfield.

Yet Guiteau was also plainly delusional, quite possibly a paranoid schizophrenic. He claimed that God instructed him to “remove” the president. Over his objections his defense team pressed the insanity defense, calling doctors as witnesses. But despite Guiteau’s bizarre behavior at his trial, which included blurting out insults to the judge and to his own lawyers, the argument failed.

It had to be one or the other – the guy had to be mad, or this was political. And so it was with the guy, Leon Czolgosz, who fatally shot William McKinley in September 1901. Greenberg covers that in detail, but it came down to the same thing there.

To find Czolgosz not guilty by insanity would, his lawyer told the jury, “aid in uplifting a great cloud off from the hearts and minds of the people of this country and of the world.” By contrast, Theodore Roosevelt, the new president, called the killer an ordinary criminal. The jury agreed, sentencing Czolgosz to death.

But now this had helped solidify what Greenberg calls the artificial distinction between political and psychological motives:

Killers had to be put into one box or the other. An assassin might be judged as sound of mind and possessed of extreme ideological views that produced calculated violence. Or he might be judged as mentally unstable, with his political rantings waved off as simply the incoherent expressions of a malfunctioning brain. The two categories were usually treated as mutually exclusive.

In fact, those who try to kill politicians may well be both ideologically motivated and psychologically abnormal. Occasionally, as with John Hinckley’s attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life, the choice of a target may have more to do with his celebrity than his ideology.

Yep, that seemed to have to do with Jodie Foster. And the assassin of Robert F. Kennedy is still in jail out here – no one quite knew what to make of him. And Greenberg comes down on the side of losing the rather useless distinction between political and psychological motives:

Much has been made in the last few days of the power of symbols (bull’s-eyes, cross-hairs), martial rhetoric, the hyperbole of words like tyranny. But the most important symbols in all of this are politicians themselves. By the nature of their position, candidates and officeholders excite powerful feelings among ordinary citizens that may not correlate closely with their actual deeds. This is true of presidents especially, whom we tend to regard, from childhood, as the personification of the nation itself. (When presidents die, reports of psychosomatic illness tend to rise). Whether medically composed or deranged, whether legally sane or insane, assassins train their consuming energies and hatreds on politicians not for purely arbitrary reasons, but because politics matters to them – usually far out of proportion to the actual power of their victims.

So you cannot say this Tucson business wasn’t really political. It was, and it was more than that, as the guy is nuts – but it is political.

And the rhetoric of the right isn’t helping.

“If the North Koreans start anything, I say nuke ’em. And not with just a few bombs.” That’s Glenn Reynolds.

“I’m not filling out this census form. I dare them to try and come throw me in jail. I dare them to. Pull out my wife’s shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door” – and that’s CNN’s Erick Erickson.

“My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed,” – and that’s South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer on people who receive government aid.

“NPR executives are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism.” And that’s Roger Ailes.

Andrew Sullivan offers that array and this comment:

Note that these are not fringe characters. Reynolds has a hugely popular blog, Erickson is cited constantly as a key GOP activist, Bauer is a lieutenant governor of a state and Roger Ailes all but runs the Republican Party and its media mouthpiece, Fox News. All of them dehumanize their opponents – animals or Nazis – and the undercurrent of the threat of violence is always there.

To point this out is not partisan. I am not horrified by the rhetoric and love of violence on the far right because I have some attachment to the Democrats. I am horrified because it is horrifying, because for years now, this kind of thing has become commonplace at the very top of the conservative political apparatus, and because the invocation of violence in a political context is inherently corrosive of democratic values. When you add to this a party committed to the use of military force as almost a first option, and to torture as a legal method of interrogation, it is irresponsible not to worry about where this is headed.

This isn’t a political jab; it’s a profound civil worry. Reducing this to some kind of pettiness is itself a pettiness. If this bullet through a congresswoman’s skull does not cause all of us to take a breath and let go of this kind of rhetoric, what will?

And Greg Sargent finds a rebuttal to David Brooks’ view that we can only understand this event outside of politics and culture:

“It’s a reasonable question to ask,” Dr. Marvin Swartz, a psychiatry professor at Duke University who specializes in how environment impacts the behavior of the mentally ill, said in an interview this morning. “The nature of someone’s delusions is affected by culture. It’s a reasonable line of inquiry to ask, `How does a political culture affect the content of people’s delusions?'”


Dr. Swartz’s assessment goes directly to the heart of the raging debate over the shooting between right and left. Conservatives have pointed out that Jared Loughner is deeply disturbed, and that there’s no connection between his violent behavior and the current political climate – whether it be violent imagery, eliminationist rhetoric, references to armed revolution or secession, or hints that the political opposition is illegitimate.

While some on the left have wrongly blamed specific voices on the right for the shooting, many liberals have simply argued that even if the shooter is a madman, the tragedy is a good jumping off point for a discussion of whether our toxic climate risks playing a role in tipping the unhinged towards political violence.

Swartz is the co-author of a 2006 study – reported on here in Time magazine – finding that environmental factors can play a role in increasing violence in schizophrenics. Environmental factors are the issue of course. That’s what the argument is really about, or as Sargent puts it:

In other words, even if the shooter is a complete nut, we should be asking whether the tone of our political discourse might also have played a role in triggering the shooting – and if so, whether such a thing could happen again.

That’s what we’re talking about. Jared Loughner did not shoot Gabrielle Giffords, and a federal judge and eighteen other people, because he understood Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck told him to do that. That idea is both stupid and insulting, and dangerous. But who said that? But what is going on is playing with fire – by people who don’t even know that fire is hot. Orwell was right. You were supposed to read him in English class.

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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